Meet Miss America Yolande Betbeze Fox, the Feminist Responsible for Miss USA
Ambassador to Paris, civil rights activist, opera singer, convent-educated, lover of Proust, and Mozart.
Oh yeah, and 1951's Miss America.
There are many ways to describe Yolande Betbeze Fox, the woman who sparked a controversy that led to the creation of the Miss USA pageant, but none of them are conventional.
Fox (née Betbeze) was born in Mobile, Ala., in 1929 to a strict Catholic family who educated her in a convent. A talented opera singer, Fox entered the Miss Alabama pageant for the scholarship opportunity. And after winning Miss Alabama and going up to Atlantic City for the Miss America pageant, Fox won that title too.
But the morning after the pageant — at a breakfast with Miss America's sponsor, the swimwear company Catalina — Fox told them she was "a singer, not a pinup." She refused to participate in the traditional Miss America tour modeling swimsuits. Catalina threatened to sue, but when the pageant backed her decision, the company pulled out as Miss America's sponsor and created the pageant's only competitor, Miss USA.
In a book by Roy Hoffman titled Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations , Fox says of the incident, "I wasn't born yesterday. They were funny old men, and I knew how to make them march."
And march they did. After Catalina walked, Fox's profits as Miss America were four times more than they were for previous queens. She never thought it was strange to speak up for what she wanted out of the pageant, and when referring to previous winners in Frank DeFord's book There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America , she said, "The pageant uses its Miss Americas, and most of them don't even know they're being taken."
The PR-conscious website for Miss America says of the incident that Fox "feels her actions have been pivotal in directing pageant progress towards recognizing intellect, values and leadership abilities, rather than focusing on beauty alone." And so far, that seems to be true — the latest headlines show former Miss America contestants running for public office, while Miss USA winners have recently posed nude for PETA.
After her reign as Miss America, Fox had a vibrant life. She married the former president of Universal Pictures, Matthew Fox, who died when she was 30. She protested the execution of the Rosenbergs at Sing-Sing prison and supported the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins. She has been friends with Muhammad Ali, Luciano Pavarotti, and five different presidents.
And, of course, Fox never shied away from criticizing the pageant. She decried it for being too lily-white in the '60s and says, "In the 70s, it was sexist. It was like parading meat out there. It needed to straighten up." But after the '80s, the pageant had more contestants of color, and Fox lauded it as a source of scholarships for young women. But in a 1994 interview with the Tuscaloosa News, Fox said, "It hasn't changed, except for appearing in a swimsuit, and I changed that."
But even that, unfortunately, hasn't changed much, especially after Catalina rejoined with Miss America in 2013. And, meanwhile at Miss USA and Miss Universe, owner Donald Trump told Fox and Friends that he would not succumb to the ban on bikinis that was recently executed by this year's Miss World pageant in Indonesia, and he thinks that Miss World's ratings will plummet as a result. It seems strange to long for the days of the '50s, but we could certainly use strong stances like Fox's when now, more than ever, pageants are using women's bodies for nothing more than marketing tools.