Miss Kansas Theresa Vail: Tattooed Soldier, Opera Singer Breaks Miss America Stereotypes

PHOTO: Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas,
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The saccharine-sweet image of Miss America contestants could be shattered if this year's Miss Kansas, a tattoo-clad, gun-toting hunter and National Guard member, manages to crush the competition and walk away with the coveted crown.

Theresa Vail, the 22-year-old senior at Kansas State University representing the Sunflower state at this year's Miss America pageant, is not your typical glamour girl. This week she's making headlines after she took to the stage in a red bikini during Tuesday night's preliminary swimsuit competition in Atlantic City, with her tattooed midriff in full view.

"I love breaking stereotypes. I love doing what society says I shouldn't because of my gender," she told ABC News' "20/20."

PHOTO: Miss Kansas Theresa Vail shows ABC News 20/20 her side tattoo, which features the text of the serenity prayer.
ABC News
PHOTO: Miss Kansas Theresa Vail shows ABC News' "20/20" her side tattoo, which features the text of the "serenity prayer."

The blonde bombshell said that showing off her ink -- one is the military medical insignia, the other is the text of the "serenity prayer," which she said she used to recite when bullied as a child -- is about inspiration.

"What I really want is just to inspire people by showing my tattoos," she said. "That's a bold move! And it's risky, it could very well cost me the crown. And if it does, I just want people to see that you can step outside of the box, you can be yourself. And I can only hope that it inspires them to do the same."

Bold moves seem to be ingrained in Vail's DNA. At the age of 17 she joined the Kansas Army National Guard, and in five years she has become an expert marksman with the M16 rifle. On top of that, she is working towards a private pilot's license. And her college majors? Chemistry and Chinese.

PHOTO: Miss Kansas Theresa Vail is an expert marksman with the M16 rifle as well as in archery.
ABC News
PHOTO: Miss Kansas Theresa Vail is an expert marksman with the M16 rifle as well as in archery.

For her first beauty pageant, she decided that, for her talent, she would sing an operatic piece from Puccini. Initially, she had planned to show off her marksmanship skills with an on-stage archery display, she said in a profile for People magazine. But two days prior, she was told "projectile objects" are forbidden.

So she improvised. Within 48 hours, she'd mastered Pavarotti's "Nessun Dorma." It was her operatic performance while in Atlantic City last week for the Miss America pageant that started grabbing her headlines.

"It's just like the same reason why I'm showing my tattoos," she said. "I'm all about breaking stereotypes. This is a man's song, so I'm saying, 'Watch me do it!' Why not?"

The decision was just an early example of Vail's inspirational decisions on her way to the national spotlight. But she has found stereotypes can work both ways -- some don't expect a beauty queen to be in the military, and vice versa.

"When I'm in my uniform, nobody expects me to be Miss Kansas -- until they see the sash and crown and I tell them I'm Miss Kansas," she told ABC News. "And they really are shocked, and then they're shocked to find me on the archery range. ... I love it, it opens the eyes of people to the type of women that do compete in pageants."

Vail's boldness in showing off her ink on the Miss America stage has started a movement among other contestants to not hide their tattoos. Miss Montana, Sheridan Pope, said she thought about covering the tattoo on her foot, which features a rosary with three words for love, because she didn't want it to take away from her performance. But now, she has changed her tune.

"I just didn't want it to be distracting," Pope said. "[But] I think if it does hurt me, then [Miss America] isn't the job for me."

ABC News' Taryn Hartman and Keturah Gray contributed to this report.

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