I believe we learn from our past, and over these last few weeks I have been doing just that: diving into the history of Miss America to learn more about our former Miss Americas. With over 90 women who held this coveted title, what were their stories? What impact did they make during their year?
In the midst of my research, the Miss America email scandal broke, the top people resigned, and the Miss America pageant world turned upside down. I feel very lucky that I was totally absorbed with Miss America history so I could view this as the latest of the obstacles the organization has faced. The remarkable women from the past solidified my own conviction that Miss America would endure in the future. And it was absolutely thrilling to see the signatures of my idols on the letter demanding the resignation of the board. These were the women who had inspired me and now they were taking action! I especially could not be more proud that our own Minnesota native, Gretchen Carlson, is now the new Chairwoman.
So as the Miss America Organization finds her new footing once again, let’s take a look at some of these former Miss America’s through the decades and see a slice of what their years brought. There is so much I could write about each woman but that would be a book. So I’ve chosen women from each decade that were interesting to me, to share a bit of their stories.
Miss America Pageant 1962
Photo from the collection of Allen "Boo" Pergament, Atlantic City historian.
Miss America Through the Decades
It all started with Margaret Gorman, a 16-year-old high school student, who became the first Miss America by beating out 7 other contestants in the “Atlantic City Bathing Beauty Contest.” Margaret wore dark knee-high stockings and a chiffon bathing costume with a skirt down to her knees. It was her personal achievements in school and her extroverted personality that the judges noticed, as well as receiving the biggest audience applause (audience applause was half of the contest.)
Norma Smallwood becomes the first Miss America of Native American ancestry. She became a very popular poster girl reportedly making over $100,000 in appearances and product endorsements during her year, which was more than Babe Ruth made that year! This was an unimaginable sum of money for that time. After Miss America, she toured with the Orpheum Circuit for a period before settling down.
This was a pivotal year for Miss America, but not because of the woman who won, but because of the woman who stepped up to lead the Organization. Lenora Slaughter, Miss America’s only female Director, took over. Under her guidance she introduced the talent competition and would eventually came up with the idea of awarding scholarships as the prize. She also established rules for age and marital status, and she brought back the boardwalk parade, which drew an estimated crowd of 350,000 people. The Organization grew tremendously under her leadership over the next 33 years.
Venus Ramey, our first red-headed Miss America, was a great promoter of war bonds. At the age of 19, she went on a vaudeville tour and sold $5 million in war bonds. She was honored by the United States Treasury Department for her work and even got to meet First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Venus’s face was painted on the side of fighter planes and it was reported that these planes went on 68 raids and NEVER lost a man! Venus became a national celebrity and boosted US morale when we were at a losing point in the war. She is one of the first Miss Americas to use her title to make a difference through getting involved in political activity.
Bess Myerson is the first Jewish-American Miss America and the first winner of a Miss America scholarship. Because of anti-Jewish sentiment, Lenora Slaughter suggested Bess change her name to Beth Merrick, but Bess declined. Throughout Bess’s year she was the target of great anti-semitism and had far less appearances because of it. This put her into a position of working with the Anti-Defamation League and launching a speaking tour. She became a voice that might not have been heard had she not been Miss America. Bess courageously faced her foes with her motto “You can’t be beautiful and hate.”
Minnesota’s own Bebe Shopp was crowned at the age of 18, and is to this day our oldest living Miss America. She was the first Miss America to be crowned in her evening gown as previously, every former Miss America was crowned in a swimsuit. Bebe made national headlines her year when she denounced the new bikini craze that started in France. To this day, Bebe remains very active in the program and attends the national pageant every year.
This is the first year the Miss America pageant was nationally televised and Lee Meriwether wins the title of Miss America becoming a household name overnight. Lee went on the have a very successful career in TV and movies that has her still working today. She proves Miss America can set you up for continued success.
1955 is also the year the iconic song, “There She Is, Miss America” was debuted. Bert Parks sang it to Lee Meriwether upon her crowning. Also during this year, Miss America hit the one million dollar mark in scholarships awarded since 1945, 10 years earlier.
Stay tuned for the next 50 years!
Kathryn Rose Kueppers, Author