READY FOR TAKEOFF
Strap youself in -- Miss May is taking you on a wild ride
Licensed pilot Nicole Whitehead -- yes, she flies airplanes -- is absolutely fearless. "The first time I flew a plane was also the first time I went skydiving," says the 23-year-old. "I literally dived out the plane door -- they couldn't open it fast enough. When I was free-falling I could see all this amazing scenery at one time -- the ocean, the city and the area where the NASA shuttles take off. It was so pretty, I think I started to cry." Back on solid ground, Nicole, with ample Southern charm (she's from Alabama and lives in Florida), explained to the pilot that while skydiving was a trip, she would be even more excited actually flying the plane. How could he resist? "He took me up and let me take the controls," she says. "It was the best day I ever had. I knew right then that I had to fly for a living."
Nicole earned her pilot's license last August and is currently chalking up solo flight hours. Meanwhile, to help pay for flight school, she works at a local bar (most requested drink: Alabama slammer), models (you may have spotted her on the 2001 cover of Playboy's Natural Beauties special edition) and steals the spotlight in music videos (in Ricky Martin's "She Bangs," she dances -- or bangs -- herself into a frenzy). While definitely a girl on the rise, Nicole isn't going after red carpet megafame. "I would be perfectly happy flying other celebrities around the world rather than being one myself," she says.
Nicole may literally have her head in the clouds, but she credits her upbringing with keeping her grounded. "Nobody comes before family," she says. "We're a bunch of crazy Southerners. I live on a ranch and have a tomboy side. Nascar is my religion. I like to go mudding in a truck. I can clean up and be a lady, but the everyday me wears Levi's, cowboy boots and a tank top."
Those boots come in handy when she tends to her three horses, her admitted first loves, which live on her ranch in Orlando. "When I was six I visited my grandparents in Florida," she says. "They took me to see a dinner show called Arabian Nights. I loved it. The day I graduated from high school I moved there and tried to join the show. I had no formal training, but I'd barrel raced and worked with cows." Once again Nicole put her wiles to use: "I pulled the show manager aside and told him, 'Look, I can smile really big, and I don't fall off horses.' I got the job and worked there for the most incredible two and a half years of my life. I was a trick rider -- I stood up on the back of galloping horses and would flip off them and do crazy stuff."
A rodeo clown could figure out that when it comes to guys Nicole is into the adventurous type. "I definitely like guys who are rugged and strong," she says. "It's sexy when a guy can help me work the horses or fix my car. I'm attracted to cowboys, but I haven't figured out how to find them yet. Maybe hang out at rodeos?"
When we tell her that someday her space cowboy will come, Nicole smiles. "In five years I'd like to be in the pilot's seat, 43,000 feet above everyone else and going 500 miles an hour. My heart is definitely in the sky."
Photography by Arny Freytag