Theresa Vail, otherwise known as Miss Kansas, is not going to cover up who she is. Especially not for a 93-year-old pageant that's never exactly been known for being on the vanguard. The 22-year-old will be strutting down the runway at the Miss America Pageant on Sunday in a bikini, tattoos and all, making her the first contest—at least, as far as anyone can remember—to bare her tats on the Miss America stage.
“We’re in the 21st century,” Vail told The Daily Beast. “With my platform and what I’m doing, we’re gearing our actions toward modern women.”
One of her tattoos is an army insignia on her shoulder, which she said is in honor of her father, a dentist in the Army for 33 years. He inspired Vail to enroll in the Army herself. The other tattoo, which has been getting the most attention, is the serenity prayer, on her right side.
The prayer, she says, is to “remind me of her past.” When she was about 10 years old and living in Germany, she faced bullying and even considered suicide.
“I remember just asking God, praying for peace and for the things I couldn’t change that I was being made fun of for and more to grant me the courage to stand up for myself,” Vail said. “So when I was old enough and I was thinking, hey, I want to share my story and let people know you can overcome anything. That’s when I decided I wanted to get a tattoo of it—to remind me of my past and guide me through my future.”
Vail said she has received some negative feedback about her tattoos, but she believes that’s from older people who still associate tattoos with “bikers and thugs, and that’s just not the way of the world anymore.” If she covered them up, she says, she would be a hypocrite.
Miss America loyalists need not fear that the pageant will spontaneously combust if a woman with tattoos takes the runway: Vail already competed in the swimsuit competition on Tuesday. Despite the trailblazing tats, Vail did not win the swimsuit competition; that honor went to Chelsea Rick, Miss Mississippi.
It's not just the tattoos that make Vail so different from the stereotypical Miss America contestant. She’s an expert marksman on a M-16. In the Miss Leavenworth pageant, she initially planned to use archery as her show talent—until two days before the event, when she learned the pageant had an insurance policy against projectile objects. She took up opera singing instead—teaching herself the opera aria “Nessun Dorma” in just two days.
Vail is also a sergeant in the Army National Guard, the second-ever contestant from the armed forces to be in the pageant. In 2007, Miss Utah Jill Stevens had served as combat medic in Afghanistan.
Vail grew up as one nine children and as an army brat, a lifestyle that she attributes with giving her the skills that she needed for the Miss America competition.
“I certainly wouldn’t be Miss Kansas without my military experience,” Vail said. “I attribute every positive quality I have to my dad or the military. My leadership, my public speaking ability, my diligence, I credit all of that to being in the military and that’s what you need in a competition like this.”
Vail is a senior at Kansas State University and is majoring in chemistry and Chinese. Her goal is to become a dentist in the army. Vail’s platform is Empowering Women: Overcoming Stereotypes and Breaking Barriers. Vail also writes on her website that social media “will have the greatest impact on my generation … we have the world at our fingertips and the power to do what we want with it—positively or negatively.”
Of course, her tattoos have already lit up the Internet, with hundreds of besotted fans taking to support her on Facebook and Twitter (she's also encountered a few haters). The controversy even reached the president of Miss America Organization Sharon Pearce, who told NJ.com “we believe each contestant has the right to show her individuality. We’re happy to support them.”
Vail might be breaking the tattoo taboo, but the pageant itself has been steadily modernizing over the years. In last year’s contest, Alexis Wineman, Miss Montana, was the first contestant with autism; Allyn Rose, Miss D.C., spoke publicly about her battle with breast cancer and plans to undergo a double mastectom; Miss Iowa Mariah Carey struggled with Tourette’s Syndrome; and Miss Maine Molly Bouchard lost 50 pounds prior to her pageant days. Wineman won the America’s Choice vote, saying through tears that she hoped she was chosen because people “found me very relatable.”
The once-popular pageant dropped in ratings over the years, causing ABC to drop it from its lineup in 2007, only to have the contest picked up CMT and then TLC. ABC picked it up again this year, returning the pageant to its hometown, Atlantic City, and will be held once again in September, despite being held in January the past few years.
Vail said she is just following to the pageant’s stated “job description” that Miss America “appeal to women 17-34,” her “target audience.”
“I think I’m paving the road, paving the road for future contestants to say ‘she did it, she owned it, she’s not covering anything up, ’” Vail said.