Room 1637 at the downtown Marriott in Raleigh smells of Liz Claiborne perfume. More than half a pizza sits getting cold on a table by the window. Hangers and garment bags lie strewn across the bed. These women are too busy to eat or straighten up.
“Which pair?” the younger woman asks the older. She holds up two different earrings to her ears. One is subtle, and one resembles a disco ball.
The older lady recommends the first. She’s never been much for flashy. But she knows style. Trudy Riley Kearney always dressed her best as Miss North Carolina 1946. Tonight she wears a black dress and jacket; it sparkles a little, but not much. Her superlative when she steps onstage tonight won’t be showiest or best dressed. At 85, Kearney is the oldest Miss North Carolina in attendance for the 75th anniversary pageant. In about an hour, she’ll join 42 other former Miss North Carolinas across the street in Memorial Auditorium.
This group includes movie stars, songwriters, ministers, lawyers, motivational speakers, physicians, television personalities, and professors. And at one point in their lives, when they were barely 20, before they gained these adult responsibilities, they all wore a crown and a sash that read Miss North Carolina.
It’s a powerful title. Not politically powerful, like a governor or senator. Nor professionally powerful, like a doctor or CEO. The influence that lies in the Miss North Carolina crown is inspirational to both the winners and to others.
The young women who win — even those who compete — are emboldened by the experience of being onstage and capturing attention, which in turn confidently propels them into adulthood. And that inspiration to succeed isn’t contained just to Miss North Carolina. It radiates to those who share a connection with the name on her sash. If she’s Miss Wilson, like Trudy Riley Kearney was back in 1946, then she represents people in that town. And when Miss Wilson becomes Miss North Carolina, all of a sudden those people in Wilson who knew her or met her or admire her realize a sense of accomplishment. They understand that a woman from a small tobacco town can be something bigger. And when Miss North Carolina steps on the stage in Las Vegas to compete for the title of Miss America, people across the state realize a sense of accomplishment. They see the young lady who shook their hands at the county fair or sang the national anthem at the local racetrack walk across their television screens on a national network. They understand that somebody from here can be something bigger.
Some people see Miss North Carolina as the pretty blonde or brunette who wears heels and rides in convertibles at Christmas parades. And they’re right. She does. But if that hairdo or that crown or those heels give her the confidence to take that title and do something bigger, then maybe everybody needs a little perfume and a pair of high heels.
Swimsuits and evening gowns
One of the goals of the Miss North Carolina Pageant is to select a woman in Raleigh in June who will win in Las Vegas in January. It’s only happened once, with Maria Beale Fletcher back in 1962, that Miss North Carolina went on to become Miss America. But it can happen again. Miss North Carolina can succeed on a bigger stage.
When the Miss North Carolina Pageant started in 1937, it was a bathing beauties contest. And Ruth McClean Covington, the first Miss North Carolina, competed at Charlotte’s Willamette Swimming Pool. She was actually the first runner-up, but when the winner decided to go to college, Covington assumed her title.
Covington then represented North Carolina at the national Bathing Beauties Review in Atlantic City, the precursor to the Miss America Pageant. The event began as a way to bring people to the beach after the Labor Day holiday. Women stood in the sand in swimsuits in front of judges to attract tourists.
And the marketing tool worked. Newspapermen clamored to shoot photos for the front page. And Catalina Swimwear came on board as a sponsor.
But sensibilities evolved in the decades after women’s suffrage. Although the swimsuits of the 1930s and ’40s covered more than some dresses do today, on their own they still objectified the contestants.
In 1950, at the risk of losing its prime sponsor in Catalina Swimwear, the pageant’s executive director announced that Miss America would be crowned in an evening gown, not a swimsuit. And state pageants embraced the changing image.
In 1943 the Miss North Carolina Pageant gained its most important partner in this image transition. The North Carolina Junior Chamber, better known as the Jaycees, took on the pageant as one of its projects. The mission of the Jaycees is to encourage business success and community involvement in young professionals. The group saw potential in the pageant to strengthen local communities. Often all communities need to unite them are a cause and a representative.
The N.C. Jaycees were the first state chapter in the nation to adopt the pageant, starting a national trend as they began recruiting locals.
