The Miss America Pageant won’t know what hit it when it lays eyes on Miss Kansas, Sgt. Theresa Vail.
Once the competition’s preliminaries begin in Atlantic City, N.J., on Tuesday, Sept. 10, Vail will be the second contestant in the military to compete (Miss Utah 2007 was a combat medic in the Army National Guard).
But when she struts down Boardwalk Hall in her bikini, she’ll be breaking a long-standing taboo with her two giant tattoos – the insignia for the U.S. Army Dental Corps on her left shoulder and the Serenity Prayer running down her right side.
“Why am I choosing to bear my tattoos?” Vail says. “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.”
She’s also an expert M16 marksman, a bow hunter, a skydiver, a boxer and a mechanic. She finally had to stop motorcycle racing after breaking all the fingers in her right hand – a potential stumbling block, she decided, to reaching her goal of becoming an Army dentist. She can skin a deer, she has a great squirrel stew recipe (it features sauerkraut) and, one day, she hopes to hunt bear with her bow and arrow.
Nine months ago, when she entered her very first beauty pageant (her commanding officer thought she’d be a great role model), she planned to demonstrate archery for her talent. Two days before the competition, she was told “projectile objects” were forbidden, so she had no choice but to either drop out or hustle up a new talent.
“I’d never sung opera in my life,” Vail says. “I had an appreciation for it” – she spent part of her childhood in Europe – “and I sang soprano in choir back in high school, but I hadn’t sung since then and certainly never opera.”
She logged onto YouTube, found Luciano Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma,” and in no more than 48 hours mastered it so well that she eventually took home the silver tray in the Miss Kansas talent competition.
“I’ve worked with five former Miss Kansas contestants and I’ve never seen anyone this focused and determined,” says Kim Brom, business manager for the Miss Kansas pageant. “She has so many different qualities – she’s a hunter, she’s in the military, she’s fluent in Chinese, she’s very educated and, even more than that, she has that unquantifiable star quality.”
Vail joined the Kansas Army National guard three weeks after she turned 17. And even though she recently re-enlisted for six more years, she’s now a senior at Kansas State University with a double major in Chinese and chemistry. She loves the outdoors and has been an avid hunter since she was 10.
“Nobody expects a soldier to be a beauty queen,” Vail says, “but I’m all about breaking stereotypes.”
Another thing she’s “all about” is empowering women.
“I was bullied when I was a kid. It got so bad that I nearly took my own life … My dad [an Army dentist stationed in Germany] took me hunting with him and it saved my life. Ever since then, I’ve been an outdoors girl,” she says. “My passion is empowering girls through male-dominated outdoor sports.”
She adds, “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 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.”