ATLANTIC CITY — With three women in top leadership roles for the first time in the Miss America Organization in nearly a century, it’s only natural to wonder how the Sept. 9 event might change.
“I think there needs to be less of an emphasis on the physical aspects of the pageant and more emphasis on the scholarships and platforms,” said Lisa Johnson, president of Lisa Johnson Communications in Linwood. “You can call it the fitness competition, but they’re still up there in high heels and a swimsuit. It’s not just changing the language, but changing the model of the competition.”
The organization announced this week the competition is returning Sept. 9 to Boardwalk Hall, but how the structure of the pageant will change from previous years is still unknown. The organization says to “stay tuned” for changes.
“I would hope a change would take place,” said Johanna R. Johnson, one of the 15 founding members of the Women’s Leadership Council at Stockton University. “The whole purpose of Miss America was to give women opportunities with scholarship, right? Maybe they will start to think of Miss America as the ‘all-American girl’ not for her looks, but what she can offer the world.”
Johanna Johnson has been the chair of the Stockton University Foundation since 2017. She developed the Women’s Leadership Council to help young women through scholarship, mentoring and philanthropy, not unlike the stated mission of the Miss America Organization.
“Research has shown that women are interested in giving, and giving in a way to see an impact — especially when it comes to education,” she said.
Johnson said the Women’s Leadership Council is developing its bylaws and guiding principles to becoming a mentorship program, as well as developing funding for a scholarship. While she hasn’t kept up with the entire story of the change in leadership with Miss America, she does support the women in leadership and believes there will be changes.
Last week, Miss Arkansas 1983 Regina Hopper was announced as president and CEO of the Miss America Organization, joining Miss America 1989 Gretchen Carlson, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, in running the organization. Miss America 1991 Marjorie Vincent-Tripp was named as chairwoman of the Miss America Foundation, which manages the academic scholarships.
“It’s a great start and I think the Miss America Organization needed to do something radical,” Lisa Johnson said.
Miss America Organization CEO Sam Haskell, President Josh Randle and board of directors Chairwoman Lynn Weidner resigned in 2017 after a report revealed emails from them and other employees disparaging pageant contestants, according to statements issued by the interim chairman of the organization’s board of directors.
Lisa Johnson, who went from a career as a broadcast journalist to a public relations executive with a Las Vegas casino and creating her own company, said she, like many other women business leaders, experienced workplace harassment at the hands of men and women.
“It’s not just about placing women in leadership roles, but making sure everyone is kind and respectful. It’s something both sexes need to come to understand,” she said.
Lisa Johnson grew up in Atlantic City watching the Miss America Competition, and has partnered with the organization for client events. She noted Miss America competitors often have impressive education and business skills, as well as athleticism, which has been exhibited during the Linwood Country Club’s annual Miss America golf outing event during the week of the competition. The country club is one of Johnson’s clients.
Claudia Ratzlaff, CEO of the Women’s Center in Linwood, said the nonprofit has been partnering with the “new Miss America pageant” in an attempt to continue to empower women, which is a big part of the center’s mission.
Recently Ratzlaff spoke to a group of Atlantic City High School students, along with Miss America 2018 Cara Mund.
When Ratzlaff heard Carlson was going to be the leader, she reached out to extend the partnership, thinking Carlson would be a great role model for women.
Carlson, a former Fox News anchor, became a prominent voice against workplace sexual harassment when she filed a lawsuit against Fox Chairman Roger Ailes, who later departed his job in July 2016.
“The fact that Ms. Carlson is involved is a definite positive change since the whole emailing fiasco, which just really exposed an underneath that is all too common in a lot of areas for professional women and women trying to get ahead,” Ratzlaff said.
Ratzlaff said Carlson fought the #MeToo movement on her own front and is setting a new example.
She said the competition is a staple in the community and what it provides for women, including empowerment and scholarships, is not something the community should look away from.
“When there were no opportunities for women, this was in play,” she said.
With the announcements over the past few weeks, New Jersey Casino Control Commissioner Alisa Cooper said it shows more changes will likely emerge, and she looks forward to the decisions the new leaders make.
Cooper, who was born and grew up in Atlantic City, said she has noticed the competition has “adapted to the times” over the years. Now she’s seeing it become more contemporary and incorporate more year-round involvement in the community.
She mentioned the scholarship announced earlier this week.
“If we look at 2018 and with the new leadership, I have seen much more involvement in Atlantic City, Atlantic County,” she said.
“I’ve seen their eagerness to give back to the community.”
The return of the competition is an added bonus for the city that already has a busy summer slate, Cooper said.
“The Miss America pageant was like a continuation of the summer — it was something we looked forward to,” she said. “Every September, this was Atlantic City.”