In its 97-year history, the Miss America Pageant has seen its share of bold moves. Jacque Mercer, who won the crown in 1949, was not only married, but divorced, during her reign.
In 1985, Alecia Rae Masalkoski a contestant from Michigan, who happened to be a black belt in karate, walked on broken glass for the talent part of the competition.
And in 2014, Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas and a National Guard soldier, showed off some serious tattoos (the insignia of the U.S. Army Dental Corps on her shoulder and the Serenity Prayer on her ribs) during the swimsuit portion of the show.
But when it comes to being unconventional, you’d be hard-pressed to top Yolande Betbeze, Miss America 1951.
The Alabama-born beauty, with her dark, exotic good looks, was hardly typical of the corn-fed types who paraded down the runway in years past. (Catty competitors scribbled Hairy Sits Here on Betbeze’s makeup mirror backstage.)
No matter. Betbeze had charisma in spades, not to mention a beautiful operatic voice. In fact, the only reason she entered the Miss Alabama competition, a precursor to Miss America, was to win a scholarship to study singing in New York.
“I was very naïve when I arrived in Atlantic City,” said Betbeze. “I mean coming from a small town in Alabama borrowing … high heels and taking the braces off my teeth. I had a ball.”
The minute Betbeze stepped off the train, Lenora Slaughter, the pageant’s director, knew she was looking at the one to beat. “Yolande was the sexiest, most glamorous thing I had ever laid eyes on,” she would later recall.
Betbeze herself wasn’t quite as confident. “I thought I was a little bit plain to be Miss America,” she said, “but I knew that I would do well in talent as an operatic coloratura, and indeed I did.” (For the first and possibly only time in the pageant’s history, a performer was called back for two curtain calls.)
Betbeze would become Miss America, but, as she recalled years later, “There was nothing but trouble from the minute that crown touched my head.” For one thing, she refused to sign the standard contract that required winners to take part in promotional appearances.
Then, a real jaw-dropper: Betbeze flat-out refused to pose in a swimsuit ever again, stating, “I’m an opera singer, not a pinup.” That was problematic, because Catalina, the swimwear manufacturer, was a pageant sponsor.
Ticked off, the company withdrew its support and started two beauty pageants of their own: Miss USA and Miss Universe.
When Betbeze’s reign mercifully came to a close, she moved to Manhattan and enrolled in the New School of Social Research. In the years that followed, she dabbled in modeling, became an off-Broadway producer, and even traveled to Cuba with a rodeo.
She would also embrace social activism — participating in a 1953 vigil at Sing Sing prison to protest the execution of accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and joining civil rights protesters at Woolworth’s in Times Square to support black sit-ins at the store’s lunch counters in the South, during the turbulent 1960s. (“I’m a Southern girl,” declared Betbeze, “but I’m a thinking girl.”)
Years later, Betbeze, feisty as ever, would attack the Miss America pageant for its lack of diversity. “‘How could we say it’s Miss America,’ I asked, ‘if it’s not open to all Americans?’” she was quoted saying in Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations, a 2011 book by Roy Hoffman. In 1954, Betbeze married Matthew Fox, a businessman and movie producer.
When he died ten years later, Betbeze moved to Washington D.C., settling in the former Georgetown home of Jacqueline Kennedy, purchased in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination.
Betbeze was active in the town’s social scene until her death in 2016, at age 87. Though she avoided the ballyhoo of her reign as Miss America, it’s interesting — and kind of sweet — to note that in the years afterward, she held onto her crown.