For an organization whose stated mission is the empowerment of women, the last year in the world of Miss America has felt anything but.
While the beauty pageant and self-proclaimed nation's leading provider of scholarship assistance to young women has weathered its fair share of controversy in its nearly 100 year existence—the widespread protests against its existence in the '60s; Vanessa Williams, the first African American winner, being stripped of her crown in 1984 after the unauthorized publication of nude photos in Penthouse; John Oliver's 2014 Last Week Tonight exposé on the true nature of the organization's scholarship program—the past 12 months have seen the organization face an unprecedented amount of scrutiny, leading to structural changes and attempts at bringing the outdated piece of enduring Americana into the 21st century.
But with former Miss America winner and newly elected chairwoman Gretchen Carlson back in the news for the organization's alleged mistreatment of reigning titleholder Cara Mund, prompting some former winners to publicly demand the former Fox News personality's resignation from her post, it's clear that the widely-touted "new day" at Miss America has started off not with clear skies, but storm clouds.
This recent spate of trouble for Miss America began mid-December last year when, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the rise of the #MeToo movement, the Huffington Post published a damning article exposing derogatory email exchanges between Miss America CEO Sam Haskell, board members Tammy Haddad and Lynn Weidner, and lead writer Lewis Friedman. In the emails, which spanned from 2014-17, the quartet of powerful MAO folks spoke in ugly terms about former winners, including Carlson, Kate Shindle, and Mallory Hagan.
"It should have been Kate Shindle," one email, written following the death of former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley, read.
"Mallory's preparing for her new career … as a blimp in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade," read another, which also included the post-script, "Ps. Are we four the only ones not to have f--ked Mallory?"
Reactions to the shocking expose rolled in swiftly. Shindle, who won the title in 1998 before becoming a successful theatre actress and president of Actors' Equity Association, the union the represents stage actors and stage managers, shared a lengthy statement on Twitter, noting that the e-mails "makes me physically ill" before calling for the immediate resignation of the entire Miss America Organization Board of Directors. Carlson echoed Shindle's demands in a tweet of her own, slamming the comments made about her and others as "disgusting." Dick Clark Productions, who had produced the pageant, revealed in a statement to E! News that they had been made aware of a portion of the e-mails months prior and "insisted, in the strongest possible terms, that the Miss America Organization (MAO) board of directors conduct a comprehensive investigation and take appropriate action to address the situation."
"Shortly thereafter, we resigned our board positions and notified MAO that we were terminating our relationship with them," the statement concluded.
A day after the HuffPo article was published, the organization announced that it was placing Haskell on suspension and had fired Friedman, whom they deemed to be "the most egregious author of inappropriate comments." Following the decision, E! News obtained a lengthy statement from Haskell, where he claimed the "vicious story" was "a series of conveniently edited emails" and "so unkind and untrue."
"I was under stress from a full year of attacks by two Miss Americas, and while I don't ever want to offer an excuse, I do want to offer context," he continued. "My mistake is a mistake of words. Therefore, to allow the MAO Board of Directors and me time to properly evaluate the situation, I will be abiding by their decision to suspend me in my capacity as Executive Chairman and CEO of the Miss America Organization while an investigation takes place."
The very next day, he and Weidner resigned from their posts, with Haddad following suit a day later.
In a joint statement on Carlson's Twitter account, she and Shindle reflected on the resignations, writing, "While it is reassuring that some of the perpetrators of the abuses within the Miss American Organization have resigned, this by no means fulfill the need for a thorough housecleaning of the Board."
"We will continue to demand the resignations of every individual who either participated in the abuse of women or stood by and was complicit by failing to conduct proper due diligence, as legally required by their fiduciary obligations," they continued. "In addition, we expect that no new board members will be appointed until every implicated board member has resigned."
Hoping to kick the new year off on a positive foot, the organization announced on January 1 that the Board of Directors had elected Carlson as their new chairwoman effective immediately, making her the first former winner to serve as its leader in the organization's history. In a press release announcing her election, which came after most previously serving Directors had resigned from the Board, Carlson thanked the outgoing Directors for stepping aside. "Everyone has been stunned by the events of the last several days, and this has not been easy for anyone who loves this program," she said. "In the end, we all want a strong, relevant Miss America and we appreciate the existing board taking the steps necessary to quickly begin stabilizing the organization for the future."
Along with her election, the Miss America Organization also named Shindle, as well as former Miss Americas Laura Kaeppeler Fleiss (Miss America 2012), Heather French Henry (Miss America 2000), to the board.
