I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that beauty pageants kind of wig me out. I’m not just talking about Toddlers and Tiaras, either (although that’s plenty weird all on its own); the whole idea of them kind of just makes me go, “Eh?”. As such, I’ve never really paid much attention to Miss America, which began its preliminaries yesterday in Atlantic City, NJ—but that might change this year. Why? Because of Miss Kansas.
Sgt. Theresa Vail of Manhattan, Kansas is all kinds of extraordinary. First off, she’s only the second military woman to compete in the Miss America Pageant (the first was Miss Utah 2007, Jill Stevens; she’s a combat medic in the National Guard and served overseas during an 18-month tour of Afghanistan in 2004-2005). Second, she’s breaking a long-standing Miss America taboo by proudly displaying her tattoos—even during the swimsuit competition. And third, she’s one heck of a role model, which is something I think the pageant world so desperately needs.
Theresa joined the Kansas Army National Guard right after she turned 17. She’s currently a senior at Kansas State University, working towards a double degree in Chinese and chemistry; after that, she’s re-enlisted for six more years. “Nobody expects a soldier to be a beauty queen,” she recently told People, “but I’m all about breaking stereotypes.” Hear, hear!
The sergeant is an expert M16 marksman, a bow hunter, a skydiver, a boxer, and a mechanic; she used to race motorcycles as well, but had to stop after breaking all the fingers in her right hand. So how did she get into pageants? She entered her first one nine months ago when her commanding officer told her that she’d be a great role model. Originally, she had planned to demonstrate archery for her talent… only to be told two days before the competition that “projectile objects” were forbidden. What to do? Well, Theresa used to sing in the choir back in high school, so she logged onto YouTube, found a video of Luciano Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma,” and learned to sing it well enough to net her the silver tray in the Miss Kansas talent competition. And she did it in under 48 hours.
She’s come a long way from her days as a bullied child. The bullying, she says, was so bad that she almost took her own life. She credits her father teaching her to hunt when she was 10 with why she didn’t. “Ever since then, I’ve been an outdoors girl,” Theresa says. “My passion is empowering girls through male-dominated outdoor sports.” She continues, “I want to help them develop confidence, to let them know that they have what it takes to accomplish anything they want to accomplish. I know many young girls who look at beauty candidates and think, ‘What a perfect life they have.’ But I want them to know that I haven’t led a perfect life. And that beauty comes from the inside.”
As for the tattoos? Here’s what she’s got to say on the matter: ” Why am I choosing to bear my tattoos? My whole platform is empowering women to overcome stereotypes and break barriers. What a hypocrite I would be if I covered my ink. How can I tell other women to be fearless and true to themselves if I can’t do the same? I am who I am, tattoos and all.”
I realize that it’s probably unlikely that Theresa will win the Miss America pageant. But I don’t actually think that winning is what matters—what matters is that she’s out there and visible. Maybe some other little girls who have been bullied or who don’t fit the mold of what society deems beautiful will see her and think, “That’s who I want to be when I grow up.” Maybe it will make a difference. That’s what’s important.
Lucia Peters is BettyConfidential’s senior editor.