Diving into the history of our Miss Americas can honestly be a full time job. With almost 100 women who held this coveted title, there are far too many stories to tell about each of their years and the things they accomplished. But I will try!!
This is Part 2 of my blog. I've been looking at some of the former Miss Americas through the decades to see a snapshot of what they did. I’ve selected women from each decade that jumped out to me, to share a bit of their stories. Obviously, choosing who to write about has been tough!! I wanted to go into detail on every Miss America I read about.... Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy this glance at who your Miss Americas were.
Miss America Through the Decades
Tawny Godin was Miss New York before she became Miss America. Fun fact, she was fluent in Spanish and conversant in German, Latin, Greek and Russian, an ability that no doubt made her stand out among the crowd She won with a piano piece she composed herself, adding to her long list of accomplishments. She went on to be a news anchor, TV host and appear in a few movies and TV series. She was at one time married to Duke of Hazzard star, John Schneider, and she now lives in California.
Dorothy Benham is the second woman crowned from Minnesota. She captured the nation with her vocal performance of Adele’s Laughing Song. She ended the song by effortlessly singing and holding out a ‘high D’ to a captivated audience. Since her reign, Dorothy has appeared on Broadway, the Hour of Power, and enjoys a successful career as a vocalist. She continues to be an active Miss America advocate, volunteer and a reminder that Miss America stays with you in everything you do in life. Having met her in person on multiple occasions, Dorothy is one of my biggest inspirations, and she remains one of the most beloved Miss America’s to fans around the country.
Vanessa Williams becomes the first African-American woman to win Miss America. Sadly, she was under constant security because of threats against her. My mother was Miss Minnesota the year that Vanessa won and told me how Vanessa’s resignation over nude photos published in Penthouse was a huge national news story at that time. Since that unfortunate incident, Vanessa beat the odds and made a comeback as a vocal artist. She is now a nationally recognized actor, singer and designer. At the 2016 Miss America pageant, Vanessa was welcomed back to the organization with a prime time TV apology by then CEO, Sam Haskell. Vanessa is pictured here with Suzette Charles, who took over for Vanessa after she resigned.
Registered nurse, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, wins the title of Miss America. She devotes her year to promoting and advocating the nursing profession. Kaye Lani’s advocacy for nursing was so impactful, that she (with help and support from Gretchen Carlson after Gretchen became Miss America) worked to establish the "contestant platform" as a part of the Miss America competition. Since then, there have been hundreds upon thousands of women from local, state and national levels who have served, volunteered, and advocated for issues important to them. Kaye Lani started something very impactful during her rein.
Gretchen Carlson was the 3rd Minnesota native to win Miss America! She was a classically trained violinist and an honors graduate at Stanford University. Since she also promoted her passion, Arts in Education, during her year, Miss America decided to make "personal platforms" an official requirement of the competition. Gretchen went on to have an amazing career in the news industry including hosting her own show on the FOX TV network “The Real Story,” and is a New York Times best-selling author of her books, “Be Fierce” and “Getting Real.” She is currently leading the movement to end sexual harassment in the workplace. In addition, she has accepted the position as Chairwoman of the Miss America Organization. Needless to say, Gretchen is making Miss America and women across the country proud, especially those of us from Minnesota!
Heather Whitestone, winning both a Talent and Swimsuit preliminary at the Miss America pageant, becomes the first deaf woman to win the title. She brought the audience to tears with her beautiful Ballet en Point dance to “Via Dolorosa.” During her talent presentation speakers were put face down on the stage so that she could feel the vibrations of the music and dance to those vibrations as she could not hear the song. After her reign, Heather served on the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and was also a spokesperson for the Starkey Hearing Aid Foundation. After the birth of her two sons, Heather decided to have cochlear implants to help her to hear the voices of her children. Now that she is regaining some hearing, Heather has lobbied legislators on Capitol Hill on behalf of the deaf to bring awareness to implants and to those who have hearing loss.
If you click on her photo, it will take you to a video of her talent!
(This was the year I was born!) Katherine (Kate) Shindle, from Illinois, wins the title! She worked tirelessly throughout her year as an AIDS activist, visiting schools across America to educate young people. Kate has enjoyed a successful career on Broadway and was even elected as President of the Actor’s Equity Association. In 2014, Kate authored the book “Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain” which recounted her experience as Miss America. The book was openly critical of the Miss America Board and as a result Kate became an outcast by the national board. In December of 2017, there was a scandal from emails that were sent by then Miss America CEO Sam Haskell, which were critical of former Miss America’s, including Kate. It resulted in the resignation of Sam Haskell and his entire board. Kate has now been voted in as a member of the new Board at Miss America!
Erika Harold wins the title with a platform of Empowering Youth Against Violence, sharing her own personal experience about overcoming bullying. She was a graduate from Harvard Law School and became a litigation attorney, eventually representing religious institutions protecting their First Amendment rights. Erika was next appointed to serve on the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Equality. She is currently running for the position Attorney General in Illinois!
Cara Mund, is the first Miss North Dakota to become Miss America! She is an Ivy League honors graduate from Brown University and plans to go to Law School after she completes her year of service. Cara has been weathering the storm gracefully as the Miss America Board resigned, and the new Board is being placed. Cara has been a lifelong champion for the Make A Wish Foundation, which she continues to support, along with the Children’s Miracle Network. Minnesota is excited to welcome Cara in June of 2018 as she will be a guest of honor at the Crowns & Gowns Ball which will celebrate the 70th anniversary of BeBe Shopp, Miss America 1948!
If you enjoyed reading Miss America history and would like to learn more, go to www.missamerica.org and check out the “Our History” page for a complete list of these phenomenal women! There is so much you can learn from all of them.
Also, if you are interested in competing, check out my previous blog about how to enter a local pageant: "7 Steps to Enter A Miss America Local Pageant." I outline the steps you need to take to start your own journey towards the "Invisible Crown"!
Kathryn Rose Kueppers, Author