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 where her 82-year-old mother, Louise, still lives. “A couple of times a year I go home to lie low, to refuel and recharge and refocus. I hang out with my mother and her friends, and we eat at the Black-Eyed Pea and Chili’s and El Matador. They all call me Phyllis Ann or Phyl, and they’re still proud—but still not impressed. When I visit, I’m who I’ve always been and who I’ll always be. I tell myself, ‘Phyllis, you’re a Texas girl.’”
Phyllis George owes her celebrity, at least in part, to Texas’ first Miss America. Jo-Carroll Dennison, the 1942 winner, helped pick George as Miss Texas 1971. That pageant is the only one Dennison ever judged, simply because it coincided with a trip home to Texas. Unlike most beauty queens, she never immersed herself in pageantry; she competed for only one year—and won four titles in a row.
A native Arizonan, Dennison has strong Texas ties: Her grandfather from Hale Center worked as a cowboy on the first ride up the Chisholm Trail. An only child, she was, as she puts it, “born and raised in a medicine show”; her parents headed up a vaudeville-style troupe that traveled mainly around Texas, and she began singing and dancing onstage at age two. At seventeen, determined to “get out of show business forever,” she was working as a legal secretary in Tyler when a local businessman asked her to represent his bank in the Miss Tyler pageant. “I refused,” she says, “until he told me they would buy me a new bathing suit for the occasion. Fate has funny ways of dictating your future; if I’d already had a bathing suit, I honestly don’t think I would ever have entered a beauty contest.” She handily won that contest and the one for Miss East Texas too.
Headed to the statewide pageant, Dennison was chaperoned by her boss, former U.S. senator Earle Mayfield, and his wife, Ora; they stayed with Coke and Fay Stevenson in the Governor’s Mansion. Dennison relates her main memory of the Austin trip: “As I walked out on the stage, I was startled by the immediate wild response from the servicemen in the audience. Later, I found out that the elderly Mrs. Mayfield and Mrs. Stevenson had raced up and down the tiers of the stadium exhorting one and all to ‘Vote for Miss East Texas, vote for Miss East Texas!’ And it had worked.”
Dennison created a similar sensation at the Miss America pageant. The event that year, a patriotic extravaganza, saluted America’s armed forces with an opening number that featured a mock-up of a B-29 bomber. Dennison’s talent act was equally attention-getting—no surprise, given her background. According to a contemporary news report, “Miss Texas, garbed in a typical Western costume of doeskin chaps, checked flannel shirt, and wide-brimmed hat, had the audience, and especially the soldiers in attendance, clapping with her as she sang the spirited ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas.’” Recalls Dennison: “I asked one of the judges later why they picked me. He said, ‘We were afraid if we didn’t, the boys in the balcony would lynch us!’”
The self-sufficient teenager adjusted well to her sudden fame. Back then the Miss America pageant offered a weekly stipend and a few minor gifts but no scholarships (a 1945 innovation); the real prize, an unofficial one, was the chance to audition for a Hollywood studio. After her reign, during which she sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of war bonds, Dennison signed a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox and embarked on an eight-year movie career; her most notable role was the second lead in director George Cukor’s Winged Victory. She also met a gifted young comedian named Phil Silvers, whom she married in 1945. “Through Phil, whom everyone loved and put first on any party list, I met almost every well-known person in show business. Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, all gave us a wedding party, which was pretty big-time stuff, but to me the luckiest part of all that was that Gene Kelly and his marvelously talented and intellectual group of friends liked me as well as Phil. At Gene’s on any given night, folks like Judy Garland, Noël Coward, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Fred Astaire might drop in and entertain or play charades or just talk. One night George Cukor brought Greta Garbo, and she wound up buying all the Tupperware samples an out-of-work actress was pushing.”
