he American dream of success, prosperity and
happiness can come true. This issue of Sandlapper showcases nine South Carolinians who have
won state, national and international pageants in the
last 50 years, and catches us up on where they are
and what they’re doing now. They live the dream.
Today, many are married with children; some have
grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They remain
drop-dead gorgeous, inside and out. They are successful professionals in different fields in different
parts of the country, juggling careers and personal
lives with aplomb. Indeed, they have fulfilled and
continue to fulfill their promise for brains, personality, poise, talent and commitment to good causes. And
in those ways, they make pageant officials proud.
“Beauty Queen” is a term pageant officials eschew. The competitions emphasize scholarships and
qualities beyond physical beauty, they say. Winners
keep strong ties to South Carolina, family and friends.
All say the pageants were stepping stones to worlds
they might never have known.
They are:
Miriam Stevenson Breckenridge, Miss South Carolina (Miss America), 1953; Miss South Carolina USA/
Universe®,1954; Miss USA®, 1954/55; Miss Universe®, 1954/55.
Marian McKnight Conway, Miss South Carolina
(Miss America), 1956; Miss America, 1957.
Betty Lane Cherry Gramling, South Carolina Miss
Universe,1956; Miss USA, 1956/57; first runner-up,
Miss World, 1956/57.
Desree Jenkins Lightle, Mrs. South Carolina, 1964;
Mrs. America, 1964; Mrs. USA,1965.
Shawn Weatherly Harris, Miss South Carolina
USA, 1980; Miss USA, 1980; Miss Universe, 1980.
Gina Marie Tolleson, Miss South Carolina USA,
1990; Miss World, 1990/91; first runner-up, Miss
USA, 1990.
Kimberly Aiken Cockerham, Miss South Carolina
(Miss America), 1993; Miss America, 1994.
Lu Parker, Miss South Carolina USA, 1993; Miss
USA, 1994.
Vanessa Minnillo, Miss South Carolina Teen USA®,
Miss Teen USA® 1998.
Paula Miles, who has coordinated Miss South
Carolina USA and Miss South Carolina Teen USA
for 25 years, said she knew each of these winners
“had the quality. None went in the directions they
would have otherwise. I don’t know what it is. These
South Carolina girls make a difference.”
everal of the nine went on to join the ranks of
the media. Lu Parker’s entertainment/lifestyle
TV show, which premiered September 8, “Great
Day S.A.,” airs live Monday through Friday mornings on CBS affiliate KENS-TV in San Antonio. Her
book, Catching the Crown: The Source for Pageant
Competition, is available through Amazon.com and
www.luparker.com. She’s now far from her hometown of Estill, but not from her roots. Her parents
still live in Charleston, her brother in Atlanta. A
ninth-grade English teacher when crowned Miss USA
1994, she has a bachelor’s degree from the College of
Charleston and a master’s in English/Education from
The Citadel. In addition to teaching, she spent several years in television in Charleston and, for the
past six years, in San Antonio. She also lived in Los
Angeles for two years.
By Kay Gordon
South Carolina’s
Pageant Winners
Lu Parker (left) Vanessa Minnillo (above) and Gina
Tolleson with her son Carter.
She participates annually in the Mark Harmon
Baseball Charity Event and the Louise Mandrell Celebrity Sporting Clays Shoot. In 1996, she carried
the torch in the Summer Olympics. Her new TV show
is another dream come true; her goal is to take the
show national. Parker hasn’t married but has “a serious boyfriend” and two cats, Boogie and Tubby.
Her advice to all who aspire to catch the crown?
“Go for it!”
Gina Tolleson is lifestyle editor of Santa Barbara Magazine and a newspaper columnist. She is
an executive board member of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. She continues her commitment to underprivileged children by working with
the C.O.A.C.H. For Kids Program at Cedars Sinai
Hospital in Los Angeles and Variety Club International Children’s Charities.
As Miss World in 1990, she visited 35 countries
and lived in London. As far as her experiences with
Miss USA and Miss World: “By far, the most important thing I walked away with was friendship.”
Winter 2003-04
She returned to the States to continue her modeling career and finish journalism studies at the University of Georgia. The Spartanburg native moved
to Los Angeles and began working as an entertainment reporter for network and cable shows. She and
two partners started a jewelry and corporate gift business. She and her former husband, actor Alan Thicke,
have a 6-year old son; they both focus on being loving and involved parents.
In 1999, she moved to Santa Barbara. Her newest passions and hobbies are playing polo and learning to surf with her son. She and her fiancé, Christian Weisenthal, an environmental lawyer, plan to
spend time between Santa Barbara and his home in
Brazil, so she continues to go global.
Most of her family and closest friends live in
Spartanburg; she tries to return to South Carolina
several times a year to visit and enjoy southern food.
“We are in heaven when we come home,” she said.
thers made their way to films and television.
