TAMPA — Former softball pitcher Kayla Cox once led East Bay High School to the school's only state title in any sport.
She starred as a three-time All-American at the University of Tampa.
With a confident strut and a whip-like delivery, she was often un-hittable, striking out batter after batter.
She was a model pitcher.
Now she's a model.
The competitiveness she brought to the diamond has translated to a new world of perceived glamour and realistic hard work.
"Kayla can walk into a room and take it over,'' said St. Petersburg photographer Jorge Alvarez, who has worked extensively with Cox during her two-year modeling career. "She has the 'it' factor, just an eye-catching young lady.
"I think she was born with it. The camera loves her and she's really comfortable in front of the camera.''
Cox, represented by Wilhelmina International, has done catalogue layouts for International Plaza, with some of the blown-up renditions still being displayed at the mall. She has appeared in advertisements for baby strollers and exercise bands. She has traveled to modeling "seasons'' at Miami and Chicago, where thick skin is required as clients make snap decisions on their models.
"You can be in great shape, look amazing and they still say no,'' said Cox, 24, who was East Bay's Homecoming Queen in 2009. "You can't take rejection personally. As hard as that is. You keep the big picture in mind.''
One day, Cox hopes to appear on a magazine cover.
"I think I can do this,'' she said.
For Tampa's Lou Maggio, who has represented models for more than two decades and recommended Cox to Wilhelmina, there's no doubt. Maggio, who didn't know of Cox's softball background, was asked to meet with her. He was skeptical and ready for a realistic appraisal.
In a few moments, Maggio sensed Cox's potential.
"Kayla has an approachable look,'' Maggio said. "She's not intimidating. Men love her and women will relate to her. It's about marketing — the look of someone to sell a product — and she's marketable.''
Cox had modeling interest as a pre-teen. But her grandmother, Betty Miller, steered her away from that and kept her in softball. While at East Bay, Cox did a fashion layout for Bealls, rekindling her thoughts of a potential career, but by then she was knee-deep in softball.
After graduating from UT with a degree in mass communications, professional softball's Akron Racers offered her a contract. But she decided to give modeling a realistic shot.
"I think it's fantastic now,'' Miller said. "Sometimes, I wonder if I made a mistake (not encouraging modeling). But she was great in softball and she became the first person in the family to get a college degree, so a lot of good came from it.
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"I think she's a natural for this. She attracts people. She has a fantastic personality. She's a big girl now, so she's spreading her wings and flying.''
Last year, Cox married professional baseball pitcher Eric Fornataro, formerly of the St. Louis Cardinals, who now plays in an independent league. They are both driven by their careers, but he encourages her to chase the modeling dream.
Whether it was in high school or on a trip with her travel softball team, Cox constantly heard, "You should be a model.''
She heard it so much, the thought never disappeared.
"I thought it would be fun and I thought I could be good at it, but there was a lot I didn't realize,'' Cox said. "There's a lot more to modeling than taking a photo. You've got to learn how to work with light and shadows. You have to adapt to scenes and personalities. You have to be smart.
"Photographers want it all. You have to be a chameleon. Sometimes, you're scandalous. Sometimes, you're wholesome. You have to learn that it's not about you. It's about what you're selling and wearing. That's what you have to broadcast. It's about a brand, not about you. I just had no idea it was that way.''
Now she does.
"Kayla works really hard at creating the mood we're after,'' Alvarez said. "And I think she brings a team sports attitude to modeling. She's a good teammate with a good attitude. She brings positivity, the same way I imagine she did on the softball mound.
"I've got to say after shooting her as a model, though, I have a hard time visualizing her out there throwing a ball that fast, blowing people away.''
But it happened.
That's the Kayla Cox everyone remembers.
She jokes — maybe — about getting in shape for 2024, when softball returns to the Olympic Games.
"I'll be 32 … I can do it!'' Cox said, smiling. "I absolutely do miss it at times. I have great memories. I think I was just a natural for softball because I basically had so much success.
"But now I'm doing something else I enjoy. I want to be great at it. I'll put in the work to make that happen.''
Contact Joey Johnston at email@example.com.