“It was hard to say no to the Jaycees,” Trudy Riley Kearney says now. “They’d walk up to you at church and say, ‘In three more years, you’ll be old enough to compete.’ ”
The Jaycees begged Kearney to enter the Miss Wilson pageant back in the 1940s. She ran for two years before earning the title on her third try. The Jaycees gave her $500 for her wardrobe. Her evening gown for the state pageant, made by Wilson designer Madame Barnes, cost $75. In 1946, $75 was big money. But the Jaycees wanted the woman representing their town to look her best.
The Miss North Carolina Pageant rotated to different cities until it found its permanent home in Raleigh in 1979. Kearney, then 19, was the only Miss Wilson to be crowned Miss North Carolina in Wilson. And at her coronation she received a crown made of tinfoil and cardboard. It was just after World War II, and metal was rationed. It would have been frivolous to waste it on a crown.
“I didn’t know how to wear a crown anyway,” Kearney says.
But that circle of tinfoil and cardboard showed a tiny tobacco town, still weary from the Depression, that people from Wilson can be something bigger.
When a hometown woman wins Miss North Carolina, all of a sudden she has friends she didn’t even realize she had. Everyone in town knows her, or claims that he does.
David Clegg rattles off the list of Miss North Carolinas better than anyone. And every time he gets to Miss North Carolina 1965, he says, “There’s mine.” Clegg has worked with pageants at the local and state level for 36 years. He is now the president of the Sisterhood of Miss North Carolina, the organizing body of former winners.
His fascination started when he was 9. He remembers playing outside in his parents’ yard in Sanford and watching Penelope Clark ride by in a blood red Oldsmobile Toronado with Miss North Carolina 1965 emblazoned down the side.
“She took time with me as a 9-year-old child,” Clegg says. And that attention stuck with him.
Clegg’s father was a member of the Jaycees, and Clegg joined the organization when he was eligible.
The Jaycees ran the pageant for almost 50 years and grew the state contest to 98 participants at its peak in the late ’60s. When the Jaycees organization stepped away from the pageant in 1992, a group of former members like Clegg created the nonprofit corporation that operates the pageant today. Clegg sees the pageant and its winners as a reflection of the times.
“In the ’40s it was a perfect manifestation of the power of women because of World War II,” he says. “It was a way for women to continue their role in society.”
In 1945 the Miss America Pageant awarded its first scholarship grant. The pageant that started as a bathing beauties contest made a statement that those women in swimsuits should have more than a pretty figure. They should have an education. Today the official name of the state pageant is the Miss North Carolina Scholarship Pageant, and contestants are judged in four categories: eveningwear, swimsuit, talent, and interview.
In the 1960s, Clegg says, Miss North Carolina was asked to be politically relevant and speak on social issues. If she was competing for a scholarship to earn an education and a public job, she should take a position on what’s happening in the world around her instead of just smiling about it. Sharon Finch made 150 appearances with the governor during her reign in 1964. And Patricia Johnson, Miss North Carolina 1969, was a member of the Miss America USO troupe that toured Vietnam.
When Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, Miss North Carolina was a natural example of what women could achieve professionally. Susan Proffitt, Miss North Carolina 1976, used her fashion-merchandising degree from Western Carolina University to travel the world with international design companies. And Monta Maki, who won the state title in 1979, went on to become an ordained minister.
Broadening her reach
Today the Miss North Carolina Pageant continues to reflect what’s happening in the world around it. This past June in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, 36 contestants competed for the state crown, this year made of rhinestones and silver metal.
The 2012 pageant was about one-third the size of the pageants in the ’60s. As women advanced in society and more opportunities became available, the pageant lost some of its appeal, and the crown that went from cardboard to sparkling lost a touch of its shine. Civic groups no longer maintain the overarching influence they once had in small communities either.
In 1964 the Thomasville Jaycees sent Sharon Finch to the Miss North Carolina Pageant. When she returned home wearing that crown, they made sure 8,000 people lined the railroad track to welcome her. A local jeweler presented her with a coin representing the town. They put her up on the iconic big chair in the center of Main Street to take her picture. The lofty throne had only held two other people: President Lyndon Johnson and Santa Claus.
“When I rounded that corner, I got so welled up I could hardly breathe,” Sharon Finch Van Vechten says today. “I realized I was carrying a community mantle. Rotarians were fighting Kiwanis for who got me first.”
But the Jaycees, Rotarians, and Kiwanis of the ’60s are getting older, and fewer young people are joining these groups. More teenagers are going off to colleges in bigger cities and not returning home to smaller towns as adults. They meet people on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter more often than at church socials and civic club meetings. The local threads that once tied communities together are fraying, and those tight-knit places are broadening.
