Mary Nguyen's G.I. Dad Has Never Seen Her Face, but Revlon Thinks It's a Winner

updated 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Until recently, Mary Xinh Nguyen had no particular reason to believe in fairy tales. But that was before she was named Revlon's Most Unforgettable Woman of the Year and collected a pot of gold—$25,000—at the Rainbow Room in New York. "I never thought I would win," says the Boston University student. "The other girls were so pretty."

With her creamy skin, jet black hair and beguiling smile, the 5'4" Amerasian Nguyen, 19, is hardly an eyesore herself. But in the 14 years since she fled her native Vietnam, she has grown accustomed to counting on her wits rather than her looks. She entered the Revlon contest only at the urging of her boyfriend, fellow student Chad Krentzman, 21. And when she composed the requisite 50-word essay telling the judges why she was unforgettable, her pretty face wasn't the theme. Instead, she wrote about her memories of Vietnam, where she was ridiculed as "a child of the dust" because her father, whom she has never met, was an American G.I. "I also wrote that I was going to be unforgettable after my beauty phase," says Nguyen, "because I want to be a woman of accomplishment."

Revlon's judges loved it all. Nguyen was plucked from a group of nine finalists, most of whom are models or plan to be. In addition to her cash prize, she won a photo session with Richard Avedon and a spot in a Revlon print ad.

Nguyen was born in Da Nang in 1969, several months after her father, a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, was wounded in the Tet offensive and sent to recover on Okinawa. Nguyen's mother, Thuong Nguyen, came from a wealthy Vietnamese family and worked as a translator for a hospital. She never again heard from the man who had fathered her child, but she was devoted to little Mary. Then in January 1975 Mary and Thuong were visiting relatives in Saigon when they were told that escalated fighting made it impossible for them to return to Da Nang. A friend at the U.S. Embassy advised Thuong that Mary would be safer out of the country. Thuong could not leave because her older child, Sean, who had been fathered by another American serviceman, was still in Da Nang. Heartbroken, she shepherded 5-year-old Mary onto an airport-bound bus operated by an American Catholic charity. "Before the bus left, we touch hands outside the window," says Thuong. "I thought I never see her again."

Mary remembers very little of that good-bye or of the four months she spent with a foster family in St. Louis afterward. "I know I cried a lot," she says. Thuong eventually managed to escape to California with her sister's two children, Kim and Phil, and Mary flew West to join them. Says Thuong: "When she arrived, it seemed I saw the sun in the sky after a storm."

The family settled in Santa Monica, where Thuong found work aiding other Asian refugees. Sean and another cousin joined them in 1980, and later that year Thuong married Stuart Barasch, a lawyer (from whom she is now separated). Barasch persuaded the family to convert from Catholicism to Judaism. "Education has always been important in our family," says Mary, "so Judaism and the Vietnamese culture were in harmony."

Education continues to be important to Mary, who is an honor student in political science at BU. She sees some modeling in her future, but the prize money will go toward college and perhaps law school.

Someday Mary hopes to track down her father, if in fact he is still alive. (Her mother has never tried to contact him.) Mary is curious but in no hurry. "I want to be a college graduate before he meets me," she says. "I want to be mentally ready and an important person so he can't refuse me." Her ultimate goal, she adds, "is to be an ambassador to Vietnam—a spokesperson for the Vietnamese people."

Somewhere, an American Vietnam veteran should be very proud indeed.

—Mary H.J. Farrell, Jeanne Gordon in Los Angeles

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