There’s nothing superficial about Rachel Thompson
By Kellie Chudzinski | Photos by Ted Soqui
Being a pageant queen was never in Rachel Thompson’s plans.
She knew she wanted to be a nurse, and build her skills to become a nurse practitioner. But before she could start her doctorate, an opportunity came her way that she couldn’t pass up: being Miss Marina del Rey. This choice would take her out of the exam and operating rooms and straight to the pageant stage.
Less than two weeks before she was set to compete in the early rounds of Miss California, she’s overlooking the Marina del Rey harbor. With her blonde hair—cut to just hit above her shoulders—bright smile, glowing skin and ultra-chic style, it’s easy to imagine her on a stage.
She’ll compete in the preliminary round of the Miss California pageant on Saturday, January 25, in San Gabriel, representing Marina del Rey just a year and a half after moving here from neighboring Venice.
“I love the marina. It’s this little oasis inside of LA I feel like no one really knows about,” she says.
She took on the title of Miss Marina del Rey in October, and since she has been dedicated to learning the ins-and-outs of the $5 billion-a-year industry. When she’s not working at Stoker Plastic Surgery in the marina, she is practicing and working with her coach Erika Shay. Shay formerly coached Miss USA and Miss Universe winner Olivia Culpo.
“I thought it was a good experience to get out of [my] comfort zone and do something,” Thompson says on deciding to join the pageant world. “I figured it’s a good way to grow. It’s something I’ve never done, and only good things can come from it.”
Winning Miss California, along with a yearlong tenure and ability to compete in Miss USA, comes with $100,000 in cash, scholarships and prizes including fitness and dental packages, management and cosmetic gifts. The winner spends her year-long reign representing her state and working on a signature issue.
Growing up near cornfields in Illinois, Thompson is constantly amazed by the beauty of LA. It’s also something she wants to protect, and if she wins the California crown, pollution will be her platform.
“I live in the Marina, I work here, it’s part of my everyday life,” Thompson says. “I think people see a problem that big and don’t know what to do.”
She suggests small everyday changes that can limit waste, especially plastic waste, such as not using plastic straws. She believes that over time, small changes can greatly limit the damage done to the environment.
“It will make a big difference in the long run,” she adds.
Along with interview preparation, early morning workouts at a sponsor, Studio MDR, Thompson is eating healthy and is learning to walk in sky-high heels. She stresses, however, the competitions are “so much more complex” than walking on stage and answering questions.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Thompson says. “I have literally no idea what I’m doing and I’m having to learn all that. But at the end of the day, it’s like I had a teacher once said, ‘You need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable because that’s the only way you’re ever going to grow,’ so that’s why I’m doing it.”
Despite only being 26, she defined herself as on “the older end,” as the competitions don’t allow women older than 27. That’s just one rule for the contestants.
Miss California, which falls under the Miss USA and Miss Universe system, (co-owned by Donald Trump from 1996 to 2015), also requires contestants to be single (never married or had a child) and to be “female in the United States (recognized medically and legally),” according to the competition website.
“I thought people still had a stigma around pageants,” Thompson says when discussing concerns she had before joining. “But I’m learning people don’t. Everyone has been so supportive.”
In recent years the Big Four beauty pageants (Miss USA, Miss America, Miss Universe and Miss World) have evolved to have less superficial approaches. Pageant queens aren’t beauty and no brains; within the last five years a lawyer, a chemist and an Army reserve captain have been crowned Miss USA.
“Pageants used to literally just be based on how good you looked,” Thompson says. “But that was also when women weren’t really allowed to do anything but that.”
Now, she says, the pageants take a holistic approach, looking at everything from political and social stances to health. They’re more “substance-based,” Thompson adds. And she has faith that the established rules will change in the future.
“It’s going to become a lot more inclusive,” she says.
Of the women set to compete, she is already a fan.
“All of [the other contestants] are just, truthfully, so credible,” she says. “Some of these girls have two degrees and they’re super successful in their work or in school and also have time to [compete]. They are really, really inspiring women.”
And she is one of them. Whenever she needs to be reminded of her faith, she merely looks at her wrist, which bears a “VI” tattoo.
“The number 6 to me, being a Christian in my faith, represents imperfection, where 7 represents completion or perfection,” she says. “After going through a difficult time mentally and being harder on myself than I should have been, I had this tattooed on my dominant wrist to serve as a constant reminder that I’m human and not made to be perfect.”
Even before her days at Arizona State University’s nursing program, she always had one goal: help people. For as long as she could remember she wanted to be a nurse. It wasn’t a career she felt she was pushed toward — no family members are in the medical field and she didn’t have any deep or scary medical emergencies during childhood — but rather it has been a calling.
She settled on the exclusive Mayo Clinic nursing program at ASU, where she was one of just 20 students her year, and spending six days a week in class. Following graduation, she landed a job at UCLA Medical Center as a liver transplant ICU nurse. Her dream, at the time, was working in ICUs.
While at UCLA she also took a part-time job at Skin Laundry in Santa Monica where she was able to work on a personal passion — skin. Growing up, Thompson struggled with eczema and to this day has scarring from the condition.
“It was much worse than it is now when I was younger — covering my legs, hands, back and even parts of my face,” she says. “I had many staph infections that occurred as a result of it. I know many people suffer from conditions much worse. I feel lucky that this was the worst health issue I had.
“I think mentally and emotionally it was hard being a young girl with these large — not to mention painful — rashes. I was self-conscious ever showing my legs or wearing dresses. I think I came to terms with just knowing that is part of me. We all have imperfections and I just accepted it.”
That led to her passion for skin treatments, as did her fantastic health care providers who helped her through the eczema journey. She longs to pay it forward.
“I still struggle with (eczema) and I have many scars to prove that, but I work hard to manage it and my overall health, diet, stress, etc., all contributes to controlling it significantly,” she says.
Esthetics is a part of the medical field many see as purely superficial, not unlike pageants. She recognizes some procedures are for vanity, but she sees the ability to help people feel confident.
“Every single day it’s really rewarding,” Thompson says.
Her conversations sway toward helping and empowering others through building their confidence. Thompson wants to work in a field that empowers women — physically and emotionally.
“I think that part of what I do is kind of missing. Most people who see these treatments [don’t realize clients] want to feel really good about themselves,” Thompson says.
She hopes to start her doctorate to become a nurse practitioner in the fall, and to return to ASU through their hybrid program, which will keep her in her beloved Marina del Rey. The idea of owning her own practice is one she is still contemplating, but regardless of where she ends up, she does have one purpose: To empower her clients.