Vanessa Minnillo is a fulltime VJ (video jockey) for MTV in New York. Last summer, she
lived between California and New York and helped
judge the Miss Teen USA pageant. A military daughter who attended seven schools as a child, she was a
junior at Bishop England High School in Charleston
when she won Miss South Carolina Teen USA. She
Chip and Shawn Weatherly Harris with children Jack and Jessica. Right: Miriam Stevenson Breckenridge.
won the Miss Teen USA pageant her senior year and
was chosen by her peers as Miss Congeniality.
She graduated from Bishop Englund in 1999
with honors. The challenge was juggling school and
the responsibility of being a national titleholder.
“That year of my life was a very productive year, not
only for self growth, but for helping others out, too,”
she said. “You are thrown into instant celebrity/role
model status and I tried to make the most of my year.”
She worked closely with D.A.R.E. and, in any
free time, visited homes and shelters for young adults
who were either abused or on the wrong track. She
also visited shelters for young teen mothers.
The Miss Universe organization introduced her
to all the right people for management and agents in
films and TV. She moved to Los Angeles and has appeared in several TV shows. “Every day I wake up,
go to work and thank God and think how lucky I am
to seize the opportunities that lie in front of me and
know that I am living out my dream all because I
won the wonderful title of Miss Teen USA,” she said.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Minnillo is single, and her father and stepmother
live in Florida. She visits South Carolina often and
would like to return to Charleston to “raise a family”
one day. Interested viewers can watch her every weekday, 5-6 p.m., on MTV.
tevenson and Weatherly were the only South
Carolinians to become Miss USA and Miss Universe. Miriam Stevenson Breckenridge remembers her astonishing climb from her family’s
dairy farm in Winnsboro to become the first American to be named Miss Universe. After her reign, international travel and Hollywood, she left a contract
with Universal Studios to finish her college education at Lander University. Upon graduation, she accepted a job at WIS-TV, where she produced and ap-
peared on her own shows. There, she met and married Don Upton. They have two children and three
grandchildren. Upton died in 1978. In 1981, she
married Duncan Breckenridge Jr., becoming stepmom to three more teen-agers. The couple live in Columbia. “Family is important to us,” she said.
So is attention to detail, artistry and pretty
things. Semiretired, she produces near-perfect restorations of fine porcelain, bisques and china. She
also paints. Her most recent medium is watercolor.
She also has designed her own wardrobes. One of
her gown creations recently was exhibited in a museum show.
She is recording the events, personalities and
challenges of her life. Her archives over the last 50
years are a “treasure trove” of memories. “I am looking forward to my next project and the new perspective I am taking on the events of my life,” she said.
Shawn Weatherly Harris, who has starred in
films and TV, has been working in real estate with
her mother-in-law for the past year. She and her
husband, Chip Harris, president of a biotech research
company, have an 8-year-old son and 5-year-old
daughter. They live in Newport Beach, California.
The Sumter native was in her third year of nursing school at Clemson University when she entered
the Miss South Carolina USA contest. She won the
prize—a free weekend in Myrtle Beach, a piece of
luggage and $100. Later, she went to San Francisco,
then Los Angeles. She has lived in Newport Beach
more than two years. Winning “changed my whole
life—the course of everything,” she said.
She has appeared in numerous film and TV productions, in theatre and with professional dance
groups. She still auditions for parts if she doesn’t have
to relocate and be away from her family. She regularly returns to South Carolina to vacation and visit
family and friends.
Betty Lane Gramling in New York with students Ryan Brown of Hendersonville, North Carolina (left)
and Jason Elliott of Murrells Inlet. Right: Kimberly Aiken Cockerham.
Others are in the business of guiding aspiring
talents to the Big Time. Betty Lane Cherry Gramling is a member of the Modeling Association of
America International, a not-for-profit organization
that brings modeling schools from throughout the
world to the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Aspiring models, singers, dancers and actors have a chance
to be interviewed by major talent scouts, modeling
agents and personal managers. The modeling association holds an annual convention. Every year, 1,200
people worldwide attend.
For 37 years, she has owned Betty Lane’s Models and Talent in Orangeburg. She has reaped many
rewards, with hundreds of her students winning
scholarships, making films and working in TV. She
enjoys seeing her students in magazines and on national television. She also teaches everyday etiquette
to children ages 4-9.
She and her husband Johnny, a retired farmer
and former USC football star, live in Orangeburg,
where they grew up. She has the best of all worlds,
she says—she lives on a farm and gets to travel regularly to New York City. Married for 43 years in September, the couple have four children.
Gramling earned a double major in education/
sociology from Columbia College. Before she came
home to Orangeburg, she traveled extensively, thanks
to her celebrity status. She worked with Withers and
Newman, a public relations and advertising agency,
and worked on-camera regularly with WIS-TV.
