Janae Sergio spent her high school years on the streets of Los Angeles, in and out of homeless shelters and programs for at-risk youth.
So, when the 36-year-old Navy veteran heard about a competition that donates money toward building homes for wounded warriors, she knew she wanted to take part.
“I know what it’s like to not have a home, so that’s really important to me,” she told Military Times.
Sergio, now an assistant business and financial manager for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, is vying for a spot on the cover of the international men’s magazine Maxim, a competition that comes with a $25,000 prize for the lucky winner — and the kind of platform that would give Sergio a voice to inspire young people living in similar circumstances.
“Before I actually became homeless, I had always wanted to be in modeling, and I had always loved the fashion business,” Sergio said.
But it was after her mother dropped her off at a shelter when she was about 16 that her aspirations turned to the task at hand: survival.
“I needed to focus on surviving and establishing myself as a successful woman before I could think about (modeling),” she said.
That shift of focus led to Sergio joining the Navy at 18, a move coinciding with a promise to earn her GED after missing too much school to be able to graduate. Sergio eventually used the GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s degree in business management.
After 9/11, she deployed twice and held a variety of posts before getting out of the military in 2008.
“I didn’t have any hope for what my future would be," she said of her teenage years. "I was kind of living day to day and trying to figure out where I would sleep at night. The Navy gave me that future and gave me that footing to establish myself as a successful businesswoman.”
In the decade since ditching the uniform, Sergio has found her way back to the service, but this time as a civilian. Currently, she’s based in Hawaii helping to manage a $5 billion budget for the Navy.
She also models on the side and has picked up more than 41,000 followers at her Instagram account, @janae_perfectlyflawed, where she sometimes promotes the products of veteran-owned businesses and has been featured on a number of other military-related accounts.
Sergio said she was initially anxious about her chances at making the Maxim cover because she didn’t think people would actually vote for a mom in her mid-30s. Yet it’s those relationships within the military and veteran community, she believes, that have enabled her to stay near the top of her category thus far.
“If you were to see me in person, I don’t look like a supermodel,” she said. “In real life, I’m just a normal mom who goes to work every day and comes home and cooks dinner for the family.”
In her posts and daily inspirational messages to her followers, she wants to make sure the real her comes across.
“People see the authenticity,” she said. “They see someone who’s come from nothing to really establish themselves.”
That’s really the message Sergio hopes to get across to her daughters and young women everywhere — that it takes work and brains, not just looks, to be successful.
If she wins the Maxim competition, Sergio said she would donate a portion of the $25,000 prize to the Fisher House Foundation, which provides homes for military and veteran families while a loved one is receiving medical treatment.
She would also like to donate to a program for at-risk youth in Hawaii, similar to one in Los Angeles that once helped her.
And though the rest of it won’t be enough to fully fund her dream of starting her own center that provides services to the homeless, a win could perhaps be the platform she needs to properly advocate for it.
“I think people underestimate how much at-risk youth need our time and our support,” she said. “They don’t understand that these people have been abandoned. They’ve lost hope.”
As part of the contest, a portion of voter proceedings goes to Homes for Wounded Warriors, a foundation started by former National Football League all-pro defensive end Jared Allen that raises money to build and remodel handicap-accessible homes for disabled Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.