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The first thing you notice when you see Madeleine Leuenberger is her long, naturally curly, golden blond hair.
It’s tied up into a high ponytail, with a bright red scrunchy that matches her earrings, high heels and the piping on the black ruffled blouse she designed herself.
For a woman her age, she may seem out of the ordinary, and she’s got a secret — she was Miss France in 1961.
She wanted to be interviewed in her house, which is in a small town in the Swiss Alps, called Grächen. My younger cousin, also an aspiring journalist, came along, too. After giving us a tour of her home, we sat down at Leuenberger’s dining table in her white kitchen, where she began to tell us about her life in a mixture of German, Swiss-German and French.
She grew up poor in Southern France with only her mother. The Nazis took her father away during World War II, before she was born. Her mother was left to fill both parental roles.
She said, “As a child, I was very poor. I lost my dad. I left school at13-and-a-half.”
Leuenberger had never dreamed of participating in any type of pageant. Her aunt, who owned a camping area by the ocean, was hosting Miss Camping Côte d’Azur. Any girl could come to the campground and walk for the judges. Since it was her aunt’s campground, Leuenberger decided to try it out and she won.
The judges urged her to try out for the Miss France competitions, which were relatively unheard of right after the war.
She traveled to Paris and was trained for the pageant in a week. She was taught how to walk correctly, practicing with books balanced on her head.
In competition against 40 other girls, Leuenberger won the event, becoming Miss France 1961 at the age of 17. She got to wear a tiara, which she was not allowed to keep.
To be selected to participate in the Miss France pageant, girls had to meet certain criteria. For example, they had to have certain proportions and appearances.
Leuenberger said, “A ‘Miss’ in France was a person that was different than everyone else.” She goes on to explain what the judges looked for. “Look, she’s good. She walks well, she’s pretty and that’s it, she’s nice.”
At that time, talent and question categories were not part of a pageant. She only had to model a bathing suit and an evening gown. Leuenberger said she enjoyed having her make-up done and wearing a luxurious golden gown.
She also said she did the competition for fun, but got homesick. “I always thought, ‘I want to go home, I want to go back to the ocean (away from) all this hubbub here.’ … All the big houses and all the streets with the taxis.”
Leuenberger, who has difficulty focusing on multiple or faraway objects, recounts with humor that the runway had to be lined with red flowers so that she could see where she was walking.
Although her eyes do not bother her, to this day, she cannot drive.
She reminisced about the prizes she won, which included a car, a free supply of coal for a year, and free food from a certain bakery in her neighborhood for a year.
“The funniest thing was the prizes. I got a car … I sold it afterward because I can’t drive. And that money I gave to my mother and my aunt … My aunt … got coal to heat for one year. You heated the whole house with coal, and in South France it was sometimes cold …. And then for one year in a certain bakery my mama could … buy bread and flour for free. Remember, not far from the war that was more important (than winning jewelry and money).”
But being Miss France also had its drawbacks.
She said, “Being Miss France was good and bad. There was a lot of jealousy. All the good friends I used to have I didn’t have anymore. That was really terrible for me.”
She said when most people find out that she was once Miss France, they usually brush her off or say nothing at all. For this reason, she likes to keep her pageant days to herself.
“I’m not the kind of woman who will talk about herself so easily. It only creates jealousy.”
At 18, Leuenberger left France for Switzerland for an arranged marriage to the man she is still married to today. She had gone to a modeling school in France, but “I had to redo my whole education because (the Swiss) said it didn’t count. I had to redo modeling school to learn how one conducts oneself, how one behaves at the table, how to be elegant, how to watch your weight.”
Leuenberger went on to model for many different people, including the famous chocolate company Lindt. Usually, she said, she modeled lingerie and evening gowns.
As someone who never lived in the upper class, she felt that she never quite belonged, even as Miss France. In answer to a question asked about what Leuenberger’s father would say in response to his daughter’s success as Miss France, Leuenberger said, “I think he would be very proud that a simple girl could become Miss France, not from the upper class.”
But the pageants have changed since then. These days, models are pushed to their limits, sporting any clothing in any situation just for money, even if they do not want to.
“They keep getting younger. Fourteen years, 15 years, it’s crazy,” Leuenberger said. “Other models also have difficulty with drugs, medication, they’re not allowed to eat because they’re always supposed to be skinny. It’s not as nice as you always think.”
She objects to the life models have to live, saying that they should focus on staying natural and model when they want to, not just to make a living.
“Don’t always think money, money, money. Remember that there are people on the other side of the world who are dying of hunger.”
Despite her involvement in the selective world of fashion, Leuenberger has remained true to herself. She enjoys doing arts and crafts, sewing and owns a business with her husband. She also recounted a time when she was asked to model real fur jackets and she refused, “I love animals too much. I cannot do that.”
She said she has realized that the key is always being yourself and enjoying it. “I put on make-up (every day). It’s for me, not for the others. It’s for me.”
And that is her mantra. No matter what others say about heritage, her looks or her pageant days, she gives some words of advice that she lives by: “Get ready every morning as if you’re a model going to a photo shoot.”
To read this article and see more pictures of Madeleine Leuenberger, visit my blog at enstylopedia.tumblr.com.