In 1951, Yolande Betbeze Fox was crowned Miss America. She immediately proceeded to make pageant organizers’ lives very difficult.

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Betbeze Fox was originally from Mobile, but she died in an assisted living home in Washington on February 22 of lung cancer, according to her daughter Dolly Fox. Betbeze Fox was convent-educated, and while she attended Alabama Jesuit college, she was awarded the campus title of “Miss Torch,” which sounds awesome. Her talent as a coloratura soprano attracted the attention of a local music critic, who urged her to enter the pageant.

After her win, Betbeze Fox pissed off a big Miss America sponsor, Catalina bathing suits, by refusing to make appearances modeling their new line. Through oversight, or perhaps personal scheming, she’d never signed the contract obligating her to and refused to be pressured into it. According to The Washington Post, the conflict was the catalyst for the pageant world we know today:

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“I’m a singer,” she declared at the time, “not a pinup.”

As she later recalled, a man representing Catalina “stood up and fumed. He looked at me and said, ‘I’ll run you off the news pages. I’ll start my own contest. You’ll see.’ I said, ‘That’s splendid. Good luck to you.’ . . . Anyway, he did indeed start the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageant. So people can thank me — or blame me — for that.”

Betbeze Fox used her platform to speak in support of the Civil Rights movement, and criticized the exclusionary policies of Miss America. She was also a volunteer with the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality and the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. Here she is in a famous photo protesting counter segregation in front of a Woolworth’s:

She was married once, to Matthew Fox, a Hollywood executive with a tumultuous relationship with success, and twice her age. He passed away in 1964 from a heart attack. Betbeze Fox became more involved in politics, hosting Democratic Party fundraisers. She met Algerian freedom fighter Cherif Guellal, and though they never married the two lived together until he died in 2009.

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Betbeze Fox wasn’t shy about her accomplishments. In 2000, she spoke to People about Miss America, saying, “I spoke out against the pageant when it was needed... The pageant has changed, thanks to me.” She also referred to her refusal to model bathing suits all those years ago.

I had to play by their rules to get the crown... But after I won, they could play by mine.

You’re damn right.

Image via AP.


Contact the author at aimee.lutkin@jezebel.com.