From ordnance to pageants, this Army captain has always been a beauty queen

Kaylah Jackson
May 06, 2019 - 1:05 pm
Raquel Riley Thomas alterego shot by Derek Blank

(Photo by Derek Blank)

Raquel Riley Thomas comes from a line of strong, military women. So when she turned 17, it was only natural for her to follow in their footsteps and enlist in the Army Reserve.

“The military was already in my blood because my grandmother, my aunt and my mother all served in the Army at one point in time so it was just a matter of not ‘if’ but ‘when,’” she said.

After two years as a reservist and photojournalist, Thomas knew she wanted more. What began as a short term goal, later became a nine-year journey. She decided to go on active duty and received her commission as an ordnance officer at Hampton University.

“I was young, vibrant, and thought I was superwoman,” said Thomas.

(Photo courtesy of Raquel Riley Thomas)

In the late 80s to 90s, Thomas was stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., and often made trips to Atlanta for shoots, helping to build her civilian job repertoire as a photojournalist in the area. On one occasion, she found herself reading Jet Magazine, a prominent publication for the African American community.

"One weekend I was looking at one of the photos and I said, 'This is a beautiful woman, however, if they would’ve done, X Y and Z, this photo would’ve been so much better,'" said Thomas. Her friend encouraged her to do a shoot of her. So she cast her own model and sent the photos to Jet. 

The one photo she sent turned into a career in photography with the magazine from 2000 to 2009. She became the first African American woman to shoot centerfolds for Jet.

"That just solidified that fact that I knew where I was supposed to go; I was supposed to start my own photography business. I started to transition out even before I got out, " she said.“I was already focused on photography, fashion, makeup beauty ... I knew when I got out — I wasn’t looking back … The military had done a great job for me of teaching me how to do business plans, which I call ... an OPORD."

With a full-fledged business fresh out of the service, Thomas took a chance visiting Elite Modeling Agency with the intentions of getting on their client referral list and increasing her photography prospects.

“I walked in and the lady looked at me and she said ‘Your work is great but I love you as a commercial model,’ so I walked in to talk about photography and walked out as at the end of the day as an official commercial model for with one of the top agencies in the country,” said Thomas.

Thomas went on to land commercial modeling jobs with campaigns like Coca-Cola and Delta. 

(Photo courtesy of Raquel Riley Thomas)

But Thomas didn't stop there.

When her daughter questioned why no dolls or princesses looked like her Thomas decided to do something about it. 

"If there are not any princesses out there that look like my daughter, I'm gonna be the princess and the queen for her."

With her photography and now years of modeling experience, Thomas was catapulted into the pageant world and eventually competed in Mrs. America pageant. She earned the title of 1st-runner up for Mrs. America in 2011.

Fast forward to today and Thomas has an Instagram following of more than 140,000, regularly appears on ABC and FOX television as a fashion and beauty expert and owns a production and image consulting company, An Officer and Gentlewoman, LLC. Yet, she still credits much of her current career success to her time in the military.

"Whether you want to or don't want to they're [the Army] gonna drag you into teaching you, very quickly, how to take care of yourself and be organized ... it really does give you a base to get out there and do great things," said Thomas. "It prepared me for being an entrepreneur and I will always have an appreciation for that."

Want to get more connected to the great stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.