TV MISS AMERICA 13

The 98th Miss America competition was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Sept. 9. Behind the scenes of Miss America 2.0, turmoil hinged on the elimination of swimsuits, a lack of transparency in decision making, and the pressure to find relevance for a nearly 100-year-old institution in a very particular cultural moment.

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — If you tuned into the Miss America pageant on Sunday night, you may have noticed a few changes.

For starters, this year’s event was called a “competition,” not a “pageant.” The participants were “candidates” — interviewing for the job of Miss America — not “contestants.” There was no runway this year, and the word “Miss” had been stripped from the sashes, though each still had a little pocket that could conceal a lipstick tube.

And, of course, in the wake of #MeToo, there were no swimsuits.

This was the debut of the newer, socially aware Miss America — or “Miss America 2.0,” as it has been rebranded by its new chairwoman, Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor and Miss America 1989. This year’s candidates, as the show’s televised introduction explained, were “diverse and inclusive,” “empowered,” “leaders” and “beautiful — inside and out.”

The group included a neuroscience graduate from Harvard and a software developer for Microsoft whose platform was women in science, technology, engineering and math. Candidates spoke about surviving cancer, growing up with incarcerated parents and their undergraduate degrees in women’s studies. They addressed domestic violence, mental health and sexual assault.

Miss Michigan introduced herself by declaring: “From the state with 84 percent of the U.S. fresh water but none for its residents to drink, I am Miss Michigan, Emily Sioma.”

Four of the five finalists, including the winner, Nia Imani Franklin of New York, were women of color.

But what may not have been visible to those watching were the growing pains of Miss America 2.0. It’s “kind of a civil war,” said Kirsten Haglund, the 2008 winner. Behind the scenes, state and local volunteers plotted a coup against Carlson, and the reigning Miss America blasted her on the “Today” show.

Much of the turmoil hinges on the elimination of swimsuits, a lack of transparency in decision-making, and the pressure to find relevance for a nearly 100-year-old institution in a very particular cultural moment. As Haglund put it: “Miss America is never going to go back to the 1950s era of the silver screen. But what can it be for the 21st century?”

A History of Protest

Miss America has long promoted itself as more than a beauty pageant, claiming — somewhat dubiously — to be the largest provider of scholarship money to young women in the country.

But it has also long been the subject of mockery and scorn, a reminder that we still live in a world where women are judged on their bodies and required to have — as John Oliver once put it — a “mint-condition uterus.” (As recently as 2014, candidates had to sign a contract declaring they had never been pregnant. The 2018 rulebook still required women to declare that they had never been married and were not pregnant and did not intend to become pregnant during their year of service.)

Over the years, the century-old organization has been opposed by religious groups and women’s rights activists. It has suffered internal dissent — in 1950, pageant winner Yolande Betbeze refused to pose in a swimsuit during her reign — and external pressures.

It endured a minor feminist revolt, when 50 years ago on the boardwalk, feminist activists protested the pageant by throwing bras, girdles, false eyelashes and other “instruments of female torture” into a trash can labeled “Freedom.” (The protesters had planned to set the can on fire but could not get the right permits. So no bras were burned that day, but the act of “bra burning” was born.)

Later, there was that year the producers attempted to rebrand the competition as a reality show; the era that the show moved to Las Vegas (and cable); and the scandal of 1984, when Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America, was stripped of her crown after nude photographs of her appeared in Penthouse (the Miss America organization later apologized).

More recently, viewership has dipped, as has the number of women enrolled as candidates. Claims of scholarship donations have been questioned and debunked.

“Since the late ‘80s, Miss America has been adjusting its image to maintain relevance and keep viewership,” said Margot Mifflin, an English professor at the City University of New York who is writing a cultural history of the pageant. “Part of that is about the culture around it. At some point people didn’t need to see scantily clad ladies on the stage anymore — they could see it on their computers.”

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The audience turnout has certainly been declining.

This year program staff members handed out flyers to passers-by on the boardwalk, offering free tickets to fill up empty seats. “All you need to do is get dressed up, really nice, and show up to Boardwalk Hall,” the flyer read. Production staff members said they pass these out every year, but this time, they had a reconfigured arena with fewer seats and they still had to give up more free seats.

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Maybe the usual crowds were turned off by the drama.

In December, it was revealed that Sam Haskell, the CEO, had sent vicious and lewd emails about former competitors, a move that only reinforced the perception of Miss America as retrograde and sexist.

