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Miss America 2009 and the Diabetes Drama
  By Nicole Johnson, MA, MPH

Last month I had one of the greatest honors in my professional career, I judged the 2009 Miss America Pageant.  What an awesome experience!  The emotion was intense.  It had been 10 years since my Miss America moment and now I was playing a direct role in changing the life of another young woman – forever.  Wow!

I was incredibly nervous.  Interviewing 52 bright, accomplished women was no small task!  Assigning a number to the same women as they paraded in swimsuits on the stage – an even bigger challenge.  Then there was talent – whew!  The intensity and capability of these women was astounding. Finally, evening wear and on-stage speaking.  Which woman could best command the stage with grace, confidence and that intangible “it” quality?  It was truly an awe-inspiring experience that made me proud of the women we are nurturing in the Miss America program and as a society.  I learned so much.  I bet you didn’t know that when judges are evaluating swimsuit, they are really looking for a sense of confidence and an unmatched presence. It is more about answering the questions “can the women do the job of Miss America when they are stripped of modern conveniences?” than about her figure.  Interesting huh? I wish I had known that ten years ago!

If the judging process and the enormity of the assignment weren’t enough, there was an added diabetes drama that revealed more about character, resourcefulness and the real job of jet-setting.

On my way to Las Vegas, on a non-stop flight, my luggage got lost! Lost luggage is nothing new and not much to write home about.  Typically, the lost bag(s) reappear within 24 hours, I was told to hold tight and that I should receive my bag later that evening. So, in jeans and a sweater, with little make-up and no hairspray, I went to the first day of judges meetings and social events – including a meet and greet with the contestants and the board of directors of the Miss America Organization.   I honestly believed that my luggage would appear late that night, but as the clock spun no one ever called to tell me my bag had been found.

The next morning, in a borrowed dress, with no phone charger, no amenities, no curling iron or even a brush, I met the first 35 contestants in interviews with the other members of a star-studded panel of judges (Jim Moret, Ken Paves, Cullen Jones, Paige Adams-Geller, Laura Bell Bundy and Beth Klein).  The pressure of being the woman on the panel who these women were aspiring to emulate, while still no luggage and little chance to appropriately get ready, was enormous.  I didn’t want to disappoint the contestants, the other judges, and the Miss America organization.  How naïve my thoughts and impressions were that Monday morning.   As the interviews went on, I called the airline – no information, no bag.  By the end of the day, I was reminded that impressions are not made up of physical attributes, but rather the character that shines from within.  It isn’t about how you are wrapped, but rather what you unwrap and share with others.  A lesson about judging and about being judged! 

The lesson also applies to living with a health condition like diabetes.  Are you more concerned about appearances than you are about your health?  Are superficial issues clouding your judgment about caring for yourself?  This happens to all of us at some point.  For example, I remember body image being the biggest deterrent in my early indecision about an insulin pump.  Thankfully, I learned – through a serious hypoglycemic episode – that it was more important for me to be safe than to conform to my pre-conceived, unrealistic definition of what’s attractive.

Back to the pageant…day three began, more interviews and evaluations.  Which girl is ready for the job?  Who can handle the constant pressure?  Who can deal with judgment? My perspective on the process had been pushed, prodded, twisted and wrung.  I am looking for someone who has grace under pressure and wisdom to handle challenging situations.   Are those qualities learned or innate?

I still have no luggage.  By this time, I have purchased makeup and an extra outfit, but that is all.  I keep thinking something is going to turn up.  All of a sudden, my pump alarms!  I am low on insulin.  Panicked, I rummage through my purse – thank you God!  There is a vile with a small amount of insulin that will certainly get me through the next two days. (A small cushion of time until my family would arrive with more supplies.)  Fortunately, I also had an emergency infusion set in my purse too.  At this point, I am no longer bitter about diabetes claiming small purses and rendering them impossible for the rest of my life.  I love my PRADA knockoff suitcase with straps! (Guys, it is my big and very heavy purse that I carry everywhere.)

Do you carry extra diabetes supplies with you at all times? 

