For Miss America, fame comes in a flash. One minute you’re nearly anonymous; a second later, you’re wearing a tiara, waving like Queen Elizabeth and dabbing at your mascara right there on national TV to the strains of “There She Is.” The next morning you’re in every newspaper; then off on a yearlong whirlwind tour and then…well, what, exactly?
To find out, PEOPLE sought out all 61 surviving Miss Americas, from Marian Bergeron (1933) to Heather French (2000). How do they feel about it all? What did they learn? Where do they keep that tiara? How have they changed 10, 20, 30, even 67 years after winning the title?
Most of the winners look back with pride; a couple, frankly, are bitter; others simply bemused. The day after she was crowned, says Marian McKnight (1957), “I was asked when I wanted to go home. I said Christmas week, and they said fine. And that was the only time I got to go home for a year,” she recalls. “I didn’t know they booked Miss America every day except Sunday!”
While some never got used to being in the public eye, others went on to make it their livelihood. On this page, we start with seven Miss Americas who, after their reigns, stayed in the national spotlight. Then we look at 54 others—musicians, motivational speakers, a gym teacher, a lawyer, single moms and divorcées, happily marrieds and grandmothers—who seldom make headlines. Whatever else life brought, they all belong, once and forever, to a unique sorority.
On Oct. 14, most of them, like an expected 15 million Americans, will watch as a new initiate joins the club. “We keep track and say, ‘It can’t be true!’ like everybody else,” says Rebecca King (1974), who tunes in with pals and her daughters Diana, now 12, and Emily, 15. “You have to watch,” she says. “It’s fun.”
The night she was crowned Miss New York City, a Miss America pageant representative told Myerson, who is Jewish, to change her name. “They said Bessie Myerson was not a good professional name,” she recalls. The Bronx-born daughter of an immigrant housepainter refused: “I said, ‘I live in a cooperative with 250 other families, all of them Jewish. If I win, they’ll feel very, very good, but if I change my name, they won’t even know it’s me.’ ”
Indeed, when she became the first Jewish Miss America—and the first to have graduated from college before winning—the auditorium was filled with a large number of Jews who had read about her in the papers. “I remember watching people embrace and throw things, in the air,” she says. “There was this exhilarating outburst.” But not everyone was pleased. During her reign, Myerson often was met with rejection and discrimination. While visiting a veteran’s hospital in Atlantic City, she says, the mother of a soldier injured in World War II told her, “I don’t want you to come in here. My son lost his legs because he went to war to save the Jews.” Such incidents only inspired Myerson. “I just went out there,” she says, “as a spokesperson for cooperative existence.”
Once her year was over, Myerson used her $5,000 Miss America scholarship to study music at Columbia University. In 1946, she married businessman Allan Wayne, with whom she had a daughter, Barra, now 52 and a screenwriter. That marriage ended in divorce, as did a second, to tax attorney Arnold Grant. Stints on TV game shows The Big Payoff and I’ve Got a Secret in the 1950s and ’60s and posts in New York City government in the ’70s and ’80s kept her a popular public figure. Unwanted attention came in 1987, when she was tried—and acquitted—on conspiracy and other charges as a result of a political scandal. Now 75, Myerson looks back on her reign with pride. “I felt it was an important victory,” she says. “I won and I hadn’t changed my name.”
The pageant audience didn’t notice, but Whitestone was in trouble. The stage was too dark for the former Miss Alabama, who is deaf, to read the announcer’s lips, and she didn’t know when to walk across stage. Needing a cue, Whitestone turned to contestants beside her. “They could have made me look foolish, but they helped me,” she says. “It meant everything to me.”
Not all of Whitestone’s memories are so rosy. The first Miss America with a physical disability, she has mixed emotions about her reign and the controversy she provoked. “The deaf community criticized me for reading lips instead of signing,” says Whitestone, who lost her hearing in infancy due to a reaction to antibiotics. “They didn’t like that I was speaking.”
Now 27 and living in Atlanta with husband John McCallum, 30, an entrepreneur, and son John, 9 months old, the full-time mom reflects on the intense year with a sigh. “I was more than glad to hand the crown over,” she says.
Before she became the first dethroned Miss America, Williams, 37, was the first African-American Miss America. And while many cheered, others sent death threats. In some I states, she told MSNBC’s Headliners and Legends, “there were armed guards outside my motel room.”
The negative attention only became worse 10 months into her reign, when she was forced to step down after racy nude photographs of her ran in Penthouse. “Frightened, overwhelmed and in shock,” as she told ENTERTAINMENT “WEEKLY, she found comfort with her publicist-turned-manager Ramon Hervey, with whom she had three children before they divorced in 1997.
In 1988 she kicked off her career as a recording artist. Singing had been her first love growing up in Millwood, N.Y., the daughter of music teachers Helen, 60, and Milton, 65. After two hit albums, she won praise onstage in Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1994 and in film, playing opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1996’s Eraser. In 1999 Williams wed L.A. Lakers forward Rick Fox, 31. This year she gave birth to their daughter Sasha and costarred in Shaft. Now savoring her second round of fame, she says, “The secret is being open to whatever is being bestowed upon you.”
MARY ANN MOBLEY
Her victory was the biggest thing ever to hit Brandon, Miss., where the 5’5″ Mobley grew up. “The night I won,” she says, “the people came out of their houses and danced in the street because little, short, squat Mary Ann had won Miss America!”
After her reign Mobley moved to New York City, studied acting with Lee Strasberg—financed by her scholarship money—and launched a showbiz career that would include movies, musical theater and 10 years as cohost (with actor husband Gary Collins, 62) of the Miss America pageant. Now living in Beverly Hills with Collins (daughter Clancy, 31, is a TV executive), Mobley, 63, wasn’t supposed to be an actress. Her father, David, wanted her to be a lawyer, as he was. “Not that it would have been bad,” she says, “but it would have been different.”
Still a fan of the pageant, Mobley laments only how these days “everything is so scripted. When Bert Parks asked my little sister Sandra if she’d like to be Miss America,” Mobley recalls, “she said, sobbing, ‘No! My mother couldn’t go through it again.’ You don’t get all that stuff now.”
A press release for Meet the Parents, the new Robert De Niro-Ben Stiller comedy, has George flummoxed. “They refer to me as newcomer Phyllis George,” gasps the former Miss Texas, now 51, who makes her big-screen debut this month in the movie. “I’ve been around forever, or certainly a long, long time.”