In her first interview as chairwoman, Carlson began a charm offensive meant to repair the pageant's reputation while also dragging it into the modern, feminist era at long last. While appearing on Good Morning America just days after her appointment, she was asked if the idea of a young woman parading on stage in her bathing suit to be judged on her physical appearance was "outdated."
"I have so many great ideas for this organization, and I will be talking about those with all the other board members and the eventual CEO of Miss America and staff of Miss America," she replied. "So what I would love to say about that is, please stay tuned, because I plan to make this organization 100 percent about empowering women. Changes are coming—potentially big changes."
By June, she was ready to make good on her word. In a press release announcing a September 9 air date for the 2019 competition, the organization made clear that the Miss America 2.0 was on the way. No longer would the women competing be judged by their physical appearance. Out? The swimsuit portion, which would be replaced with "a live interactive session with the judges" where each contestant would "highlight her achievements and goals in life and how she will use her talents, passion, and ambition to perform the job of Miss America." Also changing? The evening gown portion, which would be shifting to "give participants the freedom to outwardly express their self-confidence in evening attire of their choosing while discussing how they will advance their social impact initiatives."
"We are no longer a pageant. Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent, and empowerment," Carlson said in the statement. "We're experiencing a cultural revolution in our country with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues. Miss America is proud to evolve as an organization and join this empowerment movement."
And while the changes Carlson and her new Board of Directors were ushering seemed full of promise, her leadership was soon called into question when Mund sent off a letter to former Miss America winners on Friday, Aug. 17, accusing the new leadership, including CEO Regina Hopper, of similar offenses to those they'd previously replaced.
"Let me be blunt: I strongly believe that my voice is not heard nor wanted by our current leadership; nor do they have any interest in knowing who I am and how my experiences relate to positioning the organization for the future," the Associated Press quoted Mund as saying in her letter (via CNBC). "Our chair and CEO have systematically silenced me, reduced me, marginalized me, and essentially erased me in my role as Miss America in subtle and not-so-subtle ways on a daily basis. After a while, the patterns have clearly emerged, and the sheer accumulation of the disrespect, passive-aggressive behavior, belittlement, and outright exclusion has taken a serious toll."
According to Mund, she's been left out of interviews and meetings and that group leaders have called her by the wrong name. She further alleged that she was excluded from the organization's big televised announcement regarding the decision to ditch the swimsuit portion, despite being in the same TV studio with Carlson at the time the chairwoman broke the news. For press events she was permitted to attend, she claimed she was given "talking points," two of three about Carlson, for whom she alleged all major press was reserved. "Right away, the new leadership delivered an important message: There will be only one Miss America at a time, and she isn't me," she wrote.
Carlson responded via Twitter with a letter of her own, asserting that she was both "surprised" and "saddened" by Mund's statement.
"I so wished Cara had picked up the phone and discussed her concerns with me directly, before going to the media with allegations of bullying," she wrote, adding, "I also want to be clear that I have never bullied or silenced you. I fact, I have acknowledged to you and your parents many times that the organization understands the frustrations of serving during such a change-filled and stressful year. It surely was not what you had expected. We've acknowledged your grievances, and taken many steps to try to make your experience a good one."
Carlson went on to allege that, as a result of Mund's letter, the organization had lost out on $75,000 in scholarship money. "Actions have consequences. Friday, as an organization, we learned that $75,000 in scholarships which would have been the first scholarship increase in years, is no longer on the table as a direct result of the explosive allegations in your letter," she wrote. "The impact won't stop there—we are already seeing a negative ripple effect aross the entire organization, and I am so concerned that it will dilute the experience for the next woman selected to wear the crown."
While Carlson appears to have the support of the organization for the time being, her response to Mund isn't sitting well with a handful of former titleholders. A petition signed by 20 former Miss Americas, including Shindle and Fleiss, made its way online, calling for the resignation of Carlson, Hopper, and the entire Board of Trustees. As of press time, it has over 19,000 signatures.
"How can you be a chairman of an organization and blame your employees for discrepancies in a business arrangement?" former Miss American 1984 Suzette Charles asked while speaking with NBC's Megyn Kelly on Monday. "She's the chairman and there's a CEO. They're required as business people to raise money for the organization for the scholarship to have money to run the program and she's now putting that responsibility on our current Miss America?"
With the fate of Carlson's brief tenure as chairwoman suddenly up in the air and this year's pageant—or whatever they're calling it in this Miss America 2.0 era—only weeks away, it's apparent that whoever lands the title on that fateful night in Atlantic City is, by and large, beside the point. Rather, we'll all be watching to see whose left standing behind the scenes. That's where the true competition lies, it seems.
(E! and NBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family)