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Tiara Is Another Day

By Michael Colton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Miss America Crowning Nicole Johnson, Miss America. (AP Photo)
ATLANTIC CITY, Sept. 20—Hours after realizing dream No. 1 by winning the Miss America crown, Nicole Johnson, previously Miss Virginia, realized dream No. 2.

Near the end of the competition, Johnson, who plans to be a journalist, said the person she would most like to interview is Elizabeth Dole, "a woman of integrity." When she finally returned to her hotel this morning to catch two hours of sleep, there was a message: Liddy Dole called; call her back when you get a chance.

These things happen when you're Miss America. Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and her employer, called this morning, too.

But Johnson, 24, is not going to have much time to return the calls. This afternoon she was whisked away to New York, where she'll appear on ABC's "Good Morning America" and "The View" and pick out her traveling wardrobe for the next year from the designers of her choice. Then to California and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and the start of her whirlwind tour of the country. She's big time now.

Johnson appeared at her first news conference today as Miss America, but it will take some time before the public really discovers who she is. Though the theme of Saturday's pageant was self-expression, only after a winner is crowned can she truly be herself and distinguish her personality from those of all the other good-hearted women. The pressure is off. There are no more judges to impress. The job interview is over. Spontaneity can now occur without the prodding of coaches and certified image consultants.

For now, Nicole Johnson of Roanoke is a typical pageant winner, perky, earnest, likable and conventionally pretty. She's a 5-foot-9, 133-pound brunet with a nice figure and a cute pinch of baby fat under her chin. Not that it matters, of course, because Miss America these days is not a beauty queen but a socially motivated activist. Which is why Johnson refused to put on her crown for the benefit of photographers this morning. "The crown is just a symbol, it's not what Miss America is about," she said.

It's about diabetes, for Johnson. She's more attached – literally – to her social platform than most Miss America contestants. For the last year Johnson has worn an insulin pump to treat the life-threatening disease, which she has had for five years. "People with diabetes need a role model, a spokesperson, and an advocate to push for legislation for them," she says. Already Johnson has served as the Virginia spokesperson for the National Diabetes Association and lobbied Congress for increased research funding.

Her pump, a small black box called the MiniMed 507C, is attached to a small catheter tube the size of a woman's fingernail. With the help of a needle, she inserts the tube into her hip or her stomach, taking it out only to shower or swim. Or to walk onstage in a turquoise blue bikini, as she did Saturday night.

"I didn't want it to be confusing to the audience and the judges," she says. "Everyone thinks it's a beeper."

During the rest of the pageant the pump was discreetly positioned underneath various gowns, like the black Vera Wang with mock turtleneck she wore during the evening-wear competition. Over the year, she will make her pump more recognizable; during the news conference, she gladly removed it and held it up for photographers.

She also removed the tube for an 8 a.m. romp in the ocean this morning, an annual Miss America tradition. As the haze lifted over Resorts Casino Hotel, the first Atlantic City casino, opened by Merv Griffin 20 years ago, photographers goaded Johnson into making that silly, familiar "I'm so happy!" leap: hands lifted upward in a V, legs kicked up behind her. "She's so cute," whispered an onlooker.

Johnson was born in Florida but moved to Virginia Beach in 1996 to earn her master's degree in journalism at Regent University. She failed three times to earn the Miss Florida title while studying English at the University of South Florida, but became Miss Virginia on her second try. Until this month she's been living alone in Roanoke. (She doesn't have a boyfriend, for the record.)

On the religious-journalism front, she's been a writer and producer for "The 700 Club" on the Christian Broadcasting Network, and also wrote for a CBN show co-hosted by Terry Meeuwsen, Miss America 1973.

During the pageant Saturday night, Johnson sang "That's Life" and spoke with co-host Meredith Vieira about feeling denial, depression and anger after her illness was diagnosed. Now, she says, "diabetes is the best thing that ever happened to me," because it's taught her to overcome obstacles.

In a new segment his year, titled "Up Close and Personal," each of the contestants was videotaped talking about herself in her home state. Johnson was interviewed in Virginia Beach, which she said "is such a cool town because it's so young." She also said she chose to study broadcast journalism because "I love talking."

Johnson was favored to win the pageant by several veteran members of the press corps. (Their motto: "Nothing too trivial to file.") Still, there were some surprises. Miss Missouri, Deborah McDonald, was the third runner-up despite a very low profile. She was such an unheralded candidate that earlier this week a representative from the Miss America Organization asked The Washington Post to speak to her because she had received so few interview requests. (First runner-up was Miss North Carolina, Kelli Bradshaw; second runner-up was Miss Florida, Lissette Gonzalez; fourth was Miss Kentucky, Chera-Lyn Cook.)

Nicole Messina, Miss District of Columbia, beat out 41 others for a spot in the top 10. Had she won, Messina, who worked last year at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, would have been the second former White House intern this year to capture the nation's attention.

Speaking of President Clinton, Cook of Kentucky provided the sound bite of the evening after she was asked how Hillary Clinton is dealing with the revelation of her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky. "I'm not sure I would have handled it as well," said Cook. "I think some clothes would have been out on the White House lawn the next day."

Okay, so some of these contestants are spontaneous.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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