Beauty School Primer On

The 1961 Miss USA Pageant

For Beauty School's first Primer, we have chosen to turn the clock back 37 years to the 1961 Miss USA Pageant. The aim of our Primer series is to give our students an overview of the pageants just as they happened. The Primer series will explore pageant years that were dominated by fun, excitement, and glamour, not scandal. Of course, pageants often have their small share of scandal or soupcons of intrigue. Our Primer series will tell you about these happenings, but that will not be the focus of the series.

There will be no homework or tests in the Primer series...just enough information to whet the appetites of students as they try to decide on a major at Beauty School. For those who find themselves intrigued by a certain pageant or year it is recommended that you speak to your assigned chaperone in order to enroll in the proper discipline.

91 contestants competing for Miss Universe 1961The tenth annual Miss Universe pageant was held in mid-July, 1961. 91 contestants from the U.S. and around the globe gathered in Miami Beach, Florida for the annual rite. As was the tradition, the Miss USA pageant was held just days before the Miss Universe contest. It was two pageants rolled into one. The Miss USA pageant was held over two days with the winner then moving right into competition for Miss Universe.

On hand for all the pageant activities was the omnipresent Miami Herald reporting on every aspect of the doings. It was not unusual then - thank goodness! - for U.S. newspapers to provide extensive coverage of pageants. In 1961, the Miami Herald carried as many 7 or 8 stories on the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants in a single issue.

And like other U.S. newspapers at the time, the Miami Herald took seriously the listing of the semifinalists and ultimate winners, but they just as often ran "fluff" pieces meant to take us behind the scenes. These pieces, read in today's modern world could easily be perceived as sexist and condescending. In this Miss USA Primer we will chronicle the 1961 pageant as well as touch on the prevailing attitude towards the contestants in this time before the feminist movement.

The pageant festivities got under way on Monday, July 10, with a parade down Collins Avene in Miami Beach. Massed 6 deep, Floridians came out to cheer and evaluate the lovely ladies all here hoping to take home a crown and a title. The Miami Herald wasted no time in singling out one Miss USA contestant as a favorite. Their eyes fell on Miss Mississippi, Marlene Britsch. The 20 year old brunette was described by the Herald as "...dark-eyed, immaculate, breathtaking and sweetly unattainable. The stars are there, and Galileo could not have plotted them more precisely." Miss Britsch was quoted as saying, "When I want something, I go and get it." This early attention given to Miss Mississippi would come back to haunt her.

With the pageant preliminaries scheduled for Wednesday, the contestants were kept busy with a mulitude of publicity appearances, some traditional and some rather unusual. One stunt involved Miss Maryland and Miss New Mexico going on a fishing trip. The ladies pooled together their catches and promptly showed up at the Rony Plaza Hotel and dumped a pile of fish outside the doors. They brought three bonito and a 34-pound sailfish. A horrified Roney Hotel official asked "Where are you going with that?" referring to the pile of fish on his doorstep. The ladies explained that wanted to display their "prizes because nobody will believe us if we don't."

Rocky Road to Glamor
A more traditional publicity event was held in Lower Miami Beach with all the contestants posing in swimsuits. This one did not go as planned. According to the Miami Herald Headling it was a "Rocky Road to Glamor". Instead of doing the photo shoot on one of Miami's famous sandy beaches the girls were asked to pose on the rock jetties in Lower Miami Beach. There were complaints of sunburn and blisters earned by walking over a network of broken stones and rocks. The pageants response to these complaints were cavalier at best: "...a bit of pancake makeup here and there plus a footbath or two should repair the damage." A tad condescending eh?
Miss Florida being "repaired" after the encounter with the jetty.

There was also plenty of condension being doled by the newspaper reports as well. One article entitled "Universe Girls Peeve Parents" began with this line: "The sweet young things who delight the eye of Miss Universe Pageant followers are not always so delightful to their parents. On the contrary, say the girls themselves." The article went on to tell us such important things like Miss Iowa's not wiping the silverware when doing the dishes. And Miss Delaware upsetting her parents because she chews her gum too loudly.

Yet another article made a big deal out the contestants being athletic or sports savvy. The headline read like this- "Pretty Good Sports, These Beauty Queens." Miss Alaska took the brunt of this article. "The curvaceous blonde had diffuculty describing the feat" of making a hole-in-one on the golf course. "I don't know how far it was, but I stood on the tee and hit a five-iron shot across a creek and right into the hole for a birdie." When asked if she meant a Hole-in-one in instead of a birdie she replied, "Oh, yes I mean a hole-in-one. I tripped and fell into the creek after the shot. I broke 100 that day."

Not all the articles were this sharp. One charming story about the challenges of the international contestants attempts at learning English included this cute story. Miss Argentina was quoted as asking Miss New Jersey, "Where do I buy gins?" "What, you want some gin?", said New Jersey, taken aback. "Si," said Argentina, "Some blue gins to wear." The same article also reported that three of the contestants, Miss Texas, Miss Iowa and Miss West Virginia had been shaken up in a minor auto fender bender during a motorcade. None required medical attention.

Here are Miss Texas and Iowa, with other Miss USA contestants. Left to right, Miss Nebraska, Miss Utah, Miss Texas, Miss Connecticut, Miss Iowa, Miss Nevada, and Miss South Dakota.

