Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution

One of the hardest parts of the acting occupation is maintaining one's own identity. If an actor is lucky enough that the general public recognizes them for their work, it is almost impossible to separate themselves from the roles they've played. Audiences are trained to expect one specific thing from certain actors, even though those actors, like everybody, are many other things as well. Just take a look at the careers of Carol BurnettSally Struthers, or even Max Baer Jr.: Each was blessed with an iconic role and cursed with viewers' expectations from there on out. 

For Lee Meriwether, though, the honorific that defined her to others predated her acting career. In 1955, Meriwether was chosen as Miss America, and the title would follow her through the rest of her career. Especially for someone who came to the contest in a roundabout way, the Miss America crown was a tricky identity to wear on and offscreen.

Lee Meriwether was not entirely a willing participant in her first round of pageants. Unlike many of the women that would go on to share that stage, Meriwether never truly had her heart set on the gold. Instead, it was a college prank that set her on that path. A fraternity at the City College of San Francisco entered her name in the Miss San Francisco contest. Regardless of why she participated, she nonetheless won that first pageant, and the success that followed quickly snowballed. She was next heralded as Miss California, before ultimately donning the ceremonial cornet as Miss America.

But all that glitters isn't always gold, and the Miss America crown is no exception. For a serious-minded actor like Meriwether, the coronation nearly pigeonholed what became a legendary Hollywood career.

"The subject invariably comes up in conversations and interviews," Meriwether told the Ventura County Star in 1972. She'd just been cast as a co-star in the then-new detective series Barnaby Jones. "[It happens more frequently] especially now that I'm back on another series. I don't mind talking about it. But sometimes I do wonder if people think I sit at home and think about the glamor of it all day long. I don't. And a lot of time has passed since it all happened." 

For Meriwether, being defined by her looks, as heralded when she was a college freshman, left a lot to be desired. Not only did the title of Miss America jeopardize Meriwether's eventual acting bona fides, but the actress was also critical of the process as a whole.

"When I was crowned, it was the first year the pageant was televised. The camera was merely an observer, covering it all as a news event. Now, the whole affair has the flavor of a regular television special. The whole thing is paced and timed down to the minute for broadcast. 

"It's a shame because the girls are already under enough strain and pressure as it is. Just performing before that enormous Atlantic City audience is bad enough, but the idea of performing for the first time in any capacity before 60 million viewers across the country is terrifying. I'm really sorry that TV has become such a vital part of the Pageant. I suppose it makes lots of money for the promoters, though."

Meriwether raised two daughters in a simple suburban home in the San Fernando Valley. She (metaphorically) traded her Miss America crown for a Girl Scout troop leader beret, and was noted for her community volunteer work as well as for her acting. 

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