Former Beauty Queen Rocks the House
Suzanne Sugarbaker breaks down Washington
stereotypes with her own brand of politics.
When Suzanne Sugarbaker took over her late husband's seat in the House of Representatives last January, Washington had no idea what it was in for. The Georgia Governor's decision to place the politically naive beauty queen in the House was considered one of the most controversial appointments in Congressional history. And, Miss Sugarbaker did not make a quiet entrance.
For the Congresswoman's first public appearance she was invited to appear on Crossfire, where she sat with her cleavage first and forefront and her main concern being the size of her hair -- which was apparently not big enough. Her candor and openness regarding gifts from lobbyists and homosexuals in the military was enough to make Washington wives faint of shock and sent scandalous headlines all across the nation.
When asked if she gave the President any advice during their morning jog, Sugarbaker described her tips to him on his hairstyle and covering up his "big white thighs."
The press was brutal, and Miss Sugarbaker made plans to move her family back to Georgia. "I honestly was ready to pack it in until a heart-to-heart with my brother and daughter made me realize two things," says the Congresswoman. "One, the Sugarbaker women have always stood out from the crowd. And two, this nation belongs to ALL of us."
Number two was the basis for her first statement on the floor of Congress. Sugarbaker was very upfront about her five ex-husbands, her adopted family and her newly earned fortune, and clearly defined herself as a representative of what makes this country so special -- our differences.
Her critics weren't letting up, but Sugarbaker had no intention of backing down, despite her character and background being so uniquely Southern eccentric. "I'm a person who likes to stand out," she says.
Suzanne Sugarbaker hails from Atlanta, Georgia, and has eleven beauty titles ranging from Miss Georgia World to Miss Atlanta Arboretum. She recounts, "My mother always said I would grow up to be the center-of-attention." She comes from a wealthy Georgia medical family and grew up in country clubs and in the company of governors. At 29, Suzanne, along with her elder sister Julia, helped found the successful Sugarbakers and Associates Design Firm in Atlanta. As part of Atlanta's socially elite, she spent much of her time abroad, including briefly residing in Japan.
But in 1988, things changed for Sugarbaker. Her longtime accountant absconded with her entire life savings -- taking with it much of her socialite status. Then Sugarbaker thought she lost her only other asset when the former beauty queen started to gain weight and lose her figure. At first she tried to pretend nothing had changed, until comments at her high school class reunion woke her up. "I actually overheard someone call me the 'Poster Girl for Save the Whales.' I knew then that it was something I had to face." And she did. Realizing that she was still just as beautiful, but no longer tied down by stereotypical expectations, Suzanne became much more vocal and less afraid to speak her mind.
None of this confidence protected her from public attack. Not only was Washington all over her about her scandalously excessive five marriages -- one to Atlanta Braves pitcher Jack Dent, but one of her ex-husbands, Dash Goff, even enflamed things by writing a sexually charged novel based on their love affair.
According to Suzanne, novelist Goff was the first smart man to like her -- "My sister Julia always got the smart ones." They met when Suzanne was selling kisses at the Pi Phi booth at her university, Ol' Miss. According to Goff, "She had the highest prices and the longest lines." Their marriage was filled with rocky times, possibly the roughest being when Suzanne carelessly threw Goff's third novel out with the trash. His latest, a racy book detailing their marriage, was just another blemish on Washington that enflamed her critics. But Suzanne will always have a soft spot for her ex. "Dash is probably the only poor person I ever kissed," she laughs. "Of course, that statement alone will probably put me back on CNN every 30 minutes -- the people in this town seriously need to get a life."
Though her penchant for wealthy men is not something she is ashamed of, Sugarbaker really prefers not to stir up more trouble for herself. "I have all the money I need, and my focus is really on my family." By family, the Congresswoman is referring to her daughter and live-in brother. She says that adopting little Desiree changed her life. "That little girl is the most beautiful gift. We sit up nights and work on her homework together, and then I sneak a quarter under her pillow," says the proud mother. And apparently, the little girl -- who sleeps on a bed shaped like a cloud -- doesn't even have to lose a tooth. "Heck no. I do it because I love her."
Another family supporter is Sugarbaker's mentally handicapped brother Jim, but she says he prefers to stick to the term retarded. "Jim thinks it's a heck of a lot harder to be retarded," she laughs fondly. "There was a time when having a retarded brother embarrassed me, but we all have our eccentricities, and at this point of my life I've come to be proud of them."
Rounding out the makeshift family is housekeeper Sapphire. "Oh, the flack I got over that! I mean, get real, she's been with the family my entire life. Am I supposed to fire her just because she's black and has a stereotypical name?" It's an active household. Jim likes to keep all the shoes shined, and little Desi wants to be an actress" -- a decision that Sugarbaker hopes she'll grow out of. "After what I've researched, acting has got to be the worst career decision for a young woman."
The research in question involves one of the committees on which the Congresswoman has recently been seated that has been monitoring violence against women in film and on television. "I was amazed that women would actually take these kinds of roles that degrade not only themselves, but the rest of us as well. It was certainly an eye opener," recounts Sugarbaker. Many well-known actresses testified at the hearings, which were recently televised, and the Congresswoman was inspired to speak her mind, questioning the 'artistic' contribution these films make, and appealing to would-be actresses to stop taking these roles.
Well-known feminist television Writer/Producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who is very politically active and was named one of America's Fifty Most Powerful Women by Ladies Home Journal in 1990, was moved by Sugarbaker's plea. She says, "My fantasy is that it would be like a Jerry Lewis telethon, and the switchboards would light up, and women would say 'We're mad as heck and not gonna take it anymore!'"
Representative Sugarbaker's impassioned speech before the committee was well received by feminist supporters and gained her a new respect, but not everyone has let up on her.
Representative Kirby Seizmore of the Congressional Ethics Committee announced that it is her mission to expel Sugarbaker from office. Seizmore was quoted as saying that Sugarbaker is "one of the most unqualified, superficial, ridiculous people ever to be sent to Congress." Recent investigations haven't come up with anything substantial against Sugarbaker, though charges are pending against the Congresswoman for failing to submit to a subpoena to turn over her personal diary to the committee. "Oh, please." She fluffs the charges off, "It's not like I went out and whacked some ice skater on the knee."
It remains to be seen how Sugarbaker will fair in the long run. Her relationships with constituents seem to be very positive -- despite her unique approach to handling their problems, and she has developed a unique friendship with none other than President Clinton, for whom she considers herself an informal advisor. "I really like the President, and I don't give a damn if he's a Democrat or a Republican," says the politically independent Congresswoman.
Her lack of political party backing still has some Washington die-hards concerned, but Sugarbaker says they have nothing to worry about. "My administrative assistant is a conservative and my press secretary is very left-liberal, so their constant office debates get me an earful of both sides -- which is how it should be." But how much influence do they have on the flamboyant Sugarbaker? "Please! My sister spent her whole life pushing those feminist ideals on me, and here I still am -- politically incorrect!" the Congresswoman laughs openly.
So, it remains to be seen how the former beauty queen will fair in Washington, but one thing is for sure, admits Sugarbaker -- "I'll never completely fit in. My hair is too big for this city."