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Essentially America / March-April 1997
I was queueing up in the ladies' loo at the London's World Travel Market when the Statue of Liberty lined up behind me. She was everything you would expect: dignified, elegantly attired in a toga and crown, bearing a torch and a large tablet -- and tinted a splendid shade of green.
The standard "do you come here often?" somehow seemed inadequate, so I blurted out, "How did you become the Statue of Liberty?"
"That's a very interesting story," she responded in a calm, melodious voice, fixing her hypnotic gray-green eyes on me.
"I was a teacher of schizophrenic students in Iowa. One day, one of my students said, "You look just like the Statue of Liberty!" I had never thought of myself that way, but when I read later about a nationwide look-alike contest to mark the Statue's 1986 centennial, I painted myself green, made a costume and created a headdress out of a mop, plaster and an old laundry basket."
She won the contest over 1,000 Miss Liberty hopefuls, appeared on CBS Morning News and moved to New York City to pursue a graduate degree, hoping to support herself through her new-found fame. At first things moved slowly, but then Miss Liberty (AKA Jennifer Stewart of Audubon, Iowa) divorced her husband, severed her ties with the contest organizers and launched out on her own.
Her first success was, appropriately enough, over the July 4, Independence Day weekend in 1988. Noticing that a Greenwich Village restaurant called "America" featured a Statue of Liberty in its decor, she suggested to the management that they replace the "fake" with the "real" Statue of Liberty. "I would stand like that Statue on a pedestal, step down, walk amongst the diners and say, 'welcome to America!' It really made an impact!"
She entered several Halloween costume contests, winning $1,000 in one and a trip to the Bahamas in another. One day, on a whim, she took a large plastic cup from the restaurant and stood in nearby Washington Square. To her amazement, the cup was soon crammed with dollars -- everybody wanted to be photographed with the Statue of Liberty! Soon, she established a more permanent base in the South Street Seaport tourist area.
One little girl confided to her, "I just went to see the pretend Statue of Liberty, but she didn't have a bucket in from of her." Women who had recently been divorced or lost their jobs also praised her as a woman following an alternative way of making a living, and the homeless tried to give her money. She also created quite a stir when she traveled to work in costume by subway or bus, particularly when she sat near a drunk.
Occasionally she becomes the target of discontent as passers-by complained to her about America's immigration laws. One disturbed vagrant even slapped her. Stewart always tried to retain her dignity and remain in character, she said, explaining to those who complained that as voters, they could help change the American laws.
"I love New York and my job," she said. "It's so heart-warming when people come up to me and say, 'Hello Miss Liberty! Where have you been. We haven't seen you around for awhile.'"
She has often appeared on television, including a Clive James in New York show, at receptions and parties, and at trade shows as far away as Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Singapore, Bermuda and London. Her prestigious list of clients included American Express, British Airways, Hilton Hotels, Liberty Helicopters (her London sponsors) and the Young Presidents Association. She even had a bit part as an actress, playing -- you guessed it -- a Statue of Liberty look-alike in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film, Joe Versus the Volcano.
But, I asked, as the London loo queue gradually moved forward, wasn't it time at age 38 to vary her professional life, by at least reciting from the famous inscription at the base of the Statue: "Give me your tired, your poor...".
"Well, yes," she replied. "I am working on a children's book and planning to record some songs, perhaps including Kermit the Frog's, It's Not Easy Being Green."
And what about her love life?
She demurred, "You must remember, I am Miss Liberty so it would be most inappropriate for me to have any little statuettes. Anyway, it's not always easy to find the right man."
How about an Uncle Sam look-alike, the Jolly Green Giant, or the Incredible Hulk, I suggested.
"Well now," she responded pensively, "I would prefer someone with a bit more style, perhaps someone classical. How about David over in Florence. He's statuesque and he's really a hunk!"
We had at last reached our destination, the loo cubicle. As a mark of respect, I gave her precedence, hoping that she would pass the torch to me. Alas, she didn't so I will never know what it is like to carry a torch for Liberty.
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