Cindy Roberts thought she could get a free trip to Las Vegas if she entered the Mrs. America contest. But first organizers said she needed her husband's permission.
Cindy and Malcolm Roberts have been telling the story of what happened next at Anchorage dinner tables for the last 40 years.
She recounts the story reluctantly. She definitely is not the type to brag about being a beauty queen.
But Malcolm revels in the telling, even though the story doesn't exactly make him look good. He's earnestly proud of his wife of almost 50 years, especially her intellectual accomplishments.
Cindy and Malcolm met in 1970 because she was fluent in Swedish, having spent a year studying in Sweden after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. Malcolm was working as staff for Walter Hickel, the Secretary of the Interior, and needed a Swedish translator for a meeting.
He proposed to her 36 hours later. But that's another story.
In 1978, Malcolm was working feverishly on Hickel's campaign for Alaska governor. The race was among the hottest, closest and most consequential in Alaska history. Cindy was caring for their children, Cheyenne, then 6, and Bret, 5.
She also was doing some modeling and photography. A downtown Anchorage gallery put on a one-woman show of her photographs.
A friend from the modeling agency called to offer the trip.
The national Mrs. America pageant needed a contestant from each of the 50 states, but there was no Mrs. Alaska contest to provide one. An Anchorage model with the right clothes and spousal permission—a pageant requirement—could score the title of Mrs. Alaska and the trip.
Cindy was ready for a vacation. It sounded like a kick. A friend who wore the same dress size owned a beautiful gown she could borrow. She called Malcolm at the campaign for permission.
He recalled his answer: "Yeah, sure. What does it mean? Two weeks in Los Angeles and Vegas. Go. Just don't win. Because we had two little kids. She was backing me up on the campaign thing. So just don't win it. Have fun, just don't win."
Cindy didn't promise. They both remember that.
Malcolm's mother Muriel came from California care for the children.
The scene at the contest was as fun as Cindy had hoped. She met Barron Hilton, of Hilton Hotels, a sponsor of the pageant. Vidal Sassoon was one of the judges. He complimented her hair, as she wore it short, unlike the big 70's dos of the other contestants.
She didn't tell him she had trimmed it herself.
Her education and background in politics set her apart. The contestants were mostly former show girls, dance instructors and the like, women whose lives had focused on their beauty. Cindy was giving lighting suggestions to the photo staff.
"Beautiful women have a handicap," Cindy said.
Like people born with wealth, beautiful people may never be tested. They may not develop their skills. They may not learn who their real friends are.
Cindy said that wasn't her. She carried a rock hammer in college. She said she was a very late bloomer — after college.
"Late?" Malcolm said. "I would say just on time."
She had no expectation of beating beauty queens at their game.
"I was making friends in weird places and I was having a ball," she said. "And absolutely no insecurities, because you have to want something really badly to be insecure. I had a busy life at home and this was 14 days off. Period."
Malcolm said, "Tell about the bathing suit competition."
"Oh jeez," Cindy said. "No kids and no laundry and the rest of it, and the one price was this parade in a swim suit."
After having kids and living in Alaska, Cindy said showing off her body on a runway in a skimpy bathing suit would be just silly. And she didn't try to hide that attitude.
She did her twirl, then turned to the judges, shrugged her shoulders and flipped her palms up as if to say, "Sorry, that's all I've got."
The judges roared with laughter.
The moment surely stuck in their minds. After showing her photographs for the talent competition and crushing the interview — her work campaigning for Hickel had made her an expert on natural resource development — Cindy won the crown. She was Mrs. America.
Then she had to call home.
Not everything had been going smoothly. Muriel was at the end of her rope with the children.
Malcolm wasn't home yet when Cindy called. She said she couldn't come back right away, because she had to go to New York to appear on "Good Morning America."
Muriel's voice was close to tears. She said, "Oh! I can't bear it!"
Cindy reached Malcolm at the office. She asked if he had lined up a local TV station to show the pageant (almost all Alaska TV in those days came weeks late, by tape). He had been busy and forgot.
"I think you better," she said. "I won the thing."
The line went silent. He quietly said, "Oh no."
But he pulled himself together and they celebrated the victory properly. The couple traveled together on some of Cindy's Mrs. America tours.
She used the position in new ways, including speaking out for the Equal Rights Amendment. Alaska had been one of the first states to ratify putting women's rights in the U.S. Constitution, although the amendment ultimately failed to gain enough states' support.
Cindy struck up acquaintance with Eleanor Smeal, the president of the National Organization for Women, and Rep. Pat Schroeder, among the first women to run for president.
She remains friends with important people she met, and with people from the pageant, too.
When I asked Cindy the lasting impact of the event, she mentioned those friendships and the doors her title opened to work on issues. And the fun she gets surprising people with the information she was Mrs. America.
And Malcolm added, "I'm proud of her."
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