She has been fully occupied most of that time, starting with her year as Miss America. “You’re like a doctor on call,” she says, “seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Sometimes you get only four or five hours of sleep, sometimes you hit three or four cities a day.” But after the year, which for her included a one-month USO tour of Vietnam, she says, “you’re exhausted, you sleep for a week—but there’s a huge letdown.”
That pace made going back to her hometown of Denton, where she was majoring in elementary education at the University of North Texas, out of the question. Instead she moved to New York City to launch a TV career. She landed a year-long job co-hosting the syndicated New Candid Camera with Allen Funt and, after studying acting, signed on with CBS as the first woman sportscaster on network TV. A year after her brief marriage to Hollywood producer Robert Evans ended in 1978, she married former Kentucky Fried Chicken owner John Y. Brown Jr. In 1980 she shelved broadcasting to become first lady of Kentucky during Brown’s four years as governor and to raise their children, Tyler, now 20, and Pamela, 16, both students. “When Pamela was little,” says George, “she used to say, ‘I want to be a Miss America like my mommy.’ But she’s not interested in that now.”
A Manhattan resident since her 1998 divorce from Brown, George, who cohosted the pageant in the ’70s, still cringes a bit recalling the night she won. “I started walking and the crown fell on the floor. Stones went everywhere, the banner fell off my shoulders, my hair was sticking up; I looked like a ragamuffin. Gee, my big moment,” she deadpans. “But I didn’t care.”
Despite the lives she has lived since then, “when you walk into a room,” she says, “they always say ‘former Miss America.’ ”
LEE ANN MERIWETHER
Meriwether says she often gets recognized on the street—but usually for her turns in TV’s Barnaby Jones or as Cat-woman in the 1960s Batman TV series, not as the winner of the first televised Miss America pageant. “Some people are shocked that I was Miss America,” she says, adding, “I don’t know whether to accept that as a compliment or not!”
Back in 1954, Meriwether, a City College of San Francisco student who had been nominated for Miss San Francisco by one of her school’s fraternities, was surprised to find herself up for the national crown—and nearly withdrew after her father died that July. “My mom talked me into it,” reminding her of the scholarship prizes, she says. Meriwether’s win paid for acting classes with Lee Strasberg and landed her a 14-month stint on the Today show—launching a showbiz career that she had considered only a “pipe dream.”
Recently seen on the L.A. stage and on ABC’s All My Children, Meriwether, 65, has been wed since 1986 to actor-playwright Marshall Borden, 74. She has two daughters from her first marriage, to actor Frank Aletter: Kyle, 40, a former actress and now an administrative assistant, and Lesley, 36, a Hollywood stuntwoman. Meriwether (who no longer uses her middle name) “never made [being Miss America] a big deal,” says Kyle, mother of Meriwether’s granddaughter Ryan, 6. “She’s more comfortable in a pair of sweats.”
MARILYN VAN DERBUR
Prone to panic attacks, Van Derbur sobbed with relief after she finished playing the organ for the talent competition. When she was named a finalist, she says, “it was like, ‘You don’t mean I have to do this all over again’ ” A shy University of Colorado sophomore from Denver when her sorority entered her in a college pageant, she was crowned while clad in her debutante gown. “It would never have been anything I would have tried for,” she says. “But it was a wonderful year.”
Nor does she second-guess her 1991 decision to go public as an incest survivor, a move that initially upset some pageant officials. Van Derbur (now Atler), 63, who has a daughter, Jennifer, 28, with lawyer husband Larry Atler, 65, says that from age 5 to 18 she was sexually abused by her father, Francis, who died in 1985. Van Derbur works on behalf of victims of incest, as an example of someone who survived. “That’s where the power is in having been Miss America,” she says.
Eight Decades of Miss Americas
Yes, life is different without a tiara; 54 winners tell how
“There’s a saying,” says Bergeron. “The crown passes on, but the, title—never.” That makes Bergeron, 82, the longest-reigning Miss America. Bribed (with a year’s worth of theater passes) into entering a preliminary competition, Bergeron was just 15½ when she won in Atlantic City (a minimum age requirement of was enacted a few years later). “They didn’t require any talent in 1933,” she says. “All you had to do was have measurements, and apparently I had measurements.” After she won, she says, her age and height (she was 5’4″) kept her from big-time showbiz. “Flo Ziegfeld said, ‘I’d love to be able to use you, but your stems aren’t long enough,’ ” she recalls. Asked to leave her Catholic high school for getting “entirely too much undue publicity,” the West Haven, Conn., native went on the road as a big-band singer. Now a great-grandmother, Bergeron, twice widowed, has been married since 1986 to Fred Setzer, 85. And while her crown disappeared days after her win, she does have her loving cup. “I make flower arrangements in it,” she says.
The previous December, King Edward VIII of Britain had given up his crown. Two months before, aviator Amelia Earhart had disappeared over the Pacific. So when the newly crowned Cooper, 17, vanished into the night with 21-year-old Lou Off, who had chauffeured her around Atlantic City, the press embarked on a frenzy of speculation, running a photograph that showed Cooper’s three runners-up flanking her empty throne. The truth behind her disappearance turned out to be far less lurid than anticipated. A high school senior in rural Hackettstown, N.J., Cooper had entered the pageant as a lark, never expecting to win. Uninterested in a show business career, she also didn’t want to drop out of school to fulfill her Miss America duties. With the help of her parents she contacted Off, who spirited her out of her hotel and secreted her on a boat anchored 200 yards off the Steel Pier. As a result, pageant officials ultimately decided contestants would henceforth be chaperoned by socially prominent Atlantic City women. Cooper, who later married a Wall Street executive and had two children, is still, at 80, resolute in her abdication; she declined a request for an interview. Contacted by PEOPLE at her Connecticut home, she would say only, “There is no Miss America here.”
More than six decades later, after two husbands, one son and three pacemakers, Meseke—at 84 the oldest surviving Miss America—still gets fan letters. Groomed for the pageant by her grandmother in Marion, Ohio (“she was a little like a stage mother”), Meseke, now Rogers, doesn’t have the energy to answer all her mail. The lucky pen pals get one of two photographs: Marilyn in her formal gown being introduced by actor-singer Rudy Vallee, or a cheesecake shot. “Who gets which? “I don’t send the bathing suit ones out to the boys,” she says.
The swimsuit competition, Donnelly remembers, was a problem. “I had gone swimming in the only good bathing suit I had, so it was wet and I couldn’t wear it,” she says. “The kids who had been eliminated loaned me one.” Sixty-one years later, that suit would still fit. “I’m wearing the same clothes I wore when I was 20,” says the onetime model and singer from Durand, Mich., who lives in Natick, Mass. “I was 128, 129 lbs. then, and now I weigh about 130.” Now 80 and widowed, Donnelly, a mother of two (and grandmother of two), was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1980. After undergoing a laryngectomy, she speaks with the aid of a plastic prosthesis. “I was the Chesterfield girl for one year—I think it was 1940,” she says. “Thanks to cigarettes, I can’t talk.”
