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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.

I am sitting on a gilded settee at the Carlyle Hotel  in Manhattan. The mirror-finish black stone floor bordered in taupe and white marble sets the stage for an era of bias cut dresses and jeweled cigarette holders.  The only color in the room is the golden-rod upholstery on two black lacquered deco sofas and vases of orange orchids. Two 6’ palms in large black rectangular pots flank the stairs leading to the street. 

I have plenty of time to contemplate all of this and more while I wait for Phyllis George, Miss America 1971.

So I wait, admiring the bellhops in their taupe jackets with black collars and shiny silver buttons and the staff in their dark suits and white shirts behind the sleek reservation desk. Subdued lighting glows from five arm crystal scones and a twenty-armed crystal chandelier.

Me & Phyllis George at the Miss America Pageant

Me & Phyllis George at the Miss America Pageant

Then, Phyllis appears at the top of the stairs, bringing with her a whirl of energy, an effervesant glow and apologies for the half hour delay.  Dressed in a beige pants suit, with a one-button jacket, her streaked blond hair pulled back on the sides, she is lovely. In the Café Carlyle we sit side by side on the banquet. From the first moment, she starts to talk as if we are old friends.  There is scarcely room for me to get in a few words. I don’t have to say very much and I am entranced.

This certainly is not the type of interview I had with the other nineteen Miss Americas that I’ve talked with up to that point. Though I finally get a few moments to tell her what the premise of Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss Americas  is, she is practically my best friend within the first half hour, sharing intimacies that surprise and delight me.  

Though she tells me when we first sit that she needs to be back at her apartment around 3:00 p.m., it is well after that hour when we finally pay the bill. And the afternoon isn’t over yet.  In those two hours, we’ve hardly touched our beautiful salads.  Instead we laughed and even cried together.  She shared stories about her life and her experiences that touched me.  I told her about having stage IV mantle cell lymphoma and how I clawed my way back to health. We both had to wipe the tears from our eyes. 

Our conversation still had room to go. She invited me to continue our chat and so we walked to her apartment facing Central Park on the corner of 75th Street.  Her charm and graciousness were evident as she introduced me to the doorman and a woman in the lobby as her friend, Penny.  I felt honored to be treated in such a manner.  She has that uncanny ability, shared with so many of her Miss America sisters, to make the people she is with feel special when with her.  And, the most amazing part is that it is genuine.

Her four month old English Springer spaniel puppy, Happy, is whining in the kitchen, needing to be walked. We walk the dog in Central Park, not once but twice, because he doesn’t poop the first time. In just a couple of hours she is due at a benefit gala for Save the Children to be held at the Time-Warner Center.  Her table mates were to be Blythe Danner and Melinda Gates.  Phyllis is a whirlwind of energy.  I don’t know how she keeps up with herself.

She is human, just like the rest of us.  At heart, she says she is still a small town girl.  When we come back from our first walk, she puts her hair up in a clip and I can see that her hair is wet with perspiration.  It’s not that it’s hot out, but that she is flashing, as she puts it. 

I loved being with her and felt a strong connection.  As we sat over lunch, she turned to me and said that she felt we were a lot alike.  We talked more like girlfriends than anything else.  She asked my advice about dealing whether she should pursue political ambitions or give them up for love.  I said she should do both.  She asked me about dealing with split loyalties that step children are likely to feel.  I told her to just be herself and wait for them to come to her.  She told me about a group of three girl friends she has who she was going out to Amagansett with for the weekend and that they call themselves The Karma Sisters (don’t you love that!).  I told her about my Creative Women’s Business Group.  She told me about her mother’s Alzheimer’s.  I told her about my husband’s dad.  She told me how she wanted to write a book about care giving.  I told her about my cancer and the article I wrote.

I finally took my leave sometime after 5:00 p.m. because I knew that she had to great ready for the gala and had to leave at 6: 00 p.m. I had the most fabulous, really fabulous afternoon.  The wait was definitely worth it.

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