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Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955: Pageant Is 'Very Special'

Now 77, she's fit, beautiful, and planning her future

Lee Meriwether Miss America Atlantic City

Atlantic City, N.J.,1955: A 20-year-old Lee Meriwether the morning after being crowned Miss America. — Bettman/Corbis

A new Miss America will be crowned on Jan. 12, more than nine decades since the beauty pageant first made waves on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The event was a hit from the start, but truly became a cultural phenomenon after it was first televised in 1955: That year the whole nation, it seemed, watched California's Lee Meriwether take the crown.

We talked to Meriwether, now 77, about the pageant's past and present, how it kick-started her acting career and her secret to aging beautifully.

Q: Why do you think you won the pageant that year?

A: To this day I don't know why they voted for me. I'm hoping that it was because I chose a talent that made them sit up. I played a 70-year-old Irish mother lamenting the loss of her last son to the sea. I took off all my makeup, wore a shawl and my father's black socks — the costume I had worn when I'd done the play when I was in high school. It was the only thing I knew to do. I'm an actress, that's what I wanted to be.

Q: What was the best part about being Miss America?

A: It helped me with my chosen life's work. Halfway through my tour as Miss America, they called me from the Today show and said, "We'd like to have you on as a regular member of our company." I was ecstatic.

Q: Do you still have the crown you wore or any mementos from that year?

A: No! Back then it was passed from Miss America to Miss America. But the one I wore is gone. They had a major storm in Atlantic City [in 1962], much like Sandy, and water seeped down into the basement of Convention Hall, where the pageant was held. Then when the surge swept out, the crown, the robe and the scepter — all had gone out to sea. And my swimsuit, I don't know what happened to it. It probably deteriorated.

Q: What do you think about how the women in the modern pageant wear bikinis, as opposed to the modest one-piece swimsuit you wore?

A: Oh, heavens, the way these girls take care of themselves, they look wonderful. They really look proper. One nice thing for them, is that we had to stand forever while the judges looked at us: We had to face away, to the side, and then front. That was awful … [The women] are constantly moving now: They walk down from the top of the stage, do a circle and head right back offstage.

Next page: See the stunning Lee Meriwether at 70+ »

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Getting fit: Here are some tips from AARP Ambassador and tennis legend Martina Navratilova about how you can stay healthier by thinking like an athlete.

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