Crowning Moments

updated 09/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1986 01:00AM

For nearly seven decades the contest has proven as enduring as the ocean in which its beaming entrants frolic for photographers, and this Saturday night, live from Atlantic City, there it will be again: the Miss America Pageant. But attitudes toward bathing beauties have changed. Some former beauty queens now view their crownings the way one might an old arrest record: Susan Anton and Debbie Reynolds—First Runner-Up to Miss America of 1970 and Miss Burbank of 1948, respectively—won't even discuss it. Some sound evangelical about it, and for many others, pride and sheepishness still seem to be slugging it out.

So why did they do it? And how do they feel about beauty contests now? We asked five of the most distinguished beneficiaries of pageantry these questions—a newswoman and four prominent actresses—and even they were rather sharply divided in their responses.

Diane Sawyer
Junior Miss

"I have sort of mixed feelings about beauty pageants," admits 60 Minutes' Diane Sawyer, who was "dumbfounded" to find herself America's 17-year-old Junior Miss in 1963. "There is a sense in which all these contests are period pieces, lovely exercises in nostalgia. In another sense they give a lot of money to young women who would never have had it otherwise. They didn't have the sports scholarships available to men."

Sawyer's intelligence was emphatically not what recommended her to the Junior Miss judges. "I had appeared a little too sophisticated for some of the judges," she remembers. "But I'm so blind that when I went into the stadium the day of the finals reading some mail, I walked smack into a metal post in front of the judges. I giggled and fell apart. I was told later some judges went back and changed their votes."

A child of the '60s who was then "very much of the save-the-world school," Sawyer used the $11,000 she won to pay for her first year at Wellesley and spent her summer earning it. "I was on the road for the whole time giving nonstop speeches, three and four a day," she recalls. "It taught me I could survive panic." When school began that fall, however, her star trip took its toll. "It seemed silly to a lot of the girls. And at least a couple of boys asked me out because there had been a bet in their dorms to see if I would go, and what I would do if I went. So I became awfully shy. I went out only a couple of times my first two years. I was just very self-conscious about being stared at, and worried I wouldn't measure up."

And now? "A friend and I were trying to remember what it was that made us watch the Miss America Pageant in the '50s, and why Miss America seemed the dreamiest thing to be, why it seemed to matter in a way it doesn't anymore. I suppose it was because options were so limited then, and it was the quickest way to vault out of ordinariness. Now there are so many ways, including merit. Isn't that a shock?"

Cybill Shepherd
Model of the Year

"There is the element of the meat rack," Cybill Shepherd, Miss Teenage Memphis in 1966 and Model of the Year in 1968, begins. "And all that competitiveness is a terrible thing. If you don't win, you stay close to the other girls. If you do win, you're not so close anymore. But contests are good springboards.... I think they should have contests for boys."

Shepherd's particular springboard had some tricky bounces. At 16 she won Miss Teenage Memphis and one reward was modeling for Sears. "I developed an early loathing for it," she says. She went on to the Miss Teenage America pageant and lost. "I was crushed," she admits. "I didn't even make it to the finals. The girl who won did the hula! Ye gods!" For consolation, Shepherd got a trophy for being nice. "For years I would never admit I was a Miss Congeniality, I was so embarrassed. I have just started to take pride in it recently." As if all that weren't bad enough, she went back to Memphis for her senior year of high school and was passed over for homecoming queen. "I guess I wasn't in thick enough with the football team."

Ah, but don't despair. Two years later she won the 1968 Model of the Year Pageant and walked away with a second, tonier shot at modeling. Peter Bogdanovich found her in a supermarket checkout rack, her baby blues staring at him from the cover of Glamour. He gave her a big role in The Last Picture Show (and his heart for eight years), and now Shepherd, 36, stars in Moonlighting. Some springboard.