The story continues with the judges and contestants making their way to preliminary stage competitions.  It is Tuesday night.  I still haven’t had time to get additional supplies, nor is anyone helping me acquire the items that I need.  We arrive at an auditorium filled with pageant people.  I am dressed in a borrowed suit with straight hair, and I am strangely proud.  The interview process and the judges coach has reminded me that life isn’t about the outside, but rather what shines through from the inside.  It is so easy to forget that and get caught up in what society sells.  What is shining through you? Are you filled with joy or anger? I pray those who saw me that day saw joy and a sense of humor.

Now, I won’t lie. I was getting pretty frustrated at this point.  Four days – no luggage and over $700 spent in replacing necessary items. (Make up, toothpaste, deodorant, a brush, a suit and underwear – all of that in Las Vegas can really set one back.)

There were two more days of preliminary stage competitions, a day of social engagements and then the final night that would air live on TLC. (It will re-air about 20 times!)  I never did get my bag.  Thankfully, my family arrived on the last days and replenished my medical and personal supplies.  I am now in a battle with the airline for reimbursement of expenses and replacement of items lost.  Of course, I had packed all of my “good” shoes, suits, dresses, etc. in that bag that was lost. Even my very cool, very expensive, really unreasonable new Betsy Johnson shoes and dress!

It was and continues to be a lesson in patience, perseverance, point-of-view and preparation.  Are you prepared to deal with disaster…more specifically a diabetes disaster? I mean prepared physically and emotionally.  Do you have your physician programmed in your cell phone?  What about your pharmacy?  Have you ever actually talked to your pharmacist and taken the time to build a relationship?  Do you have emotional support around you to help in these kinds of emergencies?  My drama was really mostly, drama.  But it could have been dangerous even disastrous had I not been prepared.  (I am still mourning the loss of my comfortable heels!  I can’t replace those.)

A few things to think of as you prepare for your next excursion…. you can bet I am taking my preparation to a whole new level these days!

    1.  If you wear a pump, leave with a new set and a full cartridge of insulin.

    2.  Take extra test strips in your purse or handbag.

    3.  Carry a vile of insulin in your purse or handbag.

    4.  Carry extra syringes or infusion sets in your purse or handbag.

    5.  Make sure to have your physician’s phone number with you.

    6.  Make sure to have a copy of your prescriptions with you.

    7.  Make sure to have your pharmacist’s number with you.

    8.  Do you have “ICE” in your phone? – (In Case of Emergency)

    9.  Do your family or friends have the address where you are staying and your travel itinerary?

    10. Are your family and friends well acquainted with where your “supplies” are in case they need to retrieve them and send them to you?

    11. Do you know of a health provider at your destination that could help you in an emergency?

    12. Do you travel with enough snacks to treat multiple lows?

    13. Did you spread out your diabetes supplies in your bags? 

My most recent Miss America experience had about the same level of stress as my first one 10 years ago.  Funny huh?  I guess with maturity I have learned that life is all about stressful moments and how we react in those moments.  There will always be challenge and with challenge will always be an opportunity to share your inner spirit and hopefully your sense of humor.

Miss America in 1999 was quite different from today’s version.  As I reflected back this anniversary, I am so proud of the chance I have been given to represent that organization and diabetes.  It wasn’t easy and at times I faced rejection, even ridicule, because of my choice to speak out about our cause.  I am grateful for every challenge because the personal growth over the last decade has been enormous and is due to learning to cope and flex.  What has life with diabetes taught you?  What has it brought to you?  How have you learned to be better because of the experience with this disease?  What lesson did you learn from your most recent challenge – even if the challenge was something as small as losing luggage?

(By the way, Miss Indiana Katie Stam is the new Miss America 2009!)



Nicole Johnson, MA, MPH, Miss America 1999, is an international diabetes advocate. She travels extensively promoting awareness, prevention, and early detection of the condition she has shared for fifteen years. She has written four books including her autobiography, Living with Diabetes. Nicole serves on numerous advisory boards including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Council of Public Representatives, the Florida Governor's Diabetes Advisory Council and the Tampa Bay chapters of the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She is also a past national board member for the American Diabetes Association. Over the last nine years, Nicole has helped raise approximately $20 million for diabetes research and programs.

Learn more at www.nicolejohnson.com


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