At this year’s state pageant, women wore sashes that read Miss Central Carolina, Miss Greater Carolina, and Miss Metrolina. It’s expensive to produce local pageants today, so several areas combine their resources and select a winner to represent multiple towns and counties.
Miss North Carolina 2012 Arlie Honeycutt was Miss Kinston-Lenoir. She grew up in Garner, but she attends East Carolina University, which made her eligible for the Kinston-Lenoir pageant. Honeycutt sees an advantage to these local pageants that encompass larger areas.
“It broadens your horizons and helps you do the job of Miss North Carolina,” Honeycutt says.
Today Miss North Carolina devotes a year of her life to doing this job of representing the state. Honeycutt should be in Greenville right now completing her third year as a vocal performance major. Instead she lives in the Miss North Carolina apartment in Raleigh. And she drives the Miss North Carolina car, now a Toyota instead of an Oldsmobile, to engagements across the state. She travels six or seven days a week. Within the first two months of her reign, she rode in a convertible in the Fourth of July parade in Southport, welcomed home the soldiers in the 81st Regional Support Command, and shook hands with athletes at the Jimmy V Celebrity Golf Classic. And in January, she’ll step onstage in Las Vegas to compete for the title of Miss America.
It’s a lot to ask of a 20-year-old. To look good in an evening gown and swimsuit, yes, but also to answer questions about her stance on war, economics, and poverty in a 90-second spot. To tell how she’ll use her title to better not only herself, but also others around her. To represent the state on a national stage. To achieve something that inspires those North Carolinians who’ve met her and followed her success to be something bigger.
But for 75 years that’s been the responsibility of the person who wears this crown.
Still their girl
On the stage of the 75th Miss North Carolina Pageant in Raleigh last June, the former winners were honored. Black-and-white pictures of their accomplishments flashed across a big screen. The women laughed and cried and hugged as they relived the moments when they won. Honeycutt, the newest member of the sisterhood, stood beside Kearney, the oldest member in attendance. One anticipating what her life will be and one reflecting on what hers has been.
Kearney didn’t know when she accepted the Jaycees’ plea to run for Miss Wilson that she would go on to become Miss North Carolina. That she would walk down the runway in Atlantic City to vie for the national title. She was just a small-town girl answering the request of community leaders.
Kearney didn’t have a Miss North Carolina car or apartment. She only made three appearances during her one-year reign. She didn’t go off to a big university or sing on Broadway. She ran away with her sweetheart to get married and worked in a Butner hosiery mill to pay their bills. She didn’t even get to wear a real crown.
But if you visit Dick’s Hotdog Stand in Wilson, you’ll see Kearney’s picture. It hangs on the wall beside photos of celebrities and politicians. To the people in Wilson, Kearney is still their girl. Their winner. Their queen. The girl who took a tinfoil and cardboard crown and used it to inspire a tiny tobacco town to be something bigger.
Crowns and Gowns
“Miss North Carolina: Celebrating 75 Years of Memories,” an exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History, shows off pageant finery.
The crown is the most recognized symbol of the Miss North Carolina organization. It began as a ring of garland, and cardboard sufficed during war years. Today the crown is made of rhinestones and silver metal in a Cartier key design. The four points represent: scholarship, success, style, and service.
Patricia Johnson wore a satin dress by Raleigh designer Eric Ennis to compete for Miss America. Ennis specializes in hand-beading and elegant, timeless looks.
Lorna McNeill, the first American Indian to win the state title, wore a Lumbee buckskin dress designed by a tribal seamstress for the Miss America parade.
Kirstin Elrod, who was a judge for this year’s pageant, wore a custom, chiffon dress by South Carolina designer Gregory Ellenburg to compete for the state title.
Adrienne Core wore a fully beaded gown — a modern design common in today’s pageants — by Claire’s Collection to compete in the Miss America Pageant.
North Carolina Museum of History
Come see “Miss North Carolina: Celebrating 75 Years of Memories.” The exhibit runs through November 25. Admission is free.
5 East Edenton Street
Raleigh, N.C. 27601
Leah Hughes is an associate editor at Our State magazine. Her most recent stories were “Farming Greene County” and “A Tractor Needs a Driver” (October 2012).