Cloris Leachman
Miss Chicago

"I felt like Dorothy whirled away in a big tornado!" Cloris Leachman recalls of becoming Miss Chicago of 1946. "The contest absolutely changed my life." It didn't start out that impressively, though. World War II had been over only a year when the Northwestern coed, who was studying speech, learned that she had beaten out 12 finalists to become Miss WGN (radio), and "when they told me, I fell on the floor laughing." After she got up, she was told that one of her duties was to enter the Miss Chicago contest, which entailed walking a perfect figure eight in a swimsuit and three-inch heels. "You know how I won?" she says. "I acted it. Walking that figure eight I decided to pretend I had already won." She acted it all the way to the Miss America finals, winning a $1,000 scholarship. "I took the money and ran to New York," using it for singing lessons that helped her get on Broadway. Still, Leachman, now 60 and starring in NBC's new The Facts of Life, sees the contests with an actress's objectivity. "The whole thing was a hoot," she says. "But it was a wonderful experience and I'm glad I had it."

Lee Meriwether
Miss America

Beauty queens have never been considered supertalented or bright. "Good heavens, you can act!" one movie director told Miss America of 1955. "I didn't think you'd be able to walk and chew gum at the same time." Thanks a lot. The recipient of that faint praise was Lee Meriwether, the first Miss America crowned on TV. Like Cloris Leachman, she had to do plenty of acting to win. In fact the tears many viewers remember seeing inch down her cheeks were brought on as much by relief as by joy. "Just to walk out on the stage in a bathing suit with all those eyes staring at you!" she says, squirming even now. "Oh dear! Of course they all have binoculars so that you know that every inch of your anatomy is being scrutinized." A freshman majoring in theater arts at the City College of San Francisco at the time, Meriwether had to learn a major acting lesson even to get through the swim-suit competition. "There was a gal from North Carolina named Betty Jo Ring," she says. "She told me, 'Honey, I just go out there and imagine all the men in the audience in their long red underwear.' " It worked like a charm. "I almost started to giggle at a couple of points," Lee admits. Still, Meriwether, whose picture had been entered in the contest by a City College fraternity, never expected victory. "I thought Ann Daniels of Florida was going to get it. I was getting ready to pounce on Ann and then they started giving me roses and Ann was yelling, 'You won! You won!' I went into shock."

In the 32 years since that moment Meriwether, now 51 and producing plays, has become a trivia expert on the Miss America Pageant. "Who was the first man to sing There She Is? Johnny Desmond." She has also grown euphoric about the painful contest that was her big break. "It's more than a beauty pageant," she says. "It's the world's largest scholarship foundation for women, giving away $5 million a year. It's the grande dame of the pageants, the classiest."

When she tried to persuade her daughters to enter the pageant, however, they weren't interested.

Diahann Carroll
Harlem Beauty

Remember that age of teen innocence in the 1950s when being rebellious meant things like entering a beauty contest against your father's wishes? Diahann Carroll (née Carol Diann Johnson) took that bold plunge at 15 and wound up with a scholarship from her father's Masonic Temple in Harlem. His opposition to her entering proved short-lived. "I will never forget the look on his face as I marched around the stage in a bathing suit—like he had never really looked at me before," says Diahann, 51. "I was very proud, especially seeing the pride in the faces of my parents." The Masonic Temple win didn't exactly change her life but, besides the money, it brought her a trip to Indianapolis to meet other local winners. "There was much about it that was exciting and valuable: organizing my presentation, learning to collect my thoughts for interviews. And I met other girls from Harlem who had experience modeling. I didn't know they existed." Two years later she got her first professional break by winning $3,000 on TV's Chance of a Lifetime.

But that doesn't mean that Diahann Carroll endorses beauty pageantry. "Women are sex objects," the Dynasty star says. "It's all about the facade, not the inside, and even at that age I was slightly offended by it." Unlike Lee Meriwether, she never even bothered trying to interest her 26-year-old daughter, Suzanne, a journalist, in the lure of the runway. Why? "My daughter is an intellectual," she says, smiling. "My daughter's mother is not."

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