Before the pageant was televised, Miss America sometimes received her crown in the middle of the night. “It was late, about 12:30, and I was exhausted,” recalls Frances Burke, now 78. “I used the scepter to cover a yawn, and that’s the photo they used in the paper the next day!” The then-18-year-old former Miss Western Pennsylvania may have gotten off to a sleepy start, but her fledgling modeling career soon kicked into high gear. She did so well that she turned down a development deal from a Hollywood studio. “I was very happy with the little life I had cut out for myself, and they wanted to own me for seven years and send me to dancing, singing and voice coaches,” she says. “I didn’t dream awfully big dreams. I wanted to settle down, get married and have a family.” In 1945 she wed Philadelphia concrete company owner Lawrence Kenney, now 80, with whom she raised two sons and two daughters. Today she ice-dances regularly and is an accomplished cook. “I’ve lived a very obscure life,” says Burke, who has 10 grandchildren and, she says, no regrets. “People then knew me as Frances Burke, a model and Miss America. Today they know me as Frances Kenney, a mother and grandmother. That was then, this is now. There are no trophies around the house. I don’t ever talk about it.”
“In a way, greed led me into these pageants,” says Jo-Carroll Dennison. She entered her first contest to win a free swimsuit, her second for a set of luggage. By the time she became Miss Texas she had m won a whole new wardrobe. Nonetheless, when the 19-year-old Dennison was named Miss America, she turned down a film contract because the U.S. was at war. “It was an extraordinary time to be representing your country,” she says. After her reign she did move to Hollywood, acted in minor film roles and married legendary comedian Phil Silvers. They broke up five years later, and she wed TV producer Russell Stoneham (they split in 1980), with whom she had two sons. “To this day,” says Dennison, now 76 and living near Palm Springs, Calif., “I feel myself pulling in my stomach muscles, standing up tall and smiling a lot.”
“I never tell anyone I was Miss America,” says Bartel, 76, who lives in Brentwood, Calif., with her husband, real estate agent William Hogue, “but it’s interesting how it comes up now and then—your friends tell somebody, you get fan mail.” Bartel entered the Miss California competition hoping to help her singing career. “I had heard that one of the judges was a producer of Oklahoma!,” she says. “I never thought of winning.” Win she did, though, and again in Atlantic City, and immediately went on a War Bonds tour. “I christened ships and entertained soldiers,” she says. “Mothers would come up to me and talk about their sons in the war.” In 1952 Bartel realized her Broadway dream, appearing as the female lead in Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing. And she just completed a small role in The Debtors, an upcoming movie starring Michael Caine. Being Miss America, she says, was “the start of so many things.”
She was the first redhead to win—and, she says, the bustiest. Nowadays Ramey, 76, is an iconoclastic activist. A resident of Harrodsburg, Ky., the divorced mother of two is a write-in candidate for President (her slogan: “The ones who pay should have the say”) and last year unsuccessfully sued the federal government for $300 billion for its antitobacco policies. “Some girls go back to Atlantic City every year,” says Ramey, who declined to be photographed for this issue. “Not me; I’ve moved on.”
Asked by a reporter what she thought about the hot new two-piece swimsuits, Shopp, off to Europe near the end of her reign, answered, “I don’t think American girls should wear bikinis.” It set off a storm of controversy. “By the time I got to Europe,” she says, “it was all over the papers that I had come to clean up Europe and get rid of the bikinis. Atlantic City was furious. I was certain I was going to be dethroned.” The former Miss Minnesota survived the contretemps. Now a lay minister in the Episcopal Church, a TV spokeswoman for an electric scooter company and the mother of four daughters, she lives with her husband, philanthropist Bayard Waring, in Rockport, Mass., right next door to Beatrice, her 97-year-old mother. One big change in pageant contestants: “Unlike us, none of whom had muscles,” says Shopp, who was 5’9″ and 140 lbs. when she won, “their bodies are perfectly shaped.”
The day after becoming Miss America 1951, Betbeze announced, “I’m an opera singer, not a pinup,” and refused to appear in a swimsuit again. “I had to play by their rules to get the crown,” she says. “But after I won, they could play by mine.” A voice student who became Miss Alabama with braces on her teeth (she had them removed before Atlantic City), Betbeze padded her age (18) by two years for the pageant. Her outspokenness after her reign riled contest officials. When, she says, they criticized her for joining a civil rights protest in 1960, she labeled the pageant racist. She believes her criticism was one of the factors that led the pageant to encourage minority contestants, In 1954 Betbeze wed film executive Matthew Fox. On his death in 1964, a year after their daughter was born, Betbeze, now 68 and a grandmother, moved to Washington, D.C., buying the house where Jackie Kennedy lived after JFK’s assassination. “I spoke out against the pageant when it was needed,” says Betbeze. “The pageant has changed, thanks to me.”
COLLEEN KAY HUTCHINS
One day during her reign as Miss America, Hutchins went to a New York Knicks basketball game at Madison Square Garden. A friend introduced her to Ernie Vandeweghe, the team’s guard- forward. “I was very impressed by Ernie’s manners and consideration of others,” she says. Last May they celebrated their 47th anniversary. Their four children include son Kiki, 42, a former NBA player who is now an executive with the Dallas Mavericks, and daughter Tauna, 39, a 1976 Olympic swimmer. Apart from a bit part on Broadway in 1954, Hutchins, 74, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., has stayed out of the limelight. “When I married Ernie,” she says, “it all seemed so meaningless.”
NEVA JANE LANGLEY
“I was thrilled to death to be named Miss America,” says Langley, 67. Afterward she was very nearly worked to death; soon after she began her reign, nonstop personal appearances landed the Lakeland, Fla., homecoming queen, then 19, in the hospital for a week with pneumonia. (As a result she was given daily downtime.) Having survived a heart attack in the late ’80s and sextuple-bypass surgery last year, Langley, married for 45 years to health-insurance exec Bill Fickling and the mother of four, exercises daily but admits the title can still weigh her down. “Sometimes I hate it. I just want to go [out] with my hair looking terrible. It’s hard to do that,” she says. “With Miss America, people say, ‘Gosh, I wonder how she looks now.’ ”
The daughter of German immigrants, Ay was working part-time as a waitress at Zinn’s Diner in Ephrata, Pa., when the junior chamber of commerce held a beauty pageant. In a matter of weeks she went from Miss Ephrata to Miss Pennsylvania to Miss America—all the while slinging shoofly pie at the diner. “This could only happen in America,” her father, Richard, said at the time. Now 67 and married since 1955 to retired flooring company president Carl Sempier (they have two daughters), Ay cites only one drawback: “When you are a Miss America, everybody can figure out how old you are.”
