Friday, August 7, 2015

Miss Universe & International Beauty Contests

Miss Universe - Beginnings
            Early in 1951 Long Beach was elated.  The city had been selected over Catalina Island and Hollywood to host the 1952 Miss Universe pageant --- the world's first international beauty contest.  Excitement increased when Universal-International Pictures announced they were co-sponsoring the pageant and would offer the winner a seven-year film contract.  In addition Miss United States and four runner-ups would also be given film contracts
            June 1952 was an exciting time in Long Beach --- world attention was focused on the city and the lovely women arriving for the pageant.  On June 28 tension mounted as the judges couldn't seem to make up their minds as to who was the most beautiful woman in the world.  Finalists were called back twice because of a tie vote, but finally the 10 judges agreed on 18-year-old Armi Kuusela of Finland.
            Actress Piper Laurie crowned Miss Kuusela with a $500,000 coronet
Piper Laurie crowns Armi Kuusela
once worn by the czarinas of Russia and handed her a scepter and robe.  Runner-up was Elsa Edsman, a brunette from Honolulu, Hawaii.  Daisy Mavraki, Miss Greece, was third; Judy Dan, Miss Hong Kong, fourth; Renate Hoy, Miss Germany, fifth.
            The contest was a sell out, standing room only.  3700 people packed the auditorium including press representatives from all over the world.  All in all there were 30 contestants representing every continent and all major nations except Russia and her satellites.  The women were judged on the basis of their appearance in evening gowns and bathing suits.  Ironically, there was a sign posted in the auditorium which read "people in bathing suits not allowed."
            All was not smooth sailing.  Charges were made that "Miss Finland" had been selected as a publicity ploy to promote the Olympic Games to be held in Helsinki the following month.  Contest organizers denied the charges.   Miss Universe wouldn't remain a Miss long.  While on a tour of the Philippines in March 1953, Armi Kuusela met a millionaire Filipino whom she secretly married in May 1953.  Her mother was appalled, saying her daughter was too young.

2nd Miss Universe Pageant
            By the time the 2nd Miss Universe Pageant rolled around it had become far more than just a beauty contest --- it was now big time show business.  The main purpose of the event was to choose the most beautiful girl in the world, but during each of the four 3 ½ hour shows in which the contestants were viewed by judges and audience, stage, screen, radio and television performers were there to entertain.
            The four day event held July 14-17 1953, was an extravaganza.  The
first two nights, while judges were debating their choice for Miss U.S.A., the international contestants appeared on stage in their native costumes.  Each Miss U.S.A. contestant donned a bathing suit and evening gown, stepping forth from a 30-foot high sea shell called the “Kingdom of Pearls.”  The first evening hosted a tribute to President Eisenhower, with a chorus singing a special melody “The Whole World Likes Our Ike.”  Behind the singers a 30-foot high portrait of the president, painted in fluorescent paint, was displayed.
            The second night featured the crowing of Myrna Hansen of Chicago as Miss U.S.A. and the final evening saw Miss France, Christiane Martel, declared the most beautiful woman in the world.  The 5 foot 3 inch, 125 pound, Miss Universe received a motion picture contract, car, $2500 wrist watch and a Miss Universe trophy.  Like her predecessor, who married a wealthy Filipino, she didn’t remain single for long.
            In January 1954, Christiane Martel filled out a marriage license application to wed Ronnie Marengo, son of a well-to-do Stockton department store owner.  On the form, however, she listed her age as 17.  If this was the case, she had misrepresented her age when she entered the Miss Universe Pageant.  The rules were explicit: all contestants had to be at least 18-years-old.  Would she be forced to relinquish her title and would Myrna Hansen, the 1st runner-up become Miss Universe?  Miss Universe officials declared Martel would remain Miss Universe unless an official protest was registered.  When asked if she would challenge the legality of the crown held by the French beauty, Myrna Hansen said she would not.  The contest had been based on points and if Christiane looked old enough to get most of the points she deserved the title, Miss Hansen replied (Press Telegram 1/9/1954 )
            After two months Ronal Marengo filed for annulment and Christiane Martel filed for divorce. Marengo accused her of leaving him because she missed the bright lights and headlines of Hollywood.  Christiane denied the charges stating her husband was too immature --- next time she would marry an older man.  Her sister, Georgette, later joined her in America meeting and marrying Hollywood director Vincent Minelli, Judy Garland’s former husband.  Christiane headed for Mexico and in 1956 became a major star in Mexican movies for Azteca Films.

