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A 97-Year-Old Former Miss America Refused to Do This During Her Reign

Jo-Carroll Dennison, who just passed, did things her own way after winning in 1942.

The Miss America pageant has been around for 100 years and nearly as many women have held the title. (Some years were skipped for various reasons). But, sadly, the oldest surviving winner has now passed away. As reported on Nov. 1, former Miss America Jo-Carroll Dennison died on Oct. 18. At 97, she was the oldest living winner of the pageant, having won the title in 1942 when she was 18 years old.

Dennison was not just known for being the oldest surviving Miss America, but also for a decision she made while she held the position and for her career following her pageant win, which broke from tradition. Read on to find out about the unconventional choice Dennison made while Miss America.

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Dennison won her pageant during World War II.

Jo-Carroll Dennison in her Miss America sash in 1942
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Dennison didn't have plans to become a beauty queen when she entered her first pageant. According to her CNN obituary, she was scouted to participate in the Miss Tyler pageant in Tyler, Texas where she was studying to be a secretary. She agreed to enter when she found out she would get a free swimsuit from a high-end department store.

Dennison won the Miss Tyler pageant and went on to win Miss East Texas and Miss Texas. She entered the 1942 Miss America contest when she was 18 and won that title, too.

She did not wear a swimsuit to events during her reign.

Jo-Carroll Dennison in a publicity photo for 20th Century Fox from the mid-1940s
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While Dennison was excited to win a free swimsuit in her first pageant and competed in the swimsuit portion of the pageant for Miss America, once she won, she refused to wear a swimsuit for any appearances she made as the reigning Miss America. These appearances included visiting WWII soldiers at hospitals and camps.

"Back in 1942, the pageant was supposed to be about looks," she said in an audio message during the Miss America 100th anniversary celebration earlier this year. "Yet, I never thought I had won Miss America because of the way I looked, but rather because of the way I felt about myself. With this in mind, I flat out refused to wear my bathing suit on the stage after the pageant."

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Miss America recently did away with the swimsuit competition.

Kirsten Haglund, Miss Michigan, during the swimsuit portion of the 2008 Miss America pageant
Everett Collection /

In 2018, Miss America eliminated the swimsuit portion of the competition. "This change in format signals the end of the swimsuit portion of the competition," the organization said in a statement (via Today). "In its place, each candidate will participate in a live interactive session with the judges, where she will highlight her achievements and goals in life and how she will use her talents, passion, and ambition to perform the job of Miss America." The winner of Miss America currently wins a $50,000 scholarship, as well as a six-figure salary during their reign, according to Time.

In her message for the 100th anniversary, Dennison said she was "delighted" that the organization got rid of the swimsuit competition and now "focuses on the totality of each candidate."

Dennison became an actor after Miss America.

Judy Holliday, Jeanne Crain, and Jo-Carroll Dennison in a "Winged Victory" lobbycard from 1944
LMPC via Getty Images

After her pageant days, Dennison worked in the film and TV industry both as an actor and behind the scenes. She appeared in the movies Winged Victory (pictured above right) and The Jolson Story, having signed a contract with 20th Century Fox. She was also on the TV series Dick Tracy.

"The eight decades that have passed since I won the pageant have been filled with wondrously fascinating experiences," she said in her anniversary message. "I was in the movies in Hollywood, on the stage in New York, and on television in both places. I worked in production behind the camera all over Europe and Israel, and back at home on the first live television drama."

But, she continued, "Whenever I'm introduced to a stranger, whomever they may be, nobody talks about the many adventures I have had. Inevitably they say, 'She is a former Miss America, you know?' And to this day, people are fascinated and eagerly say, 'Oh really? What year?'"

Miss America remembered her on social media.

Jo-Carroll Dennison in a photo for 20th Century Fox in the 1940s
20th Century-Fox/Film Favorites/Getty Images

The Miss America organization posted about Dennison's passing on Instagram. "The Miss America Organization is saddened to hear of the passing of Miss America 1942, Jo-Carroll Dennison," the caption reads. "We thank her for her year of service and will miss her dearly."

The account also mentioned Dennison's recently released memoir, Finding My Little Red Hat, which was published in September. According to The New York Times, Dennison is survived by her two sons, Peter and John Stoneham, as well as three grandchildren.

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Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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