The surprising thing about Texas’ former Miss Americas isn’t that they’re darn pretty but that they’re pretty darn smart. Each winner—Jo-Carroll Dennison, Miss America 1942; Phyllis George, Miss America 1971; and Shirley Cothran, Miss America 1975—parlayed her reign into a respected and financially successful career. Dennison, a Tyler belle, was the first wartime Miss America. Her successors, George and Cothran, shared more than just a beauty title; both were born and raised in Denton. All three Texans were Miss Americas back when the pageant was all glamour and girliness (measurements were essential to every news story; in fact, George and Cothran even shared identical vital statistics: 36-23-36). Given their determination and savvy, though, all three could have been contenders even if the pageant of yesteryear had been the modernized, brains-are-okay event that it is today. And one final note: So far, no Miss America from our state has ever been a blonde. Brunettes of Texas, take heart.
Tiara slippage made Phyllis George who she is today. George, who has homes in both New York City and Lexington, Kentucky, is one of only a handful of Miss Americas who went on to achieve true celebrity; she has been a sportscaster, a TV personality, a convenience-food entrepreneur, and the first lady of Kentucky. But she owes her household-name status in large part to an unruly rhinestone crown. Here’s how George remembers what she calls “the crown incident”:
“I was about five ten in heels, and Pamela Eldred, the exiting Miss America, was a petite little Dresden doll, and she wasn’t tall enough to pin the crown on very well. Plus, back then there was the robe and the scepter and the roses to keep up with. I started down the runway and turned to nod my thanks to the judges, and when I did, the tiara fell off and stones went everywhere and the audience gasped. All I could think was, ‘This is your moment, Phyllis—all your friends and family are watching—and look what you did!’ But even then I could laugh about it. As I told Johnny Carson three nights later, ‘You’ll remember me—I’m the klutzy Miss America.’ The crown incident broke the ice with reporters, audiences, everybody.”
George’s smiling acceptance of her nationally televised boo-boo instantly put in her corner millions of American women who only seconds earlier had been eyeing her toned figure and killer dimples with more than a touch of envy. The same charm and presence—along with an admirable grasp of the game of football—made her, four years later, the nation’s first female sportscaster; she co-hosted the NFL Today show with Brent Musburger and Irv Cross until 1984. She has had two talk shows of her own on TNN as well as a crafts-oriented series on QVC, and she has also appeared on a Candid Camera revival and The CBS Morning News . Last year, at age 51, she made her movie debut in a small role in Meet the Parents , the Ben Stiller comedy, and rolled her eyes over a studio press release that described her as “newcomer Phyllis George.” Another recent movie, Dr. T and the Women , gave her her due: On each exam-room door in the office of the fictional Dallas doctor played by Richard Gere is the name of a famous Texas woman, including Belle Starr, Ann Richards, and Phyllis George.
In 1979 George married Kentucky Democrat John Y. Brown, who was contemplating a run for governor; many political observers gave her credit for his eventual win. She shone as first lady in what she now calls “my adopted state”; for example, she used her power to create the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation, which showcases the work of Appalachian quilters, basket-weavers, and other artisans. In fact, this summer her name has been bandied about in the Bluegrass State as a possible candidate for governor or U.S. senator—an idea that is said to enrage Brown, from whom she is now divorced. George says the political rumor started when she bought a condo in Lexington; she will live there while her daughter, Pamela, finishes high school. (She and Brown also have a son, Lincoln, now 21.) George pooh-poohs the idea of tossing her tiara into the ring—for now, at least. “I’m flattered by all the interest, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. The other day I was in a restaurant and a fellow diner sent over a bottle of wine with a note that said, ‘Good luck, Governor.’ It’s tempting—in a position like that, you could do a lot of good.”
She also has something fowl in her background. A health and exercise fanatic long before it was trendy, she devised a variety of low-fat chicken dishes when her children were small and realized that ready-to-cook entrées would be a boon to other busy mothers as well. She eventually marketed Chicken by George in eleven flavors and in 1988 sold the name and the business to Hormel. Although her official bio makes much of her entrepreneurship (“She became the first woman to found her own chicken company”), it omits any mention of less successful endeavors, such as her brief first marriage to Hollywood producer Robert Evans. Besides your grocer’s refrigerator case, her name regularly appears in gossip columns and news stories; for example, a gold eagle pin she gave to Hillary Clinton was cited as one of the disputed items the former first lady hung onto when she left the White House.
Today George juggles a multitude of offers for personal appearances, television stints, and more. The author of four books, she’s writing two more, one a history of American folk art, the other a combination self-help and inspirational tome. She’s also planning a new business venture, this one involving skin-care products (“When I started the chicken business, I remember thinking, ‘I’d really rather be in something more glamorous’”). She divides her time between what she calls the triangle: New York City, Lexington, and Denton, where she grew up and