Miss Universe Troubles - 1957
            You couldn’t be a Mrs. and still compete as a Miss.  That’s what Miss Universe officials told Maryland’s entry in the Miss U.S.A. portion of the Miss Universe pageant, Leona Gage. Trouble was the wedding ring on her finger wasn’t discovered until after she was declared Miss U.S.A. and it was just her luck that this was the first year in the six-year history of the pageant that contestants were required to be single.   
            Rumors that the new Miss U.S.A. was married began spreading after an anonymous tip to a Baltimore newspaper. Denying, almost hysterically, that she had not been married, Leona Gage was forced to confess when her own mother admitted that Leona was married at 14.  Not only was she married but she had two children ages 2 and 3.
            Unfortunately Leona’s confession came too late to help runner-up and the new Miss U.S.A., Charlotte Sheffield of Utah, in the contest.  Sheffield had missed the preliminary elimination contests in the Miss Universe Pageant (held July 11-21, 1957) and couldn’t compete.  It was the first time since the pageant began that a Miss U.S.A. was not among the 15 finalists in the international competition.
            Though she had to give up her crown and prizes, Leona Gage came out a winner after all.  She accepted a contract with the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas to become a member of the chorus line for $200 a week. She was also offered a role in an American International movie and was paid $1000 to appear on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town television program.  Her own story was enough to make a movie out of.
            The 18-year-old Mrs. Mary Leona Gage Ennis confessed she had been married twice. The first time was when she was 14 when she met an airman named Edward Thacker at a town in Oklahoma in November 1953. She couldn’t recall the town and couldn’t say where Thacker lived.  The marriage lasted only one day and was annulled, she said.  A girl friend had talked her into it.  Three months later she married 28-year-old airman Gene Norris Ennis.
           Follow up stories on Leona were also fodder for the tabloids.  In February 1958, she divorced Gene Ennis because his idea of a good time was to go out for a beer with the boys.  She would marry her third husband, Nick Covaevich, a fellow Las Vegas dancer, in November 1958.  But trouble was brewing for Leona.  Mary Callie Hill, the blonde beauty she had defeated for the right to represent Maryland in the Miss Universe contest, sued her and the sponsors of the Miss Maryland pageant for $30,000.  In 1960 Leona was jailed for child neglect.  She remarried a fourth time, and in 1963 took an overdose of barbiturates.  One of her children was placed in a foster home after she left the child with a baby sitter, and didn't come back.  In 1964, she was booked into the prison ward of County General hospital after her second suicide attempt. She had also been found in possession of marijuana.  After psychiatric treatment, she was placed on five years probation and next turned up in a skid row burlesque.  She again sought psychiatric treatment and a short time later reappeared in the news one more time --- for her fifth divorce. (Press Telegram 3/10/1968 )

            But the Leona controversy wasn't the only story about the 1957 contest that  had tongues wagging.   When a dark-haired, 18-year-old Peruvian beauty named Gladys Zender was crowned Miss Universe 1958 everything seemed fine.  Later it was discovered the newly crowned world queen was under the age limit.  Not only did pageant rules require contestants to be single, but they had to be between the ages of 18 and 28 at the time of the contest.  Gladys Zender was only 17 years, 9 months old.  But she would retain her title, thanks to “age” custom in Peru.  In that country it was the custom for anyone reaching the age of 17 years, 6 months to be considered 18.  After much debate, pageant officials declared Zender’s application had been made in good faith.  The title would remain in Miss Peru’s possession.  A Brazilian attorney, however, wasn’t happy with their decision.  He asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the selection, because if she was disqualified the title would pass to Miss Brazil, Terresinha Morango, the beauty pageant’s first runner-up.  The Supreme Court refused to hear the case.  Gladys kept the crown.
            Gladys, who spoke only a smattering of English, became a busy girl.  She toured South American, Canada, Europe and the United States for Max Factor cosmetics.  When her contract with Max Factor ended in February 1953 she began a six-month tour of the United States for Catalina swimwear.  Each tour brought her $5,000 in cash.  She didn’t get too homesick, however, because her father refused to let his daughter participate in the tours unless her mother went along as a chaperon.  Her dad  almost brought her home to Peru when he learned she had to appear publicly in a swimsuit.  Though he didn’t feel it was “proper,” the $5,000 helped convince him.
            Pageant rules were tightened so future years wouldn’t be like 1957.  It became the responsibility of the state and foreign sponsors to verify candidates were single and definitely aged 18 to 28.  But, all in all, the publicity had been good for the pageant.  For 48 hours Long Beach had been on the front pages of the world press.

