Here she comes, body art and all

Published 12:00 pm Friday, September 27, 2013

Colorado floods of so-called biblical proportions, fire on the Boardwalk, a Miss America contestant with visible tattoos? It really might be the End Times.

While I’ve always been mystified about why anyone — male or female — would want tattoos, I’ll admit the idea of an Army sergeant Miss Kansas who boxes, bow hunts, speaks Chinese, sings opera and has the Serenity Prayer inked on her torso tickles me. Sounds like a Sandra Bullock movie.

It’s hard to objectify an expert marksman wielding a bow and arrow. It will enrage all the right Miss America purists.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Bold beauty Theresa Vail blogged about her tattoos last month, “because I do not want to shock the nation when I’m seen in a swimsuit, bearing my marks.”

First we must get beyond the self-importance of that statement. This is, after all, a nation that has seen great wars, a Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, several killer epidemics and Madonna. It probably could have withstood the shock of seeing a blonde in a bikini with her tattoos showing. Most of us, after all, have been to the beach.

But now I’m nitpicking. I know what she means. Miss America pageants in the past have been about covering up things — dark roots, body flaws, lack of talent, Penthouse photographs.

And then came this Joan of Arc, fearless in life and pageant, baring and bearing, strutting her stuff and enough ink to print the next issue of The Daily Beast. Take that, Anita Bryant.

Someone clever wrote that feminists have gone into the closet vacated by gays. I think truer words were never penned. It’s as tough to find an admitted feminist these days as it is an eight-track tape player.

We are out here, all right, but embarrassed a bit by what a mess of a mutant time has made of the movement. While aspiring to the vote, equal pay and professional access and the end of the perpetual beauty myth, who could have imagined feminists in 2013 would have to be satisfied with a tattooed Miss Kansas?

I am, however, a realist. The Bible says the poor will always be with us, and so, I suspect, will beauty pageants. So long as little girls dream of wearing that crown and speaking to a television audience about making the world a better place, Miss America will get more ink than she wears.

And, I take my hat off to Theresa Vail for her military service and managing to come up with another first for the tired old, gimmick-ridden pageant. There was the first Jewish Miss America (Bess Myerson), the first African-American victor (Vanessa Williams), the first deaf winner (Heather Whitestone), and the 2014 Miss America (Nina Davuluri), the first of Indian descent. We could have had as Miss America the first soldier, an outdoors girl with visible tattoos. The bar, once again, has been raised.

I used to think beauty pageants were anachronistic in a world of Sally Ride, Madeleine Albright, Maya Angelou and Kathryn Bigelow. Now I see that’s not necessarily so.

Accomplishment and beauty riding tandem is a killer combination, in this modern age as much as any. And, if a contestant can succinctly explain her philosophy during the swimsuit competition without opening her mouth, she deserves to win.

(To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit