What kind of beauty queen claims Basque ancestry, refuses to wear a swimsuit for pageants, sings opera, protests in solidarity with CORE sit-ins and pickets Miss America for discrimination, and jet-sets with Algerian freedom fighters? Only one so far: Yolande Betbeze Fox: Miss America 1951.
On this day in 1950, Yolande Betbeze Fox became the first woman from Alabama to take home the Miss America crown, and she’s even more memorable for creating a firestorm that ultimately led the Miss America pageant to fracture into three separate events, Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Universe. But she was so much more.
Fox was raised in a very strict Roman Catholic household of Basques in Mobile, Alabama, where she attended school at a nearby convent. Her father was considered Alabama’s “Barbeque King” (surely one of many), because he was a popular caterer for Democratic Party rallies in the state, plying candidates and their supporters with spare ribs. In 1950, while a student at the University of Alabama, Fox had the dentist remove her braces, and she headed for Atlantic City to compete in Miss America. She enjoyed the limelight, having already been named Mobile’s Miss Torch. She ditched her Southern accent to compete in the pageant, not wanting to ooze too much Southern charm, and became an early favorite. After she won and the advertisers and promotional men surrounded her the next day, they were very disappointed to learn that she’d avoided signing a contract that obliged her to promote any products, specifically Catalina swimsuits. In media interviews, she commented that she considered Miss America a talent competition, not “a parade of bodies.”
As she later remembered the controversy in 1994, after another Alabaman won the pageant (only the second from the state and also the first deaf Miss America), “You would have to walk these ramps in all these cities parading around in a bathing suit. It was pretty silly.” Fox refused to participate, and Catalina, the maker of the swimsuits and a sponsor of the competition, pulled out of the pageant altogether to start Miss USA and Miss Universe. Fox remembered being supported in her decision, “. . . the woman who was head of it at the time was quite pleased. I think they had been waiting for a woman to do it. I told them I wouldn’t do that if they put a shotgun to my head.”
But she did get paraded around. On her tour through Washington, D.C. as Miss America, Fox visited Walter Reed hospital to console wounded Korean veterans and attended an event by the Alabama State Society. Her district’s U.S. Representative, Alabama No. 1’s Frank Boykin, lavished some very Southern 1950s praise on her, “She showed so much dignity and poise, and she has beauty and brains—a rare combination.” Boykin added, “Those Yankees were so fine to her up in Atlantic City that I believe they’re going to try and steal her from us. If they do, they’ll just start another Civil War. We in the South just won’t give her up. She’s our angel.”
Immediately after winning, she married movie executive Matthew Fox (also rumored to have had a hand in bringing Sukarno to power after Indonesian independence in 1945), and began taking voice lessons in New York City. By 1952, Yolande Fox declared her intention to run for U.S. Congress in Alabama’s First District (something she would repeat periodically throughout her life), but she hoped to wait until Frank Boykin vacated his seat. She also intended to be an opera singer and to challenge any notions that Southern women were incapable of holding public office. “If I did run for Congress my singing probably would be a help. After all, elections in the South have been won with a washboard and a pail and someone to thump them.” She never campaigned for Congress, but she did sing opera for a while, touring the U.S. and Europe with small companies, and she acted in a few bit parts in Hollywood.
She also became an activist. She volunteered with the NAACP and the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy in New York City. In 1960, as CORE and SNCC organized sit-ins across the South, Fox along with other Broadway actors picketed a Manhattan Woolworth’s in solidarity with Southern protesters. “I’m a Southern girl, but I’m a thinking girl. Every Southerner I know in New York without exception is in favor of the Congress of Racial Equality CORE.” She also later picketed the Miss America contest for excluding African Americans and other people of color. But she struggled to be taken seriously, forever saddled with her crown.
By the late 1960s (her husband died in 1964), Fox was involved with Algerian Ambassador Cherif Guellal, and the two dazzled the D.C. social scene. Guellal was by all accounts a heartthrob and a gentleman. He fought for Algerian independence in 1961, and his revolutionary mother was a celebrated resistance fighter who withstood two years of torture by the French government. Guellal also helped build support for Indian independence, successfully fought to remove a racially discriminatory covenant in his ambassadorial home, was friends with Kennedys among other powerful D.C. politicos, and became an influential businessman with established ties to the oil industry. Following the Six-Day War, the press agonized over Fox and Guellal’s ill-fated union: He was a Muslim, she was a Christian, and her daughter was considered by Algerians to be “half-Jewish.” Though the war ended Algerian diplomatic ties with the U.S., Fox and Guellal remained together until his death in 2009. They never married, but they considered each other spouses, and Guellal helped raise Fox’s daughter, Dolly, from her marriage.
For decades, Fox split her time between New York and Washington, D.C. (her Georgetown home was owned by Jaqueline Onassis, and apparently Dwight D. Eisenhower lived there too). In 2006, the National Museum of American History curated an exhibit of the Miss America pageant, a contest on a steep decline by the 21st century. Some former winners offered to lend the museum a gown or two, but Fox donated her crown, sash, and scepter. An accompanying feature in Smithsonian Magazine, called her “the most unconventional Miss America ever.”
Fox passed away in Washington, D.C., on February 22, 2016.
Jay Reeves, “Decision Prompted Pageant Split,” The Tuscaloosa News, 20 Sept 1994.
“Former Miss America Sets Sights on Political Job,” St. Petersburg Times, 30 Aug 1952.
“Yolande Backs Negro Sit-Ins” Florence Daily Times, 16 Jun 1960.
Maxine Chesire, “True-Life Romance Becomes Human Interest Drama,” The Washington Post, 14 Jun 1967.
“Cherif Guellal dies at 76; Algerian resistance fighter and diplomat,” The Los Angeles Times, 9 Sept 2009.