Church or Beauty Contest?
            What did you do if you were Catholic and the church said you couldn’t compete in the Miss Universe pageant?  That was the dilemma Sue Simone
Were bathing suits immoral?
Ingersoll, Miss New Mexico, had to face in the summer of 1959.  The archbishop of New Mexico believed that parading the female body was immoral and told the statuesque redhead she had to choose between her religion and the beauty contest.  He didn’t care that Miss Ohio, Miss Louisiana, Miss Hawaii, Miss Belgium, Miss Italy and most of the South American contestants were also Catholics.  New Mexico was his jurisdiction and he issued the law.

            The archbishop did give in a little.  He conceded that if the bathing suit review was held in private, allowing only the families of the contestants and the judges to be present he would be satisfied.  If she defied him, she and her family would be deprived of the sacraments of the church.  Would Long Beach officials change the way the bathing suit portion of the contest was held?  No.  On July 19, 1959, Sue Ingersoll openly defied the Archbishop of New Mexico by appearing in the pageant bathing suit parade, but the attention surrounding her decision was too much for her.  On July 20th she decided to quit the pageant and head for home.  She had had enough of the media exploitation of her situation.
            Miss Japan, Akiko Kojima, a 22-year-old Tokyo fashion model won the 1960 Miss Universe crown in 1959.  But cries of “discrimination” were hurled at officials from the fathers of Latin American beauties Miss Bolivia and Miss Cuba.  They felt the judges were selecting winners on American standards instead of international ones.  They called for an equal number of judges from the United States, Latin America and Europe.  In August 1959, two semi-nude photographs of Miss Universe contestants appeared in a national “off-color” magazine.  Miss England was seen bobbing to the surface of a hotel pool with her untanned bosom bared.  The editors alluded to “uninhibited water frolicking” at the world’s largest international beauty contest.  Further back in the magazine were color photos of Mariana Gaba, 1957 Miss Illinois, posed artfully in a back yard setting, nude from the waist down.

New Pageant
            All of this was too much for Long Beach officials. Oscar Meinhardt, executive producer of the worldwide spectacle, announced that in the future play clothes would take the place of swimsuits in a new competition.  In addition, contestants would be presented in evening gowns and colorful native costumes.
Long Beach port mural dedication 1960
            Catalina Swimsuits, who owned the Miss Universe and Miss U.S.A. titles, were willing to allow their play suits to replace their swimsuits in a new competition and to renew the contract with Long Beach; however, they wanted $150,000 for use of the title and all television rights.  This was too much for Long Beach officials who pointed out the city had spent more than $500,000 and considerable time in establishing the name throughout the world.  They refused to pay.  Instead Long Beach decided to start a pageant of her own --- Miss International Beauty.  Catalina Swimsuits, meanwhile, found a new home for Miss U.S.A. and Miss Universe in Miami Beach.
            In October 1959, Long Beach announced that 46 foreign countries --- 12 more than had been represented at any previous pageant – would be represented in the 1960 International Beauty event.  Contest officials credited the increase in participants to the decision to eliminate the bathing suit competition.

International Beauty Pageant
            In August of 1960, the largest group of foreign lovelies ever to appear in any worldwide beauty contest made their way to Long Beach.  Fifty foreign nations had sent their prettiest girls to compete in the new pageant --- Miss International Beauty.  Play suits had been substituted for bathing suits as an inducement to attract more beauties.  Some nations had previously barred girls from competing in skimpy, tight-fitting bathing suits.  So now the girls would wear skimpy, tight-fitting play suits instead.  Gone, however, were the 50 candidates for the Miss U.S.A. contest that had always preceded the Miss Universe pageant.  It had moved to Miami Beach along with the Miss Universe pageant.
Long Beach Mayor Wade greets contestants
Aug. 1960
          Twenty-one-year-old Miss Colombia, Stella Marquez, had the honor of becoming the first Miss international Beauty. A financial award of $10,000, a $3500 ring, a $300 diamond wristwatch and a trophy added to the tribute.  Stella claimed she was stunned by her victory because a month earlier at Miami Beach's Miss Universe Pageant she had finished in 6th place. She was also sure she had flubbed her chances in Long Beach because earlier in the competition she had forgotten which city she was in telling the audience that she was "so happy to be in this beautiful, tropical paradise of Miami."  However, Long Beach judges chose to overlook this "sin" of mentioning Miami and awarded her the title anyway.
             Deluged with requests from Hollywood agents for screen tests, Miss Marquez wasn't sure which way to turn.  She said she had never considered being an actress; working in Colombia's diplomatic service had always been her dream.  She also wasn't sure if the strict nuns at Marymount College in New York, where she had majored in language and psychology prior to entering the Miss Colombia contest, would let her back in.