SHARON KAY RITCHIE
The self-described “fresh off the turnip truck” Nebraskan entered her first pageant—at Colorado Women’s College—with just three days’ notice. “Why not? I threw something together,” says Ritchie, now 63. Some six months and several dramatic readings of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Murder of Lidice” later, “boom! There I was, walking with Bert Parks [making his Miss America debut].” The aspiring actress, then 18, was the first titleholder to receive the lighter crown. She was wed three times—to singer-golfer Don Cherry, father of her two sons, in 1956; sportscaster Kyle Rote in 1965; and E.F. Hutton CEO Robert Fomon in 1975—before her 1992 marriage to lumber exec Terry Mullin. The divorces, she says, “are the part of my life I don’t particularly like talking about.”
Slinking through her talent segment, a sultry satire called The Monroe Doctrine, McKnight had no idea that Joe DiMaggio, Monroe’s ex, was in the audience. “A reporter asked him afterward what he thought, and he said, ‘If I closed my eyes…,’ ” reports the South Carolinian, now 63, who briefly dated Joltin’ Joe a few years later. “It was a great compliment.” Married since 1961 to actor Gary Conway (Burke’s Law), the mother of two respects those brave enough to compete today. Contestants “are more goal-oriented than we were,” she says. “It must be so nerve-racking.” But at least they’re girded for battle: “They’re definitely in better shape than we were.”
LYNDA LEE MEAD
She knew she would never win. “I had this big problem: no singing and dancing talent,” deadpans Lynda Lee Mead. Further, the incumbent was her Chi Omega sorority sister at Ole Miss, Mary Ann Mobley. “They weren’t about to give it to Miss Mississippi twice in a row,” she figured. But after Mead’s comedy routine about a split personality—”Viewers’ requirements for talent weren’t nearly what they are now,” she says—they did. Early in Mead’s reign, her mother died of a heart attack. Four days after the funeral, “I was back on the road,” says the Memphis antiques dealer and interior designer, married since 1964 (to ear surgeon John J. Shea) and a mother of three. “Occasionally my father would come to meet me, but I was never allowed to go out with him alone,” recalls Mead. “They didn’t want somebody saying ‘Miss America seen dining with older man.’ ”
“Miss America is still the largest scholarship provider in the world for women—that’s the bottom line,” says Nancy Fleming, who entered her first beauty contest to help finance college. As Miss America the Montague, Mich., native, now 58, received a $10,000 scholarship; she was also paid for each appearance, racking up $66,000—about $350,000 in today’s currency. (Modern title holders can make $250,000.) “It gave me more choices,” says the mother of two, who taught elementary school before becoming the host of ABC’s A.M. San Francisco from 1975 to 1984. Now retired to nearby Mill Valley and married to second husband Jim Lange, former host of The Dating Game, she would “love to see them get rid of swimsuit” competition, which she finds sexist. On the other hand, she notes, “some contestants say, ‘I worked hard for this body. I want to show it off!’ ”
Growing up in Asheville, N.C., says Maria Fletcher, “all I ever wanted to do was dance.” Her parents, Beale and Peggy, ran Fletcher’s School of Dancing, and they passed on all they knew. “My father taught me tap and my mother taught me ballet,” she says. “And when I was out of high school, they put me on the train to New York City to try out for the Rockettes.” She won a spot with the fabled Radio City Music Hall dance corps, but after just seven months headed home to compete in the Miss North Carolina pageant. At her farewell party, the dancers and stagehands threw a red robe over her shoulders, put a tinfoil crown on her head and pronounced her Miss America. “Their wonderful gift helped give me the confidence I needed,” she says. After she became Miss America in reality—tap-dancing to “Somebody Loves Me” in “a red chiffon dress I’d had somebody make from a Vogue pattern”—Fletcher put her scholarship money to good use, getting a degree in French from Vanderbilt University in 1967. Divorced since 1991 and the mother of two grown children, Fletcher, 58, lives near Lake Tahoe, Nev. “I like to think,” she says, “that every Miss America is a small-town girl at heart like myself.”
Twenty-eight years old and the mother of two young children, Mayer awoke one night unable to move or speak. She had suffered a stroke. “When my children were growing up,” she says, “I was growing up too.” Husband John Townsend, son Bill, 35, and daughter Kelly, 30, all helped. Bill “taught me to say words. He taught me how to tie my shoes, things I had taught him a couple of years before.” Largely recovered, Mayer, 58, a former Miss Ohio, works with stroke victims at Providence Hospital in hometown Sandusky. “I try to give them hope to work harder,” she says. “I tell them, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you how far you can go.’ ” It is advice Mayer herself has heeded. “I loved every minute of it,” she says of being Miss America. “It was something I had dreamed about since I was a little girl.”
Right after she was crowned, Axum recalls, “I was taken down a back elevator. In the elevator were six policemen. I said, ‘What happened?’ I thought there was an emergency. They said, ‘We’re here to escort you.’ That was when I realized my life was going to be a little different that year.” Highlights included meeting President Kennedy in 1963 and a homecoming parade in El Dorado, Ark. Among the marching bands was one from Hot Springs High School, whose drum major has since become a friend. His name: Bill Clinton.
A former TV talk show host, Axum, now 58 and the mother of two grown children, lives in Fort Worth with second husband Bryan Whitworth, vice president of Phillips Petroleum. “It was a very grueling year,” she says of her reign, “but it was a fabulous education.”
VONDA VAN DYKE
Once in while, Van Dyke meets another Vonda. “I ask them, ‘Where did you get your name?’ One said, ‘Oh, it’s so embarrassing. I got it from a Miss America.’ I stuck out my hand and said, ‘How do you do?’ ” The only child of a physician and a nurse, Van Dyke taught herself ventriloquism as a child and soon after found herself sharing billing with Wayne Newton. “Wayne and I did quite a few shows before he hit it big and moved on to Vegas,” she recalls. While attending college, she began entering pageants to earn extra money, winning the Miss Tempe (Arizona) competition. “I was the only contestant who showed up,” she says, “so they told me I won.” After Atlantic City, Van Dyke had an 18-year showbiz career, appearing with Jack Benny and Victor Borge. Married to Methodist minister Jack Scoates, now deceased, she has a daughter, Vandy, 21. “Years ago,” she says, “my husband made my trophy into a lamp, so I’m putting it to practical use.”
