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