Thanks to Dr. Yoshio T. Nakamura (and Junji Nakamura) we have a You Tube video of the 1960 pageant

Long Beach - The International City
          Though Long Beach had decided not to renew its contract with the Miss Universe Pageant, it had replaced it with its own worldwide beauty contest --- Miss International Beauty.  Picking up on this "international" theme, the City Council decided to promote itself as the "International City."
            Douglas Aircraft loved the idea.  The aircraft company saw its DC-8 as a powerful magnet in drawing influential world leaders to Long Beach.  In 1959 alone hundreds of distinguished foreign visitors including a prime minister, several cabinet members, three crown princes, and high legislative officials had visited the plant spreading the fame of Long Beach throughout the world.   In April 1961, City officials approved a design for new signs --- 8 feet 9 inches wide and 6 feet high --- to be erected on poles leading into the city.  Instead of neon lighted signs simply spelling out the name of the city, the new markers had an outline of a DC-8 and an ocean liner encased in plastic.  Above and below these new city symbols were the words: Long Beach - The International City

Beauty Pageant Hoax
            The International Beauty Congress (IBC) was rocked by scandal in 1961 when a 15-year-old Long Beach girl (who couldn’t speak a word of Spanish) succeeded in passing herself off as Miss Costa Rica.  For 20 hours, the Millikan High School junior, Reona Herz, bamboozled pageant officials, an airline, police, a hotel and television personalities into believing she was Miss Costa Rica.  The plucky teenager, whose mother, Ella, worked for the Board of Education and whose father, Morton, was a teacher at the Burnett Elementary School, was so convincing that she was admitted to the pageant without a passport, birth certificate, credentials or luggage.  Carrying on her hoax so magnificently, she was chased by police when she tried to leave the La Fayette Hotel.  Thinking she was the real Miss Costa Rica, too nervous to remain for the competition, police officers told her to think of the honor of her country.  Finally Reona broke down and cried “I want to go home.”  Hostesses and police finally released her when her parents arrived and established her true identity.
Gemma Teresa Cruz,
Miss International 
            Miss Herz, who never had been to Central America, picked Costa Rica as her country because the real Costa Rican entry canceled out at the last moment.  Reona and her friends, bored during the summer, decided it would be fun to see if some Long Beach girl could get into the contest posing as a foreign delegate.  Reona told officials and other contestants that she didn’t speak Spanish because she had spent most of her life in New York and only won the contest when she visited her father in Costa Rica.  Surprisingly, people she knew did not recognize her in her Costa Rican costume.
            Costa Rica’s newspapers prominently displayed a photo of “the beautiful imposter,” saying they owed her a debt of gratitude for publicizing their country throughout the world.  What she had given them in publicity would have cost them thousands of dollars to buy.  Still embarrassed by her charade, Reona declined Costa Rica’s offer to bring her to their country and become a real Miss Costa Rica presiding over the International Soccer Games in San Jose.  She also repaid the IBC for her lodging and food at the Lafayette and returned all her IBC gifts.
            (Stam Van Baer of Holland would win the IBC crown and reign as Miss International Beauty for 1962).

Paying for the IBC  

            Was the International Beauty Congress a big joke, worthless to the city and the harbor?  According to Long Beach Harbor Commissioner William A. Harrington, it was.  Harrington also challenged the legality of using harbor money to subsidize the summertime show.  Harrington said he was not satisfied with the city attorney’s ruling that it was legal for the city to give funds to the Beauty Congress and had consulted a private attorney who said that there was a big question as to the legality of using Tideland Trust funds for the project.   Since 1955 the Harbor Department had spent $128,400 on the pageant and its predecessor, the Miss Universe contest.  Harrington said the port got no benefit whatsoever from the event.  
            Despite Harrington's comments in 1962, the pageant continued, but in May 1966 it was decided not to hold a contest in the summer of that year, but to wait until the spring of 1967.  It seemed the IBC followed too closely to the Miss Universe pageant in Miami, which was a tough act to follow.  This was especially hard for Long Beach officials to swallow, since Long Beach had been the original location for the Miss Universe pageants.  Now many contestants would jump from the Miss Universe show to the IBC event, but television audiences were bored seeing the same girls twice.  Advertising revenues to pay for the IBC decreased. By holding it in the spring it would be the FIRST beauty pageant of the year.