During the evening-gown competition, it finally dawned on Bryant that she wasn’t in Overland Park, Kans., anymore. “Thousands of eyes were looking at me, judging me, in this huge convention hall,” she says. “I thought I was going to lose it.” Fortunately Bert Parks whispered words of encouragement, and she calmed down—and stayed calm as she waved to 50,000 cheering people at her victory parade in Kansas City. Bryant married in 1967 while earning a Phi Beta Kappa key as an English major at the University of Kansas and had a daughter in 1972. That marriage ended, and in 1975 she wed car dealer and father of two Brent Berge. Today, with their two sons in college, the couple live in Mesa, Ariz., where Bryant, 54, practices tennis on her backyard court. A competitive player, she notes, “It’s the kiss of death for me when someone on the other team says they heard I was a Miss America. I feel I have to be extra nice.”
“I don’t know which is more difficult, becoming Miss America or becoming a civilian again,” says the onetime Broadway hopeful from Laverne, Okla., now 53. “It’s a difficult transition. The impact of having that much attention in that time frame forever alters you a bit. But if you have a career that gets a lot of attention, it can fill that need.” Luckily for Jayroe, who was a music education major, she soon had a high-profile career as a TV news broadcaster, winning prime-time spots in Dallas and Oklahoma City, where she anchored the local evening news for 16 years. From her pageant experience, “I knew how to handle pressure and risk failure in front of people,” says the twice-divorced mother of a grown son who has been wed since 1994 to real estate developer Gerald Gamble. Jayroe was also well-prepped for her current job as Oklahoma’s cabinet secretary for tourism. After all, she explains, “what Miss America does is public relations.”
Outside, in Atlantic City, bras were being burned. Inside, “I was aware of the demonstrations but didn’t agree with them,” says Barnes, now 53, a native of Moran, Kans. (pop, 500), who was back to crown her successor. But she did think’ “the pageant was behind the times at that point. Miss America wasn’t supposed to have opinions.” In public, Barnes also wasn’t supposed to have a boyfriend, which the Pittsburg (Kans.) State University piano major did—fellow student Mitch Miles, whom she wed in 1969. The mother of two, a college piano teacher and musical director at the Carthage, Mo., nondenominational church where Mitch is the pastor, Barnes didn’t have many strong opinions at 20. For contestants who do, she says, “I’m glad they have a platform now.”
The 18-year-old gymnast’s prowess on the trampoline helped her become Miss Illinois, but Ford remembers state pageant officials warning her she could never win in Atlantic City: “They said, ‘You have three strikes against you: You’re too young, too blonde and too athletic. Miss America is not supposed to sweat.’ ”
Nevertheless the tomboy from rural Belvidere, Ill., bounced her way to the crown—and found herself unprepared for the spotlight. Quizzed by reporters about her views on the Vietnam War and race issues, “I didn’t have a clue at first,” Ford admits. “I was just a teenager, a teenybopper.” But she says she “matured a lot” during her reign—including a three-week USO tour visiting troops in Vietnam that she calls “the one time during the year I felt I was doing something important.”
Now 50 and settled in Geneseo, Ill., the University of Illinois kinesiology grad has stayed true to her jock roots: She teaches elementary school phys ed and coaches girls’ golf and basketball teams. Mother of sons Brad, 24, and Brian, 22, from her first marriage to Edwin Johnson, she wed lawyer Jim Nash, 52, in 1990 (she now goes by Judi Ford Nash). Her past is no secret among her students. “With the Internet,” she says, “they’re downloading pictures of me with the crown on.”
PAMELA ANNE ELDRED
It was a softball ’70s question: “What advice would you give your younger sister entering the Now Generation?” Eldred’s answer was most serious. She explained that her sister Melanie, then 14, was mentally retarded and faced special challenges. “There was such shock,” says Eldred. But “Melanie was never an embarrassment to me.” Now 52 and a retired image consultant, the current Mrs. Eldred-Robbins (she wed Michigan lawyer Norman Robbins, 81, in ’98) is legal guardian to Melanie, who lives in a group home, and mom to daughter Hilary, 20, from her first marriage. As for her win, Eldred chalks it up to luck. “A different set of judges, a different winner,” she says.
LAUREL LEA SCHAEFER
Crowned in the midst of the feminist movement, Schaefer quickly found herself on the defensive against bra-burning anti-pageant demonstrators. There was even a TV face-off with Gloria Steinem. “I felt they didn’t have all the information,” says the Bexley, Ohio, native. “I wouldn’t have been able to finish my education” without the money won in lower-level competitions. Divorced since 1977, Schaefer, 51, lives in Burbank, where she works as a singer and actress. But she is most proud of the scholarship program she founded at her alma mater, Ohio University. “The whole thing about winning,” she says, “is that we have to pass it on.”
At the time of her reign, Meeuwsen’s bright smile concealed a dark secret: She had been raped by an acquaintance in 1970. “I was too ashamed” to discuss the attack or press charges, she says. “It made me feel very vulnerable.”
A onetime member of the New Christy Minstrels singing group, the De Pere, Wis., native, now 51, says winning the pageant helped restore her confidence, as did her pride in touring with the USO in Vietnam. “That was the time when I felt like I was really doing something meaningful,” she says.
Wed for 19 years to school administrator Andy Friedrich (Meeuwsen’s first marriage ended in 1981 after five years), the cohost of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club now finds meaning in spending time at home in Virginia Beach, Va., with her husband, 54, and their children Drew, 17; Tory, 15; J.P., 13; and Tyler, 11. Despite the scars of her past, “I have been lucky,” she insists. “I have a lot to be thankful to God for.”
REBECCA ANN KING
Talk about a controversial start. At the traditional morning-after breakfast with the press, the newly crowned King (now Dreman) declared she was pro-choice. “You’ve got to know that Roe v. Wade was happening right then,” remembers the Hancock, Iowa-reared daughter of Wylie, now 79, and Grace, 77. “I got nailed. My mother got gross mail.” Still, she notes, “the pageant never muzzled me.”
Dreman, 50, continued to inspire controversy after graduating from the University of Denver law school in 1977. “The local newspapers ran editorials that I had won my law degree,” recalls Dreman, who remains the only practicing attorney among ex-Miss Americas. Now living in Littleton, Colo., with banker husband George Dreman, 60, and daughters Emily, 15, and Diana, 12, Dreman says she can spot fellow Miss Americas “a mile away.” How? “It’s presence, sense of style, and usually the twinkle in their eyes.”
