Former Miss N.C., Susan Griffin Fisher, looks back 40 years
Forty years later, Susan Griffin Fisher still laughs about the emerald green chiffon dress — rather, that "vile green dress," as she overheard one critic rudely describe it — that she wore for the finals of the 1974 Miss North Carolina Pageant.
Vile dress or not, the 22-year-old High Point native won the pageant that night, becoming the first — and only — young woman to win the state crown competing as Miss High Point, a title that no longer exists.
Then, just for good measure, she proudly wore the dress again for the annual Parade of States along the Atlantic City boardwalk when she competed in that year's Miss America Pageant — a decision she very nearly came to regret, were it not for a canister of Ajax cleanser. (More on that in a moment.)
"When we (Fisher and her pageant coach) first saw that dress, we said, 'That's the one,'" recalls Fisher, who now lives in Elizabethtown. "We loved it. But, you know, you're not going to please everybody."
On June 15, 1974, at Charlotte's Ovens Auditorium, Fisher and her "vile green dress" pleased the only people that mattered that night — the judges of the Miss North Carolina Pageant. A night earlier, she had won the talent preliminary competition — singing what would become her signature song, the Rodgers and Hart classic "With A Song In My Heart" — setting the stage for the next night's coronation.
This week, the former High Point queen will return to the Miss North Carolina Pageant, where she will reprise her winning talent performance during Saturday night's televised finale. She will also sing the national anthem before Thursday evening's preliminaries, and she will present the talent preliminary award — to be called the Susan Griffin Fisher Preliminary Talent Award — to the winner of that competition.
“Every Miss North Carolina is special in her own right, but there’s something about Susan that has made her so beloved across our state,” says Beth Knox, executive director of the Miss North Carolina Pageant. “As soon as you meet Susan, there is an elegance and a charisma about her that just draws you to her.”
Fisher says she’s thrilled about her role in this year’s pageant.
"I'm so honored to be invited back to the pageant," she says. "I've always tried to stay involved with the Miss North Carolina Pageant, but this is really special."
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Susan Griffin Fisher, the daughter of Ervin and Christine Griffin, was never the stereotypical, starry-eyed little girl who dreamed of becoming Miss America.
Oh sure, she watched the pageant every year — and she knew people involved in the pageant system — but as an aspiring singer from a very young age, she was far more interested in having a microphone in her hand than a tiara on her head. That view began to change as she became a young woman — pageants became a platform for her to perform — and in the spring of 1973, she found herself competing in the Miss High Point Pageant; she finished as first runner-up to Mausty Carty.
The next year, she won — thanks in part, she believes, to the song she chose for her talent performance, "With A Song In My Heart." Her longtime friend David Harb, who still lives in High Point, helped her with the song's arrangement.
"The first year I sang opera, which I love," Fisher says, "but the next year we went in a different direction, and it worked for me. And that kind of became my song — I sang it at Miss North Carolina and Miss America."
Two months after winning Miss High Point, Fisher headed to Charlotte feeling confident, but not overly so.
"The only thing I wanted to do was win talent and make the top 10," Fisher recalls. "My daddy said, 'Just go and do the best you can — that's all anybody can ask.' But I never, ever thought I would actually win. When you see pictures of me, you can see the shock on my face. When (emcee) Ty Boyd called my name, I was thinking, 'Did he really say my name?' And I remember when Heather Walker (the 1973 Miss North Carolina winner) crowned me, she had to remind me, 'Susan, you need to walk down the ramp now.' That's how shocked I was."
As with the Miss High Point Pageant, Fisher believes she won largely on the strength of her talent performance, though she also won in the interview competition. Her weakness, she recalls, was probably the swimsuit competition.
"I was 5-foot-8 and weighed 105 pounds — I was bone-thin," she says. "Girls today go to the gym and work out, and they have trainers, but not me. People were ordering extra baked potatoes for me and putting sour cream on them. We'd go out for breakfast and I'd have all these pancakes piled up. I'd say, 'I'm not hungry,' and they'd tell me to just eat it. I'd say, 'You people are gonna blow me up,' and they'd say, 'That's the point.' Anyway, once you start competing and talking to other girls, I think swimsuit is the one phase everybody is sort of nervous about."