Good Bye Long Beach
            On February 23, 1968, Robert Pierce, International Beauty Congress president, announced the International Beauty Congress for 1968 had been canceled; expected television revenues had failed to materialize.  The pageant relied heavily on TV revenues for funding and the networks were unable to program the pageant on dates available in the Long Beach Arena or Auditorium. 
             In 1967 the 15-year-old beauty pageant had been held April 18-30, the first time it had been staged in spring instead of summer. IBC promoters said the prime reason they switched the dates was to get increased TV coverage.  There were too many other beauty contests competing for television time in the summer, they said.  This year, 1968,  the contest was scheduled April 24 through May 4, but there was just too much competition for TV time from the national political conventions and Olympic Games.

            Vice Mayor Robert Crow said the IBC had “run its course,” and no more city money should be spent on it.  Crow got his wish.  On March 5, 1968, the city’s contract to give the IBC $54,000 for the 1968 contest was declared “null and void.”  The council also instructed IBC officials to dissolve their corporation, though these actions did not necessarily mean the end of the International Beauty Pageant, since the city had title to the name and could stage it through some other organization.  This did not appear too likely, however, since others besides Crow felt the pageant had reached an end.
            In February 1969, Japan asked if they could hold the pageant.  Long Beach agreed.  The IBC survived in Japan.  In 2000 a Japanese film crew returned to Long Beach with Japanese IBC officials to learn the history of their organization.  They knew it was 40 years old, but were amazed that it had started in Long Beach.
            What of the women who had been chosen "queen" in Long Beach?  A Press-Telegram article in March 1968 gave fans an update ( PT 3/10/1968 A15-1):
  • Armi Kuusela, Miss Universe 1952 from Finland was now one of three former IBC and Miss Universe queens living in the Philippines. She was now Mrs. Virgilio Hilario and the mother of four children.
  • Christine Martel, Miss Universe 1953, from France had married the son of a former president of Mexico and was reported doing occasional movies in Mexico.
  • The USA's Miriam Stevenson, Miss Universe 1954, had married Don Upton, a composer who worked in television on Columbia, South Carolina.  They had two children.
  • Hillevi Rombin, Miss Universe 1955, from Sweden had married hotel magnate David Schine. They had five children, including a set of twins.
  • Iowa's Carol Morris, Miss Universe 1956, was reported married to a Texas oilman and living in Texas.
  • Peru's Gladys Zender, Miss Universe 1957, was till single and living in Peru.
  • Luz Marina Zuluaga, Miss Universe 1958, from Colombia had had 460 babies christened after her and 260 poems written in her honor. She lived in a 10 bedroom castle in Colombia with her physician husband.
  • Japan's Akiko Kojima, Miss Universe 1959, had recently married a famous Japanese movie star.
  • Stella Marquez, the first Miss International, 1960, from Colombia was married to Jorge Araneta and lived in Manila.
  • Stam Van Baer, Miss International 1961, from Holland had married Dr. Gene Myer of Long Beach.  They had one child.
  • Tania Verstak, Miss International 1962, from Australia had married Peter Young. They had one child and lived in Western Australia.
  • Gudrun Bjarnadottir, Miss International 1963, from Iceland was still single, working as a fashion model in Paris.
  • Gemma Teresa Cruz, Miss International 1964, from the Philippines had married Antonia Aranieta Jr.  The two had started a magazine concerned with social reform and had a daughter, Fatima, almost 2 years old.
  • Ingrid Finger, Miss International 1965, from Germany was a fashion model and had recorded a number of songs in West Germany. She was still single.
  • Mirta Massa, Miss International 1967 (there was no pageant in 1966 )  was from Argentina. She was still single and living in Buenos Aires.

Both Miss Universe and Miss International Beauty contests are still being held. They both owe their roots to the City of Long Beach, California.

For a COMPLETE LIST OF CONTESTANTS in each contest held in Long Beach go to Long Beach Public Library's website click the Long Beach History bar on the left to get to the Long Beach History Index.

Photos from Long Beach Public Library, most taken by Rudolph Spika donated by his daughter Stephanie Spika.