To men she is the incarnation of the American dream—from her wide, snow-white smile and classic figure to the placid naiveté that hints sweetly of helplessness. To feminists she is a hackle-raising symbol of unawakened consciousness. But the public face of Kylene Barker, Miss America 1979, is more a work of will than of nature. The story of her climb from little Galax, Va. (pop. 6,200) to the pinnacle of proto-femininity at 23 is a saga built on such gritty subtitles as Miss Pulaski County, Most Valuable Cheerleader 1974, and Miss Tarheel Twirling Camp East. The route is strewn with empty cold cream jars, burnt-out blow dryers and blackened flashcubes—and it is one way, with no looking back.
Having reached for the prize and attained it, she is shrewd enough to know what is involved. “This is a PR job,” she says candidly. “The sponsors [which include Gillette, Kellogg’s and Campbell’s soup] want you to promote products at public appearances, not go around expressing opinions.” Thus she displays little interest in politics, is only “probably” for the ERA, and hews, in public comment, to the bland and the timeworn: “I believe beauty is only skin deep … You have to get along with people…Any girl can be attractive if she stays in shape, keeps her weight down and wears the right makeup.”
That numbing litany, like her breakneck schedule—20,000 air miles and some 20 appearances every month—is designed to help her capitalize on her year in the sun. At $250 to $1,000 per outing, Kylene will earn between $70,000 and $80,000 as Miss America. Because she is already a college graduate (in apparel design and fashion merchandising at Virginia Tech), she will receive $20,000 more in lieu of a scholarship. Her road expenses are paid; whatever she makes is bankable. She has already bought a home in Palm Beach, Fla. as a tax shelter—and last month she signed the lease on a dress shop there, to be called “D. [for Danice] Kylene,” that she hopes will be the first in a chain. “If I have a dress shop I’ll always have clothes,” she explains earnestly. “I’ve acquired all these expensive tastes since I’ve been Miss America.”
Yet her lot, in many ways, is a trying one, demanding every ounce of her forbearance and fortitude. Miss America’s 15-hour days often begin and end in different cities, even different climates, and the pace is so frenetic that two “traveling companions”—they aren’t called chaperones—divide the task of playing guardian angel. Of necessity, Kylene has become a motel room expert at laundering, ironing and altering her clothes. She sometimes must reset her honey-blond hair three times a day. With writers’ cramp from signing autographs and bloodshot eyes from the irritation of popping flashbulbs, she has gamely blown bubbles at a candy convention in Phoenix, run (briefly) in Chicago’s Mayor Daley Marathon, and dedicated a Florida parking lot. “She reminds me of a little white rabbit that hops around from place to place,” her official companion, Peg McMahon, observes fondly. “She used to carry a windup rabbit in her purse, and when things got dull she’d take it out and play with it.”
One of Miss America’s recent “hops” took her to Washington for a bewildering 26 hours. Met at National Airport by USO representatives, Kylene was fitted with a white USO armband and a red satin golf cap and whisked away to a VA hospital. There she snatched her toothbrush, flashed a dazzling smile at the welcoming committee and vanished into the ladies’ room. “That’s the fastest way to put people at ease,” confides McMahon. “As soon as people know you’re normal, they feel more comfortable.”
Afterward Kylene circulated from ward to ward, meeting veterans, signing casts (“Much happiness!”) and talking irreducible small talk. Finally she left them—the amputees, the addicts and the maimed—with a fragment of personal wisdom. “Anything I’ve ever tried out for,” she said, “I’ve kept the same philosophy: Be confident in yourself or nobody else will.” Dinner was at a restaurant where the waiters wore rollerskates. After swallowing a pair of appetite-suppressing candies with a black coffee chaser, Kylene permitted herself a salad and Perrier. (She seldom drinks and never smokes.) Back at the apartment where she was booked for the night, she smeared on a layer of cold cream (“You can get a lot of smile lines”) and decompressed with her daily call to Jim Brandon, her boyfriend in Roanoke, Va.
Arising at 5:45 for an hour of makeup, Kylene was spirited off to the Pentagon, where she struggled through a recording of five USO radio spots and spoke to a succession of generals about her life on the road: “It’s a little hectic now and then, but mostly it’s very rewarding.” By 9:15 her green eyes were already so bloodshot that a TV message to U.S. troops overseas had to be photographed without close-ups. After a stop in the ladies’ room to tape on her crown, she filmed an interview for the Navy. Should women be permitted in combat? “I think,” she replied gravely, “that if women want to go in the Navy, they should be allowed to go all the way.”
Following an uneasy roast beef lunch with a brigadier general and six lieutenant colonels, a reporter for Stars and Stripes asked her, “If you were drafted into the military, what job would you want?” Her reply: “I would not want to go.” Her Washington visit ended with a photo session in a sleek backless gown. “The soldiers like to see her dressed that way,” said one of the brass. “They want to put her on a pedestal.” Flying to Chicago that evening, Kylene was diverted to Toledo because of foul weather. A toothless lady cab driver sped her to a hotel, warbling the Miss America theme all the way. Kylene was assigned room 1011, opened the door and recoiled with a shriek when she discovered a naked man in the bed. Management apologized for the mix-up.
And so it went—a far cry from Saturday night high life in Galax, where, Kylene recalls, “you could drive back and forth between the movie theater and the hamburger stand, but if you wanted something bigger you had to go out of town.” Yet America’s sweetheart is far from starstruck, dismissing the possibility of a Hollywood career in favor of life as a retailer. Just last week she and Brandon, a 31-year-old businessman, announced they would be married in October, after her reign has come to an end. “I’ve been Kylene the individual long enough. Now I want to be a team,” she says. “My life is falling into place so easily it scares me. I’ve been so lucky. First Jim helped me through the pageants, then I got the dress shop. It’s all being laid out. I think God’s been looking after me.”