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Miss Kansas pushes idea of beauty — with tattoo, rifle, parachute and combat boots

A close-up of Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail's tattoo is seen on stage during the bathing suit portion of the preliminary round of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Sept. 10, 2013. Vail became the first Miss America contestant to visibly show her tattoos during competitions this week, pageant officials said. Her two pieces of ink are expected to be on display during Sunday's nationally televised pageant.

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By Jacqueline L. Urgo
Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, 7:12 p.m.

Hey, Kansas, your beauty queen wears combat boots!

And has big tattoos, too.

As an active member of the military, Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail — ahem, Army National Guard Sgt. Vail — may just have a slightly different take on world peace than the typical Miss America pageant contestant.

The slender blonde is an expert marksman who apparently knows her way around an M-16. She raced motorcycles as a teen until she broke her fingers. She is fluent in Chinese (she has a 3.8 GPA at Kansas State University) and likes to skydive and bow-hunt for deer. She's working on a hunting series in production for the Outdoor Channel. (She will be the host.)

While her Miss America profile head shot has her looking like a supermodel, decked out in a hot-pink outfit, fluffed hair and dangle earrings, other promo websites feature photos of her in full camouflage garb sporting a hunting rifle, bow and arrow, even posing with her prey (a deer, a fox).

But Vail is among only a handful of Miss America Pageant contestants to have military credentials. She is a dental technician with a National Guard medical unit based out of Kansas. Five pageant women since 1992 have been active-duty military, and Miss Utah 2007, Jill Stevens, was the first to work in a combat zone.

Also, Vail, 22, competing this week in the 2014 Miss America Pageant, is the first contestant ever to sport visible tattoos. Sure, other contestants have had tattoos — tiny, hidden ones, according to pageant officials.

But Vail's big, bold tat, of the Serenity Prayer, flanks her entire right midriff. She also sports the insignia of the Army Dental Corps on her left shoulder. The university senior aspires to be an Army dentist.

“No one expects a soldier to be a beauty queen. Right now, everyone thinks of Miss America as this girl on a pedestal, and I want her to come down from that. She is just a normal girl,” Vail said in a recent interview with a newspaper in Kansas.

So there it was, the big tattoo, when she competed Sept. 10 in the swimsuit portion of the three-night preliminary competition. She didn't win, wearing a bright-red bikini and the tattoo, done in scrolly vintage lettering.

But she apparently scored one for the atypical beauty queen crowd.

With no beauty contest experience, Vail entered her first pageant just nine months ago and became Miss Leavenworth County before winning Miss Kansas in June. Her pageant platform is “Empowering Women: Overcoming Stereotypes and Breaking Barriers.”

It's a subject Vail — who says she was bullied and teased through school — holds dear, hoping to inspire other young women to be whatever they choose.

Even for Sept. 14's much-anticipated “Show Us Your Shoes” Parade — an all-out glittery spectacle where the contestants get to show off their flashy side — Vail is opting to wear her camouflage Army uniform and combat boots instead of the de rigueur five-inch heels and evening gowns being worn by most of the other women.

The next night, Sept. 15, the Miss America Pageant will be televised live beginning at 9 p.m. on ABC.

“I think Miss Kansas' participation in the pageant,” said Sharon Pearce, president of the Miss America Organization, “shows us the diverse women that are involved in the competition.”

Jacqueline L. Urgo is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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