On life’s rich pageant.
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 chance, if society turned its back on them, where would they be?
ES: How many Miss Americas are on the organization’s board?
PG: Three out of sixteen board members. Never before in history [have there been that many]. There hadn’t been a Miss America on the board before Donna Axum Whitworth . She was the first, and then she asked me to be on, and then we got Rebecca King Dreman .
ES: You all have a very different perspective on the pageant, having gone through it, than the average person who sits on the board.
PG: How about a board member who’s never had to go through it day by day, 24/7, when you win? They don’t really know what the public is thinking because they’re sort of insulated. When we came in, we told the truth. We said, “This isn’t going to work” and “This is a problem.”
ES: What’s a problem?
PG: Keeping it current. Keeping it contemporary. We had Don Mischer this year as our producer. He does the Emmy Awards and all of these huge shows on television. Because it had to look big! We had Mario Lopez [from Dancing With the Stars] as our Bert Parks this year. He can sing and dance—he was perfect.
ES: Not bad in terms of appealing to today’s generation.
PG: [Watching the pageant] is not something my daughter, who’s 23, wants to do. It isn’t really a big deal. She grew up around it. We had Miss America parties when she was a little girl—everybody would pick their ten [finalists]. Or I’d pick the Miss America out of the group—they’d do a talent competition for me—and I’d put the crown on the winner’s head. I’m talking when she was, like, seven and eight.
ES: If she had wanted to be a pageant contestant, would you have encouraged her?
PG: I would not have encouraged or discouraged her, but that’s not the direction she wanted to go in her life. Pamela graduated from UNC—Chapel Hill as a broadcast journalism major and is now working for the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., as a reporter on the air every night. What a wonderful opportunity—and she got it on her own. The options that young women have today are tremendous. I didn’t have so many options back then.
ES: Whose idea was it that you compete to be Miss America?
PG: It’s funny to say this, but I was a popular girl in Denton. I was Miss Denton High School and a cheerleader and the president of the junior class and in all the plays and a pianist; I played classical music for fourteen years. So the chamber of commerce came to me and asked me to enter the Miss Texas pageant. I went through a period of thinking I would never do it, but I said okay. I was very proud to represent my hometown, but the first time I entered, I lost. I came in second to a drummer from Longview named Dana Dowell.
ES: Miss Longview beat Miss Denton!
PG: I think the newspaper already had me as “Miss Denton, our new Miss Texas,” and then it was announced that she had won. It hurt my pride, and I said, “You know what? I don’t want to do this again.” The next year I was asked by the Miss Dallas people to enter, and I told them no, I wasn’t interested. But they kept calling and calling to the point of almost bugging me: “Come on, why don’t you enter Miss Dallas?” Anyway, late one Friday night, I was taking my dirty laundry home to Mother, who was out playing bridge. My dad was sound asleep on the couch. And the phone was ringing off the wall—we didn’t have answering machines back then. I ran over and answered it, and I was like, “Hello?” I thought, “Who’s calling at midnight?” Sure enough, it was an official from the Miss Dallas pageant, who said, “I’m just going to give you this one last chance, Phyllis. You were so close last year that we really think you could win this year.” The preliminaries were the next morning! But the scholarship money was important enough to me and my family that he flat talked me into it.
PG: I called Mother and said, “Where is my gown from last year? Where is my swimsuit? I guess I have to play the same song.” And she said, “What?!” You know, she was never a stage mother, and she just didn’t understand these things. But I did it, and I won Miss Dallas. And you know what? Had I won the year before, I wouldn’t have won Miss America. I just wasn’t ready.
ES: You think so?
PG: I needed the loss. I needed to lose to win. Like they say, “If you lose, don’t lose the lessons,” and I learned a lot. I came back and went on to be the fiftieth Miss America—the first one with a gold crown. That was pretty exciting.
ES: It’s an inspirational story. I wonder if enough girls today can identify with it to the point of competing, as you did.
PG: That’s a problem. When I entered there were 70,000 young women who competed in the local contests across the country. Now there are 12,000 to 15,000. We’ve got to make it more appetizing. We’ve got to make it more interesting. We’ve got to get big scholarship money. It’s up to the board to help turn this around.
ES: Is the classic “beauty pageants aren’t for feminists” argument part of the problem?
PG: A long time ago, the “women’s libbers”—we didn’t call them “feminists”—would follow me around. I was in DeKalb, Illinois, and they were standing out there picketing me. I kept saying, “They’re not picketing me. They’re picketing what they think this program stands for.” So I went outside and said, “It’s really cold out here. Why don’t you guys come in and let’s have some coffee or tea or whatever and talk about this?” So they all came in. And I said, “Look, I don’t feel like I’m exploited. I’m from a small town in Texas. This is great for me. I won scholarship money. I’ve done something with my life, and I can show my talent. I want to be in broadcasting. This is going to help me, so I want you to look at it that way.” Did I like being in a swimsuit? Absolutely not. I hated it. And now they wear these little Band-Aids!
ES: Well, you’re on the board. You can fix that.
PG: “Physically fit” is what we should be promoting. I hope they don’t starve themselves.
ES: I’ll say this about you: Your values have stayed intact. You still come across like a normal person as opposed to a prima donna.
PG: It’s because of Mother and Daddy. I mean that. I give my parents such credit. And I believe my Texas upbringing had a lot to do with it. Denton was a small town. I was president of the United Methodist Youth Fellowship, I went to church, I did all the things in school that a normal person would do. My daughter said to me one time, “Boy, Mama, I wish I’d grown up like you did,” because she had a more privileged life—her daddy was governor and she lived in a mansion.
ES: Of all the things that you did in your post-pageant life, which were you proudest of?
PG: Sports was incredible for ten years. I loved doing the Super Bowls and the Rose Parades and everything sort of big. I had both of my children within that time; I quit twice and came back because it was hard when they were young. Finally I just had to give it up because I wanted to raise them much like I was raised in Texas, but in Lexington, which is a smaller town than New York or Los Angeles. I really liked being first lady of Kentucky. It was very hard for me in the beginning because I was used to asking the questions, not answering them.
ES: You’re living in Kentucky again.
PG: I just moved from L.A. And, of course, everybody’s saying, “Are you going to run for office now?” No, I didn’t go back there to do it. I went back to have my roots, my family. I needed that in my life, and I could do more good by being in Kentucky than L.A. L.A. was beautiful, but it just didn’t feed my soul. It was sort of a disconnect out there; I felt like I was visiting.
ES: Not good for a place you call home.
PG: Yeah. I had friends there, but a lot of people in these big cities put on the dog just because they think they have to. If only they could be true to themselves.