When asked how far the Miss North Carolina pageant has come in the 75 years of its existence, former Miss Bladen County and pageant judge Judy Montague had an immediate answer.
“I think it’s evolved from being a beauty pageant to being a pageant that empowers women,” she said.
The truth of that statement was clear on June 22 as Montague celebrated the opening of her new pageant-centered store, J. Montague’s, with four women whose lives were permanently touched by the pageant.
Susan Lynn Griffin of High Point, won Miss North Carolina in 1974. She won the talent competition with the song “Song in my Heart.” She said her title enabled her to perform on a United Service Organizations tour, which included a show on the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier.
She has also performed at the Miss America pageant and throughout Europe, including a harpsichord performance at Heidelberg Castle in Germany.
In the United States, Griffin opened a show at the Copacabana for Bette Midler and sang on TV for Bob Hope, whom she called “very kind.”
Griffin said none of these milestones would have been possible without the Miss North Carolina pageant.
“I would never, ever have gotten the opportunities. It was an absolutely glorious experience for me,” she said.
Kim Weeks Bronson flew from Los Angeles to North Carolina to see J. Montague’s and join the women in celebrating the pageant’s anniversary at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh that evening. She was crowned queen of the North Carolina Fourth of July Festival in 1980, and is a former Miss North Carolina.
Bronson shared an emotional reunion with her fellow pageant queens, some of whom she had not seen in many years.
Bronson said that participating in pageants helped her overcome her crushing shyness.
“It’s been amazingly good to me. It saved me from being so introverted. I can hold my own when I have to,” she said.
Bronson also said the pageant, along with work-study and three jobs, enabled her to attend college for six years without taking out any loans.
Bronson has worked in film since her pageant days. She co-starred in the CBS TV movie Family of Cops in 1995 with actor Charles Bronson, whom she married three years later. She has also worked with Omar Sharif, Sidney Sheldon and James Brolin, whom she called “a really nice man.”
Bronson called J. Montague’s “a culmination of experience,” and said that aspiring queens “may as well come to a place where you can get that tutelage” to become Miss North Carolina.
Connie Ledgett met Montague in 1968, when Leggett was in charge of the Fourth of July Festival queen and Montague was in charge of the North Carolina Blueberry Festival queen. Ledgett has dressed, coached and mentored Miss North Carolina contestants for years, even taking 17-year-old Bronson into her home and becoming her “unofficial foster mother.” Griffin nicknamed her “the Queen Mother” for her work with the pageant.
Ledgett also owns a women’s boutique called Isabella Grape in Wilmington.
Michelle Braxton won the talent competition and was the first runner-up to Miss North Carolina in 1991. She is a partner with J. Montague’s and Isabella Grape, and owns Michelle’s Pageant and Image Consulting.
She said that her pageant experience gave her the chance to sing throughout the Caribbean and open a show for Ricky Scaggs. She will now teach classes on pageant behavior at J. Montague’s.
“My specialty is talent. I was overwhelmed by the idea of everything you need for pageant girls under one roof,” she said.
Montague won Miss Bladen County in 1964. She said she has judged 56 North Carolina pageants, including the 1977 Peanut Festival, where she shared judging duties with actress Elizabeth Taylor. On opening her own pageant store, she said she “wanted to do this 25 years ago.”
As the women reminisced about old times, a video tribute to Eleanor “Big Mama” Andrews played in the background. Andrews, Montague’s mother, judged Miss America pageants for almost 40 years, and was a legendary figure in the pageant’s original home of Atlantic City, N.J.
During the visit, Montague received a phone call bearing good news: NC-based Webster Falls Films wants to make a movie on Big Mama’s life. Her guests cheered, and Ledgett gave Big Mama a nod by repeating a lesson of hers.
“Big Mama said if you’ve seen something you haven’t seen before, you better shoot it,” she said to the laughter of her friends.