After a few days of publicity it was time to get down to the business at hand, selecting Miss USA for 1961. By Wednesday evening, July 12, the field of 43 contestants were winnowed down to the 15 semi-finalists. The lucky fifteen were:

  1. Miss Alabama, Suellen Robinson
  2. Miss California, Pamela Stettler
  3. Miss Connecticut, Florence Mayette
  4. Miss Kentucky, Marcia Chumbler
  5. Miss Louisiana, Sharon Brown
  6. Miss Massachusetts, Elaine Cusick
  7. Miss Michigan, Patricia Squires
  8. Miss Mississippi, Marlene Britsch
  9. Miss Nebraska, Gail Weinstock
  10. Miss Nevada, Karen Weller
  11. Miss New Jersey, Diane Glersch
  12. Miss New York, Alexa Currey
  13. Miss Rhode Island, Joan Zeller
  14. Miss Utah, Janet Hawly
  15. Miss West Virginia, Kathy McManaway

The newspaper's early favorite, Miss Mississippi, Marlene Britsch whom they had described previously with this comment "She is unique - she reads the editorial page" not only found herself still in the running but she now faced some unwelcome publicity. Apparently, some folks back home were questioning where she was from in Mississippi, or if she were from Mississippi at all!

The Miss Universe officials decided to duck and cover when these questions arose, leaving Marlene to fend off the questions on her own. She explained that even though she was born in New Orleans. Louisiana, and had once even held the title of Miss New Orleans, that she had lived in Claremont, Mississippi for nine months. As proof she offered up the rent receipts from her aunt and uncle to prove it. While other girls in the pageant admitted they were born in other states, Miss Alaska and Miss Florida for example, no one made a fuss. They had not made the semifinals so no one cared.

On Thursday night, July 13, the finals for Miss USA were held at the Miami Beach Convention center and it was Miss Louisiana, Sharon Brown, who took the title. She had been voted Miss Photogenic the night before by the press corps. Brunette Sharon exclaimed " it's wonderful, just wonderful" as she took her place on the throne surrounded by her court: first runner-up, Miss California; second runner-up Miss Nevada; third runner-up, Miss New York; and fourth runner-up, Miss Alabama.

Miss Louisiana, Sharon Brown, soon to be Miss USA, with her Miss Photogenic trophy.

The new Miss USA talking to reporters.

Miss New York, Alexa Currey, and third runner-up to Miss USA, talking to an unidentified Miami Beach tanned "suavecito" lounge lizard...George Hamilton's father perhaps?

The Miami Herald described the finals in the same tone as they had the publicity events:

"They paraded - beauty contestants would walk a mile for a camera - and they looked pretty just the same, but they also talked. Each of the 15 finalists gave a 60 second speech, each with a pitch for the old home state (which isn't necassarily so old a home for some of them)". Obviously referring to Miss Mississippi whom they had now seemingly changed their mind about. They got in one more jab at Marlene, once their favorite, with this: "Miss Britsch, closet thing to a humorist, cautioned against "charter buses, 80 mile-an-hour, non-stop" and said "You can take the miss from Mississippi but you can't take the Mississippi from the miss. (She's from New Orleans)."

One would have though that this Mississippi mess would have ended here. But that was not the case. In an article titled "14 Almost-Prettiest Lose Gracefully With Painted-on Smiles, a Few Tears," "13 of the semi-finalists thought they would be named Miss USA and only one could understand why she wasn't. That excepton was Miss Mississippi, Marlene Britsch, who's been a point of discussion for a couple of days - did she come from Mississippi or didn't she? -who said she "came her to win and I would have except for this bad publicity. I knew I would lose."

On Friday night, July 14, the new Miss USA made the Miss Universe semifinals, and on Saturday night, the night of the Miss Universe finals, she proved to be a formidable contestant. She finished as fourth runner-up, losing out to the stunning Marlene Schmidt of Germany. The next day the papers were full of pictures of Marlene's victory...and this headline "Take that Y'all! Beauties Tangle."

In what should have been coverage celebrating the new Miss Universe, the spotlight once again was on Miss Mississippi who was not Miss USA. According to the Miami Herald " Miss Mississippi and Miss Louisiana-USA fought a face slapping one-rounder on Saturday night in a backstage dressing at the Miss Universe Pageant. As Miss Mississippi describes it, Miss Louisiana threw a badly timed right. It missed. Following with a right of her own, the miss from Mississippi didn't miss. It was "'pow' instead of powder on the cheek of Miss Louisiana, who is also Miss USA." Miss Mississippi explained that she went in to tell Miss Louisiana " I felt about the slanderous remarks she made about me."

Apparently, Miss Mississippi was convinced that it was Miss Louisiana who had started the false rumors about her. According to Miss Mississippi, "Sharon, said to me.. 'oh, I'm sorry, Marlene. If I've caused you any trouble. I'll keep quiet from now on.' "One word led to another," said Miss Mississippi, "and she swung at me. She missed and I hit back."

When asked for her side of the story, Sharon replied, "I certainly did not swing at her." When asked whether Miss Mississippi had swung at her, Sharon's reply was "no comment."

And that dear students is the end of the primer on Miss USA 1961. A beautiful Miss USA, tons of fun, encounters with rocks and fish, a touch of scandal, and just more than a peak at the attitudes about women that would lead to the feminist movement later in the decade.

Miss USA, Sharon Brown, fourth-runner up to Miss Universe 1961. Beside her is third runner-up, Miss England, Arlette Dobson, and behind Sharon is the second runner-up, Miss "blue jins" Argentina.

Please note that in what is sure to have been no mere coincidence, Beauty School's Assistant Dean was born on Thursday, July 13, 1961, the day of the 1961 Miss USA Pageant.

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