STORY: ARMI KUUSELA-WILLIAMS
REPORTER: TOMI HINKKANEN –SAN DIEGO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY TOMI HINKKANEN ©
Long Beach, California, June 29th, 1952. I Love Lucy was a hit show on TV and Harry Truman the president of the United States. An average American worker earned $3,850 a year. A new house cost $9,000 and gas 25 cents a gallon. It was a different era alright. And for one lovely 17-year-old woman from Finland, that day would change everything. She would become the very first Miss Universe ever. That young woman was Armi Kuusela. 60 years later she still turns heads, attracts crowds and glows eternally youthful. 77 years never looked lovelier.
Armi was born in the village of Muhos, which is located in Northern Finland, some 20 miles southeast of Oulu. Her father was Aarne Kuusela and mother Martta Kyrö. Aarne was said to have been extremely handsome and Martta was known to be a vivacious woman. They had met in Ontario, Canada, where their first child was born. Upon returning to Finland, there would be six more – five girls and a boy. One of the girls died as a child. Armi was born August the 20th, 1934, and is the fourth oldest of the children.
After graduating from middle school in Muhos, she continued onto the women’s college in Porvoo where she excelled in sports. She was particularly fond of swimming, skiing and gymnastics. In fact, she planned a career in athletics, intending to apply to the University of Helsinki Gymnastics Institute. However, that was never to be. Armi competed and won the title of Suomen neito (Maiden of Finland), a national beauty pageant on May 24th, 1952. Her prize was a box of chocolates, a gold bangle and a round-trip ticket to the United States, sponsored by Pan Am. That June in Long Beach, California, she participated in the first ever Miss Universe beauty pageant along with 29 other girls from all over the world – and won. Armi was just 17 and her strategic measurements read like Scarlett O’Hara’s from Gone with the Wind: height: 5′ 5″ , weight: 108 pounds, bust: 33.5 inches, waist: 22 inches, and hips: 33.5 inches. She was immortalized in all her glory in a Finnish movie World’s Most beautiful Girl, in which she played herself opposite to the leading man of the Finnish cinema, Tauno Palo.
Next year the reigning Miss Universe took to a whirlwind tour around the world. It turned out to be another life changer for Armi. During her travels she met a dark and handsome Filipino businessman, Virgilio ‘Gil’ Hilario. Armi fell in love head over heels and couldn’t wait to get married. She even gave up her crown three weeks shy of the end of her Miss Universe year, just to tie the knot with the man she loved. They Married in Tokyoin May of 1953. The newlyweds moved to Manila, settling in the quiet suburb of Forbes Park. Their house was on a road known as ‘Millionaire Street’. Armi parlayed her Miss Universe fame in a film shot in the Philippines as well. But now she had another role to play – that of a mother. The couple had five children: three boys and two girls. During those years Armi and Gil would sometimes travel to her native Finland. Another ex-patriot from the same area in Northern Finland, Taimi Mäkikihniä, recalls how Armi and Gil would be exhibited in a train car sitting at a station. People were charged admission to enter the train and walk through the car where the couple was sitting. It sounds bizarre today, but Finns were lining up on the station just to get a peek of the biggest celebrities Finland had ever seen. It seemed that the couple had everything anyone could ask for: fame, fortune and a happy family. But it all came to an abrupt end on the faithful day of September 7th, 1975. Gil Hilario suddenly died of a massive heart attack at the age of 48. Armi was grief-stricken.
There were lonely years after Gil was gone, but Armi had the good fortune to have five loving children around her to cheer her up. By now she was a woman of the world who moved effortlessly and elegantly in high society circles. Two and a half years after Gil’s death, Armi found a new love. She married a tall, slender, handsome (and then bearded) American diplomat Albert Williams on June 8th, 1978. Albert was stationed in Spain at the time, so the couple started their married bliss in beautiful Barcelona. Albert’s next assignment took them to the more exotic Izmir,Turkey. The third largest city of Turkey is an ancient merchant capitol by the eastern Mediterranean and boasts exceptional historical sights, culture and magnificent sea views. Those were exciting years for Armi.
When Albert retired from the State Department it was time for the couple to settle in his home country, the United States. In 1990 Armi and Albert found a peaceful two story traditional on Waverly Avenue in affluent La Jolla, California. The tall trees and shrubs shield the house from prying eyes. The beach community means ‘the jewel’ in English. It used to be a vacation community for the very wealthy and became known as ‘Beverly Hills South’. Armi settled into a quiet life of a retired socialite, dedicating her time to charitable organizations. She sits in the board of directors of the prestigious Sanford Burnham Medical Institute, a cancer research center. The endless fascination of Armi endured in her native Finland, but the ex-beauty queen grew more and more reclusive, categorically refusing all interviews.
The long self-imposed exile from the lime light ended this summer. Armi Kuusela-Williams surprised everyone by attending the glamorous FinnFest gala dinner and dance on August 12th inSan Diego with her husband Albert. Armi dazzled in a light blue silk gown designed by Jordan. The accessories included a golden purse and the same color shoes and a classic pearl necklace. They had reserved a VIP table for their entourage of 10. Each seat cost $290 and the proceeds went to the FinnFest organization. That same evening Armi was recognized by the City of San Diego as the mayor issued a proclamation that read ‘Armi Kuusela Williams Day’. The audience of 350 heard her first public remarks in years, as she climbed on stage to thank for the honor: “I am so touched by such a tribute. I can only say that I have been lucky in my life in so many ways. It is an honor to celebrate Finland with Finnish and American friends. I am very grateful, Armi said”. Her inner circle was there to celebrate the evening with her: authors, artists, scientists and business people. Business woman Kathryn Kennedy has known Armi and Albert for 15 years. They meet at charitable events, at the opera, concerts and church. She had fond memories of a recent birthday party for Albert at the couple’s house. “It was the most fun I have had in years. Armi served grav lax for dinner, chocolate cake for dessert and throughout the evening she kept pouring us shots of Koskenkorva vodka in crystal tubes, Kathryn recounts. Banker Joy Blount has known the couple for ten years. She met them soon after relocating from San Francisco to San Diego. “We are all deeply involved in philanthropic activities, go to the opera, symphony concerts, talk about the politics and our families, Joy describes.
Armi likes to entertain her closest friends in the couple’s Spanish style two storey house decorated with antique furniture and decorative items they have collected from their travels around the world. The dining room table seats comfortably 12 people. Guests are pampered with Finnish foods prepared by the couple’s private cook. Armi is an avid reader and loves nothing better than to curl up with a good book. Both Armi and Albert spend a great deal of time traveling to see her five children and five grandchildren who live in the United States, Canada, Chile, the Philippines and Spain.
The FinnFest gala ends with American standards performed by pianist Lenni-Kalle Taipale and singer Sami Pitkämö, who had flown especially for the event from Finland. We now know that Albert William’s favourite tune is ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’, for when it started to play, he asked his wife Armi of 33 years to dance with him and planted a tender kiss on her lips.