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I was privileged to interview Phyllis George for my award-winning book, Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss Americas, about what it takes to be successful and follow a dream.  She’s back in the news on ESPN and will be seen in tonight’s airing of the documentary about Jimmy the Greek from her days as an NFL pre-game sportscaster.  Here’s an excerpt from Pretty Smart that gives some of her history.  (See prior “First Impressions” post about my first meeting with her.)

Me and Phyllis George at the Miss America Pageant

Me and Phyllis George at the Miss America Pageant

No lesson is ever lost – Phyllis George, Miss America 1971

Phyllis has never been satisfied with the status quo. Her mantra has always been that if you lose, don’t lose the lesson. She believes that you have to put yourself out there to gain higher ground. Throughout her life she has broken barriers and been a trailblazer.

As a newly minted former Miss America, she appeared in numerous commercials and was tapped to be the first female co-host on Candid Camera. She became the first female pre-game football sportscaster on national television, showcasing her signature style on CBS’s NFL Today for ten years. She co-hosted three Superbowls and six Rose Bowl parades. She later created two of her own prime-time shows on TNN, wrote five books, including two on the creative work of the hand, a cookbook and a self-help book, Never Say Never: Ten lessons to turn You Can’t into Yes I Can. She is in demand as an award-winning motivational speaker.

When she served as Kentucky’s First Lady during the 1980s, as the wife of Governor John Y. Brown, Phyllis took her boundless energy, restored the Governor’s mansion and wrote a book about the process. She went on to found the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and support Kentucky craftspeople by selling their work through major retail outlets such as Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus.

Looking for her next project she started her own prepared food company in her kitchen. Chicken by George revolutionized the fresh prepared food industry and proved wrong those who said it couldn’t be done. It was so successful that Hormel Foods bought the company several years later. She has had a successful line of beauty products featured on a home shopping network. At fifty she made her movie debut in Meet the Parents.

Phyllis never says no when a good cause calls. Through Save the Children, Phyllis has sponsored children in Appalachia since 1980 and now serves on the board of three non-profit organizations including the Miss America Organization. Phyllis is listed in the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World, and the 50 Greatest Women in Radio & Television by American Women in Radio & Television. “In the 1970s I was on the cover of People Magazine as the ‘First Lady of the Locker Room.’ In the 1980s, I was again on the cover of People as the ‘First Lady of Kentucky.’ In the 1990s my best one yet: Poultry Processing Magazine put me on their cover as the ‘First Lady of Chicken.’ Now I can die a happy woman!”

But she’s not done yet. She was awarded the prestigious Rita Hayworth award for her work as an advocate and spokeswoman for the Alzheimer’s Association, a task she took on after her mother and best friend passed away from the disease. Phyllis’s most difficult role ever was as her mother’s primary long-distance caregiver for ten years. She is now writing a book on caregiving to help others dealing with this heartbreaking disease. When she talks about her television reporter daughter and her entrepreneur son, Phyllis glows with pride. The word “never” is not in this woman’s vocabulary.

I was a few minutes late, rather than the half hour early I had hoped to be, to  meet Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958, for an interview for my triple award winning book, Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss America, Somehow the ticket agent at the Denver Airport had checked my bag through to LaGuardia.  

As I walked into the lobby of the Loew’s Hotel, a tall gleaming glass tower, 15 miles south of downtown Denver, I saw Marilyn, sitting erect, poised on the edge of a sofa just inside the revolving doors.
Her silver white hair was cut short and swept up off her face.  She was tall and slimmer than I had expected, her body, dressed in dark slacks and a light blue oxford well-starched button down shirt, was trim. I followed her into the hotel dining room.

Marilyn Van Derbur

Me and Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958

As we sat and talked, her light blue eyes were focused on me. All she ordered for lunch was a large bowl of blueberries that she dressed in a shower of Splenda.  I guessed that’s how she maintains her slim figure in addition to regular hikes in the mountains. 

As in other recent interviews with Phyllis George, Miss America 1971 and Rebecca King, Miss America 1974, I didn’t try to steer the conversation too much with direct questions.  Marilyn wanted to talk about her experiences as a child of incest and the people she had helped.  I was mesmerized by her intensity and passion.  I could see how she was a sought after motivational speaker, and how people felt comfortable turning to her in their pain. 

Her story is quite extraordinary, having been sexually abused for years as a child by her father.  Her family had been picture perfect to others, but behind closed doors, it was a torture chamber for Marilyn.  It took her decades to come to terms with what had happened to her.  By day she was the perfect child, by night a terrified creature in the dark.  To this day she has trouble sleeping and sleeps in a locked bedroom.  She is fortunate that her husband of many years, Larry, has supported her through all of her trauma.
Once she was willing to go public (that’s a whole other story) about her experiences, she found, rather than shame, support and gratitude from others who had similar experiences.
I knew from reading her book, Miss America by Day, that for a long time she didn’t like people to touch her, so I didn’t know whether she would want a hug at the end.  But she turned to me when we walked out and hugged me.  She had moved past her trauma and into embracing life.

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