‘Gilligan’s Island’: One Actress Won ‘Miss Nevada,’ Competed to be ‘Miss America’

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Gilligan’s Island spawned the never-ending argument — Ginger or Mary Ann. Decades later, there still are no wrong answers.

It was glamour and sequins versus down home and denim. But we’re here to tell you there was a beauty queen on Gilligan’s Island. And she was Mary Ann.

Dawn Wells played Mary Ann, the farm girl from Kansas who won an ill-fated trip on the SS Minnow thanks to a radio contest. In real life, Wells was Miss Nevada, 1959. Wells talked about her pageant experience in a 2013 interview with PopEntertainment.com.

“Yes, I was asked to enter the Miss America pageant as Miss Nevada,” Wells said. “And I thought, well, that’s stupid. I’m 5’4”. But I thought, if you’re majoring in theater, let’s see if you can do a scene in front of all of those people. I never thought that I could win, but it gave me the confidence that I could do it.

“I didn’t feel it was a competition between the girls,” Wells said. “It was a television show they were putting on. It was very well chaperoned. We couldn’t even say hello to the bellboy (and) we couldn’t talk to any man. We had a chaperone with us at all times. You’re on your very best behavior. It’s all different now. I knew I wasn’t going to win because I was short and everybody else had all this talent and I did Shakespeare. But it was a great experience. It wasn’t a beauty pageant. It was girls competing for scholarships.”

Would Pageant Experience Help Wells With Gilligan’s Island?

Wells competed for Miss America, 1960. Wells did not place in the top 10. So, who won Miss America in 1960? That would be Lynda Lee Mead, who was Miss Mississippi. Here’s a bit of pageant trivia. Mead was the second straight woman from her state to win Miss America.

Mary Ann Mobley won Miss America in 1959 and turned her victory into a nice TV career. Anita Bryant, who was Miss Oklahoma and second runner-up, turned her pageant exposure into a music career and an endorser of Florida orange juice.

After Wells competed in Atlantic City, she started trying to land roles and launch her acting career. She’d already graduated from the University of Washington. Four years later, Gilligan’s Island show creators cast Wells as Mary Ann.

And here’s another bit of trivia for you Gilligan’s Island fans. Neither Mary Ann nor Ginger, the movie star, was in the pilot of the series. Instead, there were a couple of secretaries named Ginger and Bunny.

Wells died in late December of COVID-19. She was 82. Tina Louise, the glamorous Ginger, is the last surviving cast member.

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