“Winning changed my life,” she said. “I traveled
throughout Europe and the U.S. and also promoted
Winter 2003-04
peaches throughout the Midwest, New England and
South Carolina. I was on the air with stars, including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra. I was an ambassador
of good will for South Carolina and then the U.S.”
he only two South Carolinians winning the Miss
America crown are Kimberly Aiken Cockerham
and Marian McKnight Conway. “They brought
recognition to themselves, to South Carolina and the
Miss South Carolina pageant,” said Joe Sanders, CEO
and president of the Miss South Carolina organization. Sanders told Kimberly Aiken in Atlantic City
that she would be Miss America. “There was a lot of
talk about her; there was something about her that
people saw,” Sanders said. “She had an impassioned
platform about homeless people in America.”
He also recognized the excellent talent of Aiken,
who sang “Summertime” in the pageant.
Kimberly Aiken Cockerham, entrepreneur
and motivational speaker, lives in Cincinnati with
her husband Haven, who is in marketing with Proctor and Gamble. They have one toddler.
The Columbia native was 18 when she won the
Miss America crown. She used the title to springboard her fight to educate Americans about the plight
of homeless families and children. She founded HERO
(Homeless Education and Resource Organization), an
outreach program that provided employment and
educational training. She has received numerous
awards and recognition for her community activism,
including being invited to a White House briefing on
domestic violence. She has addressed general assem-
blies in various states and spoken
America Pageant in the 1960s foat the United Nations on World
cused primarily on the contestants
Hunger Day. She has received keys
as homemakers.
to cities, resolutions, proclamaThe sponsors of the Mrs.
tions and several days named in
America Pageant then were Lever
her honor. She also was awarded
Brothers and Johns-Manville. She
the Order of the Palmetto. In Sepmade appearances on behalf of the
tember, she judged the Miss
companies and traveled extenAmerica pageant in Atlantic City,
sively during her reign. She was
New Jersey.
presented keys to numerous cities;
She earned a bachelor of scithe most special was the key to Coence degree in accounting from
lumbia. Her husband and children
New York University and worked
were able to enjoy some of the
in accounting with Ernst & Young,
travel experiences, including meetLLP. Meanwhile, she founded her
ing President Lyndon B. Johnson.
image consulting and motivational
She was a consultant with the
speaking firm, Kimberly Aiken
State Development Board to proInc., and has been a professional
mote Lady Bird Johnson’s beautispeaker for 10 years.
fication program to help bring
grant money to the state. She
Conway won the Miss America
worked with 46 counties and
crown, people were dancing in the
Clemson University to set up a
streets all night long in Manning,
statewide beautification program
her hometown, Sanders said. She
in 1966-67; as part of the program,
left Coker College in 1956, where
the state established the first welshe’d studied for two years, and
come centers.
moved to California to attend
Before retiring, she worked as
UCLA. After graduation she mara real estate broker and served as
ried actor and artist Gary Conway,
property manager for South Caroalso a UCLA graduate.
lina State Government. She and
The couple developed a preTed Lightle have been married for
miere winery and vineyard in Paso
26 years and enjoy sharing their
Robles on the central coast of CaliLake Murray and Folly Beach
fornia. Their wine, Carmody
homes with family and friends. She
McKnight, recently was selected
has two children and four grandnumber one in California and their
sons; her first great-grandchild
winery (www.carmodymcknight
was born in September. She also
.com) the top winery on the Cen- Desree Jenkins Lightle (above),
has two stepchildren.
tral Coast. Their daughter man- Marian McKnight Conway.
Like the others, Lightle said
ages the winery and is a winethe pageant 40 years ago changed
maker in her own right. Their son produces for The her life, placed her in a very high-profile position and
Discovery Channel and lives in Washington, DC.
left her with many wonderful experiences and memoConway still has a house in Manning. Every five ries. “It was fun,” she said, “but I’m happy to be reyears she comes home to help judge the Miss South tired now, enjoying life, relaxing and enjoying our
Carolina pageant. She recently produced a motion children and home.” ™
picture with her husband, who directed the film,
Woman’s Story (www.womansstory.com).
Although writer Kay Gordon hasn’t met all of these
South Carolina’s only claim to fame for Mrs. high achievers in person, she’s come to know them
America and Mrs. USA is Gaffney native Desree via phone, e-mail and letter. “Each one is great
Jenkins Lightle, who captured the Mrs. South Caro- and each is different. They are a tribute to South
lina and the Mrs. America crowns in 1964. She Carolina.”
reigned until August 1965, when she became Mrs.
Miss South Carolina USA®, Miss USA®, Miss Universe®,
USA. She had been very involved in church and comMiss South Carolina Teen USA®, Miss Teen USA® are
munity activities, and was sponsored by the Columregistered trademarks of the Miss Universe Organiztion.
bia Junior Woman’s Club for the pageant. The Mrs.