Crowning Glory

As its executive director, former Miss Virginia USA Kim Nicewonder has transformed the pageant she once competed in. 

It’s the final night of the 2016 Miss Virginia USA and Miss Virginia Teen USA pageant. Kim Nicewonder slips on her headset and scoots next to the show’s production manager at the side of the stage. As the pageant’s executive director since 1994, she’s ready to squash any potential problems. “If I have to help get the girls to hurry out of the dressing room, I’ll just kick off my heels and run barefoot,” she laughs. 

As the girls, flush with nervous energy, pass by her on their way to the stage, she smiles, extends her hand for a high-five and, she says, “I tell them how beautiful they are.”

Nicewonder, who was crowned Miss Virginia USA in 1989, knows firsthand what it feels like to be in the girls’ shoes. And she has used her experience to grow the pageant, first held in 1952, into a high-profile production that provides more than $500,000 in scholarships to pageant winners. But for Nicewonder, 49, the point of it all goes beyond prizes and winning—her goal, she says, is to help the girls in the competition learn more about themselves and their potential: “I tell them this is an opportunity not to be ‘a compete woman, but rather a complete woman.’”  

Nicewonder grew up in the small southwest community of Pound and began modeling for local boutiques in her early teens, traveling to New York City and Atlanta for photo shoots by the time she was 16. She says she hadn’t considered entering a pageant until a friend and former Miss Virginia representative for the Miss America pageant encouraged her to do so. 

The first year she entered the Miss Virginia USA pageant she was second runner-up; the following year she was first runner-up. She won the title on her third attempt in 1989 at the age of 22 (having been voted Miss Congeniality by her fellow contestants each time). She competed in the Miss USA pageant later that year and was again named Miss Congeniality by her peers, making her the first contestant to win that title in both the state and national competition during the same year.  

It was the next year, when she attended the pageant as a spectator, that she decided she wanted to direct it.

Nicewonder knew the pageant had been directed by the same gentleman for 35 years, but says she decided to “give it a shot anyway.” She wrote a letter to the Miss Virginia USA organization detailing her intention to produce the show in a very hands-on way, and her desire to mentor the girls during the process. 

She was surprised when the phone rang a few months later with good news. “It was a shock for me,” she says of being offered the executive director position. “I wanted to take advantage of it, but I had a 9-month-old baby at the time. Thankfully it all worked out. I wasn’t going to let that opportunity pass me by.”

As its executive director, Nicewonder is a licensee in the WME|IMG-owned Miss Universe organization, which produces the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageants. 

With the help of a year-round staff of two—which swells to about 20 during the pageant, including choreographers, production managers, lighting directors and chaperones—Nicewonder spends a great deal of time meeting with contributors throughout the year and promoting the pageant around the state. 

Nicewonder personally selects all of the contestants each year; they do not have to win a pageant at a preliminary level. If they meet the Miss Virginia USA eligibility requirements for age and residency, Nicewonder conducts individual interviews, inviting an average of 50 women to compete annually. (Entry fees for contestants are around $1,000.) 

Audiences see the glamour on stage, but behind the scenes not everything always goes as planned. About 10 years ago, Nicewonder organized a pyrotechnic show. The fireworks went off after the opening number, but so did the building’s smoke detectors, causing the metal fire curtain to drop down suddenly while the contestants were on stage. 

“The production director ran out so fast to move the girls back,” she says. “No one was injured. At the moment it was terrifying but now looking back we laugh about it. We got everyone’s attention, that’s for sure. After we got the fire curtain up we went on and had the show.”

Near misses aside, Nicewonder says the pageant is much more than a job—forming special relationships with the girls and helping them believe in themselves is not only her passion, but also her calling. “That is what ignites my fire each year.”

Among the contestants Nicewonder has mentored over the years is Portsmouth native Pat Southall Smith who, in 1994, was the first African-American Miss Virginia USA. (She went on to become first runner-up in the Miss USA pageant.) “There had never been a black Miss Virginia USA before, so growing up I didn’t see anyone that looked like me,” says Smith, who is today the wife of football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith and a television personality and author. “I didn’t know I could do it.”

Smith lost her mother to breast cancer while she was preparing for the competition, and after her win she stayed at Nicewonder’s parents’ home in Bristol. “I was broken at 22 and this family took me in like I was theirs,” she says. “My heart and my passion were birthed in what they gave me. Now I mentor women and girls. Kim will forever be an angel in my life.” 

A mother of three—24-year-old Paulena Johnson, 20-year-old Lexi Johnson and 13-year-old Steven Johnson—Nicewonder lives on a horse farm at The Virginian Golf Club, a private luxury golf community in Bristol built by her parents in 1992.

A Christian, Nicewonder says she has worked hard to change people’s belief that to be a title holder you have to be a beautiful person on the outside. “It’s so much more than that,” she says. “It’s about what they have done in their life that makes them beautiful. It’s about their stories. It’s what you are like on the inside that makes you something special.”

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