Before she was an alluring mainstay of Washington’s watusi-era salons and soirees, Yolande Betbeze Fox was a rebellious, convent-educated, Alabama-born beauty queen. As Miss America of 1951, she alarmed organizers when she refused to squeeze into a bathing suit for cheesecake photos, publicly lambasted the pageant for excluding minorities, and picketed for civil rights.

In a life as nonconformist as it was glamorous, she was also an off-Broadway producer, lighted off to Cuba with a rodeo, married a onetime Hollywood “wonder boy,” and was the longtime companion of an Algerian revolutionary-turned-diplomat.

When in 1966, she contemplated running for Congress in an Alabama district that included her home town of Mobile, her then-paramour, the architect Edward Durrell Stone, observed that she would dramatically improve her chances if she renounced her membership in the NAACP.

Fox, whose independent-mindedness in that era was perhaps best defined by her quip, “I’m a southern girl, but I’m a thinking girl,” died Feb. 22 at an assisted-living home in Washington. She was 87 and the cause was lung cancer, said her daughter, Dolly Fox.

Raven-haired and statuesque, she first began turning heads as Yolande Betbeze (pronounced Yo-lond, Bet-bees). While attending an Alabama Jesuit college, she won the campus title of “Miss Torch.” She was also a coloratura soprano, well read in philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and David Hume, and was determined to harness her brains and beauty to advance her opportunities.

“I entered the Miss Alabama contest because it was still a via aperta,” she once told The Washington Post, “and because it was one possible way to get out of the South. I knew that I was really a very good singer and that I could do serious opera even though my braces made me sing German lieder with a pronounced lisp.”

A Mobile music critic, beguiled by her talent and charm, urged her to enter the Miss Alabama contest, which she clinched (braces removed) with her performances of works by Schubert and Gershwin. Then it was on to Atlantic City, singing the “Caro nome” aria from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

That was when problems began. She didn’t mix well with the other contestants, whom she found both intellectually wanting and cutthroat. .

After her triumph – as the first winner from Alabama – she infuriated a major sponsor, Catalina bathing suits. She had, perhaps inadvertently at first, neglected to sign the standard contract obligating her to make promotional appearances modeling their new line of swimsuits, and then outright refused to be bullied into it.

“I’m a singer,” she declared at the time, “not a pin-up.”

She used her public platform to condemn de facto exclusionary policies in some Miss America preliminaries. .

She rebuffed movie offers but not the 1954 marriage proposal of entertainment executive Matthew M. Fox..She formed tight friendships with movie stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor and other grandees of culture and politics.

Fox had a stint as an off-Broadway producer, putting on works by Aristophanes and Shakespeare.

Yolande Margaret Betbeze was born in Mobile on Nov. 28, 1928.

After 12 years of schooling in a convent, she attended Spring Hill College in Mobile and throughout the 1950s continued her studies of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York.

By the time her husband died in 1964, Fox was a frequent visitor to Washington. She soon settled into a historic home in Georgetown that had once belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy.

Fox, who became a Democratic Party fundraiser, lured hostesses and presidents into her orbit.