Miss America has undergone a series of changes in the last year intended to transform the annual competition from a beauty pageant to a platform for empowering young women in the #MeToo era.
Led by Gretchen Carlson, herself a prominent voice of the movement and a former Miss America, the organization rebranded as Miss America 2.0, replacing the swimsuit and evening gown competitions with more onstage interviews.
The move was intended to shift the focus from participants’ appearances to their achievements and goals, in line with the bigger aims of #MeToo. But many people associated with the Miss America Organization say that behind the glamour and empowering messages lie discord and division.
Some former Miss Americas and those involved in local and state-level competitions say the strife threatens the 97-year-old brand, from the annual telecast to the nonprofit that distributes scholarships to women across the country.
Organizers hope most of the drama will be hidden from viewers as they watch a new Miss America be crowned on Sunday evening. A spokesman for the Miss America Organization called the controversy a “circus side show” that detracts attention from this year’s 51 contestants.
Here’s a rundown of the drama unfolding behind the scenes:
Email scandal creates leadership vacuum
The first shakeup came in late December. Huffington Post revealed that CEO Sam Haskell mocked competitors with misogynistic language in organization emails. Haskell apologized for the “mistake of words,” but called the HuffPo article “dishonest, deceptive and despicable.” Dozens of former Miss Americas, including Carlson, called for him and the rest of leadership to resign. Shortly after, he resigned along with President Josh Randle and board of directors Chair Lynn Weidner.
In conversations among former Miss Americas, Carlson, a past board member, emerged as one of the top candidates for chair while the search continued for president and CEO. The former Fox News anchor was riding a publicity wave from her new book, which addressed fallout from her sexual harassment lawsuit against the network’s CEO. Roger Ailes resigned in July 2016 as more women came forward with similar allegations. The network reached a $20 million settlement with Carlson and apologized to her.
There was talk of Carlson serving as one of two interim co-chairs, according to emails reviewed by CNN. But in a call with the board, Carlson presented herself as the sole choice, said Miss America 1966 Deborah Berge, one of the board members who appointed her in December. Berge says she and others were eager to save an organization they loved and readily appointed her.
“I thought she was a perfect choice because she has had a wonderful career, she’s a very public figure and she must have a lot of contacts that would be beneficial,” Berge said. “I had no second thoughts when she came to the board and said, ‘You need to appoint me.’”
When the organization announced Carlson’s appointment, there was no mention of a co-chair or that the role was temporary. The organization told CNN that a majority of “formers” nominated Carlson for the role, and there was no talk among those people about a co-chair, spokesman Karl Nilsson said.
Allegations of a ‘toxic’ boardroom
Carlson took on the volunteer role with some “hesitancy and trepidation,” Nilsson said. But in media appearances she maintained an enthusiastic and hopeful outlook. The organization was struggling financially and in the midst of an identity crisis, but Carlson pledged to work with all Miss America stakeholders to find a path forward.
Two former state titleholders joined the board in February, followed in May by Regina Hopper as president and CEO and Florida assistant attorney general Marjorie Vincent-Tripp, also a former Miss America, as chair of the Miss America Foundation’s board of trustees.
The organization heralded the appointment of its first all-female leadership team as ushering in “a new era of progressiveness, inclusiveness and empowerment.” By the end of July, most of those people had left, having either resigned voluntarily or involuntarily, depending on whom you ask.
Some of the members became trustees, which meant they had a fiduciary responsibility to tens of thousands of stakeholders across the country, many of them volunteers who work year-round putting on local pageants.
Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle, now an actress and singer who’s president of the Actors’ Equity union, said she left the board to escape a “toxic” environment. She felt that she and others were expected to act as a “rubber-stamp board” for ideas that burnished Carlson’s personal brand rather than the organization, she said.
“I felt that our good-faith attempts to practice oversight were characterized as destructive, hostile and/or unappreciative of other people’s hard work and long hours. Ultimately, I believed that I was not going to be able to fulfill my legal fiduciary duty in the current climate, for which any Trustee can be held personally liable,” she said in a letter dated June 27 to members of the Miss America Organization. The letter was cosigned by three other members who left.
One of them, Miss North Carolina 1991 Jennifer Vaden Barth, recalls one meeting when Carlson “yelled at and berated” the board. “That is when I realized that I would never be able to lend the best of my skillsets to the organization. Instead, I was going to have to speak out about the lack of transparency, integrity and good governance,” she said.
The organization’s spokesman, speaking on behalf of Carlson, called the allegations in the letters “false and slanderous.” He declined to comment further, saying it would legitimize “disgruntled voices.”
In July, Page Six reported that remaining board members said Shindle and another former trustee opposed Carlson as chair, then “maintained an adversarial tone that permeated every discussion and decision.”
Bathing suit controversy
The departures came less than three weeks after Carlson announced that the swimsuit competition was no more. Many welcomed the decision as a meaningful step away from the objectification of women. But the change fomented division within Miss America’s ranks.
According to Shindle and Barth, the board’s decision to end swimsuit was not unanimous, despite the Miss America Organization’s claims to the contrary. They say Carlson presented it as a binary choice: drop swimsuit or they would lose the ABC telecast. The Miss America Organization told CNN that dropping swimsuit was not a prerequisite for telecast and that Carlson did not present it as such.
