Phyllis Geor

October 14, 1990|By Knight-Ridder News Service

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Phyllis George has a sleek, white cat named Misty, who, when not posing prettily for visitors, has ordinary feline needs.

Misty's litter box sits on a piece of plastic beside the back stairs of Cave Hill, Ms. George's elegant Lexington home.

Boxes of cat food are stacked on a table in the hallway.

"Misty, get down!"

That's Ms. George, trying to sound upset at the sight of Misty lying beside a half-eaten sandwich and a plate of popcorn on the table in the family sun room.

"Mis-ty! MIS-TY!"

That's Ms. George again, laughing and doing what she does best: playing the role of an ordinary woman who just happened to turn into a celebrity -- and who is smart enough to turn ordinary again at exactly the right moments.

Phyllis George thinks -- no, she knows -- that she would have done something big with her life even if she hadn't been named Miss America 20 years ago.

"Look at my record. I've been in sports, politics, entertainment, news, business. I've been in five different arenas, and I'm just 41."

Ms. George isn't bragging; she's just stating the facts as she sees them.

Miss America might have opened the doors, but it was Phyllis George from Denton, Texas, who charged inside. First as a pioneer woman sportscaster on "The NFL Today." Later as the magnetic personality who helped her husband, John Y. Brown Jr., be elected governor of Kentucky. Later as the host -- albeit a much-ridiculed host -- of CBS' morning news show. (The same network, she says, has approached her about returning to television.) Most recently as the creator of a popular line of grocery store chicken products.

Ms. George forgot to mention her publishing career.

Last year, she wrote a book about Kentucky crafts, and now she's talking with her publisher about additional books.

"But not about my life," she says quickly. "What would be more boring at 41 than to write a book about your life?"

Ms. George's public life began, of course, on the night she was named Miss America. She remembers all the details.

How she dropped her crown when she made her Miss America walk: "Everything was a mess when I got backstage. I told somebody the other day I was crying not because I won, but out of humiliation because I was such a klutz."

How she faced the first shock of becoming a public figure: "The curtains closed, and all of a sudden, I became Miss America. It was, 'Miss America over here. Miss America over here.'

"And I remember somebody tapping me on the shoulder while I was being pulled away by a hostess. And I turned around, and it was my brother."

She pauses a moment.

"This makes me so sad to tell."

She continues more slowly.

"He said: 'Hi, Phyl. Remember me?'

"And it broke my heart.

"I said, 'Robbie, Rob,' as I was being pulled to take pictures.

"It was like I'd been taken away from all the things that had been security to me and thrust out into a whole new world."

Don't think for a moment, though, that Ms. George is complaining.

"It's something that I'm very proud of. I feel very privileged to be one of the 70 Miss Americas. . . .

"I never, ever thought of myself as a beauty. Maybe I had a lot of personality. Maybe I knew how to play the piano. But I never thought of myself as a real knockout. So I know I didn't win on those terms."

Ms. George appeared in the most recent Miss America Pageant in two capacities: as co-host with Gary Collins and as one of the former winners who returned to celebrate the pageant's 70th birthday.

To get into shape for the big event, she dieted and followed her own exercise plan: swimming, walking, doing twists and bends with a sawed-off broom. Nothing fancy.

"When Bert Parks has announced to the world on 'Good Morning, America,' on the 'Home Show' and on 'Live with Regis and Kathie Lee' that it's my 20th year, it put a little pressure on me to look as good as I can," she says, sitting straight in her chair.

Later: "Does this make me look like I'm pooching out?"

She smooths her black linen jacket against her flat stomach. A moment later, a photographer snaps her picture.

The picture makes her look stunningly beautiful.

The comment makes her seem appealingly vulnerable.

Could anyone fail to be charmed by this woman?

The years in broadcasting were "wonderful," she says now, "but life is real. I've been through a lot, but I'm probably a survivor. I hope I can teach my kids that."

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