In its 102-year history, the Miss America pageant has seen its fair share of bold moves. Jacque Mercer, who took home the crown in 1949, wasn’t only married, but also got 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 portion of the competition.
However, when it comes to being unconventional, you’d be hard-pressed to top Yolande Betbeze – AKA, Miss America 1951.
Yolande Betbeze was a natural beauty
An Alabama-born beauty with dark, exotic good looks, Yolande Betbeze was hardly typical of the corn-fed types who paraded down the Miss America runway in years past. She first took home a pageant crown in 1949, after being named the winner of Mobile’s Miss Torch pageant.
While a natural beauty, her real passion was music, having been trained as a soprano. Hoping to pursue this pastime as a career, she entered the Miss Alabama pageant in 1950, as it offered scholarships that would allow her to study singing in New York. She took home the crown with ease.
Entering (and winning) the 1951 Miss America pageant
Having been crowned Miss Alabama, Yolande Betbeze traveled to Atlantic City, New Jersey to compete in the 1951 Miss America competition. It was quite a culture shock for the small-town girl, with her recalling in an interview for a PBS documentary, “I was very naïve when I arrived in Atlantic City. I mean coming from a small town in Alabama borrowing shoes of 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 person to beat. “Yolande was the sexiest, most glamorous thing I had ever laid eyes on,” she later recalled.
Betbeze, on the other hand, wasn’t as confident in her own capabilities. “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… I did win the talent.” For the first and possibly the only time in the pageant’s history, a performer was called back for two curtain calls.
Betbeze’s talents and beauty afforded her the top prize in the competition; she was crowned Miss America 1951.
Yolande Betbeze went against the grain
While Yolande Betbeze became Miss America, she later revealed that “there was nothing but trouble” from the minute she took home the crown. For one thing, she refused to sign the standard contract that required all pageant winners to take part in what were then regular promotional appearances. Then, the real jaw-dropper: she flat-out refused to pose in a swimsuit ever again.
“I did not know what to expect with this,” she told PBS. “So I arrived and they… all these… these suits were sitting about. Older men, board of directors, congratulated me and said now Miss Betbeze, this is what I represent, this is what you’re going to do for us. Then it came to the bathing suit, the most important sponsor. And this man said to me, November we’ll be in Wyoming, and you’ll wear this and that bathing suit.
“I said wait a minute please,” she continued. “No. No way. To… go into Milwaukee in the middle of the winter and walk around a department store in a bathing suit is not my idea of Miss America, scholarship foundation, the reason I’m here. And he really, really thought I had lost my mind. He couldn’t believe it.”
This ticked off Catalina, the swimsuit company that sponsored Miss America. It withdrew its support for the overall pageant and launched not one but two of its own beauty competitions: Miss USA and Miss Universe. While this could have crippled the Miss America pageant, the organizers simply changed the format to focus more on the scholarship aspect of the competition.
Becoming a social activist
When Yolande Betbeze’s reign came to a close, she relocated to Manhattan and enrolled in the New School of Social Research to study philosophy. In the years that followed, she dabbled in modeling, became an off-Broadway producer and even went to Cuba with a rodeo.
She also embraced social activism, participating in a 1953 vigil at Sing Sing 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.
Overall, she was active in the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (SANE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Years later, Betbeze, feisty as ever, attacked the Miss America pageant for its lack of diversity. She’s quoted in Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations as saying, “‘How could we say it’s Miss America,’ I asked, ‘if it’s not open to all Americans?'”
Yolande Betbeze’s personal life
In 1954, Yolande Betbeze married Matthew Fox, a businessman and the former head of Universal Pictures. When he died 10 years later, she moved to Washington, DC, settling in the former Georgetown home of Jacqueline Kennedy, purchased in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination.
Betbeze later entered into a relationship with Cherif Guellal, an Algerian businessman and diplomat, and the two were together until his death in 2009. The former beauty queen remained active in Georgetown’s social scene until her death from lung cancer in 2016, at 87. While 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.
Speaking about her mother after her passing, Betbeze’s daughter, Dolly Fox, said, “I would love for her to be remembered for her incredible intelligence, for being before her time, for not having any fear of speaking out for what she believed in, which was civil rights, women’s rights and anti-nuclear weapons.
“She was also a very hands-on mother, she helped raise my daughter, Yolande Paris Campbell, and was as much of a mother to her as I was,” Fox added. “I want her to be remembered for being before her time, being an educated, loving, generous person. She always stuck up for the underdog.”