No swimsuits necessary for Ms. Senior America contender

Though she probably hears this a lot, Sharon Friendly is aptly named.

Last March, she was crowned Ms. Senior Arizona and recognized as the pageant’s most elegant contestant. Her next move is to compete in November’s Ms. Senior America competition.

Effervescent and bubbly during a 7 a.m. telephone interview, the 65-year-old said she was en route to a manicure appointment and then to her full-time sales associate job in the children’s department at Scottsdale’s Neiman Marcus — which makes her the first employed Ms. Senior Arizona.

“I thought, ‘Why not? I’ve never been in a beauty contest,'” she said about her choice to compete.

“And it’s not really a beauty contest, because you don’t have to wear a bathing suit, thank God,” she added.

“I thought it would be a wonderful challenge, and also I could share my gifts.”

Friendly grew up in Toronto and has worked as a professional singer and entertainer most of her life. She also hosted a show in Los Angeles, “Let’s Get Friendly.”

Representing the seniors of Arizona is a big responsibility, she said. Her duties involve making appearances at retirement homes, hospitals, parades and state fairs. Seniors love to hear her sing and see her dressed elegantly, she said, because it brings back old memories. She enjoys dressing to the nines.

Friendly turned 65 on July 5 and spent her birthday in Italy with her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren at their home.

“It’s so hard to believe because it sounds like such a big number,” she said of her birthday. “It’s not a big number, because I feel like I’m 25.

“I’m happy and healthy, and there’s nothing I could want more.”

Aside from work and her Ms. Senior Arizona duties, Friendly serves as a cantorial soloist at the Desert Foothills Jewish Community Association in Tempe. She also belongs to Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, where she sang in the choir and performed cantorial duties.

“She’s such a babe, they love her,” said her sister, Lynda, of Toronto, referring to Sharon’s cantorial performances.

“She wears her late father’s tallis.”

Friendly said her father didn’t approve of her going into show business and wanted her to be a cantor, but did not live to see it happen.

“I’m sure he knows somewhere up there and is turning cartwheels.”

Friendly is passionate about increasing child literacy. She volunteers with the Screen Actors Guild Foundation BookPALS program, in which performing artists and other volunteers go into schools and read to students. She also records stories for children who phone in to listen.

During the Ms. Senior Arizona pageant, Friendly sang “Don’t Rain on My Parade” for the show’s talent portion and had to present a life philosophy.

The last portion of this philosophy speaks to a dark chapter in the cheerful senior’s life.

“I believe you have to live your life. I’m a survivor. Don’t regret what might have been; accept what is and rejoice in what is yet to be,” she said.

In January 1994 in Los Angeles, 24 hours before the Northridge earthquake hit the area, Friendly was raped and robbed at knifepoint. She was working as a model at a downtown auto show and, at the same time, “Let’s Get Friendly” had featured a segment on the homeless. Friendly hired a homeless couple to drive her to the auto show so she wouldn’t have to go alone at night.

“I wanted to give them a new start in life,” she said.

One night when they picked her up, she noticed the couple had changed places. The woman was driving and the man sat in the back.

What followed were “31-and-a-half hours of unspeakable horror,” Friendly said, during which the man raped her three times. She was tied up and gagged in the back seat, and a third person came into the car to check out her jewelry.

The original perpetrator was taking crack and insulting Friendly, who stayed calm and finally persuaded the couple to let her go.

After going to the police with her story and identifying the pair, whom she had interviewed on her show and invited into her home, the case went to trial and they were both convicted.

It turned out they were not a couple, but a man and an accomplice. The man was a wanted murderer and serial rapist, who is now serving a 102-year prison sentence, and the accomplice was sent to jail for five years.

“It took me a long time to get comfortable with it and know that it wasn’t my fault, that I didn’t lead these people on,” Friendly said.

She wanted to continue her work at the auto show, but said that for a long time she “was scared beyond anything” she has ever known.

Friendly turned her experience into a positive — discussing it on her show and teaching women how to protect themselves.

Her son, whom she had been estranged from for 22 years, saw her tell her story on “America’s Most Wanted” and contacted her.

“He came back into my life and that’s a wonderful positive,” she said.

Now, Friendly is gearing up for the Ms. Senior America competition in Las Vegas.

She is anticipating having the “most wonderful experience in the world.” One day, she said, she wants to write a book about her experience in the competition.

Participating in the pageant counters the loss of confidence some women go through as they age.

“If you’re going to mature, you might as well do it while wearing a tiara.”