After winning Miss North Carolina, Fisher says she fibbed on her Miss America application to make herself seem less bony.
"I told them I weighed, like, 110 pounds," she says with a laugh.
Fisher also recalls a few good-luck charms she took with her to the state pageant — a penny given to her by her father, which she kept in her shoe for all three pageants; a mustard-seed bracelet given to her by a neighbor; and her favorite perfume, Jungle Gardenia.
"I don't wear that anymore," she says, explaining she wore it 40 years ago because she often wore gardenias in her hair. "Back then, I would get off an elevator or leave a reception or walk out of a room, and someone would say, 'Susan's been here, because we can smell her Jungle Gardenia.'"
After winning the state pageant, Fisher briefly returned to High Point before embarking on her yearlong journey as Miss North Carolina. In her native city, she was greeted by a large, congratulatory banner in her front yard, a downtown marquee proclaiming her new title, frequent deliveries of roses from well-wishers, and several High Point Enterprise headlines that referred to her on a first-name basis — "Susan Is Miss North Carolina" and "Folks Proud of Susan," for example.
An editorial on the Monday after her win declared, "She's Our Miss North Carolina."
And she was.
* * * *
As it turned out, Fisher was the last woman to wear the Miss High Point sash — the local pageant was discontinued after 1974 — so she was not only the first Miss High Point to win the state pageant, but also the last. Other young women from High Point have since won the Miss North Carolina Pageant — Elizabeth Horton in 2006 and Jessica Jacobs in 2007 — but they competed as Miss Carolina Coast and Miss Central Carolina, respectively.
Fisher's reign as Miss North Carolina was a memorable one. She made hundreds of appearances across the state, and crowds came to see her wherever she was. Beauty queens were rock stars in those days.
"I was gone a lot, especially during the holidays," Fisher says. "You may be in Thomasville Saturday morning, but you have to be in Wilmington Saturday night, and in between if there's something along the way where you can drop in and do something, you'd do that, too. It was a very full schedule, but I loved it."
That fall, a busload of supporters from High Point — maybe two buses, she can't remember — went to Atlantic City, N.J., to cheer for her at the Miss America Pageant.
While Fisher was not a finalist at Miss America, she did win a nonfinalist talent award — yes, with the same song — which earned her the right to spend a year touring with the Miss America USO Show. She also speaks glowingly of what a wonderful experience it was simply to compete in the pageant and meet the other young women competing from around the country.
And as with the Miss North Carolina Pageant, Fisher has a unique memory associated with the "vile green dress" she won with in Charlotte.
Fisher chose to wear the dress for the traditional Parade of States on the boardwalk, in which she and the other Miss America contestants rode in convertibles and waved to the throngs of fans lining the boardwalk. It was wonderful … until the rains came.
"I am not lying to you, it rained like all the gods and everybody was pouring buckets," she recalls. "Girls were putting roofs up on their convertibles, because it was raining so hard."
Fisher's handlers tried to get her to do likewise, but she refused. This was her one and only opportunity to ride in the Parade of States, and she was going to make the most of it, come you-know-what or high water.
And the high water came.
"I was drenched," she says. "Where I sat, it looked like a puddle of green Kool-Aid. After the parade, I got to my room and hung up my dress, and when I came out of the bathroom I was green. My skin was all green, and I had swimsuit competition the next night."
After wiping away a few tears, she scrubbed her body with soap and, of all things, Ajax cleanser, which managed to return Fisher's skin to its normal color.
Following the Miss America Pageant, Fisher completed her reign as Miss North Carolina — a year she describes as one of the defining experiences of her life.
"I loved every minute of it," she says. "I cried when I gave my crown up. The whole thing was just a remarkable experience."
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Want to watch?
The Miss North Carolina Pageant will be held Tuesday through Saturday at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium.
The finals Saturday night will be televised.
For more information about the pageant, visit www.missnc.org.