Kansas Army National Guard Sgt. Theresa Vail, the reigning Miss Kansas, is filming a new Outdoor Channel hunting show. (Michael Pearce)
Theresa Vail departs the Miss Kansas pageant with her MOLLE pack in June. (Spc. Brandon Jacobs/Army)
A sergeant in the Kansas Army National Guard who became famous after displaying her tattoos during the televised Miss America swimsuit competition is trading in her two-piece and tiara for a bow, a rifle and some camo.
But she’s keeping the TV cameras.
Sgt. Theresa Vail, a 23-year-old dental technician in the Kansas Army National Guard’s medical detachment and the reigning Miss Kansas, is shooting “Limitless with Theresa Vail,” a hunting show set to debut in July 2015 on Outdoor Channel. She filmed her first hunt in mid-April — a turkey shoot from which she and her father, recently retired Col. Mark Vail, didn’t go home empty-handed.
What began as a plan to follow her dad into the active Army became a six-year stint in the Guard — she recently re-upped for six more years — as a way to pay for college. A suggestion by an officer in her unit led her to beauty pageants, and Vail found herself and her two tattoos, the Serenity Prayer on her right side and Army Dental Corps insignia on her left shoulder, in the national spotlight. She finished in the top 10.
Vail talked to Military Times on April 15 about her path to reality TV, her final weeks wearing what’s become a heavy Miss Kansas crown and what it’s like to lose your toenails in a long-distance race — and offered a few choice words on the Army’s new tattoo regulations. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. What drew you to a hunting reality TV show?
A. Unlike every other show on Outdoor Channel, it’s not going to be a straight-up hunting show. It’s more of an extreme adventure show, with hunts in every episode. It’s more about challenging yourself. My viewers will see that I’ll struggle, but I won’t quit.
The attention I got after Miss America — it elevated me to a national platform. I was able to reach so many young women. When I was approached with the opportunity to host a show, I jumped at the chance because that would only increase my reach.
Q. What message do you want to send?
A. Really, the message is, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone. I’ve never been elk hunting. I’ve never been bear hunting. But I’m not afraid to say, “Let me try it. Let me go do it.” There are so many possibilities if you just get outside your comfort zone.
Q. When did you start hunting?
A. When I was 10. My dad started me when we were in Germany. It was pretty much deer and squirrel.
I had never been a quote-unquote “trophy hunter.” My dad taught me to hunt for the meat, and that’s what we did.
Q. You’ve hunted with a bow and with a rifle. What do you prefer?
A. I definitely prefer bow hunting, just because it’s so much more of a challenge. You have to be just that much more stealthy. I didn’t pick up bow hunting until two seasons ago. ... It came very, very naturally to me. I guess now it’s just been fine-tuning my skills.
Q. With hunting and the military life as a background, how did you find yourself in pageants?
A. It was a combination of being on a whim and a fellow soldier, an officer in my unit. He saw me using my experiences to educate women in other subjects, and he said, “You should really consider putting yourself out there as a mentor to other women.” I thought, “I’m very competitive ... let’s try to win a pageant.”
I know for a fact that I would not be Miss Kansas without my military experience, because of what that has taught me. It’s a large part of my speeches to high school students. The responses I get from those speeches, it’s overwhelming.
Q. You became famous, at least in part, for displaying tattoos. What do you think of the new Army regulations [which ban neck and face tattoos as well as sleeve tattoos below the elbow or knee, among other restrictions]?
A. I understand the regulations. I will abide by the regulations. But I don’t agree with them.
I believe that tattoos are a part of the military heritage. Since the beginning ... soldiers have been getting tattoos that symbolize their pride, unit pride, national pride. Army pride. In a way, that’s being limited.
Q. Have you gotten any new tattoos since the pageant?
A. No, I’m not even sure that’s allowed by my Miss Kansas contract.
Q. What are you thinking as you prepare to give up your crown [a new Miss Kansas will be crowned in early June]?
A. I’m thinking, “Thank God.” If I have to wait any longer than six weeks, I think my “politically correct” attitude will start going down the drain, and my unfiltered-ness will come out. ... You are constantly under a microscope and being judged, and that’s what I don’t like. I’m very thrilled that I had this opportunity, but now I know why it’s 12 months long.
Q. What’s your opinion on adding pullups to the PT test for women?
A. I am all for it, because I know I can do them. But I also know that a lot of women can’t do pullups. If they’re not working on that before they leave for basic, they would never pass a test. I saw people fail out of basic because they couldn’t do 17 pushups. So I have mixed feelings on that.
But we are supposed to be the world’s finest military, and if we can’t do pullups, what does that say about us? I don’t know, now I’m just talking myself out of it.
Q. You’ve run the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico. Twice. Why would someone do that twice?
A. After [the “Limitless” producers] heard about it, they were really interested in making it a part of the show, so I’m going to do it again [in 2015]. I did it in 2011 — a month beforehand, I decided I needed a new challenge, and someone brought up this 26-mile death march through the desert with rucksacks on. I lost all of my toenails, and I had blisters like crazy, but the feeling of accomplishment and the feeling of camaraderie with those around you ... you know, “embrace the suck.” Because it sucked.
This time [in March 2014], I had better footwear. I didn’t lose my toenails. I accidentally put 10 more pounds [in the pack] than was necessary, so that hurt. I took three Miss Kansas contenders. I wanted them to feel what I feel, and that’s strength. I told them, “This is my platform. This is what I live and breathe every day: Breaking stereotypes. So, let’s show them that you’re more than that.”
Out of 33 girls, only three took me up on it. And they enjoyed themselves very, very much.
What have been some of your early lessons learned on the hunt in front of TV cameras?
A. It’s a lot harder than what it appears to be on TV. You have to stage a lot of things. Once you shoot the turkey, then you have to re-create the entire scene so that the camera gets all of it. There’s a lot of walking back and forth, carrying the turkey. ... After I shot the first turkey, I think we re-created that hunt for two hours.