When Sunday night’s Miss America 2019 Pageant unfurls, live from Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, it’s going to be a far messier affair than it started out as 98 years ago. It’s not even really going to be called a pageant anymore, but rather a competition. Why? Read on.
The Miss America Pageant began in 1920, along the sands of AC, as a “fall frolic” bathing beauty revue that would lengthen the time (and tourist dollars) of the Labor Day holiday for the town’s merchants. Simple, but sexist, and for years following that auspicious start, women from across the nation, ages 17 to 25, wore swimsuits and smiled widely — even through the late ’60s rise of feminism and the civil rights movement — for the cameras and the judges.
Fast-forward to this week in AC, and Wednesday’s first night of preliminaries in this, the new, swimsuit-less, evening-gown-less Miss America competition, a reconstituted #MeToo-focused pageant shaped by the circumstance of its recently-elected chairwoman Gretchen Carlson.
Though first known for being crowned Miss America in 1989, and a hosting run on Fox News, Carlson shot to activist fame when – in 2016 – her contract expired from Fox News and she filed a lawsuit against then-Fox News CEO and chairman Roger Ailes claiming sexual harassment. 21st Century Fox Corporation (the parent company of Fox News), settled the lawsuit for $20 million, and Carlson became an early face of #MeToo’s burgeoning movement.
Those two worlds collided when one-time pageant chairman Sam Haskell resigned in December 2017 due to disparaging, sexist remarks about former Miss Americas in vile emails and Carlson was crowned again, this time as the pageant’s boss.
What does Carlson get for being chairwoman? Along with posters of her likeness with the words “So Fake” hanging from street lights outside Boardwalk Hall in derision of her swimwear-less decision, there is an overall feeling that anointing her as Miss America’s chairwoman was a bad move. And not just because Carlson supposedly bullied and mentally abused the current titleholder, Miss America 2018, Cara Mund. (In an open letter, Mund claimed organization leaders bullied and ‘silenced’ her.)
According to several off-the-record conversations with longtime Miss America insiders and fresh information gathered from the pageant trade VoyForum message board site, the entire competition is being zealously browbeaten into submission according to Carlson’s self-righteous whims. “They want to be beautiful and not just show off talents and political concerns,” said one source. (Two individuals deeply familiar with the Miss America organization’s history interviewed for this piece declined to be identified due to job concerns. Both have been closely involved with with Miss America and pageant life for decades.)
Reports from the prelims, from expert witnesses who were once hopeful in regard to Carlson’s potentially fair, empowering and pro-woman stance, now believe that the new chairwoman has hijacked the pageant for her own glory (“We’re expecting a long on-air speech from her … mentioning she went to Stanford U, and claiming to have started the #MeToo movement”) and that perhaps she just wanted her own pageant “without doing all the work,” claimed the source.
Another enraged, off-the-record insider asked, “if she really wanted to empower the 51 girls who are competing, why not poll them and ask them if they wanted to do swimsuit?”
Karl Nilsson, spokesman for the Miss America Organization, dismissed these sources’ opinion.
“Journalism is not the anonymous rantings from naysayers lifted from message boards and reprinted as fact. This has slowly turned into a circus side show,” Nilsson responded via email. “You’re asking for comment simply to incite a reaction and to give legitimacy to these disgruntled voices who choose to hide in the dark. These attempts only perpetuate the spreading of more lies, untruths, and gossip. The focus is 51 amazing women who are here to compete to be crowned the next Miss America. How nice it would be if everyone else shared that same vision.”
Miss America drastically revamped
Is Miss America really a pageant? Not according to Carlson, who has turned the event into a “competition” and the contestants into “candidates.” Apparently, the newly-imagined event isn’t expected to have a runway, so the current Miss America won’t get to take her final walk down the runway before crowning her successor. Not only are there no swimsuits and evening gowns, the sashes worn by the women will no longer say “Miss,” but only the state of origin. Does that mean, when the crown comes out and a victor is named for MA2019, that it could just say, “America?” “I guess the winner won’t get roses either,” joked one expert. “Carlson didn’t want the glitz and glamour often associated with the pageant, or whatever this is to be called.”
With all these changes going on with their investment, how does the Atlantic City business community who helped start the pageant in the first place feel about these seismic shifts? How does Atlantic City’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) feel after its recent additional $4.325 million supplemental subsidy went to Miss America’s coffers, for a total of a nearly $12 million pay-out over the past three years?
“The CRDA is currently in the third and final year of our contract with the Miss America Organization,” said CRDA communications manager Karen Martin. “ Nothing else is forthcoming at this time.”
Also on Wednesday, the organization was hit with a lawsuit for $100,000 by the Fox Rothschild law firm. The Miss America Organization said it would respond in legal papers, the Courier-Post reported.
It’s not so much who wins and what happens on Sunday, as it is who wins — and who stays — on Monday. Stay tuned.