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To Williams, 20 and a Syracuse University student, being Miss America was a practical proposition. She wanted the scholarship money ($25,000), and she wanted the exposure. She wants to be a star. She says until this year she had not given a thought to competing in the pageant. But the executive director of the Miss America Greater Syracuse pageant put the bee in her bonnet, explaining the benefits, and off she went, becoming Miss Greater Syracuse, Miss New York and, ultimately, Miss America, who now, upon leaving David Letterman's studio at NBC, received a hand-delivered letter from the William Morris Agency proposing representation. Back at the Plaza, there was another hand-delivered letter from David Merrick, the producer, proposing a discussion of her stage career. (No one uses stamps in this town any more.) Things seemed to be going Williams' way.
This first round of offers appears to come with the territory if a Miss America expresses thespian designs. With the exception of Bess Myerson (1945), winners seem to find sustaining a career in the public eye more difficult than gaining the title. Rosemary LaPlanche (1941) is not much remembered today, though she made 84 movies, including Strangler of the Swamp and Devil Bat's Daughter. Lee Meriwether (1955) has had roles enough, but her name has failed to attain the tip of the national tongue. Mary Ann Mobley (1959) made those Elvis Presley films, and has had trouble shaking the image ever since. Mobley's runner-up, Anita Bryant, is another story altogether.
None of these histories is lost on the present Miss America, who says she has always been ambitious and driven, and no one more than she knows the risks. "I am sacrificing a year," she says, sounding fully aware. The tone of self-confidence brings back other voices that sounded that way at the beginning and sounded different at the end. "I wanted to get into show business," said Venus Ramey (1944). "I thought the contest would be a good entree. It is, all right: an entrée into oblivion."
The yearlong reign is not much fun, according to many a former winner. You address Rotarians, Lions, Kiwanians, Junior Leaguers, and you appear at Miss America preliminaries. Here a blueberry festival, there a strawberry festival, and the odd hog-calling contest comes into the picture too. And you represent the sponsors of the pageant. This year that would be Gillette, American Greetings Corp., McDonald's and Nestlé. Jacque Mercer (1949) once told an interviewer: "You could take an orangutan, and, with a year's training, it would be a perfectly adequate Miss America."
Yolande Betbeze (1951) recalled to Miss America Chronicler Frank Deford just how silly the year could become. She was sent to Paris with a vial of water from the Hudson River. To symbolize Franco-American friendship, she was to pour it into the Seine. She remembered that "all the damn water ran out of the vial on the plane over, and I had to refill it with water from the faucet in my hotel."