Jan Smithers got discovered by being a legit teen rebel in 1966
The actress is best known as WKRP in Cincinnati scene stealer Bailey Quarters.
Image: Newsweek/Julian Wasser
On WKRP in Cincinnati, Jan Smithers played Bailey Quarters, a shy young woman who must learn to be more vocal to get what she wants out of the world (or at the very least, out of the radio station where she works). The character was based on series creator Hugh Wilson's wife, and when you watch the series, Smithers is a natural at delivering that quiet, nervous vibe that so endeared audiences to her TV character.
Perhaps "a natural" is just the best way to describe Smithers, period. The story of how the actress got discovered essentially proves it. The year was 1966, and Smithers was just 16 years old, still in high school, a good kid who she insisted would never think to play hookie. Then one day, she got talked into skipping school for the first time ever by a surfer (as one does), and that one spark of rebellion unexpectedly ignited her fame. Here's what happened.
While Smithers' surfer friend was out catching waves, she sat alone on the beach. That's when she noticed two men approaching. Later on the actress recalled, "They looked like little pencils walking down the beach. One had long hair and cameras around his neck. They walked right up to me and said, ‘We’re doing an article on teens across the country, and we’re looking for a girl from California. We’re wondering if you’d be interested in doing the article.’”
The article they were working on was a widely read piece that year for Newsweek, “The Teen-Agers: A Newsweek Survey of What They’re Really Like,” and of the photos that Newsweek photographer Julian Wasser took of all the teens, it was one of Smithers that ended up on the cover. Not only did that story become a landmark issue for Newsweek, but the exposure Smithers got from her photos and interview for the story reportedly found Hollywood agents scrambling to answer, "Who's that girl?" It was essentially the '60s equivalent of going viral, and the vibe Smithers exuded on the cover was so admired, the photographer claimed other magazines even tried to emulate it.
According to Wasser, this is what it was about Smithers that caught his eye, "How can I forget? I was walking on the beach looking for someone, and there was this incredibly beautiful girl. She was nobody then, just a high school kid. She thought [the article] was a big fake. She was a typical California raving beauty who didn’t know it."
That's pretty much exactly the same reaction WKRP in Cincinnati viewers had once Smithers joined the cast a decade later in 1978. Despite sharing scenes with equally striking beauty Loni Anderson, Smithers became a scene stealer herself in that subdued, charming Bailey Quarters way.