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A Wallflower Blossomed

Marilyn Tindall Percival conquered shyness by entering beauty contests

Marilyn Tindall was the tawny blonde with the warm "California look" who was framed against the ochre cliffs of Arizona's Apache Lake on the 1967 swimsuit cover. "The water in that lake was free-ZEE-ing," recalls Marilyn, who's now married to Robert Percival, a Newport Beach, Calif., insurance executive. "It was awful cold."

Modeling, for that matter, was not always a comfortable way for her to earn a living. Despite her tall (she's 5'8½"), outdoorsy good looks, Tindall didn't always feel at ease in front of a camera. She says the work was a "challenge," a means of overcoming shyness and a lack of confidence.

"I was a late bloomer in both personality and looks," she says, pouring coffee in the living room of her "California-style French country house." She is dressed in a salmon-colored pantsuit. The blonde hair, somewhat darker now, still tumbles in enticing disarray over her shoulders. In her 40's, she is plumper than the stately beauty who appeared on SI's cover, but she is still attractive. "I thought of myself as a skinny little girl, very quiet," she says. "I didn't think I was beautiful, and if you don't think you are, it doesn't matter at all what others say."

Tindall's uncertainty about her looks led to a mild disagreement with SI swimsuit editor Jule Campbell be-fore they began the shoot in Arizona. "We didn't have a makeup person with us in the early years, so the models usually did their own makeup," says Campbell. "When I told Marilyn she was using too much gooey mascara, she said she felt too insecure to appear without it." But after getting up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. for three days in a row to catch the early light, Tindall was too exhausted to apply her usual makeup. "That was the morning we got the cover shot," says Campbell.

The thought of posing for photographs or entering beauty contests never crossed Tindall's mind when she was attending Hollywood High, even though that school has long been considered the cradle of starlets. Her father, George, even worked at a movie studio, Paramount Pictures, as head of security, but, if anything, this connection only drove away any thoughts of a film career, quite possibly, she says, because "my dad made me aware of the negative side of the business."

Tindall was several years out of high school, working as a secretary for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, when a friend challenged her with the idea of entering a beauty contest. She remembers thinking, You don't grow if you don't challenge yourself, try new experiences. You gain strength and knowledge from any experience. It's what life's all about.

So in 1962 she entered not one but 10 beauty pageants and won nine of them. Her only miss was the Miss Firecracker competition at Huntington Beach's Independence Day celebration. By the end of the summer, she was the Miss California entrant in the Miss U.S.A. contest in Miami (she finished third) and a celebrated bathing beauty. "I came in at the end of a time when it was popular to be really skinny," she says. "I was definitely not that by then. I always weighed in the high 120's, so I never did much fashion work. But I had good coloring, and I guess I did look good in a swimsuit."

So good that she was much in demand as window dressing in any number of 1960s' television commercials. Most of them featured such leering older stars as George Burns (El Producto cigars) and Jimmy Durante (Kellogg's Corn Flakes). These were, in every sense, walk-on parts, though as one of the "Slaygirls" in the Matt Helm movie series with Dean Martin, she was occasionally rewarded with a line or two of dialogue. On the rare occasions she watches these old films and commercials, she will chuckle at their "incredible naivetè."

Somehow, it all seems so distant from her life today as a wife and mother—the Percivals have a 10-year-old daughter, Chelsea. And if someone refers to her as a Miss Somebody-or-other, she reverts to Hollywood High form and blushes with embarrassment. Recently, the only member of the Percival family who has entered beauty contests has been her fluffy white Bichon Frise, Pumpkin, who, under the registered name of Mademoiselle du Belcourt, was a consistent winner at dog shows. But Marilyn's memories of that other person, the stunning blonde, are a pleasant reminder of a challenge met.

"I did beat that old shyness," she says. "Now when I go to a high school reunion, I march right up to the very same people that I used to back away from. People can't believe I'm the same person, but I am. You are your past, after all."