Writer Joseph J. Airdo // Photography by Nicole Walker, glxxy.designs and Nicole J. Smith

One of the many qualities that make Nicole Rowe the absolutely perfect person to wear the inaugural Miss Anthem crown is her uncanny ability to transform a decidedly bad situation into an exceptionally good one.

For example, what was supposed to be a magnanimous 11-month mission trip to 11 countries a few years ago quickly became an eye-opening experience that showed her how a well-intentioned individual or organization can actually do more harm than good. Rather than letting the situation sour her taste for future philanthropic endeavors, Rowe instead set out to change charities for the better.

“Speaking to people about my experience has been a very vital part of my recovery process upon coming back,” Rowe explains. “Having been gone for that long and experienced all of those different cultures and languages, it was definitely a culture shock to come back to the United States. And it has helped me process everything that I had been through. It is very motivating.”

Speaking to others with honesty and sincerity has also led to another surprising benefit that Rowe believes may be the greatest gift of all.

“One thing that I have learned is that the more vulnerable I am, the more people feel like they can be vulnerable with me,” she says. “When I spoke at one church, I had about 10 people come up and just want to share their life story with me. That was really special to me because you do not get to have a job like that every single day.”

A Physical and Spiritual Journey

Born in Oregon, Rowe moved to Arizona when she was eight years old. An aspiring entertainer, she participated in productions at Musical Theatre of Anthem and other area theater companies.

“My whole plan was to move to New York, go to a theater college and perform on Broadway,” Rowe says.

During her freshman year at Boulder Creek High School, Rowe’s classmate Katie Wagner was diagnosed with cancer. Although they were a year apart, Rowe was intensely impacted by Wagner’s diagnosis and began attending church services.

“She was a big inspiration for me when it came to my religious journey and finding faith,” Rowe explains.

Wagner tragically lost her battle to the devastating disease during Rowe’s junior year of high school, prompting her to not only become very involved in high school ministry but also change her entire plan for the future.

“I gave up musical theater my junior year of high school, which was terrifying — especially for my parents,” Rowe says. “I suddenly wanted to be an international missionary and I went on my first mission trip to Rwanda when I was just 16 years old. I then ended up going to Grand Canyon University for communications with a minor in Christian studies, because that was the closest thing that they had to a global studies program.”

During her freshman year of college, Rowe encountered a booth at a local shopping mall where she discussed with the director of the Miss Phoenix organization the idea of entering a local preliminary to the Miss Arizona competition. Because Grand Canyon University does not have any sort of Greek life on campus, Rowe believed the experience would be a good way for her to find a sisterhood.

“I ended up winning Miss Phoenix,” Rowe says.

She competed for two more years and added Miss Chandler and Miss Gilbert to her resume. Meanwhile, her aspirations for the future kept evolving. She began studying marketing in college and set her sights on a career within the industry. But the universe was not quite done helping her determine her journey just yet.

As she prepared to graduate from Grand Canyon University one semester early, she came across a nonprofit organization’s social media post promoting an 11-month mission trip to 11 countries.

“I left in January 2019 — two weeks after graduating college — and did not return home until December,” Rowe says. “Unfortunately, within two weeks, I felt as though my values did not necessarily align with those of the organization. So I was ready to come home as soon as I got out there. But I stuck to it because I wanted to see it through. And I am glad I did because I learned a lot.”

Charity the Responsible Way

Those lessons ended up shaping the social impact initiative of Rowe’s current title as the inaugural Miss Anthem. Previously referred to as platforms, social impact initiatives have in recent years become a much more prominent part of the Miss America competition and its preliminaries.

“Social impact initiatives are kind of what we advocate for during the year and what we basically put our primary focus on,” Rowe explains. “We still do other types of service work but it kind of keeps us on a path.”

Since its inception in 1921, the historical and social significance of Miss America has evolved from a boardwalk beauty pageant to the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women, awarding more than $45 million each year. Before one can compete to become Miss America, one must first win a title at the state level.

The Miss Valley of the Sun Scholarship Organization is an official local preliminary to the Miss Arizona and Miss Arizona’s Outstanding Teen competition. The organization crowns title-holders for Phoenix, North Phoenix, Scottsdale, Glendale and — beginning this year — Anthem and Cave Creek.

Cait Dempsey, executive director of the Miss Valley of the Sun Scholarship Organization, says that it is her mission to educate the future women leaders of Arizona about the Miss America program.

“The addition of the Miss Anthem and Miss Cave Creek titles was to spread more awareness about our program across the Valley and to provide more opportunities for our titleholders to serve the great communities of Anthem and Cave Creek,” she explains. “We are so thrilled to have these titles and look forward to building relationships with local businesses and community members.”

And Rowe is extremely eager to do so with her social impact initiative — Charity the Responsible Way.

“When I was on [my 11-month mission trip], I did not believe that the organization was making a good change,” Rowe says. “In fact, I believe that it was actually doing more damage. So my biggest goal this year is to work with organizations that do sustainable and regenerative work within their communities and to encourage others to do the same.”

Rowe, who currently volunteers in the coffee shop and as a high school ministry coach for Christ’s Church of the Valley’s Anthem campus, plans to assist as many different grassroots nonprofit organizations throughout the Anthem community as possible.

“I really trust their processes compared to some of the bigger organizations out there,” she says. “I know the people who are running them and I know that they are doing so in a way that is both sustainable and regenerative.”

Sisterhood and Community

Rowe would, of course, love to win the title of Miss Arizona this summer and advance to the national Miss America competition. However, the 24-year-old North Phoenix resident — who currently works at Scottsdale’s internet marketing service Envida Social, recently received her MBA and plans to pursue a master of science in digital audience strategy — is determined to make the most out of her Miss Anthem title.

Acknowledging that she could have worked a bit harder with her first three titles, Rowe is grateful to have another opportunity to make a difference further into adulthood.

“Back then, I was still trying to learn the balance of having my own life outside of high school and having responsibilities like a job and internships,” she explains. “So it is really cool that I get to come back as a new person with everything that I have experienced and, just being more mature and responsible in general, seeing where this takes me.”

The sky really is the limit for Rowe, who has discovered increased confidence and developed a strong self-awareness through her titles of Miss Phoenix, Miss Chandler, Miss Gilbert and now the inaugural Miss Anthem.

“I can read myself and other people very well just by looking at the way that we react to things or the way that we decide to handle different situations,” she says. “The Miss Arizona and Miss America organizations taught me that I am more capable of doing things that I never thought I would be able to do.

“All young women have had different confidence and self-esteem issues while growing up. The Miss Arizona and Miss America organizations have shown me that I am valuable and capable of anything that I set my mind to. They have also taught me the importance of sisterhood and community. You can really rely on the people around you.”