While serving as a combat medic in Afghanistan, Sgt. Jill Stevens could always count on her Army buddies to shield her from the less sensitive aspects of a mostly male military. The soldiers, she says, developed a warning system. Off-putting jokes, racy movies and stories filled with foul language were introduced as "NFS": Not for Stevens.
Until a few months ago the Miss America Pageant would have carried the same disclaimer. Now here she is, Miss Utah, a self-described klutz in heels, competing for a crown that symbolizes femininity and well on her way to becoming the crowd favorite.
So many military members are expected to attend the Jan. 26 finale in Las Vegas that Art McMaster, president and CEO of the Miss America Organization, mused that the televised event could resemble a USO show.
"Jill has the advantage of bringing in a big support team," McMaster says, noting that Las Vegas is only a five-hour drive from Salt Lake City. "That's exciting."
Stevens is not the first Miss America to work in the military. Miss Tennessee 1992, Miss California 1992 and Miss New York 2001 all had credentials in the service, according to pageant officials. But Stevens is the first to serve in a combat zone—and the first to enjoy the benefit of such public support from Uncle Sam, an asset that provides a boost as the big night draws near. "I love it. These guys are like brothers and, once again, they've got my back," Stevens says.
It was the Army's idea for Stevens, 24, to chronicle the journey from Stars and Stripes to star of tomorrow on a blog titled G.I. Jill, she says. Same goes for the profile in this month's Soldiers magazine, an official Army publication.
Since October military publicists have sent out frequent bulletins touting Stevens's pageant successes and public appearances. And the Utah National Guard is counting her speaking engagements as military duty.
For six years Stevens was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment. She was moved to Medical Command in June and now works on recruitment.
Since returning from Afghanistan in April 2005, Stevens has given numerous speeches about the experience and how to make the most of trying situations. For 12 months she lived at Bagram Airfield, 27 miles north of Kabul, tending injured soldiers and dodging rocket attacks. "At first I was nervous. I couldn't believe I was 20 years old and going to war," Stevens says of her deployment.
Nor could her parents. Stevens enlisted three months before her high-school graduation and six months before the 9/11 attacks. Even then her parents worried that the military might change her. "My personality is fun and goofy, and they thought the Army would take that away," she says. But once in Afghanistan Stevens took on the role of morale booster, surprising despondent soldiers with bread made with a bread machine her mother shipped to her and birthday cakes baked in an oven constructed from aircraft parts. She held muffin-eating contests and staged Family Feud game show nights. She even planned the occasional girls' night out for the 30 or 40 females on the base. "That was the first time I ever painted my nails," she says.
"She was always lifting someone else up, making their day better," says Chief Warrant Officer Layne Pace, an Apache pilot and member of Stevens's Guard unit.
Venturing "outside the wire" is dangerous; a lot of soldiers never do it, Pace says. Not Stevens. She delivered care packages and medical treatment to villagers, using her persistent smile to win the confidence of Muslim women and "standoffish" young girls.
Stevens "took chances and put herself in harm's way," and she's doing it again as Miss Utah, Pace says. "When you put yourself out there to be judged, that takes guts," he adds. "She's got substance. She's not all fluff … We're all pulling for her."
With that encouragement comes a lot of teasing—like "there she is" serenades and such suggestions for the talent competition as assembling an M16 onstage, blindfolded.
But mostly, Pace says, soldiers marvel at Stevens's ability to go from one extreme to another. On a recent Saturday she wrapped up a three-day Homeland Security conference on how to train teenage emergency responders, her pageant platform. Two days later she was sitting in a local hair salon, learning about "personality fans" and "color readings" from a personal design consultant. She nodded enthusiastically and never rolled her eyes—not once.
The military did not promote Stevens's candidacy immediately. "It took a few months for the Army to realize what they had," acknowledges Pace, who, along with Stevens, is working to build an orphanage in Afghanistan. "They finally recognized that Jill presents a very positive image of the military."
It's good exposure for the pageant, too. "She has a very interesting background, right out of the Middle East with a war going on, and she's obviously getting a lot of attention," says Miss America's McMaster. And attention is something the organizers "crave," according to Gerdeen Dyer, founder of a new industry Web site, pageant.com. Dyer was among the first reporters to highlight Stevens's military service in an interview more than a year ago. A veteran himself, Dyer finds it odd the Army would get involved in promoting her pageant run.
"They're usually pretty hands-off when it comes to anything that isn't officially military," he says. Nonetheless, he hasn't heard any grumbling about the publicity, nor does he expect to. "The pageant culture is very conservative. It would be bad form to criticize the military," he says.
Stevens hopes her involvement will help change the perception of the Miss America Pageant as a beauty-first, brains-second competition—a view she herself held until two years ago. "I used to think these women were shallow and selfish and obsessed with their looks. It's actually the opposite. Their résumés are filled with a life of service," she says. "After meeting them, my whole perspective changed." Still, she adds, "the image of Miss America is too perfect, almost untouchable. I'm hoping to change that."
Stevens entered her first pageant in 2006 at Southern Utah University, where she was earning a nursing degree. She won, and went on to finish third that year in the Miss Utah contest. She says she decided to compete to utilize her skills as a motivational speaker—and, after all the soldiering, try something new. "I wanted to do something feminine, and I thought this was something that would bring out the woman in me," she says. She tried again this summer and won. Since then she's run the Marine Corps Marathon, visited soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, gone on a Miss America cruise and spent more than a week sequestered in a mansion outside Los Angeles, filming a reality show with other the Miss America contestants that will air Friday nights in January on TLC.
For someone more accustomed to spending time with men, Stevens held her own during the 10-day shoot, "though there were times when I had to retreat to my room for a break from all that estrogen," she says. Stevens even did her best to introduce the other women to military commands, cadences and late-night maneuvers. One evening Miss Utah broke out 52 camouflage kits, and the women, faces painted and sashes around their foreheads, crawled around the compound, "Rambo-style."
No one complained about her gung-ho military approach, but Stevens wondered if she had overdone it. "I was a little worried they would think I was exploiting the soldier thing for attention," she says. "I tend to relate everything to a combat zone." But she stopped worrying when Miss Tennessee sent her a reassuring text message days after the shoot ended. It read: "Lock and load."