Sure, it’s an emotional moment, but Cothran offers another explanation for welling up after her big win. “I was crying as I walked—with happiness, of course, but also because I was so hungry!” recalls the Denton, Texas, native of her victory march. “At that point I would have given anything for a bacon cheeseburger!”
Cothran, who married financier Richard Barret in 1976, used her $15,000 in scholarships toward a Ph.D. in early childhood education. Now 48, the teacher “turned motivational speaker lives in Denton with her husband, 47, and kids David, 20, Julia, 17, John, 14, and Mark, 12. Despite her trim figure and four-day-a-week gym habit, she admits to certain guilty pleasures: “I love chicken-fried steak and all those bad things Texans love to eat!”
Judging the Miss America pageant may be even more stressful than winning it, says Godin, who has done both. “It seems silly, but you know you’re going to change somebody’s life,” she says of helping pick the winner, which she’ll do again this week. “You just don’t want to burden the wrong person.”
Godin knows what some of those burdens can be. A flap ensued when she went public with her pro-choice stand and revealed that she had smoked pot. “I never aspired to be a role model,” she says, “but that’s what you are.” Now 43 and thrice divorced (including a 1984 split from Dukes of Hazzard star John Schneider), Godin married attorney Richard Welch in January (though she continues to go by her first married name, Tawny Little). The couple share an L.A. home with Joseph John, 13, and Christian, 11, Godin’s sons from her third marriage.
A partner in a TV and movie production company, the former Miss New York likens her crowning achievement to “being Dorothy in Oz. The tornado comes and just uproots everything, spins you around and plops you down somewhere else.”
Benham’s journey to the Miss America pageant took place at warp speed. The Minneapolis-bred vocalist entered—and won—her first local pageant in October 1975, swept the state title the following June and captured the top crown three months later. “I didn’t realize people did it over and over, entered different pageants until they won,” she says. Just as well. “I didn’t have time for that,” she notes.
Nor does she have time to spare today. Twice divorced, Benham, 44, now lives in Edina, Minn., where she is busy raising her brood of six: Adam, 19, Russell, 17, Ben, 15, Mia, 12, Madeline, 6, and Richard, 5. (Benham shares custody of the two younger children with her ex Michael McGowan; the older ones regularly visit their dad, ex-NHL player Russ Anderson). Now hoping to return to her musical roots, Benham, whom fellow Miss Americas call “Miss A-miracle” for maintaining her size-4 shape—recently produced a CD of sacred music. “That’s where my heart is,” she says, “enjoying my music and being there for my children.” And if her girls decide to pursue pageants? “I don’t want either of [them] to have to start worrying about whether they’re beautiful,” says Benham, who now dates lawyer Paul Shoemaker. “I want them to play in the mud like I did.”
During her reign as Miss Ohio, Perkins worked as an intern in a state senator’s office alongside an aide named John Kasich. “[He] told me, ‘You might be Miss Ohio, but you’ll never be Miss America,’ ” she recalls. When she proved him wrong, Kasich, now a Republican congressman, ate his words—literally. “They had a party for me, and they made a cake with John’s words on it,” she says. “They smashed it in his face. It was great!”
Sweet revenge aside, Perkins, now 46, says her primary motive for winning was simple: “I had hoped to have a professional career as a singer.” Instead she became a full-time mother to Trip, 14, and Brooke, 12, her children with Alan Botsford, 50, a medical software executive whom she wed in 1979. “I enjoy my life,” says Perkins, who lives in Weston, Mass., where she volunteers for the Achilles Club, a group that helps disabled athletes. Still, she admits to missing one perk from her pageant days: “I traveled a quarter of a million miles in first class. It’s hard to do coach now.”
Competing in pageants didn’t come naturally to Barker. “My mother tried entering me into a contest when I was 2,” she says. “I ran off the stage.” By the time she arrived in Atlantic City 20 years later, though, the Virginia Tech fashion major had bagged a handful of titles. “Doors opened because of that crown,” says Barker, who parlayed her tiara into a career. After opening a clothing boutique in Florida, she became a Clairol spokeswoman, a style reporter on the Today show and Live! with Regis & Kathie Lee and penned a book of beauty tips.
Now 44 and married to second husband Ralph Hibbard, 70, an entrepreneur, Barker remains a pageant supporter. “Most winners are small-town girls who worked really hard to win,” she says. “I think that still makes Miss America relevant today.”
Prewitt’s reign as Miss America contains bitter memories. “I think the pageant uses the girls,” she says of the tiring schedule. “I never saw my family after I won.” Atlantic City was a long way from Choctaw County, Miss., where she grew up poor. “I wore flour-sack dresses,” Prewitt says. A gifted musician, she entered beauty contests to pay for her Mississippi State University tuition and approached the pageant with equal pragmatism—exercising and boning up on current events for weeks before. “I was not shocked when I won,” she says.
Disillusionment followed. Prewitt, 43, who tells of being miraculously healed after a childhood car crash, claims pageant reps asked her to reduce her religious references. “I guess I was too much for them,” she says, “sharing Jesus, carrying my Bible.” (“[We’ve] always encouraged Miss America to maintain her individuality but to realize that she’s a role model for all people across our country,” responds a pageant spokesperson.)
Married to Harry Salem, 42, with whom she runs a family ministry, Prewitt (now Cheryl Salem) has two sons—Harry, 14, and Roman, 10. Tragically, her daughter, Gabrielle, died of a brain tumor last November at age 6. “You don’t see her pictures here,” says Prewitt, a recovering cancer patient, looking around her Tulsa home, “because I can’t look at them. Not now.” Nor are there many traces of her year as Miss America. Recently the family was driving near Atlantic City—and didn’t stop. “I don’t want my children to even see it,” she says.
She is perhaps the only winner to be awarded two tiaras; of course, she’s also the only one to accidentally sit on and squash her crown. “They had to send me a new one,” laughs Powell, 41. “I think the pageant was disgusted with me.” Since then, the singer-actress from tiny Elk City, Okla., has starred in several major opera productions and soloed with numerous orchestras. She also hosts the Discovery Channel’s household-tip show Home Matters. Divorced and living in Manhattan, she’s looking forward to this year’s pageant, her 20th anniversary. “This time we get to ride on a float,” she says. “I can’t wait. It’s an interesting little sorority we have.”
