In 1950, the Miss America Pageant crowned 21-year-old Mobile native Yolande Betbeze (1929-2016) as “Miss America 1951.” She would inadvertently go on to reshape the pageant’s format by refusing to wear a swimsuit during her reign. Lauded as a feminist hero, Betbeze forever changed the Miss America pageant and was later an active participant in the civil rights and anti-nuclear movements.
Yolande Betbeze Yolande Betbeze was born on November 29, 1928, in Mobile to William and Ethel Betbeze, slaughterhouse owners. Betbeze was raised in a strict Catholic family with Basque origins and was educated in a convent school. A talented opera singer, she captured her first crown in 1949 when she won the Miss Torch Pageant while a student at Mobile’s Spring Hill College. The following year, she entered the Miss Alabama pageant for scholarship opportunities at the urging of a Mobile music writer. In 1951, Betbeze travelled to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to compete in the Miss America pageant. Since its beginnings, the directors of the pageant struggled to promote the sex appeal of the contest while maintaining the sexual modesty of the era. In 1935, Miss America directors went so far as to hire a Southern Baptist, Lenora Slaughter, as the pageant’s executive secretary, in part to attract a “better class of contestants.” Slaughter changed the Miss America pageant entry requirements to accept women 18 and older and introduced a talent competition to balance the sexuality of the bathing suit and evening gown competitions.
The wholesome image of the Miss America pageant would continue into the 1950s, when Yolande Betbeze entered the competition as Miss Alabama. Betbeze complied with pageant rules by wearing what she considered a tasteful swimsuit during the competition. Shortly after winning the pageant, while meeting with representatives of sponsor Catalina Swimwear, Betbeze learned that she was expected to wear Catalina suits during her appearances around the country. She refused, stating that such activities did not promote her view of the pageant as a scholarship-granting organization.
Betbeze’s defiant stance initiated a domino effect that changed the course of the Miss America Pageant. Catalina Swimwear pulled out of their sponsorship of the pageant and opened two new pageants: the Miss Universe Pageant and the Miss USA Pageant, both of which required participants to wear Catalina Swimsuits. These two new pageants would challenge the long-running and extraordinarily popular Miss America beauty contest, forcing its directors to decide how they historically defined, and more specifically, judged beauty.
After her one-year reign as Miss America, Betbeze served as an ambassador to Paris, was active in the NAACP, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and SANE (The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy), and studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. She continued to sing, appearing with the Mobile Opera Guild (now the Mobile Opera), and helped found an off-Broadway theater. Betbeze married Matthew Fox (of Fox Motion Pictures), with whom she had one daughter, and the couple lived in Washington, D.C., where she was prominent among the city’s political elite. After his death in 1964, Betbeze entered into a long-term relationship with Algerian ambassador Cherif Guellal that lasted until his death in 2009. Betbeze died from lung cancer in an assisted-living home in Washington on February 22, 2016.
- Cohen, Colleen Ballerino, Richard R. Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje, eds. Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power. New York: Routledge, 1996.
- Riverol, Armando R. Live From Atlantic City: A History of the Miss America Pageant. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992.
- Savage, Candace. Beauty Queens: A Playful History. New York: Abbeville Press, 1998.