The outspoken beauty queen, Yolande “Bebe” Betbeze Fox: Born into a Basque family in 1928 in Mobile, Alabama, she was crowned Miss America in 1951, although she had trained as an opera singer.

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Yolande Betbeze Fox. World Telegram photo by Dick DeMarsico, via Wikimedia Commons

“Right after her victory, though,” as Sally Pearsall Ericosn writes in a fascinating article, “Fox was informed by representatives of sponsor Catalina Swimwear that she was expected to wear Catalina bathing suits during her appearances around the country. She refused. ‘I’m not a model. I’m an opera singer,’ she told them.” And her stance was pivotal in shifting pageant values, to some extent, more toward other personal qualities, such as intellect, more than just beauty alone.

Through the 1950s, “the Basque spitfire,” as she was known, went on to travel the world, making personal appearances, as well as singing opera and studying philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. She married movie magnate Matthew Fox, the former president of Universal Pictures, in 1954, and they had one daughter, Yolande “Dolly” Fox Campbell. She later became involved in the civil rights and feminist movements and disassociated herself from the Miss America pageant because of its lack of diversity. After her husband’s death, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she became a prominent society hostess. She was in a relationship with Cherif Guellal, an Algerian businessman and diplomat who had fought in the Algerian independence movement, with whom she led an active social life among the intellectual and social elite of the US capital, until his death in 2009. She has donated most of her pageant memorabilia to the Smithsonian Institution and hopes one day to publish an autobiography of her remarkable life story.

Check out another article on Yolande Betbeze Fox by Rachel Sinclair here.