Sixteen years after being crowned, her name made headlines again—in 1998, when lawyers for Paula Jones wanted Ward to testify against Bill Clinton. In an interview with New York City’s Daily News, Ward, a Russellville, Ark., native admitted to a 1983 rendezvous with the state’s then governor (both were married). But, unlike Jones, Ward said “it was completely consensual.” Before the scandal the twice-divorced Ward, 39 (who goes by Elizabeth Gracen), scored small TV and movie roles; after it she won the lead in the ’98 cult sci-fi TV series Highlander: The Raven, as well as a spread in Playboy. Not that Ward, who lives alone in L.A., minded sullying her image a bit. As she explained to Playboy, “I was everybody’s Miss Perfect for so long.”
DEBRA SUE MAFFETT
Her quest for the Miss America crown, a longtime dream, came with a steep price for Maffett; she endured years of confidence-crippling critiques from pageant coaches in a misguided bid for perfection. “You can groom yourself to the point where it becomes a barrier,” says Maffett, 43, a Houston native who lives in Nashville with her husband, country-western crooner Buster Wilson, 44; their son Rydder, 4; and Wilson’s daughter Jenny, 10. A born-again Christian since 1992, Maffett, who anchored the ’80s celeb TV news show PM Magazine, now hosts a spiritual cable talk show, Harvest, and does “the mommy thing.” The tiara, which she stores in the basement to one day give to Jenny, “means absolutely nothing to me now,” she says. But the Vita Craft cookware she won along with it? “Let me tell you,” she says. “I use those pots and pans every day.”
She received no roses, no thunderous applause, not even a crown. As first runner-up, Charles quietly became Miss America at pageant offices 15 minutes after Vanessa Williams resigned. She assumed the title somewhat warily. “My career was taking off,” the 5’3″ singer told Interview magazine. “I didn’t know if I wanted that image.” She went on to perform with Stevie Wonder, act in soap operas and was once linked to Mike Tyson.
Charles (now Bley), 37, lives near New York City with husband Leonard Bley, 38, a doctor, and daughter Hannah. She once said, “[I was one of] the shortest Miss Americas with the shortest reign.”
She could handle the whirlwind travel and the pearls-and-fur circuit. But always donning the crown? “It was like wearing a Super Bowl trophy on your head,” says Wells, 36. “It gave me the worst headache.”
Now the headpiece is buried in a trunk in the suburban Salt Lake City house Wells shares with husband Bob Hawkes, 38, a physical therapist, and their four children. Born in Asunción, Paraguay, and fluent in Spanish, Wells (now Hawkes) is the only Miss America born on foreign soil. A former ESPN anchor, she freelances when mom duty permits. “My family is my top achievement,” she says.
Crowning her successor, says Akin, was “my proudest moment…only because I realized then what I had actually done.” Yet it was also a moment of profound loss. “I didn’t want to give it up,” she admits. Without the crown, “I didn’t feel important anymore. I didn’t feel wanted. And I think from those feelings start the fall.”
A veteran of an astonishing 113 pageants, the Meridian, Miss.-born Akin had spent much of her young life being steered through the circuit by her mother, Dorothy Little, now 62. (Little divorced Akin’s father, Earl Akin Sr., when Susan was young.) Although she says she is grateful for her mom’s guidance, Akin, now 35, acknowledges that she was ill-prepared for the realities of postpageant life. “Before the pageant,” she says, it was “work, work, work, and all of a sudden, boom. It’s like you were dropped off a cliff.” The transition was very painful. Akin moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to pursue a showbiz career but, plagued by self-doubt, she says, began drinking too much. She returned to Mississippi and married Jetson Taylor; their daughter Alexandria was born in 1992. By that time, Akin says, she was hooked on prescription painkillers she had begun taking after a car accident five years earlier. Akin divorced in 1994, and two years later married Brooks Lynch, now 47, an insurer for long-haul truck drivers. But her substance-abuse struggles persisted. When her marriage looked like it might collapse as a result, Akin attempted suicide in 1999 by crashing her car into a culvert.
Sober since completing an eight-week treatment program last February, Akin now lives with Lynch (who calls his wife “Sweet Queen”) and Alexandria in Carthage, Miss., where she is working on a memoir. “Maybe,” she says, “I can be that glimmer of hope to somebody.”
Born in Memphis, Cash knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. And it had nothing to do with beauty pageants. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” says Cash, whose father, Roy, now 60, is a retired commander of the Navy’s famous Top Gun pilot training program. “As a kid, that was really my thing.” As it turned out, Cash, 35, had the right stuff for a different sort of combat. Despite initial misgivings—”pageants were superficial; I had that attitude,” she says—she changed her mind after attending a local contest. “I was blown away by the talent of the contestants,” says the former Miss Tennessee, whose own musical flair runs in her family (she is the great-niece of country music icon Johnny Cash). She says her pageant win enabled her to fulfill two dreams. “I got to fly with the Blue Angels,” she says of the Navy’s famed precision flight team. And she scored a date with her teenage crush—Todd Sheppard, now 37 and a schoolteacher in Milan, Tenn. They got married in 1989 and have three children. “I had to win the pageant to get his attention,” says Cash. “He’s kind of slow.”
KAYE LANI RAE RAFKO
Although 13 years have passed since she wore an ill-fitting gown to victory, Rafko, 37, regularly marks the occasion by flying to Atlantic City with another garment. “I have my own sweatshirt that I have the new winner sign,” she says. “It’s a great keepsake.” A licensed nurse in Monroe, Mich.—her hometown, where she lives with her computer-programmer husband, Charles Wilson, 39, and their three children—Rafko believes she won because of her interview, during which she spoke movingly about her profession, a topic she returned to often throughout her reign. Two years later the pageant began asking all contestants to pick a favorite cause to promote. “These are bright, articulate women,” says Rafko (now Rafko-Wilson). “As long as you provide them with a platform, they’ll have something to say.”
When Carlson took her first job as a TV news reporter in 1990, colleagues “just rolled their eyes,” she says. “They had this preconceived notion that I wasn’t smart.” Bad guess. Carlson, now 34 and a correspondent for CBS News in New York City, was high school valedictorian in Anoka, Minn., a Juilliard-trained violinist and a Stanford graduate who went all out to win the Miss America crown by studying pageant history, analyzing competitors’ strengths and researching the backgrounds of all 12 judges she would face “to see how they ticked,” she says. Carlson met her match in her sports-agent husband of three years, Casey Close, 37. “He did what I would’ve done,” she says of his preparations for their first date. “He researched me.”
Turner keeps the symbol of her reign in its original wood box. When she gives motivational talks to youths, she says, “I pull it out and say, ‘This is my crown. It took years and a lot of hard work, but I’ve got it. Go get your crown, whatever that may be.’ ” Raised in Jonesboro, Ark., she is now a veterinarian and cohost of a St. Louis TV-magazine show. Thirty-five and single (“No time, no husband,” she says), she was the third black woman to join the exclusive club. “There is a kinship among us,” she says, “because no one else on this earth knows what it is like to go through what we went through and live to tell about it.”
