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Kayla Gathright discovers being 'authentically yourself' on stage is freeing and empowering to other women

For a Molalla woman, the world of pageants represented a chance to change people's perceptions about what they entail and open doors to other women who may be waiting outside.

Kayla Gathright, a U.S. Navy reservist, found just that opportunity through the Mrs. America pageant system and will continue it as the 2022 Miss Oregon for America Strong winner. The world of pageants, and the title she recently received, provide a path she's anxious to walk as an example to other women.

"Two really good friends, who are also shipmates, got involved in 2020 and thought it would be a great opportunity for me to broaden my social circle," Gathright said. "I figured I had nothing to lose, and it would be a great growth opportunity for me, get me out of my comfort zone."

COURTESY PHOTO: MATHIEU LEWIS/ROLLAND PHOTOGRAPHY - Kayla Gathright feels the joy of being named Miss Oregon for America Strong.

The Miss for America Strong pageant was established in 2018, through the Mrs. American system for married women. They decided they wanted to provide more pageant opportunities for women and this new, more open pageant, was created.

"I did my first pageant in 2021. I didn't win, but learned a lot and decided to try again," Gathright said. "I just dove in and all that hard work paid off."

The unique aspect of the Miss Oregon for America Strong pageant is there is no age cap and women who are single, divorced or widowed are welcome to get involved. Participants just need to be age 18 or over.

And getting involved has been a life-changing experience, Gathright said.

"The beautiful thing within this pageant system is that I'm the first still-enlisted service member to represent Oregon," she said. "It shows what women in the military are able to do within our community. I'm advocating for women within the military, as well as those women who don't fit in a particular box or mold. There are a lot of stereotypes within the pageant industry, and I don't fit in those. There is a place for you in pageantry and I'm a perfect example of that.

COURTESY PHOTO: MATHIEU LEWIS/ROLLAND PHOTOGRAPHY - Molalla's Kayla Gathright is crowned Miss Oregon for America Strong. She went on to compete for national honors in August in Las Vegas, but finished outside the top 15.

"I want other women to have this kind of experience and see what this sisterhood is all about," Gathright said. "There's so much more to it than you see on TV."

Her reign as Miss Oregon for America Strong also allows Gathright to advocate for some issues she's passionate about.

The Fallen Outdoors project is a nonprofit organization for veterans on active duty to network with one another "and get out into the great outdoors," she said. "Hunting, fishing, camping, the mission is to combat the 22-a-day suicides within the military. Mental health has had such a push, and with my reign I'll be able to bring that help to the military community, and other communities. The outdoors has such a powerful impact on mental health, and we want to help veterans experience that."

Gathright competed in the national Miss for America Strong pageant Aug. 11-19 at the Westgate in Las Vegas. And though she finished outside the top 15, she said the experience was well worth the effort.

"It was a marathon," she said. "It was my first trip to Vegas, and I loved the whole experience of being there. I didn't win the national title, but that was OK. I got on stage, gave it my all and did it with my tattoos showing. The fact that I was able to showcase my tattoos on a pageant national stage was huge. I feel that will be a turning point in the pageant community. You can have tattoos and still do this."

Originally from Portland, Gathright has lived in Molalla for five years and said that her experience in Molalla, in Oregon and on the national stage have taught her a lot.

"I''ve learned so much about myself through this journey," she said. "I genuinely love giving back to people and serving my community — whether that's the Navy, at my regular job or with this crown. You don't have to hide who you are to do it. You can be authentically yourself and be successful in whatever you do."

Gathright carries a rank of E5 (second-class petty officer) in the U.S. Navy Reserves and noted that she is carrying on an important legacy within her family. Her great-grandfather was in the service during World War II and his stories inspired a desire to serve as Gathright was growing up.

"He was on the USS Pennsylvania, which was in the shipyard at Pearl Harbor getting worked on when the Japanese attacked," she said. "Hearing his stories was inspiring, and I want to carry on that Navy legacy."

For now, she'll reign as the Miss Oregon for America Strong queen and will take that into the many events and activities she'll be part of in the coming year. And she'll continue to pursue growth and be an advocate for other women like her.

"I love the fact that I now have girlfriends, because growing up I was always the tomboy," she said. "I hike, fish, hunt and it's exciting to bring that into the pageant world — an outdoorsy woman can do this. These women have embraced me for who I am authentically. It has just been beautiful. I will go into the community and show other women they can represent who they are and can do it in a pageant."

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