Some former contestants said the chance to show off their hard-earned physiques was part of Miss America’s appeal. Miss America began as a swimsuit competition in 1921 when it was considered liberating to wear swimsuits. The allure still holds for some who saw it as a celebration of femininity and beauty.
“There has to be a very realistic conversation about what women are really looking for in the Miss America pageant,” said Miss California 2013 Crystal Lee, the first-runner up to Miss America 2014.
Miss America is not the only way to earn scholarship money or show off talent, she said. Like any exclusive club, people aspire to its ranks because of what its members represent: intelligent and ambitious well-rounded women, each of whom is comfortable in her skin. But, if getting rid of swimsuit makes the competition more appealing to a broader range of candidates, Lee says she’s for it.
Others objected to Carlson’s framing of the news. “We are no longer a pageant. Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent and empowerment” Carlson said in a statement.
Miss America 1992 Carolyn Sapp Daniels objects to the suggestion that she was any less driven for participating in swimsuit. As Miss America, she worked on initiatives with the State Department, the Department of Education and visited dozens of schools and state houses, Daniels said.
“We’ve been breaking glass ceilings for 30-plus years. We have nothing to be ashamed of,” Daniels said. “We don’t need to appeal to everybody, just the women who choose to participate.”
In a July talk at the National Press Club, Carlson said that although she identifies with #MeToo, her work for Miss America is a separate but parallel path. But, to Daniels, the messaging is an example of Carlson using Miss America to elevate her brand and align it with the bigger movement.
“I don’t take away from her movement, but her movement is not Miss America’s movement,” she said. “Miss America is 51 incredible women with their own platforms. … Miss America is not #MeToo.”
Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap calls the swimsuit issue a distraction from concerns among Miss America stakeholders of mismanagement and financial disarray. Getting rid of swimsuit could have been a chance to create new sponsorships with fitness and apparel brands, she said.
“Swimsuit is a diversion from the pits of hell to get people excited,” she said. “You can love it or hate it but let’s talk about the finances because there’s nothing sexier than a solid bank account.”
Calls for resignations begin
Dissent culminated in July with a letter from 22 state executive directors calling for Carlson, Hopper and the remaining trustees to resign. The departures of four trustees underscored “grave concerns” about the direction of the organization and its financial viability, the letter said.
“We find ourselves needing to use our own voices of leadership to express our profound disappointment regarding what, in our view, is the failed leadership of the entire MAO Board led by Ms. Gretchen Carlson as its chair and Ms. Regina Hopper as its president and CEO,” the letter said.
“We were promised transparency, competence and adherence to best practices and good governance. The current trustees and identified staff members have both individually and collectively failed to deliver on those promises and commitments. In our opinion, their leadership has demonstrated that ‘Miss America 2.0’ is simply a new title for the same old tactics of obfuscation and fear-based governance.”
Another open letter, signed by 23 former Miss Americas so far, also called for their resignations. The letter became an online petition, accusing the leadership of demeaning women, breaching their trust and harming the brand. So far, more than 22,000 people have signed.
In response, another group of former Miss Americas stepped up to defend Carlson and the remaining board for “working tirelessly to move our program forward.”
“We hope that the voices of our majority can and will be heard,” reads a letter provided to The Press of Atlantic City, signed by 30 former Miss America winners.
Hopper told The Press of Atlantic City in July that the upheaval was a part of the growing pains of an evolving organization.
“In any transition, there are are always those who disagree with or find it hard to accept change. We welcome those who want to move forward and be a part of a revitalized program dedicated to providing scholarships and opportunities to all young women,” she said.
Allegations from Miss America go public
The turmoil came to a head in a scathing letter from current Miss America Cara Mund, who accused Carlson and Hopper of marginalizing her so Carlson could be the face of Miss America.
“Our chair and CEO have systematically silenced me, reduced me, marginalized me, and essentially erased me in my role as Miss America in subtle and not-so-subtle ways on a daily basis. After a while, the patterns have clearly emerged, and the sheer accumulation of the disrespect, passive-aggressive behavior, belittlement and outright exclusion has taken a serious toll,” Mund said in a letter to former Miss Americas. Someone published the letter on a website connected to the Miss America community and it spread, her lawyer said.
“The rhetoric about empowering women, and openness and transparency, is great; however, the reality is quite different. I am living that difference. To stay silent is to give away my power and the power of the women who will follow me. I am not comfortable with any of us being controlled, manipulated, silenced, or bullied.”
The alleged behavior goes against what Miss America stands for, said Heather Whitestone McCallum, Miss America 1995.
“Miss America is the face of Miss America, and she deserves to be treated with respect,” she said. “I feel terrible for Cara and I feel responsible for having supported Gretchen.”
Carlson denied Mund’s allegations in a statement on Twitter, saying she was “saddened beyond words.” She addressed Mund directly, saying that she had never “bullied or silenced” her, and said the allegations had already cost them scholarship money.
“You are at the epicenter of a very historic moment for women. Over the past two years, our country has undergone a seismic shift in how professional women are depicted and treated. Cara, you have the opportunity to be at the forefront of real, positive change for young women across the country. I am so hopeful you’ll be a part of that.”
The Miss America Organization also denied Mund’s allegations: “The Miss America Organization supports Cara. It is disappointing that she chose to air her grievances publicly not privately. Her letter contains mischaracterizations and many unfounded accusations.”
But for some in the organization, the damage is already done, and the calls for Carlson’s resignation continue.