Evan Smith: I was interested to read that, 36 years after you were crowned Miss America, you’re still involved with the pageant as a member of the Miss America Organization’s board. Once a beauty queen, always a beauty queen.
Phyllis George: When I was asked to go on the board, my children said, “Mom, this is part of your legacy. You have to protect it.” I told them it was going to take a lot of time, because the pageant was going through a rough period. We were no longer on a national network; ABC had dumped us. It was no secret that there were budget problems. And it just didn’t live up to the glory days. When I was Miss America, it was the glory days.
ES: It really meant something to win.
PG: I grew up watching it with my mother. You don’t know how many little girls, particularly baby boomers, grew up watching it with their mothers or their friends. We would never miss it.
ES: Why don’t girls today see it that way?
PG: Because we’re in Las Vegas now. It’s about entertainment. But this is really a scholarship program: We give out more than $45 million annually; it’s the largest scholarship program for young women in the world. Maybe we need to do a better job of PR, but look what it did for this girl from Texas. It was the springboard to everything I’ve done in my life. In my twenties, after I was Miss America, I went on to be the first female co-host of Candid Camera, to be a sportscaster, to do three Super Bowls and six Rose Parades. I married John [Y. Brown Jr.], he became governor [of Kentucky], and we had Lincoln [her son, one of two children] by the time I was thirty. So I was always in the news, always out there.
ES: I guess these are different times.
PG: It’s going to survive. Things go up and down. Well, we’ve gone up and down. We’ve survived wars, depressions, scandals, and social movements, and we’re still here. When a person meets a Miss America, they’re still impressed. They’re like, “Oh, my gosh, you were Miss America?”
ES: As I listened to you tick off that litany of accomplishments, it occurred to me that the most recent Miss America who’s been that much of a celebrity was Vanessa Williams—not only because it came out that she had posed for pornographic pictures but because she’s gone on to be a significant actress.
PG: She’s a superstar. It had to be a horrific experience for her, but she handled it with class—she really did. She showed a lot of guts and a lot of courage and, probably as a result, has pushed herself and is more driven. Back then a talk show host wanted me to go on his late-night show and talk about it, and I said, “Look, everybody has skeletons in their closet. There is no way I’m going to knock her.” But two Miss Americas went on the show and just creamed her. It really upset me. I mean, she was going through enough.
ES: You can understand the reaction, can’t you? Until then the assumption was that pageant contestants were pure.
PG: Yeah. Way back in the fifties and sixties you were tight-lipped. Everything was wonderful. You were the ideal American woman no matter what happened to you. And then Marilyn Van Derbur [Miss America 1958] came forward to say that she had been abused by her father for thirteen or fourteen years. Literally up until the night she won, he was standing onstage with her. After she became outspoken about this, she ended up being a judge [at the pageant], but first there was a little hemming and hawing. Only when she was on the cover of People magazine did [pageant officials] say, “Okay, let her on.” We have changed so much. There are so many women with stories like that, and they feel free to talk about it, because that’s what America’s all about. Nobody’s perfect.
ES: That’s an interesting point of view in light of the mess that Donald Trump’s Miss USA Pageant has found itself in of late.
PG: I have opinions about that. I have to be careful about what I say, because Miss USA and Miss America are two entirely different properties. We represent scholarship, talent. We are role-model citizens. Miss America contestants, runners-up, and state queens have gone on to be judges and lawyers, to run for office. Miss America is America’s idea of what a young woman should be today. I don’t want to hear from Donald Trump, because he’s a friend and I like him, and he can get vicious when he’s mad, but [Miss USA contestants] are Donald Trump’s idea of what young women should be today. They don’t stress scholarship. They don’t stress academics. They don’t stress talent. They’re all about beauty. And there’s nothing wrong with beauty. Beauty is great.
ES: In fact, the assumption is that the woman who wins Miss America every year is the most beautiful contestant.
PG: We’re about beauty, but we’re about the whole package.
ES: What did you make of the flap over Tara Conner, the reigning Miss USA, whose wild behavior very nearly got her stripped of her crown?
PG: Her whole experience was so sad. Don’t they have chaperones, or traveling companions, as they call them now? I know we did. Something was missing there. And you don’t know if she came into the Miss USA program with those problems or if those problems happened during her year. God, Donald’s news conference, with all those people—it was just amazing. I’ve never seen anybody get hell from the press like he does, but he gave her a second chance. The reason that’s important is because in America there are a lot of young people who have drinking, drug, and other problems. If we didn’t give them a second