Tragic Details About Former Miss America Winners

Miss America — the highest, brightest title in the world of pageantry, and depending on who exactly you ask, in the world at large. As PBS notes, "Contests to determine 'who is the fairest of them all' have been around at least since ancient Greece and the Judgment of Paris." That being said, the most well-known is the undeniable staple of the red, white, and blue landscape that is Americana. 

In 1921, organizers in Atlantic City "staged the first Miss America Pageant" as a way to "lure tourists to stay past Labor Day." With the organization seeking out contestants that they deemed "youthful and wholesome," the pageant tackled issues of "democracy and class, art and commerce, [and] gender and sex." Simply put, Miss America was here to stay and has never gone unnoticed.


However, similarly to the very nation she represents, there is more lurking beneath her Wonder-bread smile and perfect curls than meets the eye. Miss America might shine nicely, but even she has an underbelly. She carries around secrets, and dark truths like the rest of us do. So, what exactly is she hiding beneath all of those sequins and hairspray? Read on to discover the tragic details about former Miss America winners.

Margaret Gorman 'never cared to be Miss America'

The Miss America legacy all began with 16-year-old Margaret Gorman. According to The Washington Post, Gorman was kneeled over in a park playing marbles "when journalists tracked her down" to relay the news of her win of the Atlantic City Bathing Beauty Contest. This win led to her claiming the new Miss America title. 

Her effortless beauty made her stand out from the hundreds of other girls that had entered the competition. Gorman had blue eyes and blonde ringlets that framed the sides of her face like curtains. As much her reputation as the first Miss America seemed to impress everyone else, Gorman herself did not care very much. According to the Los Angeles Times, there was a moment during a 1980 interview where Gorman even said, "I never cared to be Miss America. It wasn't my idea. I am so bored by it all. I really want to forget the whole thing." 

However, her success was not without a bit of loss. Her husband of 32 years, Victor Cahill, died in 1957. After a few decades of maintaining a low profile went by, Gorman passed away in October of 1995 as a result of pneumonia and cardiac arrest. Her legacy as the trailblazer for the now globally acclaimed, iconic Miss America pageant lives on through her memory.

Put a swimsuit on it!

It's been said that diamonds are formed beneath immense pressure. In this case, the idea very much rings true. At around 17, Henrietta Leaver "was forced to drop out of high school" to help her parents financially during the distress and economic turmoil of the Great Depression, according to the Miss America website. For a while, she worked at a general shop. After some insistence on the part of her grandmother, who wanted more for Leaver, she entered the Miss Pittsburgh contest and won. Her win caught the eye of Frank Vittor, a Pittsburgh-based sculptor who wanted her to pose for him. She did — but wore a bathing suit, with her grandmother in the room the entire time. As a result of this exchange, Leaver was brought to Atlantic City to compete for the title of Miss America. 

At only 19, she won the 1935 contest. However, she later found herself shocked when Vittor unveiled his sculpture — a nude sculpture with her face on it. Despite her pleas to cover the statue up, Vittor wouldn't back down, and in order to escape her humiliation, Leaver fled to Los Angeles. On a bright note, she found great (albeit brief) success modeling there until she ultimately moved back to the East Coast to raise a family.

Before her passing in 1993, Leaver was quoted as saying, "I've led a very full and happy life, with no regrets" — and that she had no idea where Vittor's statue ended up.

Three decades after receiving her crown, this Miss America spoke out

In 1991, at 53 years old, Marilyn Van Derbur stood before an audience of peers and friends to publicly tell her intimate, powerful story for the first time, as reported in the Chicago Tribune. Her story was one of excruciating, long-term sexual abuse enacted by her father who at that point, had been dead for many years. 

33 years prior to this confession in 1958, Derbur took home the prestigious, coveted title of Miss America. But even diamonds weren't enough to keep the horrors of what she had been through at bay. During an interview with CPR News, Derbur admitted that it took until she was 24 to realize the full weight of what had been done to her. "When you bury feelings alive and something triggers them, then they come up as if it's happening in real time," the former beauty queen revealed. During her press conference, Derber asked, "If I cannot speak the truth with my father dead, how, dear God, can we expect a child to speak?” 

Following her stunning confession, Derbur relentlessly strived towards helping other victims combat their own shame in speaking out against their abuse. In 2003, she released a gripping memoir discussing her experiences titled Miss America By Day, which subsequently led to a documentary being made of the same name. At the time of this writing, in her 80s, Derbur continues to advocate for victims, and her devotion to the truth continues to be deeply felt.

Vanessa Williams' Penthouse controversy

Glory perhaps burns brightest when it's short-lived. When a bright, 20-year-old Vanessa Williams claimed the title of Miss America in 1983 — making her the first Black woman to ever do so in the pageant's history according to Time – she beamed, and the world beamed back. In a pageant with roots in outright racism, even banning Black women from competing until 1970, Williams' success was long overdue, to say the very least. 

However, only a year after being crowned, Williams had to give up that same crown in the onslaught of controversy surrounding nude photos that had been leaked. This made her the first-ever winner to do so. An unfortunate double whammy. According to Time, Penthouse had recently released risque images of the model, despite promising her that they would "never leave the studio." Originally, Playboy was offered the photos but denied them. Following the headlines, Hugh Hefner was quoted as telling Time that the true victim in the controversy was "the young woman herself, whose right to make this decision was taken away from her." 

Ultimately, for Williams, briefly winning the title was "a practical proposition" (via Time). As the outlet even explained at the time of her win, "She wanted the scholarship money ($25,000), and she wanted the exposure. She [wanted] to be a star." Indeed, she did become a star. Today, Williams shines vivaciously as both an award-winning actress and musician. How's that for karma?

