Not many former Miss America contestants can also say they’ve served in the armed forces, studied chemistry, learned to speak Chinese and have a decade of hunting experience under their belt—but 24-year-old Theresa Vail is used to defying stereotypes.
Now, as the star of the Outdoor Channel’s upcoming “Limitless,” she hopes to extend her pageant platform of empowering women to the small screen with weekly extreme hunts and personal challenges.
At 10, I didn’t know the Serenity Prayer yet, but I remember saying a similar prayer almost every day. I had been bullied my whole life, and by then, I truly wanted to die. I remember asking God for the strength to stand up for myself, and peace with who I was despite the teasing.
My dad, an Army dentist, decided to take me hunting to cheer me up. In the field during my first hunt, I found the peace I had been looking for. We hunted squirrel, and today I can make a fantastic squirrel stew. But those trips through the woods also challenged me, gave me something to look forward to, and instilled in me a confidence that spread through every facet of my life. I stopped wanting to be someone else, and started pushing myself to excel at the things I wanted to do, regardless of whether it was what others thought I should be doing.
Seeing the pride my father got from serving his country inspired me to enlist in the Kansas National Guard as a mechanic at 17. At the time, I couldn’t even change a tire, but it was a skill I knew I’d need in the future. Last year, someone in my unit suggested I enter the Miss Kansas competition. I wasn’t sure at first—I had no pageant experience, and had never thought of myself as a “beauty queen.” But when he pointed out how my diversity would make me a good role model, I joined on a whim.
Competing in pageants was harder for me than boot camp. Despite feeling out of my element among this group of very girly girls, I was crowned Miss Kansas in June 2013. I never thought I would win, and I was soon faced with a tough decision. I have two tattoos—a small military medical insignia in honor of my father and my future career, and the Serenity Prayer on my right side to remind me of the strength God gave me during difficult times. Displaying tattoos was a long-standing pageant taboo, and some suggested I cover them. But considering that my platform was empowering women to overcome stereotypes, it would have been hypocritical to cover them just to improve my odds of winning.
When I walked onstage as a finalist during the swimsuit competition, the crowd went wild. Though I didn’t take home the crown, I made it to the top 10 and was voted “America’s Choice.” This was a huge honor for me, and I’d earned it without compromising my integrity.
After the competition, many finalists were offered modeling contracts. Given my military background and male-dominated interests, it wasn’t surprising that there was something different in store for me. Bass Pro Shops decided I’d make a great spokesperson for their new SHE line of hunting apparel, but that wasn’t all—in November, the Outdoor Channel approached me about hosting a hunting show.
It sounded like fun, but I wanted to encourage and empower women, and I knew that would take more than 30 minutes of me in the field every week. “Limitless” will chronicle my journey as I continue to push the boundaries of what I believe I am capable of. There will be a hunt in every episode, but it will be primarily about overcoming difficult challenges—training with smoke jumpers, climbing Wyoming’s “Devils Tower,” and more—to prove to viewers and to myself that I am, indeed, limitless. In doing so, I hope to encourage viewers to discover the limitless potential in themselves.