Marisol Malaret, who in 1970 overcame a difficult childhood to become the first woman from Puerto Rico, and from the Caribbean, to win the Miss Universe pageant — and who then brokered her fame into a career as a television host, editor and entrepreneur — died Sunday in a hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She was 73.
The cause was complications of a pulmonary condition, her daughter, Sasha Stroman, said.
While Malaret never aspired to be a beauty queen, her victory in the televised Miss Universe pageant, held at the Miami Beach Auditorium, became a point of pride in Puerto Rico, not only because it was a first but also because she had nudged out Miss USA, Deborah Shelton, the first runner-up in a field of contestants representing 64 countries. (Though Puerto Rico is a United States territory, it had its own representative for the pageant.)
Shelton later became an actress, best known for the television drama “Dallas.”
“That was a huge thing for Puerto Rico, to win against a country that a lot of people considered the great colonizer,” Stroman said. “People felt like it was a David and Goliath situation.”
Little wonder that the 20-year-old Malaret was greeted with a hero’s welcome back home.
“Thousands of proud, cheering Puerto Ricans jammed the Isla Verde airport today and lined the 6‐mile route to the capital building to welcome home Marisol Malaret Contreras, Miss Universe of 1970,” The New York Times reported on July 22. “‘Marisol Marisol!’ they shouted, waving pennants and colored balloons as the tall, green‐eyed beauty descended from an Eastern Air Lines jet, stepped onto a red carpet and was engulfed immediately by an affectionate crowd of her compatriots.”
Puerto Rico’s governor, the heads of its Commonwealth Senate and House, and the chief justice of the island’s Supreme Court “were squashed by a crowd of photographers and jubilant gate‐crashers,” the Times said.
A month later, Malaret received an enthusiastic reception on a trip to New York as well. She was a guest of honor at political rallies in the South Bronx and East Harlem, home to large Puerto Rican populations, as well as at a luncheon for 1,500, including dignitaries and power brokers from the city’s Latino community, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, organized — and paid for personally, to a tune of $15,000 — by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York.
“Miss Malaret was obviously the principal attraction at the rallies and luncheon, as her fans repeatedly engulfed her,” the Times reported, “but the governor drew many cries of ‘Viva Rocky,’ particularly when he gave brief talks in Spanish.”
Marisol Malaret Contreras was born Oct. 13, 1949, in San Juan, the youngest of two children of Antonio Malaret and Lydia Contreras. Both parents died when she was a child, and her brother, Jesús, was quadriplegic from a forceps injury at birth. “Her mother’s dying words were, ‘You take care of your brother,’ ” Stroman said.
The children moved in with an aunt, and with money tight, Malaret was forced to work from an early age cleaning houses and windows. “My aunt gave me tools,” she said in a 2012 interview. “She taught me that the essence was in me. ‘It’s in you, it’s in you’, she would repeat.”
She was working as a secretary for the Puerto Rican telephone company when a friend suggested that she try out for the Miss Puerto Rico contest. She agreed, in part because the event was raising money for people with disabilities, Stroman said. Unable to pay for a gown, she had to borrow one for the pageant, but she ended up winning, setting the stage for the Miss Universe competition.
After she won that crown, she leveraged the burst of publicity it generated to become a television and radio host, most notably on a TV variety show called “Noche de Gala” (“Gala Night”) with Eddie Miró, another popular personality. She also tried her hand at acting, appearing in “Mami,” a 1971 film by Argentine director Orestes Trucco.
In addition to her daughter, Malaret’s survivors include her husband, Frank Cué, and a granddaughter. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.
Despite the fame it brought her, Malaret bristled at the term “beauty queen.”
“She wasn’t the kind of person who talked about the crown,” Stroman said. “She came up in a time that it was a man’s world. She had to fight to be respected not just for her beauty but for her brains.”
In 1973, she opened a fashion boutique, La Femme, in San Juan with Puerto Rican actress Gladys Aguayo (who died Feb. 10 at 92). She moved into publishing in the mid-1980s, her daughter said, editing and helping to found two fashion and lifestyle magazines, Imagen and Caras de Puerto Rico.
To Malaret, the Miss Universe title not only gave her celebrity status but also entailed a certain obligation. In a 1987 television interview, she looked back at the flag-wavers who turned out in blistering heat to cheer her at the airport and reflected on what it had meant to her fellow Puerto Ricans, women in particular.
“I said no, wait,” she said. “Here is a responsibility that I have toward my people in everything I do.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.