“Whoever named her Venus wasn’t kidding,” read a photo caption in The Washington Post when Venus Ramey, with her red hair and violet eyes, was crowned Miss America in 1944. Never before had a redhead conquered the pageant. A girdle would have been superfluous on her hourglass frame, and her 37½ -inch bust, Life magazine noted, was the largest in the contest’s history.
A daughter of Kentucky coal country, Miss Ramey had moved to Washington in search of work, entered the Miss Washington, D.C., competition on a whim and found herself draped in the sash with the national title. (The first and, to date, only other winner hailing from the nation’s capital was Margaret Gorman, the inaugural Miss America, in 1921.)
Miss Ramey, who died June 17 at 92, made no secret of her disenchantment with the Miss America title that was not, in her experience, as shimmeringly glamorous as it might have seemed.
As a newly crowned winner, she was pushed toward product-promotion tours that, however lucrative, made her “feel suspiciously like a prisoner,” Life magazine wrote in 1946. Instead of spending all her time flogging products, she became the first Miss America to act as a political activist, also championing women’s rights and voting rights for D.C. residents.
She also sold $5 million in war bonds, receiving a recognition from the U.S. Treasury Department.
After Miss Ramey passed the crown to Bess Myerson, the first and only Jewish Miss America, in 1945, Miss Ramey returned to private life but lived, she said, as an “adventuress.”
At various points, she picked up and moved to Mexico, ran for state and local office, unsuccessfully sued the federal government for $300 billion on behalf of aggrieved tobacco farmers, and declared herself a write-in candidate in the 2000 presidential election.
In 2007, at 82, she had another burst of fame when she shot out the tires of trespassers attempting to pilfer scrap metal from her farm. The run-in won her a spot on TV shows including “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Miss Ramey’s death was announced by the Miss America Organization. A son, Hank Murphy, said she died in Agoura Hills, Calif., where she had moved to be near family, and that the cause was complications from pneumonia.
Venus Ramey — her mother wanted her to have a good stage name — was born in Ashland, in eastern Kentucky, on Sept. 26, 1924. She later moved to the central part of the state, where her family ran a farm. She was a page in the Kentucky legislature, whose members had included her father and grandfather.
After her parents divorced, Miss Ramey moved to Cincinnati, where her mother ran a boardinghouse. She entered beauty contests on her mother’s urging, winning a few — including Miss Northern Kentucky at 14 — before going after Miss Washington, D.C., when she moved to the capital in the early 1940s. She entered that contest, with only a day’s forethought, by forging her mother’s signature on the application.
For Miss Ramey, the national title quickly lost its luster. According to Life magazine, she was carried off to New York with handlers who denied phone calls from her family. After being told that she would receive her $10,000 payment for a promotional tour only “after the trip if you’re a good girl,” she declined to go.
The war-bond effort was the beneficiary of Miss Ramey’s discomfort with the pageant. Her image decorated a B-17 bomber . Its unit called her “the girl we’d most like to bail out with over a deserted Pacific isle,” according to the volume “There She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant.”
Miss Ramey tried to break into show business but told Life magazine that her act, in which she sang Xavier Cugat’s “Take it Easy” in English and Spanish and danced the tango and rumba, was “just pitiful.”
At least one reviewer disagreed. Nelson B. Bell, reviewing her performance in The Post, said that her “protestations of not being a professional entertainer are wholly belied by [her] finesse.” He judged that her “dash of dancing . . . appreciably enhances the effect of the number.”
Miss Ramey’s son said she did commercials and voice-over work in Hollywood before returning to Kentucky. In 1951, at 26, she unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for the Kentucky legislature.
“The men figured I was a little too young to be a representative,” she told The Post in 1989, “and besides, many of them actually believed the old canard that beauty and brains don’t mix.”
By that time, she had married Joseph H. Murphy Jr., a Ford dealer, and had two sons. The marriage ended in divorce. She moved her children to Mexico, where she was a freelance dress designer, and then to California.
She later returned to Cincinnati, where she worked as a historical preservationist, ran a Christmas-tree farm and unsuccessfully sought a seat on the city council. In retirement, she lived on her Kentucky farm. Her pets at various times included a dozen dogs, 15 cats and four pigeons.
Survivors include two sons, Hank Murphy of Agoura Hills and Wally Murphy of Mount Washington, Ky., and Phoenix; six grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Miss Ramey was unimpressed with the Miss America pageant as it evolved in later years. She wrote in a Penthouse magazine essay that when she won, “artifice would automatically disqualify contestants. Nowadays, the girls are resorting to artificial tanning, dental bonding, hairpieces, false eyelashes, false fingernails, padded busts and hips, and bobbed noses. Caught in the rain, part of them could fall off — or at least start squeaking.”
But then, she wasn’t particularly fond of the contest even in her day. During her post-pageant performing career, one of her routines included a song that went:
For the benefit of those who never knew
I’m a Miss America! How do you do! . . .
They had me posing like I wouldn’t
And they photographed me where they shouldn’t.
But it’s nice to be Miss America, it makes life so tres gai
Now if I could only find a way to eat three times a day.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly reported that Miss Ramey’s image decorated the side of a fighter plane during World War II. It was painted on a B-17 bomber. The obituary has been updated.