The next Miss America to make the national news scene was Phyllis George of Texas. This 1971 title-holder followed the pageant publicity path all the way to the co-host spot on The NFL Today on CBS Sports, becoming one of the nation’s first female network sportscasters. What some thought she lacked in sports knowledge at the beginning of this assignment, she was said to make up for with an ability to bring a warmth and humanity to interviews with the biggest sports stars of the day, which was a new approach to sports reporting in the mid-1970s. After 10 years of Super Bowl and Triple Crown coverage, CBS tapped Miss America 1971 to serve as permanent anchor of the CBS Morning News following a two-week trial run and a closely-watched race of sorts to capture that anchor chair. George promptly signed a 3-year deal with the network to remain a morning fixture.
Miss America 1989 was an unlikely member of the Miss America network anchor team, as she was an unlikely Miss America at all. Gretchen Carlson of Minnesota, featured more than any other former Miss America on the 2010 competition telecast, was a senior organizational behavior student at Stanford University with her sights set on Harvard Law School when she, like tens of thousands of other young women across America each year, took to the local pageant stage for a chance to perform and with the hope of winning scholarship dollars. She did so after years of preparation through observation rather than participation, she says, all as a way to satisfy her parent’s request that she continue playing the violin. After her first-shot win at the local level, the 21-year old Carlson went on to win the state crown too in her first attempt, following a 5-month leave of absence from school to prepare to usurp Minnesota pageant veterans.
After her Miss America year, filled with countless television appearances, Carlson returned to Minnesota with time on her hands before heading back to complete her studies at Stanford. Now a local celebrity, Carlson cold-called the local Minneapolis television stations and pitched her television talents. KSTP-TV/Channel 5 (ABC) hired her.
For the few months she had on her hands, Carlson did one or two special segments a week for the 6 o’clock news called “Our Town,” light feature stories about the city and its neighborhoods. Then it was back to Stanford to graduate and to take the law school admissions exams. But it was the audition tape she shrewdly produced at KSTP that she used to take her first post-college step, landing a job at WRIC in Richmond, Virginia, to front a new franchise piece seemingly custom-made for this Miss America: Neighborhood News, a new concept to the market involving reports on neighborhood issues.
“When I see the red light go on on the TV camera, I have the same feeling I used to have when I walked on stage to compete in the pageant,” Carlson says.
Former Vice President of Operations for the Miss America Organization Tom O’Rourke is not surprised the alumnae of the national pageant seem to flock to television news.
“When you consider the interview and personal development skills that are developed, it is a perfect match between competition and career goals. Miss America develops personally for the entire year as she matures into a confident and articulate (woman),” he reports.
Confidence helped propel Miss America 1989 from reporting in Richmond to Cincinnati, then to anchoring in Cleveland—five years from first full-time reporting to anchoring. It’s a most unusual ascent and one that Carlson continued through to KXAS in Dallas and on to CBS News in New York, eventually assigned to co-anchor the Saturday Early Show. And now Gretchen is anchor and co-host of FOX News Channel’s signature morning program FOX & Friends.
Gretchen crowned Debbye Turner Miss America 1990, a Missouri title-holder who is the latest jewel in the Miss America anchor crown. Earning her doctor of veterinary medicine degree with pageant scholarship dollars, Debbye Turner-Bell took to television first as a host on KSDK in St. Louis on a show called Show Me St. Louis before going network with CBS as a reporter and contributor for The Early Show.
Probably like the woman immediately before her, the Miss America experience gave Debbye the skills set and offered her the exposure that made her a natural for television story-telling and popular with viewers. Says predecessor Carlson, “Viewers are always interested in talking to me about it (Miss America), but I keep it close to the vest with management and when I’m interviewing for a job. If they bring it up I talk about it.”
Other Miss Americas have enjoyed long careers on local news anchor desks, including Miss America 1967 Jane Jayroe, who worked for 16 years in Oklahoma City and Dallas; Miss America 1976 Tawny Gawdin Little who began her television reporting and anchoring experience in Los Angeles just after giving up her crown and at just 20-years of age; Miss America 1981 Susan Powell hosted the nationally syndicated show Home Matters on the Discovery Channel for 9 seasons; Miss America 1991 Marjorie Judith Vincent who went on to anchor in Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio; and, Miss America 1993 Leanza Cornett who went directly from her year of pageant service to a correspondent and host post with the syndicated series, Entertainment Tonight, before moving on to a variety of other television assignments.
The “mediagenacy” of many of the women competing for crowns is a made-for-TV match. They seem to have that certain thing, that “mediagenacy” that helps them stand out from among the thousands of young journalists who graduate from more than 2,000 academic degree programs that naturally lead to careers in broadcast journalism each year: they are able to think quickly on their feet, express themselves clearly, remain calm under pressure, and do it all with a style that is very pleasing to the eye. And that it seems, is why you can watch for another beauty queen tonight at 11, on your local news.