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On January 30th, a new Miss America will be crowned. She will be the 89th woman chosen.  It has been said that other pageants look for a model, but the Miss America Pageant looks for a role model.

The women who become Miss America are so much more than the stereotype. They have a dream and the drive to achieve it. Disciplined about doing what it takes to reach their goals, their passion, persistence and resilience push them past obstacles and help them deal with adversity.   These women turn out to be not just pretty, but pretty smart!

For my award-winning book, Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss Americas, I met with twenty-two of them in their homes, at their offices or over lunch, in places like Memphis, Denver, Louisville, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Santa Fe, St. Petersburg and New York

In person, they shatter the “it’s only a beauty contest” perception with their intelligence, thoughtfulness, poise and eloquence. As Frank Deford, the award-winning Sports Illustrated writer and four-time Miss America judge, says in his book, There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America, “No matter how many times it happens, the press finds itself surprised every time a beauty pageant winner is something other than a classic dumb blond.”

The Pageant, started in 1921, evolved from just a beauty contest into one that strives to provide opportunities for young women to stretch themselves in many directions. In 1945, Bess Meyerson was the first Miss America to receive a scholarship. As today’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women in the world through both the national, state and local chapters – over $45 million of in-kind scholarships in 2009 – it requires that the contestants be competent, curvaceous and directed, even though others may disparage the role.

Many people don’t see beyond the swimsuit competition. They think you can’t be beautiful and smart. This complicated mix of beauty and brains has always been a contradiction in American society, which often dismisses the possibility of being both. It takes guts, creativity, endurance, lots of plain hard work and a fire in the belly to achieve that pinnacle of femaleness.  Contrary to popular opinion, the Miss America Organization had a liberal feminist agenda years before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The Miss America Organization promoted higher education for women starting in the 1940s when women in aprons were more the norm than women in business suits. Tens of thousands of young women, who participated in the pageant system at the local, state and national level, have acquired the means to get a college education and have enhanced their skills.

Mostly small town girls with big hearts and big dreams, they see the Pageant as an opportunity to actualize a larger vision for themselves. Being Miss America provides them with a platform to achieve their dreams of a higher education, access to a broad audience to promote a social cause and exposure to people who could help them get where they wanted to go. Rarely is the crown an end in itself. And, as for smart, most of them were or become graduates of the finest colleges and universities in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, Skidmore and Virginia Polytechnic University. Their ranks include magna cum laude graduates and Rhodes Scholar finalists. In 1974, a law student crowned a Ph.D. candidate. And then, they go on to make a difference.   They serve as role models for all of us.

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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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