In early 1946, Van Doren began working as an usher at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The following year, she had a bit part on an early television series. She sang with Ted Fio Rito's band and entered several beauty contests. At age 17, she eloped to Santa Barbara, California with Jack Newman, but because of his abusive nature the marriage was quickly dissolved. In the summer of 1949, at age 18, she won the titles Miss Eight Ball and Miss Palm Springs. She was engaged to heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, but broke the engagement upon signing a contract with Universal Studios.
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