Oprah, Vanessa Williams, and other stars who got their start in beauty pageants
While Miss America hasn’t bred any headline-stealing celebrities recently, beauty pageants were once a place where future stars got their start. Oprah was Miss Black Tennessee; Halle Berry was Miss Ohio. Vanessa Williams made it all the way to the top, nabbing the Miss America title in 1984.
With Miss America’s 88th annual pageant airing Sunday on ABC at 9 p.m. ET, EW took a look at the most famous Oscar winners and television icons who once won crowns and sashes:
Leachman represented Chicago in 1946’s Miss America pageant and, though she didn’t win the ultimate crown, earned enough prize money to move to New York and pay for acting classes. Things worked out for her, and she ended up performing alongside Katharine Hepburn in a Broadway production of As You Like It before winning an Academy Award for her role in 1971’s The Last Picture Show.
Where is she now? In the past year alone, the 88-year-old Leachman has appeared in The Croods, Girl Meets World, Hot in Cleveland, Kirstie, and Raising Hope.
Sawyer won America’s Junior Miss Pageant in the early ’60s, and went on to be an on-air weather forecaster on a Kentucky station until she headed to D.C. to work for President Nixon’s press secretary. She soon made her way back on TV, making her anchoring debut on CBS in 1981 and later becoming 60 Minutes‘ first female correspondent in 1984. Her other credits include co-anchoring Primetime Live, 20/20, and Good Morning America. No wonder she’s Kirsten Dunst’s character’s idol in 1999’s beauty pageant-themed cult classic Drop Dead Gorgeous.
Where is she now? In late August, Sawyer signed off as the nightly news anchor on ABC’s World News after five years on the job. She’s not going far, though: Sawyer is staying at ABC News to work on more in-depth stories and high-profile interviews.
Kathie Lee Gifford
After winning Maryland’s Junior Miss title in 1970, Gifford competed in the national competition where she met Anita Bryant, the pageant’s co-host and a Christian singer who saw potential for Gifford as a Christian entertainer. Gifford went on to live with Bryant and her husband before making a religious career for herself through gospel albums and appearances on Christian-focused shows. It wasn’t until 1985 that she started branching out, playing a nurse on soap opera Days of Our Lives and later co-hosting Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee until 2000.
Where is she now? Since 2008, Gifford’s been hosting the Today show’s fourth hour with Hoda Kotb.
Winfrey was crowned Miss Black Tennessee in 1972 and went on to compete in Miss Black America, though her time as a pageant contestant was cut short thanks to her broadcast career — a year after winning Miss Black Tennessee, Winfrey became the first black female anchor on Nashville’s news stations. She went on to create her own empire, most notably hosting The Oprah Winfrey Show from 1986 until 2011.
Carter became Miss USA in 1973 and just two years later made her debut as Wonder Woman. It’s a role people still associate the actress with decades later.
Where is she now? Carter appeared as a guest judge on an episode of Skin Wars, a competition show centered around body painting, in August, and guest-starred in an episode of Two and a Half Men in 2013. She’s also lent her voice to The Elder Scrolls video game series along with other actors like Kate Beckinsale and Alfred Molina.
Burke didn’t win the Miss USA crown when she represented Florida in the 1975 competition, but she did nab a scholarship that allowed her to study music and acting at a two-year program in London. Although she’s since appeared in a number of films and TV shows, Burke is best known for playing a former beauty queen on CBS comedy Designing Women, a series that ran from 1986 to 1993 and earned Burke two Emmy nominations.
Where is she now? Burke was set to star in ABC show Counter Culture in 2012, but the network didn’t pick up the pilot. Before that, she last appeared in an episode of Drop Dead Diva in 2009.
Stone was a Pennsylvania beauty queen in the ’70s before she was hired by Ford Modeling Agency only days after moving to the New York area. She made her name modeling and appearing on television, but it wasn’t until starring in 1992’s Basic Instinct that she became internationally recognized. Later, Stone scored both an Oscar nod and a Golden Globe Award for her role in 1995’s Casino.
Where is she now? Stone starred alongside Amanda Seyfried in 2013’s Lovelace, and is returning to TV to play the first female U.S. president for an upcoming TNT pilot.
The Scarface actress entered a beauty pageant in 1978 because she thought it’d help her get an in with the acting world—and it did. She won the title of Miss Orange County that year and made her film debut in 1980’s The Hollywood Knights before her breakout role in 1983’s Scarface.She wasn’t a fan of the pageant life, though: “I thought the whole thing was ridiculous,” she told The Telegraph.
Where is she now? Pfeiffer starred with Robert De Niro in 2013’s The Family, a movie about a mobster and his family who are forced to enter a witness protection program and move. Naturally, they have trouble keeping their identities secret.
Williams became the first black woman to win the Miss America title in 1984, but her reign was interrupted when Penthouse magazine published nude photos of her without her permission. That year’s first runner-up went on to take the title of Miss America for the remainder of Williams’ term. But Williams recovered in a big way: Her 1991 album, The Comfort Zone, earned five Grammy nominations, and her cover of “Colors of the Wind” for the Pocahontas soundtrack won an Oscar in 1995. And she scored three Emmy nods for her work on ABC sitcom Ugly Betty. And she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in 2002’s Into the Woods. Take that, Penthouse.
After winning Miss Teen All-American in 1985 and Miss Ohio in 1986, Berry went on to place second in Miss USA and sixth in Miss World. “We didn’t have a lot, so initially I saw dollar signs,” she told People. “But then I felt really empowered after winning.” Other titles she’s won? An Oscar in 2002 for her role in Monster’s Ball and both a Golden Globe and Emmy for her performance in TV movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.
Before Ryan became a sci-fi star, she placed fourth in 1990’s Miss America and won the swimsuit portion of the competition that year. Just a year later, Ryan appeared in multiple TV shows. Later that decade, she made her sci-fi debut in the short-lived Dark Skies before playing Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager from 1997 until 2001. She went on to star in Fox drama Boston Public for three years.
Where is she now? Returning to her sci-fi roots, Ryan had a recurring role on Syfy series Helix earlier this year. Also this year, she appeared in an episode of TNT The Closer spin-off Major Crimes.
Miss America airs Sept. 14 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.