Oprah Winfrey got started in show business by winning the 1979 Miss Fire Prevention contest in Nashville, which brought her to the attention of the radio station sponsoring it. The station offered her a job reading headlines. Oprah won Miss Black Tennessee, but she quit pageants to focus on her news career.
Well before "Toddlers and Tiaras," Britney Spears started her entertainment career at age 3. She won many trophies competing in child pageants. She stated, “I found what I’m supposed to do at an early age.”
"Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria won her hometown’s beauty pageant and became Miss Corpus Christi in 1998. This win led to her participating in an L.A. talent show. She decided to stay in L.A. and pursue acting.
The former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin is also a former pageant contestant. Before she married Todd, she competed as Sarah Heath in the Miss Alaska pageant. She won third place in 1984.
Famous actress Halle Berry competed in the 1986 Miss USA and won second place. She went on to get sixth place in Miss World the same year. She said she initially was drawn to pageants for the money, but felt empowered after winning.
Another child pageant contestant is singer Katy Perry. She took second place in the couple of pageants she was in. She blogged that she wants to compete again, and that her singing career has clinched the talent category for her.
Actress and singer Demi Lovato also got her show biz start competing in children’s pageants and talent shows. Like Britney Spears, these pageants lead to acting with Disney and then a singing career. Demi said that liked the pageants mostly because she got to perform in the talent portion.
Vanessa Williams became the first African-American Miss America in 1984. She suffered through death threats and eventually was forced to resign after unauthorized nude photos of her were published. She is still officially recognized as Miss America 1984.
News anchor Diane Sawyer won America’s Junior Miss pageant in 1963. She has written that she won with an essay comparing the Civil War music of the North and South. She credits touring the country as the winner for teaching her to think on her feet with poise and grace.
Cloris Leachman competed as Miss Chicago in the 1946 Miss America pageant. She placed in the Top 16. Cloris used her scholarship to study acting in New York City and went on to win a record eight Emmys.
Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter, started out her career as a pageant girl. She won Miss World USA in 1972. It was only a couple years later she got the role of Wonder Woman.
Film star Sophia Loren competed in the Miss Italia pageant in 1950. She didn't win, but was a finalist. Sixty years later, she returned to the pageant as a judge.