Carlson, who had become a leading figure in the #MeToo movement after her sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox, seemed like a perfect replacement — one who would help reform the pageant’s image.

“She seemed like a unanimous win,” said Crystal Lee, a Miss America 2014 runner-up. “We saw her as a maverick, and a leader.”

But the organization has been plagued by internal turmoil since Carlson was instated. In July, a letter signed by 22 state representatives called for the board to resign, alleging “obfuscation and fear-based governance.” Then in August, Miss America 2018, Cara Mund, published an open letter accusing Carlson of “workplace bullying.” (An independent review determined that “none of the information gathered” indicated that Mund was “treated in a way which would be considered inappropriate either in a typical business setting or in this particular work context.”)

In the week leading up to this year’s pageant, the Press of Atlantic City reported that 5-foot-tall posters of Carlson were hung around town, with giant letters brandishing her “So Fake.” A blue sash with the words “Gretchen Sucks” was placed on the statue of Miss America perched outside Boardwalk Hall. (A political street art group took credit for the stunt.)

And on Saturday, the day before the pageant, in perhaps the greatest show of revolt, more than 50 state leaders met privately in a hotel conference room to voice discontent with Carlson, and discuss legal action.

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Carlson declined to be interviewed for this article and remained largely out of sight for most of the week leading up to Miss America. She was holed up in the organization’s corporate office, a small windowless space in the back of the stadium. (“It’s the safest place to be in a hurricane,” said Ida Jones, a longtime volunteer.)

“I keep saying to myself, OK, what bomb is going to come today,” said Bill Haggerty, a state leader from New Hampshire who has been involved in the organization for 50 years, and attended the meeting of state leaders. “I’ve heard online that a lot of people didn’t want to come this year because they just didn’t want to be involved in the drama.”

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Suzette Charles, an actress and performer from New Jersey who was Miss America 1984, said, “It’s a mess. It feels like every day, it’s another thing. I keep thinking to myself, ‘Is this a movie?’”

‘This Is Miss America 2.0’

It is not a movie, but it is a show.

And so at roughly the same time that meeting was taking place, the contestants were suiting up for the annual Show Us Your Shoes Parade, where the women ride on the tops of old convertibles along the boardwalk, decked out in elaborate costumes meant to honor their home state. (The tradition, Karen Nocella, Miss America’s director of operations, said with a laugh, comes from the catcalls the men used to shout at the women — “Show us your shoes!”— which was code for: “Let us see your legs!”)

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This year, Miss Vermont’s costume evoked her state’s maple leaves and Miss Alabama’s outfit was NASA-themed. Miss Georgia had Coca-Cola bottles on her shoes and Miss Mississippi festooned hers with hot air balloons.

The women’s costumes did not count toward their competitive score. Instead, the candidates were judged on their 20-second answers to two interview questions, 8-second descriptions of their social and political platforms, and their 90-second talent performances.

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This year, the talents included singing, clogging, piano, ventriloquism (Miss Texas and two puppets had prepared a song by Johnny Cash), three monologues — including one by Nebraska’s Jessica Shultis about her cancer diagnosis — a choreographed dance “with a ghost” and speed painting by Delaware’s Joanna Wicks, a high school art teacher, who managed to draw a rendition of Wonder Woman upside down, while swaying to Demi Lovato’s “Confident.” Many of these performances, however, did not make it into the two-hour television special.

During the interview portion, Bridget Oei, a half-Irish, half-Chinese pre-med environmental chemistry graduate from Connecticut, was asked how she would advise women who want to compete but do not have a fine arts background. It was a chance to address some of the criticism that the competition leaves out those with talents that are not usually performed in a gown onstage, like sports or coding.

“We are heading into Miss America 2.0.,” Oei said. “We have opportunity to showcase who women are, onstage and off.”

During the preliminary competition, when asked to describe the “biggest issue facing our country today,” Miss West Virginia, who is working toward a master’s degree in social work, replied that it was “Donald Trump.”

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Immigrants, Miss Hawaii said, “are the basis of our country.”

And protests by NFL players, said Miss Virginia, who won the interview portion of her preliminary competition, are not about kneeling — they are about police brutality.

As for swimsuits: After the show, the new Miss America, Franklin, said she was glad she did not have to shed her clothes to win a $50,000 scholarship.

The women, she said, are “more than just that.”

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