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.
Q: What do you say to the people who think the Miss America pageant is old-fashioned or anti-feminist?
A: They're thinking of the wrong pageant! These girls [in the Miss America pageant] today are brilliant. The judges fly these questions at them, giving them a [preview] of what it's going to be like as Miss America being bombarded at press conferences. I think all of them read a newspaper from cover to cover every day. If they don't, they're not truly prepared.
Q: Could you see the pageant disappearing in your lifetime or do you think it's here to stay?
A: Good heavens, if it fades away, they lose something of history. I mean, it's very special, I can't imagine it going away.
Q: You have been an actress all your life. What are you working on these days?
A: I'm working on a memoir, and calling it From the Boardwalk to the Catwalk. I'm still doing my one-woman show, The Women of Spoon River. I do 23 women in an hour. … In August I won best solo performance at the New York International Fringe Festival! Just to get into the Fringe is amazing. Today I'm auditioning to do a Tom and Jerry cartoon, a voiceover.
Q: Do you have any desire to slow down?
A: Oh no, it's fun. I love it.
Q: What is your secret to aging so beautifully and gracefully? You look so pretty in the picture on your website.
A: Well, there is airbrushing on that picture, I'm sure! [laughs] No, it's genes. My mother looked great at 96. And, you know, I realized that the more you're around, the more that gravity pulls you down. And so I started rubbing up. I wash my face rubbing up, I put my makeup on up and in the shower I rubup — anyplace I can.
I'm going to the gym three times a week. That also helps. And it helps to have a good feeling about people. The laugh line is going to be there whether you like it or not, so keep it there — keep it in a laugh line.