Watching the video of the 2014 Miss Nevada USA pageant, Nia Sanchez barely reacts when her name is called. Looking gorgeous in a red off-the-shoulder gown, she stands momentarily frozen, even as those around her onstage realize that she’s won. Then suddenly it hits her, and the joy is magnetic.
Less than a week into her reign, Sanchez, 23, is adjusting to wearing the sash and crown, to the idea of competing in Miss USA and to holding the title of Miss Nevada USA. But her story isn’t your average pageant fairy tale, and when she steps before the Miss USA judges this spring, she’ll be focused on just being herself.
How did it feel when you heard your name announced as Miss Nevada USA 2014? The winning, crowning moment was just the most amazing moment of my life. I was trying so hard not to cry because I knew there were going to be pictures taken. The tears kept coming, and the hair and makeup people were like, “Stop crying. Close your mouth. Breathe in through your nose.”
How did you prepare for the pageant? It’s been over a yearlong journey for me because last year in October I knew that I wanted to compete. I started working out, eating really healthy about three months ahead of time, just keeping it really lean and clean with my diet. For me, what I think was the best was I tried to center myself spiritually and emotionally and tried to be really calm and comfortable with who I am. So I didn’t get stressed out the whole weekend. I just breathed through everything.
Is the question portion of the pageant the hardest part to feel confident about? It is. The top 5 questions—you just never know what they can ask you. They asked one of the girls what the biggest world problem is; then they asked me about twerking.
How old were you when you competed in your first pageant? I was 19 years old. ... I competed in California a few times, and I’ve also represented the United States in Ecuador a few times. I went to Miss Turismo Latino being Estados Unidos, the United States, and Miss Reina Mundial de Banano, which is Miss Queen of Bananas of the World. It sounds better in Spanish.
With all the pageant reality shows on TV, I imagine some girls start really young. Did you feel you were at a disadvantage because you’d started competing as an adult? I didn’t feel like that at all. I just feel like whatever pageant you’re doing you just have to be 100 percent yourself. It’s not really all the training, as long as the judges see your personality. I think some girls—and I have before myself—just get so nervous and want to say the exact right thing, but it’s just best when you’re yourself.
You spent some time in a women’s shelter when you were younger. How did that happen? When I was 6 years old, my mom and dad were going through a divorce, and my mom beforehand was a full-time stay-at-home mom, so she didn’t have a job or any way to get out on her own. So we stayed at a women’s shelter for two months while she got a job and was working. It was great because they provided day care for us while she was out there trying to save up. I remember bits and pieces of it—I remember the big open room with all the beds, I remember the play area, I remember they lost my favorite doll (laughs). We were there for two months, then we ended up moving to Oregon, and we lived in Oregon with my aunt. Then my mom actually moved to Washington, and I was raised by my dad from 8 years old until I graduated high school.
You volunteer at Shade Tree in Las Vegas. Does having the experience of living in a shelter help you relate to people there? It’s just a really good way for us to connect. I’ve worked in other women’s shelters, as well, especially with the children. Children are my passion. I’ve taught Sunday school and martial arts, so I’ve always worked with children. I feel like I can relate to them, and to the women, as well, because there was a point in my life when I was 21 when I went through a very unhealthy relationship. I was lucky that I got out of it before it got abusive, but it was aggressive, and I feel like I can really relate with women on that level more personally. ... It can almost be a little embarrassing, but I feel like I am where I am today because I grew so much. I’ve been through some craziness when I was young just with that relationship, and I feel very blessed that I was strong enough to get out of it. Beforehand I never understood why women would stay in an unhealthy relationship, but when I went through that and eventually had the strength to get out of it, I understood the mentality. Because you are in love, but that does not mean that that person is good for you, and you need to get away from it. I feel like I’ve just grown so much in my personal strength from getting out of that.
You've talked about your love of travel a lot, and you moved to Hong Kong for seven months to work at Disneyland. Where do you think that adventurous spirit comes from? I think my grandmother kind of gave me the push when I was 18 years old and graduating high school. …I had never met my family in Germany, but she bought my plane ticket and sent me to Germany to be a nanny for my younger cousins because my aunt was going to school for her masters degree. I can make friends anywhere, but just to see a new culture and experience something new, I just fell in love with it.
What are your future career plans? I see myself, for a while, modeling while I’m young and can enjoy it. But to be honest, I really see myself being a mom. I don’t know if that sounds silly, but I love children, and I just want to be a good wife and a mom and really be able to raise my children. And I can see myself doing something off to the side like working at a day care or teaching martial arts at a tae kwon do studio cause I’ve done that most of my life.
What kind of martial arts do you teach? I teach tae kwon do. I started training when I was 8, and I started teaching when I was 12, and I was a certified instructor when I was 15. I actually have not trained as often lately, but my parents own a studio in California. Whenever I go back over there to visit my little brother I’ll sometimes pop into the studio. I still have my uniform. It’s a good workout. It’s a full body workout. I never get more tired working out than when I’m at the studio.
Miss USA is coming up in the spring. Do you have any tricks that you’ve learned in the process of getting ready for past pageants? I feel like a lot of it can be mental, so just to stay calm. But even the little things when you’re competing in a pageant, like butt glue. Every girl has to have butt glue. It’s for your bikini. When you’re onstage and turning around, you don’t want it to ride up one cheek or the other. So you just slide a little roller of glue, stick your bikini on and you’re good to go. Also, just never try something new right before you’re doing [a pageant]. About a week and a half ago I went to get my eyebrows threaded, which I’ve done a million times. The lady goes, “Oh you’re doing a pageant, get your whole face threaded; your makeup will look really good. No fuzzies.” So I did, and I woke up two days later and my whole cheek—my jawbone to my cheekbone—was fully broken out in zits, blemishes. ... I’ve learned my lesson: Don’t try something new. Just stick with what you know, at least a week before the pageant.