For Barra Grant, it wasn’t easy growing up with Miss America for a mom.
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Grant spoke to FeedLine.net about what it was really like growing up with Myerson and why she was determined to share her bittersweet memories with an audience.
FeedLine.net: What compelled you to write "Miss America's Ugly Daughter" and why now?Barra Grant: I wrote it because I wanted to explore mother-daughter relationships. Mine was very particular because my mom had been Miss America and was very beautiful. Growing up as her kid was kind of difficult because I was chubby and I had buck teeth and I wasn't very attractive.
So having her as my role model was kind of difficult. I also wrote the show now, because anti-Semitism is prevalent throughout Europe, throughout America, throughout everywhere. My mom was the only Jew who ever won the pageant, and I thought it was important to talk about that and make a statement about anti-Semitism through her.
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FeedLine.net: When did you realize your mom was different from other moms?Grant: Oh, pretty early in my life, because she was very famous when I went to school and people knew who I was. ... So I always knew from an early age that I had a special place in the world because my mom was who she was. I was different than other school kids, I was treated a little differently. Sometimes people avoided me, because they didn't know how to deal with me, and other times I was extolled for being special.
FeedLine.net: What inspired your mom, a poor Jewish girl from the Bronx, to enter the Miss America beauty pageant?Grant: Well ... my mom was a pianist, and she wanted a scholarship to continue being a concert pianist. Actually, her older sister enrolled her in the pageant and my mom wasn't prepared and didn't know what to do. She was very poor, didn't have any outfits to wear or a ballgown. She was unprepared to win. ... And people were warned to not vote for her. The judges were told, "Don't vote for the Jew." So there was a lot of discrimination, but she won anyway.
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FeedLine.net: How much of an impact did that have on her to win?Grant: It was very difficult because of the anti-Semitism. When she went out on her tour, she was kind of rejected by the American people. There was terrible anti-Semitism because they blamed the Jews for [WWII]. So when my mom would go to hospitals, veteran's hospitals, mothers didn't want her to go near their sons. Their sons were missing a limb or have been wrecked by the war, and my mom symbolized why that had happened. So she had a fairly difficult time being Miss America.
FeedLine.net: Which would you say was the most challenging memory for you to revisit in this show and why?Grant: The most challenging memory was what it was like to grow up in her shadow because she cast a very large shadow. I was unprepared to be the daughter of a famous woman. What I explore a lot in the show is being beautiful versus being ugly. That's why it's called "Miss America's Ugly Daughter" because no matter how pretty you get later in life, you retain the memories of what it was like to be a child and not measure up to what your mother looked like. That stayed with me my whole life, even when I became OK looking.
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FeedLine.net: Your mother also went on to pursue a political career. However, it sounded like people constantly reminded her she was too glamorous.Grant: Well, people didn't take her seriously, because she was the winner of Miss America. She was very beautiful, and people didn't take her intellect very seriously. She had to prove how smart she was. Every time she got swept up in a political situation, she had to study, she had to prepare very hard. It didn't come naturally to her.
The one thing that did come naturally was speaking out against anti-Semitism, but the rest of it, being commissioner of Consumer Affairs, commissioner of Cultural Affairs, helping Ed Koch win the election for mayor, required her to take a different road and to downplay her beauty and emphasize her intelligence.
She was very smart, it's just that she wasn't 100 percent prepared to be a political person. She had to revisit the issues, understand the country. But she did a lot of good things in her political positions. She had a funny thing she did in New York City with hotdogs because she realized hotdogs weren't made out of meat — they were made out of other things. She was, at the time, commissioner of Consumer Affairs ... and she said, "We've got to analyze these hotdogs. We've got to take them to a lab and find out what's in them.”
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Of course ... it was all sorts of strange things combined to make it look like a hotdog. She got a law passed that hotdogs had to be 50 percent meat, real beef. That made her beloved by the people because everybody ate so many hotdogs [laughs]. She also had a lot of legal documents written in Spanish, so that the culture here who only spoke Spanish could understand what they were signing. So that was a big part of what she did. She did a lot of good. She really was respected and eventually loved and accepted as a political, fairly intellectual figure.
FeedLine.net: How did your mom, a beauty queen, cope with aging?Grant: Well, my mom was very consumed with being beautiful, so she kept up her appearance throughout her older age. I think I understood that getting old was not a great thing if you had been a former beauty. ... But she kept up her political [position] and the things that she was passionate about.
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But getting old was not fun. It's probably not fun for a lot of people, but she kept up her appearances. She did everything she could to remain young looking, so she would continue to have her career. But it was tough on her. And I sensed that ... I guess it created in me a sense that in order to survive as an older woman, you had to stay smart and you had to keep pursuing things of the intellect, as opposed to what you looked like.
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FeedLine.net: How would you describe your mother’s final years?Grant: My mom was filled with memories and her memories were very powerful because she had been so touted during her whole life and her final years were filled with reminiscing and remembering the times that she was important and special. Therefore, her very later years were difficult for her to slide into the reality of being ... she passed away when she was 90, so her very last year, she was very old and kept clinging to who she had been and therefore she fought death, she fought the end. She wanted it to all start again and be who she was.
FeedLine.net: What do you hope audiences will get from your story?Grant: If the relationship you had growing up with your mother wasn't exactly what you wanted it to be, because perhaps you weren't the center of her life, you were her child who had to kind of follow in her footsteps and you retained a feeling of disappointment or anger, or you blamed her for things that were actually your own fault — the message at the end of the show is about forgiveness. You can't continue your life with any kind of resentment or wishing it was different. You have to forgive because unless you forgive, you're not free.
So at the end of the show, I focus on the aspect of forgiving. Forgiving your mother, forgiving yourself, and becoming free. There was a great thing that Michelangelo said. He said, "I see the angel in the stone and I carve until I set him free." So for me, the most important thing was giving up any kind of blame or anger or sadness and setting myself free from those feelings and becoming a self-sufficient, independent woman.
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"Miss America's Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson and Me" is playing until March 1.
And He taught Adam the names of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: "Tell me the names of these if ye are right."They said: "Glory to Thee, of knowledge We have none, save what Thou Hast taught us: In truth it is Thou Who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom." (The Cow 31-32 )