Tattoos and Miss America typically don’t mix. But that will end this week at the 92nd annual pageant thanks to one contestant: Miss Kansas, an inked-up boxer, mechanic, bow hunter and U.S. Army sergeant who plans on breaking a long-standing taboo by letting her tats show onstage.
"Why am I choosing to [bare] my tattoos? My whole platform is empowering women to overcome stereotypes and break barriers,” Theresa Vail told People magazine about her turn in the pageant, which kicked off preliminaries Tuesday. “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."
It’s a bold move in a pageant steeped in tradition, according to pageant coach Valerie Hayes. “I think this is kind of a breakthrough moment for contestants with tattoos,” she told Yahoo Shine, explaining that, though there are no rules that explicitly ban tattoos, “they are typically seen by judges and organizers as a distraction.” In response, contestants with body art wind up disguising them with body makeup if they are not in spots that can be easily covered by their gowns.
“To my knowledge,” noted Hayes, who has trained women on all levels of competition, “no one has ever competed in an elite pageant showing a tattoo before.”
(Though an odd and interesting side note is that the very first televised beauty pageant — held at the World’s Fair in 1937 — featured contestant Betty Broadbent, a well-known and heavily tattooed circus attraction.)
The current taboo, in fact, has helped give rise in recent years to tattoo-only pageants, like Miss Tattoo USA and, in Australia, Inked Beauties, which started after model Samantha Platt was rejected by one too many competitions because of her own sleeve of ink. “I was knocked from competitions after winning the heats only to be told at the grand finals that I couldn’t win because of my tattoos,’’ she told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011.
Vail has two tats, both of which will be visible during the bikini portion of the competition. On her left shoulder is the insignia of the U.S. Army Dental Corps (she's a member of the Kansas Army National Guard’s Medical Detachment, and her dad was an Army dentist). And running up and down her right side is the Serenity Prayer.
“As I was growing up amidst the bullying and neglect, I found myself asking God on a daily basis to give me peace in knowing I cannot change certain things about myself, but also asking Him to give me the strength to change things that I had the power to,” Hayes explained on her blog in August. “Praying to Him for these characteristics got me through my adolescent years, high school and boot camp. When I was 20 years old, I knew I wanted to always be reminded of my past and its connection to this prayer. Thus, I chose to have it tattooed onto my body. I have no regrets.”
Miss Kansas — who switched her talent from archery to singing after learning that “projectile objects” were forbidden in the competition — also blogged that she was hoping to change the standard image of a beauty queen.
“Now, many still believe that Miss America is apple pie and pearls,” she wrote. “However, in the job description of Miss America it clearly states that ‘she must represent contemporary women between the ages of 17-24.’ The operative word here is ‘contemporary,’ synonymous with modern! 1 in 5 Americans have at least 1 tattoo.”
Though Hayes doesn’t believe Vail’s move will open the floodgates for a slew of inked-up women to start appearing at competitions, she’s still “super excited” about it.
“A lot of people think you need to be a ‘pageant Barbie,’” she said, “and what I love about Miss Kansas is she’s showing people: No, it’s about competing at your personal best, not about trying to conform to a certain image.”