Jo-Carroll Dennison, a former pageant queen who was the oldest surviving Miss America, has died. She was 97 years old.
Dennison’s longtime friend Evan Mills, who edited her memoir before she died, confirmed the news to CNN after getting word from Dennison’s family. Mills described Dennison as someone who could “serve as a model for young women — and men — in a world where many are tempted to bend to societal expectations rather than trusting and following their own moral compass.”
Indeed, Dennison herself was known for breaking societal expectations during her years competing in pageants. After winning the Miss America crown during World War II, she famously refused to wear a swimsuit onstage ever again.
“The Miss America Organization is saddened to hear of the passing of Miss America 1942, Jo-Carroll Dennison,” the organization wrote in a post on Instagram. “We thank her for her year of service and will miss her dearly.”
Dennison never actually planned on competing to become Miss America. She started out performing in her family’s traveling medicine show; singing, dancing and performing with trick horses for audiences. But in her memoir, she said she had “sworn never to perform in public again” after that.
However, with the promise of getting a free swimsuit from a “high-end department store,” she started competing in local pageants in Texas, before going on to become Miss America in 1942. She was 18 when she won the crown. After getting that swimsuit, though, Dennison followed through on not wearing one onstage again.
Earlier this year, Dennison recorded a message for the Miss America Organization and its members for the 100th anniversary. In it, she praised the organization for getting rid of the swimsuit portion of the pageant.
“Back in 1942, the pageant was supposed to be about looks,” she said. “Yet I never thought I had won 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 onstage after the pageant.”