Former Miss USA and TV news anchor is still a farm girl at heart

Gilbert Girl

by Connie Midey – Jul. 3, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

The people who call her Jina, who remember her as the Gilbert farm girl with untamed hair and eyebrows and with boots muddied by before-school calf feedings, wouldn’t have predicted she’d grow up to become Miss USA and a TV news anchor for network affiliates in Phoenix.

The people who call her Jineane, who know her as the beauty queen and TV personality, fit and on-the-go and much sought after, wouldn’t have predicted she’d ever need to wage war with her weight and the attendant insecurities.

Jineane Ford Ross has a way of surprising people and at the same time confirming what they think they know about her.

Down-to-earth farm girl? Still true, even though her two horses have taken up residence with neighbors near the Ross family home in Pinetop-Lakeside while she commutes between it and a second home in Mesa.

Glamorous? Still true, but she would throw back her head and laugh if you said that to her face. She only reluctantly shops for clothes and gets her hair done.

“Truthfully,” she says one morning at her Mesa home, “the beauty queen is not me. I am a jeans and flannel shirt and cowboy boots person.”

A phone call interrupts. It’s a friend confirming details about a charity ball for which Jineane, 51, has agreed to be mistress of ceremony, and he jokingly warns her not to show up in sweats or jeans.

Obviously, he knows her well. She’s dressed at that moment in a red and black flannel shirt, black pants and tennis shoes, comfy garb for unpacking items that she, her husband and two sons moved to their Mesa house from the one in the White Mountains.

Husband Kerry Ross is a captain for the Lakeside Fire Department. Cody, 16, and Austin, 15, sons from her first marriage, attend Desert Ridge High School in Mesa.

As it did elsewhere, the recession hurt business in Pinetop-Lakeside, where Jineane operates Mama Bear’s Restaurant and Honey Bear Antiques and Lodge.

“It got a little quiet for me,” says Jineane, describing herself as “a person who likes to do 40 things at once.”

So she tends to the boys and handles her businesses from Mesa, drives to Lakeside regularly, more often when Kerry can’t get to the Valley, and pursues work in the Phoenix area. She serves as a spokeswoman for the doctor who performed her weight-loss surgery.

This is another development that would have surprised friends and neighbors from her school days.

Slender and brimming with energy, Jineane was too wrapped up in rodeo barrel racing and gymkhana events, Future Farmers of America and the calves she raised from the time they were 2 days old – as many as 45 of them at once – to think about her looks. Nor did she need to.

Besides, other issues claimed her attention. Struggling with dyslexia and a slight stutter, she nonetheless spoke in public for FFA. She was interested in veterinary medicine and history and joined the science club at Gilbert High School. There, she passed a course to become a registered meat cutter, this in the days when working as a meat cutter included skinning the animal.

“I was not cool,” she says. “I was not beautiful. My eyebrows grew together as a unibrow, and I had a big head of frizzy hair.”

Pratfall, then crown

To her puzzlement, Jineane was recruited to enter beauty contests, first for Fiesta Bowl Queen 1978-79, while she was a student at Mesa Community College, then for Miss Arizona USA 1980. To her family’s puzzlement, she agreed to try – and won both titles.

In the Miss USA contest, she was named first runner-up, despite tripping in the borrowed bridesmaid’s dress she wore for the evening-gown competition and landing on the floor in view of host Bob Barker. The memory brings giggles today. She’s still the girl who does uncool things, picks herself up and carries on.

When pageant winner Shawn Weatherly was crowned Miss Universe, Jineane became Miss USA 1980, the first Arizonan to hold the national title. The two were roommates in New York City, their base for contest-related duties for a year.

Although she shared her family’s reservations about the potential shallowness of beauty pageants, “I loved traveling and meeting people,” Jineane says.

In the early 1980s, she exchanged her Miss USA tiara for a white apron to put her meat-cutter certification to the test, supporting herself as a Vons supermarket butcher in Southern California and pursuing acting jobs.

She landed a number of roles, including “the Blonde” in an episode of the Pierce Brosnan series “Remington Steele” and Honey in “More Than Murder,” a Mickey Spillane TV movie starring Stacy Keach. And director-choreographer Bob Fosse called her back after an initial audition to discuss playing Dorothy Stratten in the biographical 1983 movie “Star 80.”

