ELKO — Mining engineer and wildland firefighter Ruby B. Johnson wants to add another title to her résumé: Miss Nevada USA.
Representing northeastern Nevada as Miss Elko County, Johnson plans to compete for the designation at the Miss Nevada USA pageant in Las Vegas on Jan. 7.
“It’s very unconventional to have a mining engineer in a pageant,” Johnson said.
A win in the Nevada contest would mean competing for Miss USA and possibly Miss Universe. The last time a Nevadan won the Miss USA crown was 2014, but no Nevada winner has won the top title in the program’s 66-year history.
“I feel it is time for the Battle Born State,” Johnson said.
Nevada winners are rare, as are contestants from outside of the Las Vegas area. Johnson said she hopes to change that while shining a spotlight on the state’s mining industry and women in engineering.
“It’s a wonderful mining state,” she said, “and it’s a wonderful place to be a mining engineer.”
Johnson works as one of four mining engineers employed by the U.S. Forest Service. She is stationed in Elko at the Mountain City, Ruby Mountains, Jarbidge Ranger District office. Her position requires her to provide technical assistance such as information about ground stability and hydrology to mines on public lands.
“Ruby represents the vast diversity of Elko County and the importance of mining in the community with her mining engineer background,” said Susan G. Summer Elliott, minerals and geology program manager for the U.S. Forest Service Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. “We are so proud to have Ruby representing Elko in the pageant. Ruby is a gem and can best represent our gold country heritage in the silver state of Nevada.”
Pageants might be unfamiliar with the mining industry, but Johnson is no stranger to the stage. In 2012, Johnson won the title of Miss Sierra Leone USA while studying engineering and minoring in women’s studies leadership at Virginia Tech.
Johnson was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, in 1990 in the midst of a civil war. Seeking safety and a better life, her mother moved to Maryland while Johnson and her father waited in Nigeria.
“Her goal, like most parents, was ‘I want my children to have a better life than me,’” she said, explaining that she moved to the U.S. when she was 12 years old and became a U.S. citizen.
A desire to connect with the Sierra Leone community and love of service led Johnson to enter the Miss Sierra Leone USA pageant. At first, her mother lovingly laughed at her daughter’s goal because Johnson didn’t like wearing makeup or smiling. To prepare, Johnson said she watched YouTube videos of past pageants, practiced her talent of belly dancing and performed for family. She even started wearing makeup at age 21. Now, she smiles almost nonstop.
When Johnson won Miss Sierra Leone, 10 years after she moved from that country, the crown also came with the prize of an international trip. Her Sierra Leonean “homecoming,” as she called it, included visiting a diamond mine, as the country is rich in minerals and a top diamond producer. Wanting international mining experience, the newly crowned Miss Sierra Leone asked the mining company for an internship.
“I’m pretty sure they thought I was joking,” Johnson said.
Johnson wasn’t joking. She landed the internship and returned to Sierra Leone to serve in the mine’s quarry, drilling, blasting and surveying. Being a woman in mining, being from the country where she worked and wearing the Miss Sierra Leone crown turned heads.
“That made them proud, too,” Johnson said, “because they were like, ‘Look, this is one of our own.’”
When not working in the mine, Johnson took time to meet with local girls to encourage them to pursue a field in science, technology, engineering or math, just like she was doing.
“I realized the power of using the crown for a good cause,” Johnson said. “Growing up, I didn’t see examples of women in engineering. I love that girls get to see that [now]. It gives me a bigger platform.”
Johnson said she appreciates the Miss Universe competition for recognizing that a pageant winner needs to be more than a beauty icon. “Confidently Beautiful” is the program motto, and Elliott said Johnson meets that criterion.
“Ruby is full of life and is everyone’s best friend,” Elliott said. “She is especially caring and humble, always looking for opportunities to help those in need. She is ready to go for whatever life has to offer and can transform herself from a day in the field with a hard hat and steel-toed boots to polished evening gowns.”
Paraphrasing a quote popularly attributed to Marilyn Monroe, Johnson said, “It’s all about giving a girl the right shoes, and she will conquer the world.”