MOLALLA, Ore. – Call it serendipity or coincidence, maybe even karma. For Boatswain's Mate Second Class Kayla Gathright, in the face of prevailing winds, she prefers to call it determination, or, "having nothing to lose,” that led her to the title of Miss Oregon for America Strong 2022, during the state pageant in Salem, Oregon, July 15-16, 2022.
As a Navy Reserve Sailor with 6 years of service, Gathright is currently assigned to Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron (MSRON) 1. Outside her drill schedule, she has already gotten comfortable pursuing goals outside of her comfort zone; volunteering in the community by supporting veterans organizations, working toward her college degree, all while holding down nearly full-time hours in the private sector security field. By competing in the world of pageants, she knew her entry would be a trailblazing endeavor in the face of traditional stereotypes.
“Being in the military, you get comfortable with the uncomfortable,” she said, comparing her Navy experiences to the bigger picture of life. “Adapt and overcome – it’s something those of us in the military are familiar with; so, when I entered the pageant world, I knew that I would be facing long established perceptions of the ‘flawless supermodel type.’”
In 2019, the Miss for America Strong pageant was created as part of the Mrs. American system for married women. This new pageant’s goal was to provide opportunities for women who are single, divorced or widowed with no age cap, other than a minimum age of 18.
Gathright had been intrigued about entering, after two close friends, who are also shipmates, had participated in 2020. They enthusiastically encouraged her to try 2021. As someone who embraces fitness, she’s often in gym lifting weights before sunrise, and also has a passion for tattoos.
“I laughed at them at first…are they (the pageant judges) going to accept me with all these tattoos? There is a stereotype in pageantry, that the body – especially your skin, is a blank canvas…well, that’s not me!”
Tattoo art among Sailors has a long history, dating back to the 16th century, with symbols emblematic of nautical folk lore. With downtime at port, many of the tattooed images that seafarers acquired served as records of travel and experiences, personal identity and self expression. While gaining a surge in acceptance over the past several decades, the stigma for women, especially someone entering a ‘beauty pageant’, still remained uncharted territory.
As someone who serves with Gathright at Swan Island Navy Reserve Center in Portland, Oregon, Aviation Electrician's Mate First Class Chase Granger knew she would do well in the competition. His wife has competed in several pageants, and together, they are the Directors for the Oregon Miss for America Strong pageants. They don’t have any influence over judges, but he did inspire her to look at the competition as a way of finding personal empowerment.
“It took a little convincing on my part, as we went through all the aspects of the competition,” he said. “A large part of the pageant [scoring], almost 50 percent, is the narrative, and I knew she had such a compelling story, especially as an advocate for veteran health issues.”
Though she didn’t win in 2021, Gathright took the “lessons learned,” and tried again this year after, serving as Miss Molalla for a year, where her role led her to meeting people at parades, neighborhood functions and civic events.
“I wasn’t sure Kayla would come back and try it again this year, but she really flourished after spending time in the community, and gave it a second shot,” Granger said, recalling her resolve for this year’s Oregon pageant. “She has such genuine and outgoing spirit, not just in this competition; I’ve seen how hard she works with her commitments to the Navy and working with other service members.”
When Gathright was announced as the winner for the Oregon pageant, Granger noted that her exhilaration was obvious, but her sense of gratitude is what impressed him the most.
“We talked about some of the misconceptions going into this pageant, about making a statement and how she is a terrific catalyst to crossover traditional borders – about what a 'Beauty Queen' might be or look like,” he explained. “What sets her apart is how authentic and strong minded she is… fully embracing her body art, but more importantly, her heart for veterans, both past and present.”
In mid-August, 2022, she traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada, competing in the national Miss for America Strong pageant, August 11-19. Although she finished outside the top contenders, she said the week was an amazing experience.
“It’s so much more than what everyone sees with the stage presentation. It’s about family, sisterhood and really being in the community,” Gathright said, reflecting on a full week of activities with women from around the nation. “I was able to share my story, while promoting causes I care about with my service in military, and hopefully, open some door for other women by showcasing my tattoos on a national stage.”
Now that she is home, Gathright plans on using her title as Miss Oregon for America Strong as a voice and passionate advocate for The Fallen Outdoors project. The mission of the Fallen Outdoors organizes outdoor adventures for veterans of every generation, past and present. The goal of the group is to create a connection both to outdoor experience, as well as a network of service men and women to direct support for the devastating "22-a-day" suicide rate statistic among veterans.
“Growing up… I’ve always been a ‘Tomboy’ – I hunt, I fish…I am a very avid outdoorsman,” she said, describing why she fervently supports this program as her platform. “Being able to connect with other veterans and getting out in the natural elements makes a powerful impact on one’s mental health, so this is another way to give back to my fellow veterans.”
For several years, Gathright has been part of the Honor Guard with her Navy Reserve Center. This includes performing community color guard events, and conducting funeral honors for fallen veterans. At Willamette National Cemetery, she also works with other services branches as part of a Joint military funeral honors team.
“She brings such a great attitude to our team,” said Air National Guard Master Sgt. Keven Baker, assigned to the 142nd Wing Mission Support Group, who has worked and trained alongside Gathright on multiple joint service events. “Being in the Honor Guard is well outside the required duties for being a Reserve Sailor or Guard member, but she is always eager to jump in and volunteer for the extra work while representing her service branch.
Leading by example, Baker noted that when he is coordinating a Joint Service Team for a community event, like a Portland Thorns soccer match or a Trailblazer game, he’ll always try to get Gathright on the team to represent the U.S. Navy.
“It’s another way she gives back to her fellow veterans and to our broader Oregon military community,” he said. “I know she’s always willing to step up – even for a last minute task.”
This lineage of inspired dedication and supporting veterans dates back to her great-grandfather’s service in World War II and surviving the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“He was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania, which was in the shipyard and undergoing repairs,” she proudly described. “Because it survived the attack with only light damage, the ship was one of the first to be ready for action.”
“He helped inspire my desire to join the Navy, and why I am an advocate for veteran causes.”
As she prepares for her own deployment early next year, Gathright is fervently working to finish her Bachelor’s degree while humbly ready to take on the role of Miss Oregon America Strong. This includes looking for ways to break through the labels that women from all background face – whether it’s being decked out in orange hunting gear, or in her navy uniform and iconic ‘Dixie Cup.’
“You can be uniquely you and still be a 'Sailor' or a 'Queen' - you don’t have to buy into what you see on TV or on social media,” she said, noting her own real life experience. “You don’t have to fit into a mold…don’t be afraid to defy the social expectations of what a woman is supposed to be.”