Miss Colorado Kelley Johnson Q&A on Pageants, Nursing and Her Sudden Fame

Kelley Johnson did not win the recent Miss America pageant, where she was representing Colorado. She came in third, actually, but she's made a champion's round of appearances nevertheless — on Ellen and the Dr. Oz Show, for example.

She earned her newfound celebrity in the talent portion of the competition, where she eschewed the typical theatrics in favor of a frank, earnest monologue about the value of her chosen profession: nursing. The video of her speech has over five million hits on YouTube — you can watch it below. We talked to Johnson about her history in pageants, why she chose to spotlight nursing during the Miss America competition and what she plans to do with the spotlight she's earned. 

Kiernan Maletsky: Seems like it's been quite a busy couple of weeks.

Miss Colorado Kelley Johnson: Yeah, it's been crazy. It's funny, because when I chose to do a monologue, I thought, if anything, the response was going to be negative because it's so atypical. I definitely wasn't expecting this kind of attention, especially for it to be so positive, to give such a wonderful voice to the nursing community. I did not expect that, but I'm just so thrilled!

You did the monologue for the Miss Colorado portion of the competition as well, right?

Yes. I had a lot of people coming up to me afterward and congratulating me on a wonderful performance, and what I realized at the Miss Colorado pageant was that these people wanted to tell me about a family member who had Alzheimer's, or they wanted to tell me about a friend who was a nurse. I started to see the wheels turning. People having a lot to share after hearing the monologue.

I think people were just really surprised. No one has ever really done this before. People have definitely acted or done drama on the [Miss America] stage before, but no one's ever really just got up there and talked about their profession.
How did you get interested in nursing in the first place?

I lost my father when I was four to colon cancer. And I saw that the nurses knew me and my sister by name. My dad wasn't just, "colon cancer in room 427," he was Alan Johnson with a family and with daughters. I think just seeing those nurses, how caring they were toward him and toward our family, kind of sparked my interest. And then just growing up, I just loved taking care of people. If one of my sisters got hurt, or had to go to the doctor, I was always there with them. I wanted to make sure they were OK. I guess taking care of people was always one of my passions.

I thought about med school for a long time, but the caring platform that the nursing program provides...we take courses entitled "Caring." That was really important to me.

Can you tell me a little more about why exactly you're trying to communicate with the monologue and the other work you've been doing?

I think it's important for people to see that nurses around the world, we're not just somebody's assistant. We're making our own choices, we're using our own skills and making our own assessments about your health care. I think it's a great moment to show how important we are.

You've competed in pageants before with a different talent, right?

Yes. So, I did try to sing and play the piano. Neither one of those worked out for me — I had actually never won a title before I did my monologue at Miss Colorado. I broke my hand playing volleyball, twice. So piano was out. I couldn't have played piano at Miss Colorado if I'd wanted to, although I could have at Miss America.

And's just not good. (Laughs) I think I sound like Adele in the car, but apparently on stage it's really not that way.

So how did you get from piano playing and singing to the monologue?

I had been told by so many people not to do a monologue. The talent portion made me incredibly nervous before — I knew that wasn't who I was. [Playing piano and singing] were just things I was trying to be because I thought that that was how I would fit into a pageant world, and how I could maybe win a title. But then I thought to myself, "I don't want to do that. That's not being true to myself."

I feel like I'm an okay speaker, and I feel like I have stories I can tell, because I'm in a profession where patients are at the most vulnerable points in their lives. And so I started thinking about what I could do for the talent portion. I thought about being dramatic or being funny, and I decided I just wanted to go for impactful, I just wanted to go somewhere people would say, "Oh, that girl is really relatable, and her talent is taking care of people."

And if I was going to win Miss Colorado, I really wanted to be myself and show little girls that they can be nurses, that they don't have to be beauty queens. It meant so much more in that moment than winning a crown.
How long have you been in the pageant world?

About two years, so not super-long. I went to nursing school in Iowa, and that's where I started, although I never won there. I made the top ten, but never went further. I competed four or five times last year, didn't win anything. And I thought, "You know, I should probably just go home."

And then it just kind of happened for me. But I haven't been in this world for long. I only competed in two state pageants and I never won a crown before I won Miss Colorado.

So what's next? What are you planning to do for the next year?

I want to fill my year with as many different appearances as possible. I want to be part of the nursing community all over America. We've had a lot of people reach out to us for different nursing conventions, offers to be a keynote speaker for nursing orientations or for nursing students at high schools, and that's what I want to do. I'm so thankful that this has erupted the way that it has, because the nursing community now wants me to be a part of it. And that's so important to me.

I also will return to the nursing profession, probably in the next couple of months. I want to go back. I'm a critical-care nurse, tried and true!