Apodaca: Miss Universe gives more than beauty tips

June 24, 2011|By Patrice Apodaca
  • Shawn Weatherly Harris
Shawn Weatherly Harris

Shawn Weatherly Harris and I come from different backgrounds. A Southern belle who was anointed Miss Universe 1980, Shawn later became a successful actress with roles in TV shows such as "Baywatch" and "OceanQuest."

While Shawn was collecting crowns and acting gigs, I was a myopic, frizzy-haired feminist bent on making a mark in journalism. But life has a way of bringing people together, and today Shawn and I are friends.

Not only is Shawn still whiplash-inducing gorgeous, she is also smart, funny, kind, modest and exceedingly grounded. She is a devoted wife to husband Chip, and mother to son Jack, 16, and daughter Jessie, 13.

As any opportunistic writer would do, I decided to take advantage of our friendship and prevail upon Shawn to sit down for an interview. Good sport that she is, she readily agreed.

Shawn's road to Newport Beach, where she now lives, has had some eventful turns. Her father was in the Air Force, and by the time she was a toddler, Shawn had settled with her parents and two older brothers in Sumter, S.C., near Shaw Air Force Base. She recalls being a shy, awkward girl, but when she was 9, her mother died of bone cancer, a tragedy that ultimately toughened her to life's cruelties.


Beauty pageants are as big in the South as fried chicken, so during her third year studying nursing at Clemson University, Shawn entered a local contest, hoping for a little prize money and a free trip. As she climbed the ranks — Miss South Carolina and Miss USA preceded Miss Universe — pageant handlers compensated for some of the maternal attention she so sorely missed.

Shawn recalled with bemusement some of the strange idiosyncrasies of the beauty queen business. In the early days, she trained with other pageant hopefuls at a Sumter funeral home. Once, while practicing walking in a swimsuit and heels, she glanced down into an open coffin and exclaimed, "Oh my god, that's Billy's granddaddy!"

During her stint as Miss Universe, she lived in New York and enjoyed the perks of world travel. But she was also subject to some excruciatingly uncomfortable moments, like the time she made an appearance in Rockefeller Center in freezing weather wearing only a swimsuit and answering banal questions such as, "What's your favorite meal?"

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