“To do the job of Miss America, you have to have intelligence and be able to think on your feet,” says Vincent, who interrupted her studies at Duke University law school to compete in the 70th-anniversary pageant. “Looking pretty is not going to cut it.” The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Vincent, 35, grew up in Oak Park, Ill., and now lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is an anchor for cable’s Ohio News Network and single mother of Cameron, 6. (She will not identify his father.) “Kids change your perspective a lot,” says Vincent, who has put on hold her goal to become a Today show host. “I still have high ambitions,” she adds. “But I balance that with the needs of my son.”
Her platform was education, but “domestic violence overshadowed that,” says the former Miss Hawaii, whose candor (including a PEOPLE cover story) about a relationship with an abusive boyfriend helped break taboos on the subject. “A woman came to me once, holding two kids, and said, ‘You saved my life. If you can be abused and get out of it, I can too,’ ” recalls Sapp, who in 1992 founded Safe Places, a domestic violence education group. Sapp, 33, who hosts a PAX music-video show, says she’s now in a “real positive relationship” but adds, “Domestic violence will always be a cause close to me.”
Cornett, the first Miss America to champion AIDS awareness, refused to wear her crown to public appearances. “How do you talk about practicing safe sex when you’ve got this thing on top of your head?” she asks. Born in Big Stone Gap, Va., she became a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight but was sacked in 1995, weeks after marrying TV reporter Mark Steines, now 36, who was hired to replace her. (The marriage survived.) Cornett, 29, now anchors an Internet entertainment-news site. And she still wears a crown: It’s purple and gold and tattooed on her right ankle.
When Aiken watched the pageant for the first time at age 8, the winner was Vanessa Williams. For a black girl in Columbia, S.C., Aiken says, “it was a huge motivation.” A decade later she was on the throne—and adjusting to a difficult year of “not seeing family, not seeing friends.” But the $200,000 she earned allowed her to attend New York University. An accountant, Aiken (now going by her married name of Cockerham), 25, lives with her husband, Haven, 30, a marketing executive, in Cincinnati. Some colleagues are tickled to be working with a Miss America. “I’m having them all over, and I’m going to show them a tape of the pageant,” she says. “And they want to see the crown. After they do, I’ll send it back to Mom.”
She has had the dents in her rhinestone-studded tiara repaired three times since winning. Smith, a motivational speaker, isn’t clumsy; it’s just that the excited schoolkids she lectures to sometimes drop the bauble. “To see their eyes light up when you say, ‘You can do it too,’ is worth a million bucks,” she says.
Growing up in Muldrow, Okla., Smith never predicted she’d be Miss America. “I was a tomboy,” she says. “I wasn’t the prettiest girl at school.” Pageant judges thought otherwise, giving the marketing major numerous titles and a total of $75,000 in scholarships that have since paid for her bachelor’s degree and most of her M.B.A.
Now 28, single and living in Tulsa, Smith also works as cohost of a statewide travel show. In 1997 her mother, Karen, became Shawntel’s manager. Tragically, she was killed in a car crash last year. “She was a super mom,” says a tearful Smith, who got through that hard time with the help of fellow Miss Americas. Such bonds are a lasting perk of the title. “I wasn’t in a sorority in college,” says Smith, “but I am now.”
TARA DAWN HOLLAND
By seventh grade Holland already had visions of the crown. “I went into class and said, ‘Good morning, I’m Miss America,’ ” she recalls. Taking the dream to heart, the Longwood, Fla., native studied hard and abstained from drinking or having sex, “knowing that [eventually] the press might be looking for something held me accountable,” she says. Her hunch proved correct. Immediately after she won, tabloid reporters descended on her hometown—and found zilch.
And the title? “It changed literally every aspect of my life,” says Holland, who met her future husband, Jon Christensen, 37, a Nebraska politician (now a lawyer), on a plane en route to a 1997 Miss America appearance. Now 27, happily married and living in Omaha, Holland works as a singer and motivational speaker. Her presentation, U Can 2, urges students to lead clean lives and to pursue dreams.
To this day she savors achieving her own. She visited the White House, hobnobbed with celebs, earned some $200,000 in appearance fees—and, she says, gained credibility. “Before I was Miss America I wrote to officials about literacy, but never got any interest,” she says. “But when I won, everyone wanted to talk to me. They listened because of that fake crown.”
Halfway through the résumé that Kate Shindle shows to casting directors, the entry reads: “Miss America 1998.” In making the transition to working actress, she has found that to be taken seriously, she sometimes needs to downplay her title. Take the time in 1999, when she waited tables in a Manhattan deli. “The owner later told me,” she says, ” ‘If you had told us when you got here, you wouldn’t have stood a chance.’ ” Born in Toledo, Ohio, Shindle, now 23, whose platform was AIDS education, turned down an offer to become a lobbyist for a national AIDS organization. “Theater is what I want to do with my life right now,” she says. So far, it’s going well. Shindle is playing Sally Bowles in a national tour of Cabaret. She totes her crown along with her; everything else is back in her folks’ house in Morristown, N.J. “You don’t get to keep the scepter,” she says, “which is okay. Do I really want to find overhead space on a plane for a scepter?”
Just before the winner was announced, a judge whispered to Johnson, Miss Virginia: “Hey, Virginia, are you wearing that pump?” Of course she was: Diagnosed with type-1 (juvenile) diabetes at 19, Johnson goes nowhere without her insulin pump. “It was strapped to my leg,” she says. “I wore support hose over it.
“I was never able to diet, so I wasn’t the thinnest girl onstage,” says the Seminole, Fla., native, 26, who raised more than $12 million for diabetes research. “People told me to lose weight. But I knew what was best for me, and I had to get the word out about diabetes.”
Johnson is now engaged to Conn Jackson, 33, an investment banker she met soon after her reign. The timing was perfect. “The good thing about Conn,” she says, “was that he didn’t know anything about me being Miss America.”
Augusta, Ky.’s French, 25, figured she’d blown her chances when she criticized the swimsuit competition for alienating talented women “who may not be perfect 10s.” But she won that round and the crown. French—who will wed her state’s lieutenant governor, Stephen Henry, 46, on Oct. 27—is outspoken about helping veterans like her dad, Ronnie, 53, who became hooked on painkillers after serving in Vietnam. Mom Diane, 50, and Headier helped him recover. Speaking out about the experience, French says, was “a healing process for our whole family.”