There She Is, Miss America 2.0
“It is NOT a beauty pageant! It is a scholarship program!” is the famous line about a fictional competition in the movie Miss Congeniality. But major changes announced to the annual crowning of Miss America are real, right down to not calling it a pageant, with the aim being more competition and less beauty emphasis.
For nearly a century, Miss America contestants have strutted onstage and struck poses in increasingly skimpy swimsuits, in a controversial pageant tradition that organizers long defended as a gauge of the women’s physical fitness.
But the bikini has been banished. The Miss America Organization, confronting a harassment scandal and trying to find its place in the #MeToo era, announced on Tuesday that it would scrap the swimsuit portion, starting with its next pageant in September.
“We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance,” Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor who is now the organization’s chairwoman, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “We want more women to know that they are welcome in this organization.”
That major change in the organization now headed by Gretchen Carlson comes after her own very public struggle with sexual harassment, and the Miss America organizations own scandals:
In addition to being crowned Miss America in 1989, Carlson has more recently been an outspoken advocate for victims of sexual harassment and a champion of the #MeToo movement. In 2016, she settled a lawsuit against former Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, who stepped down from his role after mounting pressure from additional employees with similar accusations.
“I could have never expected what would happen when I sued my former employer at Fox News for sexual harassment 22 months ago, but look what has happened,” she said. “Thousands of women have been inspired to know that they can stand up and speak up and their voices will be heard.”
Carlson added, “If I’ve been a beacon of hope to any woman in that process, it has been worth it.”
The sweeping changes to Miss America aim to help the organization be more inclusive and empowering for all women. Carlson also said that she hopes the revamped competition will resonate more with young people.
“We are now open, inclusive and transparent and I want to inspire thousands of young people across this country to come and be a part of our program,” she said. “We want you and we want to celebrate your accomplishments and your talents and then we want to hand you scholarships.”
The Miss America organization courted controversy earlier this year when internal emails were released from the group’s former CEO Sam Haskell. In the leaked emails, Haskell, who later resigned, and others were insulting the appearance, intellect and personal lives of former pageant winners, including Carlson.
Carlson is now part of an all-female leadership team at Miss America.
“This is a new beginning and change can sometimes be difficult but I know a lot about change,” she said. “My life has worked in mysterious ways. I never thought I’d be the chairwoman of the Miss America Organization, but here I am and we’re moving it forward and we’re evolving in this cultural revolution.”
As for the decision to scrap the swimsuit competition, Carlson was more blunt:
“We are no longer a pageant; we are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance,” Carlson told GMA’s Amy Robach. “That means we will no longer have a swimsuit competition.”
Carlson said the evening-gown portion of the program will also be revamped. “We’re no longer judging women when they come out in their chosen attire — their evening wear, whatever they choose to do. It’s gonna be what comes out of their mouth that we’re interested in, when they talk about their social impact initiatives.”
Carlson, who was awarded the Miss America crown in 1989, said this was a board decision. She acknowledged “change can sometimes be difficult,” but was excited for the competition to be “evolving in this cultural revolution.”
The balancing act of empowering women while also showcasing them to a mass audience live on TV is not a new conundrum:
Over the decades, the Miss America Organization struggled to reconcile its stated mission — empowering women and handing out millions of dollars in scholarships — while requiring contestants to wear revealing attire and high heels for a leering television audience. In the early 1990s, the organization acknowledged the controversy over the swimsuit portion and asked viewers to vote on whether to keep it.
“We are not stupid,” Leonard Horn, the organization’s chief executive, said in 1993. “We are very sensitive to the fact that the swimsuit competition has always been our Achilles’ heel. The swimsuit competition has been controversial since the early 1920s, but it’s been retained because the majority of the people like it.”
The Miss America winner in 1993, Leanza Cornett, said at the time that the swimsuits should be scrapped. But another unscientific poll by the organization in 1995 found that two-thirds of respondents wanted it to stay.
Last year, 5.6 million viewers watched “The Miss America Competition” on ABC, down 10 percent from 6.2 million in 2016 and seven million in 2015. But many live shows have experienced similar ratings declines, including “Sunday Night Football,” the Olympics, the Oscars and the Grammys.
Ms. Carlson said on Tuesday that viewers’ opinions had changed. The swimsuit portion of the competition was “not a highly rated part,” she said. “People actually like the talent part of the competition,” she said.
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