ATLANTIC CITY — On Sunday night, 51 candidates will compete to become Miss America 2019, simultaneously taking on a new mission, breaking from the past and trying to erase memories of a year that’s been marked by controversy.
This isn’t the first time leadership changes and controversy have rocked the organization, and it has come back before. Can it rebound again?
“It’s a complicated issue,” said Vicki Gold Levi, an Atlantic City historian and Miss America judge in the 1990s. “My biggest concern is for the women competing — that they not feel compromised or confused.”
Gold Levi said whether the competition continues comes down to a myriad of factors: TV ratings, state organizations and director support and how the competition adapts to the changes.
Months of controversy followed a December scandal that exposed sexist and vulgar emails sent by former CEO Sam Haskell. Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson was selected board chairwoman and helped usher in the “Miss America 2.0” rebranding with new President/CEO Regina Hopper, who competed for Miss America in 1983.
First to go was the swimsuit competition, a so-called “Achilles heel” of the competition since the women’s rights movement. The Miss America Organization also announced a modified eveningwear category, now dubbed “red carpet,” and brought in a new mission statement.
The changes have been met with some backlash. While many applauded the end of something they viewed as outdated and sexist, others saw the swimsuit competition as a testament to physical fitness and tradition, not sexual objectivity. Thousands of state and local pageant volunteers have called for the top two leaders to resign, and last month, Miss America 2018 Cara Mund alleged she had been sidelined and bullied by leadership.
Carlson spoke as the 51 candidates arrived in the city last week for the first swimsuit-less Miss America Competition. She cited changes to the competition over the past several decades, including the addition of talent and a focus on scholarships.
“It’s important to talk about history. When this organization started in 1921, it was women in bathing suits out on the Boardwalk,” said Carlson, Miss America 1989. “But what was significant was that that was radical for that time.”
“And here we are today,” she said.
Sometime Thursday, an anti-political correctness street-art group calling itself Faction 1776 hung and pasted signs around the city of Carlson above the title “So Fake,” citing Mund’s bullying claims.
Protests notwithstanding, Oscar Holmes, a professor of management at Rutgers University-Camden, said it was a logical decision for the organization to make public changes to the competition and to take a stance against the objectification of women.
The constant media presence isn’t always a bad thing — it could be an opportunity to find more sponsors and supporters.
“Crisis can be bad, and an opportunity,” Holmes said. “A crisis can catapult it into a new era. Miss America can redefine itself. Many companies get even better post-crisis.”
While dissent rose among volunteers, Holmes said it’s important for leadership to not waiver in its decisions.
“In terms of the leadership, they have to double down on why this was an important move, why this is important for their relevance,” Holmes said.
Joy A. Jones, assistant professor of business studies at Stockton University and a competitor for Miss Kentucky in the 1990s, said the organization has had issues distinguishing between identity and image — the visual appearance vs. how it is perceived by the public.
“The initial identity of Miss America was entertainment for viewers, whether on the Boardwalk or at home. In the ’90s, they (MAO) lost a bit of focus, trying to be something entertaining while offering something to women,” she said.
Jones said the best thing a national organization in strife like Miss America can do is start with a branding plan to fix its identity, then work with state and local volunteers.
“When people show up at Boardwalk Hall, they’re either there supporting their candidate, or they are there for a show. By taking away areas of competition, you might be taking away what the viewer wanted to see,” Jones said.
This year isn’t the first time the Miss America leadership and community of pageant volunteers have clashed over rule changes and leadership style.
At the turn of this century, Miss America CEO Robert Beck began a feud with state pageant officials when he tried to change a long-standing rule that would allow contestants to compete who had been married but later divorced.
The next appointed CEO, Robert Renniesen, also had a quick exit from Miss America.
Renniesen quit after the parents of Miss America 2002 Katie Harmon complained about their daughter’s treatment during her year of service, according to Press archives.
In 2003, Both Renniesen and Beck sued the organization for breach of contract and wrongful termination. Renniesen was granted a summary judgment of $100,000, plus the MAO was issued to pay his legal fees totaling $18,374. Beck received a settlement of $79,675.
Sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, a professor at Brown University who taught the class Beauty Pageants and American Society — and who taught Mund — said it was “inevitable” the competition would evolve. But whether it will stay televised is a different question.
“I don’t think that Miss America will ever completely die,” she said. “Whether it’s on TV or on network TV is highly questionable.”
When the initial scandal hit the organization, Gold Levi said she was sad to see another controversy for the Atlantic City staple.
“I would love to see Miss America go at least to its 100th,” she said. “Will Miss America stay? I hope so. I hope it has a life after this.”