Apodaca: Miss Universe gives more than beauty tips

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?"

After retiring her crown, Shawn moved to California and took up acting. A big break came in 1985, when she starred in the five-episode docudrama, "OceanQuest," which earned her an Emmy nomination. Her other most famous role was as a lifeguard in the TV series "Baywatch." She has also appeared on "Chicago Hope," "Thirtysomething" and most recently had a guest spot on "Cold Case."

Shawn also had a brief foray into my line of work when she wrote several newspaper columns last year for the Sumter Daily Item titled "Tales from Beneath the Crown: Confessions of a Miss Universe."

Here are a few other excerpts from my interview with Shawn:

Patrice: Your "Baywatch" character was killed by a shark. While filming "OceanQuest," you came perilously close to being attacked by sharks for real. Do you hold a grudge against sharks?

Shawn: I have a healthy respect for them. I've met more land sharks that I was afraid of.

P: Now that summer is here, do you have any tips for looking good in a swimsuit?

S: First of all, don't wear a swimsuit at my age. It's shorts and a shirt with sleeves.

(Note to readers: I'm not buying this. She could still give the current Miss Universe a run for her sash.)

P: Are you ever tempted to offer your services to the Newport Beach lifeguards?

S: It looks way too tough for me. I was a lifeguard at a manmade lake when I was a teenager, but there were no waves. I have great respect for the guys who do that.

P: When you won Miss Universe, all the other competitors were smiling and looking happy for you. Were there daggers in your back? Did you all try to sabotage the competition by, say, putting ex-lax in each other's cereal?

S: It's a bonding experience. I made the greatest friends. I'm still friends with Miss Sweden.

P: No kids think their parents are cool. Do you embarrass your children by strutting around in your tiaras while their friends are over?

S: It horrifies them what a worrywart I am. Jack has a good sense of humor about it. If I get too overbearing, he says, 'You're shunned.' Jessie is more horrified by me. I tell her, 'You're lucky you have me to be mad at.'

P: You worked with David Hasselhoff on "Baywatch" and William Shatner on "T.J. Hooker." So, who's hotter?

S: They're both so extraordinary in so many ways.

P: That's such a Miss Universe answer.

S: Isn't it?

P: You really are smart.


On another subject, in my June 18 column I wrote about Dusty Brandom, an exceptional young man who suffers from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. In the caption for the accompanying photo, the name of Dusty's younger sister was misspelled. It is Gabriella.

Also, the charity founded by Dusty and his family is Coalition Duchenne. It's well worth the time to check out the website, http://www.CoalitionDuchenne.org.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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