Camouflage and basic training, or bright lights and evening gowns. In either attire or setting, 22-year-old Vanessa Munson of Battle Ground feels like herself.
The 2018 Prairie High School graduate is both an Army sergeant and a pageant winner, crowned Miss Washington on July 1 in Olympia. Although the two parts of her life seem separate, for Munson they are interwoven.
Just one year ago, she took home the title of Miss Clark County, and after being crowned Miss Washington, Munson is one step closer to her childhood dream: winning Miss America.
With January’s Miss America competition drawing closer, Munson is preparing to take the stage again. But along the way, she wants to remind people that pageantry is only one part of her story.
“You don’t need to be a certain type of person,” said Munson, who — in addition to being a soldier and Miss Washington — embraces being a sister, daughter and mentor. “You can be a combination of all of these different things.”
At 15, Munson began competing in pageants; at 18, she joined the U.S. Army, in part to further her education. September will mark her fourth year in the Army, where she also works as a human resource specialist. In March, she’ll graduate from American Military University with a bachelor’s degree in business management.
But two months before, she’ll compete for the title of Miss America, a goal she’s had ever since she was a young girl and would walk into a room declaring: “I am Miss America.”
As a child, she watched the Miss America competitions on television and talked to her parents about being on that stage, too. Even as a freshman in high school, when a teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, her answer never wavered.
“I really showed up for that little girl,” Munson said.
What is beauty?
When Munson heard her name on the night of the Miss Washington competition, she bawled.
She said winning Miss Clark County and Miss Washington within a year felt surreal. Soon after she won, the other contestants on stage embraced her and said: “You’re going to Miss America!”
“It meant everything to see Vanessa accomplish what she has,” said Lauren Munson, Vanessa’s mother. “She’s worked for years and had to overcome so much to get to where she is.”
Since the July competition, Vanessa Munson hasn’t missed a beat. For her, preparation is mental as much as it is physical.
“When you compete in any competition, whether it be a pageant or anything else, you need to be in a headspace where you believe in yourself,” she said. “But you also can’t hold so much weight on one phase of life.”
Competitions typically involve four categories: community service, talent, athletic and formal. Community service is a requirement for competing in any pageant, Munson said.
Her community service initiative is called “Beauty and Beyond: What is Your Beautiful?” It partners with local nonprofits Girls Incorporated and Dress for Success to empower young women and girls through mentorship and education.
Dress for Success provides women with professional attire and career support as they navigate the job market, while Girls Incorporated supports young girls through mentorship and instills confidence amid a male-dominated society. Munson believes both nonprofits align with her personal values of empowerment and self-confidence.
“My initiative is all about empowering young girls and young boys — really, anyone — from the inside out,” Munson said.
Self-confidence is important for her, too.
In 2020, Munson discovered she has a disease in her left ear called cholesteatoma, a bacterial infection of dead skin cells in the eardrum. Her middle ear drum is now held up by a metal bar after seven surgeries over the past three years. Munson uses a temporary hearing device and, in October, will receive a permanent hearing aid called the Osia. The experience never stopped her from doing what she loved. If anything, it has taught her resilience.
“It was very challenging because I would have ear surgery every six months,” she said. “My experience is not the same as the person next to me. But it was my experience, and it’s really helped shape me into the woman I am today.”
Like many young women, Munson said, growing up with access to social media often meant comparing herself to others.
“That’s what a lot of girls struggle with growing up,” she said. “When I wear an evening gown, it’s a $50 evening gown or it’s a hand-me-down. It’s going to be what I can afford. It’s going to be who Vanessa is, and we’re going to have to be OK with that. I’m not a size zero. I’m not perfect by any means. But I learned I will never be the person standing next to me. I will only be Vanessa.”
Many of the skills Munson learned through pageantry, such as discipline and public speaking, are requisites for the Army. Professionalism, dedication and resilience are necessary to be a part of both organizations, she said.
“I’ve honestly received nothing but love and support from both organizations,” she said. “I’ve thrown a grenade, and I’ve been pepper sprayed. But it showcases that women who represent Miss Washington are well rounded in the sense that they come from various walks of life.”
Miss Washington is a scholarship organization, but misconceptions about pageantry still exist, Munson said.
When Miss America was founded in the summer of 1921, the organization revolved around women’s physical attributes. But with time, Miss America has evolved. Munson believes the competition is a significant pillar of women’s empowerment by promoting professionalism, community service and education.
“The way I can speak to people publicly I attribute solely to the Miss America organization,” she said. “I wouldn’t have the confidence nor the skills that I have today if I did not compete. This is not just a beauty pageant. We are so much more than that.”
‘Go be great’
There is a saying Munson has with her father that speaks to her confidence: “Go be great.” What started as a positive expression turned into a daily affirmation between the two. “Go be great” is tattooed on Munson’s wrist. She and her father send photos of their matching ink every day as a reminder.
“It’s a testament to putting yourself out there. Go be the greatest version of you,” she said. “It changed my life.”
At the end of August, Munson will start her fellowship with First Command Financial Planning, where she will receive her financial advising certification. First Command focuses on financial security for the U.S. military and their families.
March 1, 2024, will be her last day in the military. After her year as Miss Washington, she wants to pursue a master’s degree at Washington State University.
“A huge thing that I had to consistently remind myself of was that if I don’t win, life carries on,” Munson said. “I’m still a soldier. I still have my family. I’m still Vanessa.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.