Closing The Gap

After eliminating its swimsuit competition, Miss America Organization faces internal conflict

Lexi Churchill
 Miss Georgia 2017 Alyssa Beasley participates in Swimsuit challenge during Miss America 2018 - Second Night of Preliminary Competition at Boardwalk Hall Arena September 7, 2017 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Tensions are running high inside the Miss America Organization over its new leadership and direction.

In June, the organization withstood backlash from fans after announcing the elimination of its iconic swimsuit competition, and this week the company is fielding resistance from within the organization itself.

In a letter obtained by the Press of Atlantic City, 22 state and local Miss America officials expressed their concerns about the “direction in which MAO is headed” and the lack of transparency in leadership decisions, ultimately calling for the resignation of CEO Regina Hopper and Board of Trustees Director Gretchen Carlson.

“We were promised transparency, competence, and adherence to best practices and good governance,” the letter reads. “The current Trustees and identified staff member 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."

Cara Mund, Miss America 2018 receives a gift from one of the children at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on April 6, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

In response, 30 former Miss Americas have said they “fully support” the leaders “who are and have been working tirelessly to move our program forward."

The conflict began in December, after the Huffington Post published email correspondence in which former Miss America CEO Sam Haskell and pageant telecast lead writer Lewis Friedman referred to previous contest winners as "c----s." Haskell, chairman Lynn Weidner, and Chief Operating Officer Josh Randle all resigned and were replaced.

For the first time in the organization's history, all three branches of Miss America are now led by women, including Carlson and Hopper.

Between her appointment in January and the announcement of the new, more progressive, swimsuit-free pageant format, dubbed "Miss America 2.0" in June, Carlson and the board teamed up with marketing communications firm Young and Rubicam to perform a thorough organizational review, with the goal of determining whether the iconic pageant was truly reflective of contemporary culture.

Hopper told CNBC Make It that the data-driven study indicated one thing loud and clear: The swimsuit competition no longer made sense for a modern audience. It excluded a slew of potential participants, who deviate from the traditional beauty pageant image, and is irrelevant to the role the winner plays after she's crowned.

UNITED STATES - MAY 22: Regina Hopper, president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, is photographed in her office near the Navy Yard, May 22, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
CQ-Roll Call Group

“Miss America is never seen wearing a swimsuit, ever,” Hopper pointed out. “So why is that part of the job [application]?"

But pageant fans and former contestants alike were disappointed to see the near century-long tradition die off. It's a reaction Hopper says is understandable.

“The job of Miss America has never really been explained outside of a pageant setting,” Hopper explained. “The job of Miss America is to be a role model and a mentor for her generation and the next generation in order to advance scholarship, education, career and talent.”

As difficult as it may be to understand in 2018, the concept of women competing in swimsuits was shocking — rebellious, even — when it was first introduced in the 1920s. What is now Miss America began as the “Inter-City Beauty Contest," and it highlighted the changing social perceptions of women.

“When they created this, it really was to advance sort of the upcoming social norms of the time,” Hopper explained. “You were going into the heyday of the flapper, and that was a rebellion almost. Miss America was born out of that cultural revolution of the time, and that’s how it was reflected.”

In the years since, the competition has evolved to include a talent portion, as well as emphasis on scholarship and contestants' personal platforms. But increasingly, critics have called the swimsuit competition synonymous with objectification.

Hopper has her own history with swimwear and the pageant circuit. In 1983, she was chosen to represent her sorority in the Miss Arkansas competition, and almost backed out when she discovered she’d have to wear a bikini onstage. “You want me to do what?” Hopper says she exclaimed at the time. “Wear a swimsuit? I’m not going to do that in front of a whole audience. Are you kidding me? That is insane."

Full-length portrait of the first Miss America contestants, wearing their sashes over swimsuits, standing in a line on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

“It was sort of like the culture of 'that’s what you do,'” she says. “That’s what you do, and this program exists and it does give you scholarships. Nobody really was like, ‘you’re objectifying women by being in swimsuits.’”

But a competition deemed forward-thinking in the 1920s reads to many as entirely outdated in 2018.

“Miss America is now reflecting the cultural revolution of the time, which is women asking to be heard and women asking for a greater sense of equality in the workplace and women demanding to have their opinions heard and not be judged on how they look,” Hopper says.

Carlson, who has no plans to resign, addressed the petition on "Good Morning America," emphasizing that change is difficult.

"When I took on this role of leading this organization six months ago, we had a lot of work to do," Carlson said. "And swimsuit has been a part of Miss America since it started in 1921 and many of the volunteers and state EDs, executive directors, have been around for a long time and it is tradition. But at the same time, this board unanimously decided that we needed to move this program forward, and we are so thrilled with the people that we have heard from."

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