Dennison went on to work as a production assistant at Rodgers and Hammerstein’s New York headquarters and, during television’s infancy, helped launch three series, including Lux Video Theatre. Though she and Silvers divorced in 1950, they continued to talk frequently until his death 35 years later, and she still keeps up with the man she describes as “my first true love”—legendary Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Blackie Sherrod, whom she met while still an unfamous Texas teen. She later married again and had two sons, co-directed the Los Angeles Theatre Company, and was head of community relations for a California hospice for eleven years. Now retired, she lives near Palm Springs. “Even now, at age seventy-seven, after all the fascinating things I have done in my life, I am invariably introduced as ‘a former Miss America,’” she says. “And people are actively impressed and look at me with different eyes. After the inevitable question ‘What year?’ comes the question ‘What state were you from?’ And I answer with a special kind of pride, ‘I was Miss Texas.’”
The third in Texas’ trio of titleholders, Shirley Cothran Barret, still marvels at the improbability of her 1975 win. The regal bearing and apparent self-confidence were, she says, merely camouflage worn by a quiet little bookworm. Growing up in Denton, she recalls, “I was very introverted and shy. I wasn’t a cheerleader or a prom queen. Once, a few years ago, I was in the grocery store and ran into a classmate from high school. I didn’t recognize him, but he recognized me, and he said, ‘Shirley, I saw you on the Miss America pageant! And I couldn’t believe you won!’ Well, he said it with such enthusiasm that I couldn’t be offended, but that about sums it up—no one would have described me back then as anything but a wallflower.”
But while she was a student at what was then North Texas State University, Shirley Cothran entered the Miss Denton pageant. Phyllis George’s recent victory—which “thrilled my hometown,” she says—wasn’t the only impetus: “I knew that even if I didn’t make it, I might win a scholarship, and that would help my parents. And the tone of the seventies made a difference—the ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’ attitude.” She placed third in her first pageant, then second the following year.
Hoping to maximize her chances on her third try, she decided to switch her talent. “Back then I was singing, but that didn’t make me good. The year I was first runner-up, the winner was a roller skater. She was good, yes—but I lost to a roller skater! So I got out my flute—the same flute I’d had since fifth grade. I hadn’t touched it in years.” She labored over an arrangement of thirties swing tunes that, along with her perfect grooming and confident carriage, finally won her both the Miss Denton and Miss Texas crowns. “After I won, the stories all referred to me as a flautist,” she says. “I wasn’t a flautist—I was a Texas flute tooter!” As she began preparing for the Miss America pageant, she hedged her bets by signing on to teach fourth grade at a Carrollton school; her victory saved a lot of little boys from serious heartache.
Unlike Jo-Carroll Dennison and Phyllis George, Cothran opted not to pursue a career in movies or television. Instead, she applied her $15,000 scholarship to the pursuit of a Ph.D. in education. She also wed her college sweetheart, Richard Barret. (“His fraternity brothers teased him mercilessly—they called him Mr. America and Mr. Cothran.”) The couple celebrated 25 years of marriage in May. And she marks another silver anniversary this year, that of her career as a public speaker. “Ninety percent of my work is with Christian women’s groups—key-noting conferences, talking at luncheons, speaking at retreats. I don’t talk about just wearing high heels and sparkly clothes and walking down a runway. I talk about how you get through the rough times.” And, she adds, “I love speaking to women. Their concerns are my concerns. We have common ground. It’s the to-and-fro travel that’s hard. If I could just be like Samantha Stephens on Bewitched and arrive with the twitch of my nose!” She works about seven months a year, accepting six or so engagements per month and leaving summer and school holidays for family. Her self-employment has allowed this mother of four great flexibility: “I wanted to be there for every ball that was thrown, kicked, passed, or dribbled.”
This year the former beauty queen is even busier than usual. She is moving out of Denton—where she has lived her entire 46 years—to settle with her family on 75 acres in tiny Peaster, near Weatherford. She has thrice served as a judge to help choose fellow Miss Americas. And at a reunion five years ago, she joined 43 other past winners to take a bow, then watched backstage as the pageant played out. “When the first runner-up’s name was announced, we all felt a pang for her. But then one of the other ladies said, loud enough for the rest of us to hear, ‘Don’t worry, honey—it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.’ And we all roared, because it’s so true and because it’s such hard work. The first couple of weeks, it’s all limousines and hairstylists and makeup artists and talk-show engagements and wheeling and dealing. But in the long run, that’s just the job description.”