I would consider the beginning of my professional career to be my participation in three beauty pageants, which surprises me and those who know me now, that I would even have thought to enter a beauty contest! In 1959, I was a a senior majoring in Piano at Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi. When my sorority, the Kissimees Social Tribe, entered me in the Miss Clinton contest I surprised myself by deciding to sing, for the first time in public, while accompanying myself on the piano as my talent portion. I’d always dreamed of being a singer but was always too shy about my voice.
After being crowned Miss Clinton 1960, I was automatically entered into the Miss Mississippi contest, as the first ethnic, or non-Caucasian, ever to compete.
I was told, after the contest was over, that I had been disqualified because I was too short to be considered Miss Mississippi. One can only guess the real reason for disqualification. The mere fact that a Chinese girl competed in the Miss Mississippi contest in 1959 was a minor miracle. But this led to my being asked to enter the Miss Chinatown USA contest in San Francisco.
Travel to the Miss Chinatown contest was my first cross-country flight and the sunrise over the Golden Gate bridge was my first view of San Francisco. Breathtaking. My first impression was: Wow! Look at all those Chinese people! I’d never been around so many Chinese strangers and I felt like I’d stepped into another country. Backstage at the contest, my Uncle Shaw who lived in San Francisco and who was responsible for this country girl in the big city, asked me if he should hold my purse for safekeeping. I replied that I had given it to some man. He was apoplectic and said, “You gave your purse to a total stranger?” And I said, Well, he was Chinese. I thought no one Chinese could possibly be a crook! Straight out of the Mississippi cotton fields was I!!! P.S., the man holding my purse was totally fine and returned it when I needed it.
After singing in the contest I received a letter from Eddie Blum, the casting director for Rodgers and Hammerstein, asking me to audition for him for FLOWER DRUM SONG if I ever came to New York. This gave me the courage to pursue my dream.