Behind Carolyn Sapp's crown

Carolyn Sapp initially made headlines in 1991 for being the first Hawaiian woman to win the Miss America pageant. Support flooded in from all avenues and corners across the nation in celebration of her success. But her party was cut short when only three days after receiving her crown, it was revealed in a local Honolulu newspaper that Sapp had been a victim of domestic abuse, according to the Los Angeles Times. The abuser was another celeb, Nuu Faaola of the New York Jets. 

The violence of their relationship eventually grew so intense that Sapp actually had to report him to the police. The following year after the news broke, a movie came out on NBC called Miss America: Behind The Crown — with Sapp playing herself. While that may seem odd at first glance, it helped to empower her, detailing the abuse and telling her side of the story once and for all. 

Although the role was emotionally demanding, Sapp told the Los Angeles Times that she felt, "if sharing my pain would help someone else, then it was worth it." Thankfully, despite everything she has been through, Sapp is now happily married to actor Alex Daniels. The pair have three children.

'Every veteran's daughter'

2000 — the year of Britney Spears, pink glitter, and supposed apocalypse. Heather French Henry, a then 25-year-old brunette, took home the title of Miss America that year, later turning her attention towards raising "awareness and funding for veterans issues," as well as her own artistic pursuits, according to her website

It turns out, Henry's father had served in the Vietnam war and battled with disability and night terrors as a result, as many veterans do. As a result of her big win, however, the beauty queen ultimately made the most of her platform and exposure. During her first year, Henry went on a speaking tour, visiting with veterans and lobbying on their behalf. She even founded the Heather French Foundation for Veterans during that tour, with Congressman Lane Evans even calling her "every veteran's daughter." 

However, in 2003, misfortune would strike, per CBS. While driving, Henry struck a bicyclist with her car while turning at an intersection. The victim later died at the University of Louisville Hospital. Henry was "devastated," according to her husband. No charges were ever filed. To this day, in spite of the tragedy she has faced, Henry continues to create, even owning her own clothing boutique.

Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, the giving queen

Michigan-born beauty queen Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, with her green eyes and blonde hair, took home the Miss America crown in 1988 at age 24, making her the first registered nurse to do so. According to Monroe News, she was already quite known for the kindness she exuded, as well as her beauty made clear in the competition, so she made use of her newly-gifted platform after her win.

She founded the Hospice of Monroe in 1988, as well as Gabby's Ladder in 2001, a non-profit organization that functions with the goal of helping those in grief through support services, according to their website. Rafko's determination to help others was unfortunately inspired by her own losses. Rafko's father and brother have both passed away since her win over 30 years ago. And she lost a son, Gabriel, who passed away only 46 minutes after he was born. However, Rafko wears her losses as a badge of honor, saying her pain makes her a "wounded healer" and that much more empathetic within her work. 

And while speaking with Monroe News, she said, "Miss America was a wonderful gift, truly a wonderful gift."

Kirsten Haglund has spoken out about her past eating disorder

In 2008, in the middle of the great and painful recession, a cheery, blonde Kirsten Haglund took home the lofty Miss America title. However, only when she returned, did her work really begin. 

Using her newly-gifted platform, Haglund made the most of the unique opportunity in order to speak out on eating disorder awareness — a topic often associated with beauty pageantry. As it turned out, Haglund's passion for public awareness is unfortunately driven by her own experiences with anorexia as a ballet dancer, according to her website. Tragically enough, the pressures of becoming a ballerina hit her at the young age of 12, when she was initially diagnosed (via CNN).

She founded the Kirsten Haglund Foundation in 2015, an organization that works to provide, "hope, networking and financial aid" to those in need of treatment for their eating disorders, a respectable goal considering that treatment can often cost up to $2,500 a day. The organization's motto is, "Love your body. Rock your world."

Gretchen Carlson wears a crown of strength

A lot has already been said about Gretchen Carlson — she's an iconic figure in the landscape of television and an inspiration for women everywhere. However, not many people know that among her successes lies the shiny crown she took home in 1989 for Miss America, according to USA Today

Following her win several years later, she served as a board chairwoman for the program and used her position to work towards eliminating the pageant's swimsuit aspect of the competition in an effort to combat negative and toxic body standards. Simply put, Carlson knows how to fight in heels. However, her reign has not been without devastation. 

In 2016, Carlson, who worked with Fox News at the time, came out with allegations of sexual harassment against Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox at the time. "I just wanted to stand up for myself, first and foremost," she explained to The New York Timesadding, "And I wanted to stand up for other women who maybe faced similar circumstances." Sure enough, Carlson gave traction to the now-widely known #MeToo movement. While she has been faced with great pain throughout her career, her persistent bravery and determination have helped millions of women everywhere.

Camille Schrier is just as unique as the year she received her crown

During the talent portion of the 2020 Miss America competition, Camille Schrier decided to take a break from the usual heartwarming song or cool-looking balance tricks that are typically to be expected of competitors. Instead, she performed the "catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide," according to the official Miss America website. What this meant was a large, colorful tube of foam erupting from her beaker. Later in the competition, she also admitted to the judges that she has very much struggled with OCD. 

While in conversation with Richmond Times-Dispatch afterward, Schrier opened up a bit more about her OCD, which gave way to an eating disorder, which also could be said was at least a contributing factor in her development of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a syndrome often linked to eating disorders. She told the outlet that her compulsive, disordered behavior "became a control mechanism. I struggled with that and thought I could manage my body," And similar to her experiments, support for Schrier exploded. People loved her because she was bold, inventive, and different. 

She wasn't what the public pictured when they envision Miss America. But in 2020, a year truly unlike any other, it only makes sense that Miss America would be unique, too.