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AROUND THE SOUTH BAY

Homemaker, wife, mother, career woman and now a pageant titlist, too

August 20, 1987|GERALD FARIS

It's not that The Hill doesn't have problems, says Mrs. Palos Verdes Peninsula. There are drugs, divorces, youngsters who are given too much money and people in their 20s who still live at home because anything else would be a comedown.

But to her, it's still a bit of paradise.

"I'm at home here," she says. Home in this particular case is a hilltop house in Palos Verdes Estates where the pale peach living room looks out on the pale blue sea.

"I've never loved a place like this," said the petite, lively brunette who confided that people sometimes take her for Valerie Harper or Rita Moreno, but most often for Carol Lawrence. "It's private and I look out at nature. It's like living in a national park."

Such pride is forgivable, coming from Mrs. Palos Verdes Peninsula.

She is Phyllis Teller, the wife of an ophthalmologist who practices in Torrance and the mother of two college-age sons who want to be lawyers. Her husband, Richard, calls her a "very bright, shiny person." She received her title as a contestant in this year's Mrs. California pageant, which glorifies the married woman and leads to the national Mrs. America competition. Teller didn't go on to the recent national contest, but she did pick up the state trophy for "most elegant" after parading in a red-sequined evening gown.

Mrs. Palos Verdes Peninsula has no duties and makes no official appearances. Teller said she entered by paying a required $650 fee and answering written questions--about education, ambition, occupation, awards and honors--posed by the Modesto company that puts on the contest.

"They tell you if you are accepted or not, and I don't know if I had five competitors or 10," she said. Or any.

But Teller says they chose the right person to represent today's Peninsula woman--homemaker, wife, mother, career woman and veteran of the three decades that have changed American women from worshipers of husbands to people with identities of their own.

Her parents raised her in the 1950s to become a wife and mother, which she duly did, marrying her husband in 1960 when she wore a bubble hairdo and he sported a crew cut.

The two boys were born and Teller lived the life of a doctor's wife, coordinating medical auxiliary fashion shows, turning out gourmet meals for 40--ethnic soirees were a specialty--and keeping dinner for 12 frozen at all times, just in case: "When it got down to six, I made more lasagna."

A decade or so ago, as the couple drove home from a weekend in Ojai, Richard told Phyllis that she should start charging for all of the information on fashion and grooming she had been giving to friends and acquaintances for so many years. "I told her it was time for her to do what she wanted to do . . . to be someone other than Mrs. Richard Teller," her husband recalled.

So she developed a business helping people become successful by advising them on everything from the right clothes to wear to the right attitudes to have. She lectures on cruise ships--one time, in the middle of a hurricane--talks to corporate employees, and counsels individuals. Once, she helped a 6-foot-4 woman--"She was lonely because men didn't take her out"--by showing her how to dress "smaller." (The secret is wearing several colors at once.)

"The most important things to me are my husband and kids," she said, seated at a long formal dining table with a floral centerpiece that she made herself. "But my career is important. If I did not have an identity outside my home, I would feel at a loss."

And, she says, she's no different from a lot of other women who used to venture no farther than the PTA: "They may be travel agents, or go into real estate. They don't have to work, but this is something for themselves. They say, 'If Jackie O can go to work, why can't I?.' " It's good for their health: "Women in their 40s sometimes get depressed if they don't do something for themselves."

Becoming Mrs. Palos Verdes Peninsula was "incompleted business," Teller said. "During the summer 29 years ago, I became Miss Palm Springs, but my parents would not let me go on to the Miss California contest because they were afraid I might have a career as a model and not get married. I couldn't be Miss California 30 years ago, but I could try to be Mrs. California at the age of 45."

Teller said she weighs the same as she did at age 16--105 pounds--and said she has a better body, courtesy of three trips a week to the gym. For the sake of statistics, the measurements are 35-23-35 and she stands 5 feet 2, with eyes of brown--not blue.

"But I don't see as well as I used to," she admitted.

Two years ago in the play "Mrs. California," Doris Baizley satirized the contest of 1955--held at the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles--as a symbol of the house-bound woman who was rewarded not for thinking or competing in the business world, but for ironing a shirt, sewing an apron and making dinner.

Teller says that if she had been in the contest three decades ago, she would not have been offended.

"In the '50s, those were the values, and I demonstrated them for many years," Teller said. "You could see yourself in my floors. I took great pride in being a homemaker, and it's still a part of me--but not as much."

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