Because their reigns coincided, Jineane had met the Playboy Playmate of the Year during a handful of media interviews, months before Stratten was murdered by her husband. The Gilbert farm girl took herself out of the running for the role when she learned nude scenes were required.

Before long, missing her family and her horses, Jineane decided acting was not for her.

The decision brought her back to the Valley and sparked a career of more than two decades in TV news. Except for a few years each at Channel 3 (KTVK), when the Phoenix station was an ABC affiliate, and at a station in Tampa, that time was spent with NBC affiliate KPNX (Channel 12), also in Phoenix.

From 1991 until 2007, when she resigned to move to Pinetop-Lakeside with her husband and sons, Channel 12 viewers came to know her as the not-always-perfectly-turned-out but unfailingly warm-hearted co-anchor and host for morning, midday and evening news shows, and for her work on “Suns Jam Session.”

Her involvement in the latter show inspired speculation about a romance between the then-divorced Jineane and Phoenix Suns guard Dan Majerle. There was not a single date, she says.

Viewers who watched her exclaim on the air, “Oh, dear Lord!” when she saw the first images of the 9/11 attacks, who shed tears over her stories about ordinary people overcoming adversity, who heard her snort as she tried to hold back laughter during on-the-air mishaps – they felt that they knew her well.

Some seemed to believe that gave them permission to criticize her when she began to struggle publicly with her weight.

“TV is not much of a business for large-scale people,” she says. “I’m 5-foot-9. I’ve never been an itty-bitty person.”

But when she started in TV, she was a Size 6. Then came her 30s and, at age 34, the birth of her first son. Son No. 2 arrived about a year later. Adding to the challenge, her metabolism began to slow.

Viewers weren’t the only ones to notice and comment on the changes in her appearance. A colleague, no longer at the station, said he didn’t understand why she couldn’t lose weight, making her wonder whether her research and storytelling skills mattered at all.

It didn’t help that Jineane, a Size 14 at her largest and about 50 pounds overweight, worked for a while beside the always-supportive-but-Size-2 Lin Sue Cooney, still a weeknight anchor for 12 News. Big shoulder pads in women’s clothing were popular at the time, and a diplomatic viewer decided to blame the fad.

“If you got rid of the shoulder pads,” Jineane remembers the woman telling her, “you and Lin Sue would look more like the same size.”

The graciously offered suggestion was not the answer, of course. As Jineane’s weight increased, her energy lagged. She was taking three medicines for high blood pressure, and her knees ached. But it was not for lack of trying that the pounds and related health concerns proved impossible to shake.

As part of her job, she learned about the latest diets and exercise regimens.

“I would try anything new that came along,” she says. Hundreds, it seemed, so many she can’t remember the names of all the food and workout programs she attempted. “They were temporary fixes. I wasted so much time and felt so much guilt thinking about diet and exercise. Which diet should I try? Should I start tomorrow? What should I do now that it’s not helping me?”

Surgical solution

Four years ago, she turned to physician Terry Simpson of Phoenix, who performed laparoscopic gastric banding surgery to help her lose weight. The Lap-Band, creating a small pouch at the upper part of the stomach, makes people feel full with smaller amounts of food.

Before the surgery, Jineane could down two Big Macs in a sitting. Now she eats one-fourth of one – or four bites of good-quality steak and a salad of dark greens – and feels as if she has eaten a Thanksgiving dinner.

Over time, she dropped about 50 pounds, a loss she maintains. Even going on a cruise with her husband didn’t take her far off course.

The procedure is just a tool, though, Jineane warns prospective patients. They can “beat” the Lap-Band unless they do their part, and that includes staying away from puddings and high-calorie coffee drinks.

“Liquid calories just pass right through the Lap-Band,” allowing the pounds to return, she says.

Other than sugary, fat-laden liquids, though, she doesn’t deprive herself, taking just a couple of bites of whatever she’s craving. She still enjoys cooking. Keeping up with her businesses and family – including husband Kerry’s four daughters and four lively grandkids – helps her stay physically fit, too.

Blood-pressure medicine is a thing of the past. So are the achy knees. She rides horses when she’s in Pinetop-Lakeside and cleans the pool in Mesa.

When people recognize Jineane these days, they once again see the healthy young beauty queen turned TV news anchor. And to those who know her as Jina, she’s still the healthy farm girl, American flag in hand and hair flying as she rides a horse at top speed around the arena to open the Gilbert rodeo.

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