Earlier this week the newest Miss USA winner, Nia Sanchez, forgot the capital of Nevada. That might be forgiven if not for the fact that she happens to be Miss Nevada. So she should kinda sorta probably know that. But hey, she shouldn’t be too worried. In twenty years she might be known for something besides her lack of geography knowledge.
Just look at all the famous ladies who got their start as beauty queens in pageants even smaller than Miss USA. You might be surprised how many celebrities you didn’t know were pageant contestants. Or maybe you won’t be surprised, since beauty pageants tend to have beautiful people in them, and celebrities tend to be pretty beautiful. Either way, here are a few big-name ladies who started out wearing sashes.
1. Vanessa Williams
She’s arguably the most famous example, but depending on how old you are and at what age you became aware of Vanessa, her pageant past might have slipped your mind. She won Miss America in 1983, but she resigned before her reign was over due to a nude photo scandal. Despite all that, she went on to become a well-known actress and singer.
2. Oprah Winfrey
In 1971, Oprah won Nashville’s Miss Fire Prevention contest, which earned her a job reading news on the radio (clearly an influential job for a future talk show host). She was later also crowned Miss Black Tennessee and even competed in the Miss Black America competition.
3. Sarah Palin
(Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Take one look at the way she does her hair and this one might not surprise you very much. Sarah Palin won the Miss Wasilla pageant in 1984, and she went on to compete and finish third in the Miss Alaska pageant. Anyone else dying to watch Tina Fey recreate it?
4. Vanessa Minnillo
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She’s now Vanessa Lachey, but I don’t like change so I’m going to use her maiden name. Vanessa was Miss South Carolina Teen USA in 1998 and went on to win the title of Miss Teen USA that year. She was also named Miss Congeniality, because why the hell wouldn’t she be?
5. Halle Berry
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Halle got quite a bit of pageant experience in the ‘80s. She was Miss Teen All American in 1985, Miss Ohio in 1986, then became first runner-up in the Miss USA competition. She finished sixth in the 1986 Miss World pageant.
6. Kathie Lee Gifford
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You don’t get to drink wine on TV every morning without a little early pageant work. When she was 17 she won Maryland’s Junior Miss pageant and then participated in the nationwide competition.
7. Lucy Lawless
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Xena herself won the Mrs. New Zealand pageant in 1989, and she went on to compete in Mrs. World. You might notice that’s “Mrs.” and not Miss. That’s because it was a competition for married women. Unfortunately I don’t think her talent was “being a badass.”
8. Cloris Leachman
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Cloris Leachman has a had a long and successful career as an actress, and she was even on Dancing With the Stars, but she actually started out as a beauty queen. She won Miss Chicago in 1946 and went on to come in 16th place in the Miss America pageant. She used her Miss Chicago scholarship to study acting, and the rest is history.
9. Eva Longoria
In 1998, Eva won the title of Miss Corpus Christi and went on to compete in a Los Angeles talent show, which she ended up winning.
10. Debra Messing
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Debra was Rhode Island’s Junior Miss in 1986, and she went on to compete in the American Junior Miss pageant.
11. Diane Sawyer
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Even serious journalists can get their start on the pageant circuit. You know that nationwide Junior Miss pageant I’ve mentioned? Diane won it in 1963, representing Kentucky. (Kind of unrelated, but is all this Junior Miss talk giving you a craving for Junior Mints? Only me? Okay.)