Raquel Riley Thomas never planned on becoming a model.
The former Army captain and ordnance officer had been working as a photographer since leaving the military, snapping photos of models and celebrities for Jet Magazine and other publications. One day, she walked into Elite Modeling Agency with the hope of getting onto their photographer referral list.
The Elite representative caught Thomas off guard: She was more interested in signing her as a model than a photographer.
”It threw me completely, because I had no idea I was looking like a model when I went there as a photographer,” she said.
Since that fateful encounter, Thomas has been featured on international billboard advertisements for companies like Coca Cola and Delta, won two major beauty pageants, become a fashion guru on two ABC morning shows (“Let’s Talk Live” and “Good Morning Washington”) and started her own production company, An Officer and Gentlewoman LLC.
Oh, and she also happens to be a social-media “beauty and fashion influencer” with more than 134,000 Instagram followers.
“I didn’t plan on it,” she said. “I just started putting up my fashion on Instagram.”
Thomas credits her love of fashion to her grandmother, whom she described as a consistently well-dressed woman and a “violin virtuoso.” Music runs in her family, as her great grandmother was also an opera singer. As a kid, Thomas took up the violin and was also briefly a drummer in an R&B band.
She said that being a drummer helped prepare her for her current role in the production world.
“As a drummer, you hold the beat and keep the whole group together,” Thomas said. “That’s how I feel now as a producer in theater. I’m holding the whole production together.”
Like music, the military is also a family tradition for Thomas. Both her mother and grandmother were in the Army, and Thomas thought “it would be befitting for me to go ahead and do the same thing they did.”
She earned an ROTC scholarship to Hampton University, where she graduated with a degree in psychology.
During her Army stint, Thomas worked as a photojournalist and an ordnance officer.
Thomas said she got into the ordnance field partially because there was a need for black women in that space. During her time as an ordnance officer, she worked on maintenance of large weapons and trucks and occasionally handled explosives.
“I launched some grenades,” she said. “But I wasn’t out there doing IED stuff.”
She praised the military for teaching her many of the skills that have helped her succeed in civilian life.
“I have to admit that I learned a lot of discipline in the military,” she said. “I think it was really important to have discipline back then. I also appreciate the fact [that] I learned how to be a team player. That was key for transitioning into the civilian world and civilian jobs.”
Thomas took away many other lessons from her time in the Army, like the value of loyalty and the importance of working with subject-matter experts.
The Army is also where she picked up her current life motto: “A leader comes to the table with a problem in their hand, but a great leader comes to the table with a problem in their left hand and three potential solutions in their right hand.”
The military still plays a large role in her personal style. Thomas has been known to incorporate “military tones” and military-style accessories like buckles, zippers and spikes into her wardrobe. She calls this look “glam rock.”
In 2009, after Thomas separated from the military, her daughter Maria, now 12, asked her a tough question: Why don’t any of the princesses in her favorite movies and TV shows look like her?
“I gave her a B.S. answer,” Thomas said. “I told her, ‘Baby you’re beautiful, don’t worry about it.’ But it stuck in the back of my heart.”
A few months later, she was watching the Miss Universe pageant and realized what she had to do. “I said, ‘Dammit, if there aren’t any princesses that look like her, I’m going to be one,” she said.
Thomas was wildly successful as a pageant contestant. She won the Mrs. Maryland pageant in 2010 and was the 2011 Mrs. America runner-up, becoming the first black woman to get that far.
She soon parlayed her newfound prominence in the pageant community into her own production company, An Officer and Gentlewoman. To show that she hasn’t forgotten about her military roots, part of all proceeds from her pageants go to veteran-aid organizations like VETSports and Operation Renewed Hope.
Thomas advised her fellow veterans unsure of what they want to after their military service ends to heed her grandmother’s advice: You’ll know you’ve found the right job if you would be willing to do it for free.
For Thomas, that was fashion and production. And her love of both keeps her going to this day.
“Veterans have to be honest with themselves and ask themselves what they want to do once they leave the military,” she said. “Whatever gets you excited to get out of bed, that’s what you should be doing."