She died today at 98 years old Isabella Verneythe first Miss Italy in history. She was the winner of the competition created by Dino Villani and which from 1939 to 1941 was called ‘Five thousand lire for a smile’, and in 1946 she assumed her name which she has had for 84 years. The story of his life seems like a fairy tale. On the morning of 27 September 1939, in Turin, Signora Maria Margaria went away with her daughter Isabella to pick up some photos of her in the Reimbrandt shop in Via Volta. At that moment there is a photographer who is joking with the 14-year-old, blue-eyed, slim, delicate girl. She teases her: ‘would you like a photo?’. She isn’t interested, but then she agrees.
Isabella’s face is so extraordinary that her mother can’t resist, takes the photo, puts it in an envelope and sends it to the ‘Five thousand for a smile’ contest, forerunner of Miss Italy, which is talked about so much. The recipient is the ‘Erba Gi.Vi.Emme’ by Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone who thus celebrates the house’s 50 millionth tube of toothpaste. The creator of the initiative is Dino Villani, a very active person, an advertising man with a thousand ideas, surrounded by friends such as the writer Cesare Zavattini and the Corriere della Sera journalist Orio Vergani. The organization, despite the arrival of an enormous number of photos from all over Italy, is meticulous: it asks Mrs. Margaria for other images, but the one sent is too beautiful, it’s unique; not only that but he would like that, in case of victory, his daughter’s name would remain secret. Of course it is impossible.
The interest of the competition, which is only photographic, grows as the choice of the winner approaches. When the jury meets in Milan, it is inundated with photos: it is made up of Vittorio De Sica, Villani, Zavattini, Edoardo Visconti di Modrone, Marco Ramberti, the journalists Rino Albertarelli, Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Fraccaroli, the illustrator Gino Boccasile, the writer Leònida Repaci, Lucio Ridenti and an official of the Finance Office. On October 30, Isabella hears her name on the radio: she is the winner. The next day she has confirmation from a telegram; then, here’s the prize, Treasury bills worth five thousand lire, series F, from numbers 968551 to 968560. They will be framed, but after the war they are worth nothing. Yet it was no small sum if she wished herself around, singing, ‘If I could have, a thousand lire a month…’.
All hell breaks loose around the girl, also because the radio has played her home address: Via Palmeri 26. The Reimbrandts prepare a blow-up of the photo that has won and arrange it in full view under the arcades of Corso Vittorio, towards the station New door. She will remain there until the end of the war, despite the bombings, as a kind of homage to the smile of our girls, triumphant in the midst of so much ugliness. She remains almost indifferent and continues her activities: attending the first master’s degree at the ‘Berti’ in Via Duchessa Jolanda, swimming, gymnastics, but an avalanche of letters arrives at her house: requests for photos, admirers who want to get engaged, marriage proposals (even of a prince). The only ones who are satisfied are our soldiers at the front in Russia, in Africa, in Albania. Then they write to her again and swear they will always carry her smile in their backpack.
The Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia offers her a free acting course, some directors think of her for their films, Maestro Carlo Prato, discoverer of the Trio Lescano, stubbornly tries to teach her singing, but to no avail. She doesn’t even get excited on the radio, alongside the great actress Dina Galli. It is a refusal for everyone, but the father, an Army officer, has nothing to do with it, he is not the one to impose bans, as was said. It is Isabella, on the other hand, who does not feel like facing these commitments because she is too childish, but a few years later, after the war, from 1949 to 1951, she is a splendid mannequin, top model of the time, in the atelier of the famous Ventura, and wears the most beautiful clothes of the moment. The buyers are the Crespis, the Acquarones, Wally Toscaninis, the great Milanese families.
Married to Carlo Cavaglià, a Rai journalist, she had two sons, Alessandro, same profession as his father, and Enrico, an antiques dealer, with whom she ran a shop for many years. Isabella’s mother has kept all the memories of her linked to that title of Miss Smile which gave her daughter the halo of progenitor of Miss Italy. She saw it as a little fun. Her fame continued throughout the war period, then she was deliberately forgotten. She reappeared in 1989 when Enzo Mirigliani invited her to Salsomaggiore on the occasion of her 50th anniversary competition. Letters and requests for photographs have since resumed. “The last one – he says – is from a few days ago. It seems impossible. With what we have suffered, with all that we have risked with the war, it seems impossible that we are still alive. And instead there are still those who ask for a photograph her.
Isabella said of these years’ competition: “Someone has to tell the girls that it is necessary to make sacrifices, to study, prepare to meet the life and activity of their choice. The show is fine, but here too strict preparation is needed and the choice of a school, an academy of dance, singing and acting. And then, with sacrifice, begin the apprenticeship with clear objectives. Otherwise they end up in the meat grinder of those who exploit their beauty and deceive them, leaving them empty-handed. It seems to me that Miss Italy is one of the few serious events that knows how to highlight the talent of girls, when they have it. Just look at the names of the misses, who work everywhere. And some are a good example of what I was saying. After so many years, participating in Miss Italy is always worth it. Even if I – concluded Isabella – I was a Miss by chance”.