Every Bombshell From Secrets of Miss America

A&E's new documentary series Secrets of Miss America digs into the dark side of the inner workings behind the century-old pageant.

By Natalie Finn Jul 11, 2023 3:00 AMTags
Watch: Gretchen Carlson Defends Miss America Swimsuit Changes

Tiaras, sashes, swimsuits, awkward Q&As: All things the mention of a pageant might bring to mind.

And in the United States, no pageant is more firmly rooted in popular culture than Miss America, which was founded in 1921 as a "bathing beauty revue" based in Atlantic City, N.J.

They've long since leaned into the scholarship side of the proceedings—in 1945, the organization became one of few in the country offering money to women for the sole purpose of going to college—and in recent years efforts have been made to make the Miss America Pageant more inclusive, less male-gaze-y and as modern as a 102-year-old institution can possibly be.

Which, believe it or not, hasn't sat well with everyone involved.

But even without its change-averse critics, Miss America hasn't arrived at this point in time without tripping over its own train on numerous occasions, no outside help required, as A&E's Secrets of Miss America is here to point out.

Beauty Pageant Scandals

The four-part series, which premiered July 10, digs into the latest scandals that have tarnished the storied crown, leading to one—and then another—leadership overhaul.

Read on for the biggest bombshells from the Secrets of Miss America premiere:

Alleged "Psychological Warfare" From the Top

Mallory Hagan, who was crowned Miss America in January 2013, describes forming a familial bond with then-pageant CEO Sam Haskell over the year she held the title.

At the same time, she says in episode one of A&E's Secrets of Miss America, when she first met Haskell the day after the pageant, he advised her, '"This Miss America's crazy. Don't talk to this Miss America.'" (Mallory also recalls being told by an unnamed pageant director ahead of the Miss New York 2011 competition that she wouldn't like eventual winner Claire Buffie Adkisson, but they became fast friends.)

"It definitely instilled a subconscious fear of, are there other people that I shouldn't admit I have a relationship with?" Mallory recalls in the series. "I definitely was not prepared for the insanity—the psychological warfare. It truly had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with a person used to being in control of those around him."

Savvy Shields Wolfe, crowned Miss America 2017, says she didn't know who to trust because, as she shares in the series, Sam told her he had spies in the organization who would let him know if anyone said anything negative about him or the Miss America Organization. 

"I was too scared to reach out to anyone," Savvy says. "I didn't know who a 'spy' was."

No Boyfriends Allowed

Multiple former Miss America winners recall the strict rules they were supposed to abide by during their year representing the organization, especially the one about not being allowed to have men in their hotel rooms—"including your father," Mallory notes in the series.

Miss America 2016 Betty Maxwell (née Cantrell) recalls being "reamed out" by Sam during a conference call after someone errantly informed him that her boyfriend had brought Taco Bell to her house during a hometown visit. It was her friend's boyfriend, she says in the series, and she found the whole situation preposterous.

"They're very, very anti-boyfriend because they want you to look like you're America's sweetheart," Betty says. "They're trying to be feminists and #MeToo and all these things, and at the same time they're, like, not thinking that every young twentysomething is dating someone? Like, come on."

Former Couple Recall Miss America CEO Coming Between Them

In the series, Mallory and Sam's former assistant Brent Adams recall falling for each other in 2013 when the beauty queen came to Oxford, Miss., to visit the Haskell family.

They didn't go public until Mallory had relinquished her crown to the next winner, and she says she thought Sam would be thrilled by the news when he found out. But when Brent told Sam, she says, his "response was less than positive." 

Brent alleges Sam threatened to fire him several times if he didn't stop dating Mallory. (He notes that he did not initially tell Mallory about his boss' reaction because she and Sam still seemed to have a cordial working relationship.)

But, Brent continues, "[Sam]would say these things, she was a slut, or like a horrible person, or whatever—I'm like, 'What are you talking about?' It was about control. He controls everything and everyone else in his life. And if you go against him, you're cut out."

Mallory says she eventually broke up with Brent in 2014 because he continued to work for Sam.

"I made a choice," she notes. "The choice was that I didn't want to continue being in a relationship with someone who wasn't standing up for me."

Brent says he felt "trapped" working for Sam, worried he'd never get another job in L.A. and also not sure that quitting would help Mallory at all. To this day, he notes, "I still don't know what Sam's issue was with us dating."

He eventually left the job around Christmastime of 2014 because, he recalls, Sam would still get mad that Brent and Mallory continued to text, even though they were no longer together.

E! News has reached out to Haskell for comment on allegations made in the series but has not yet heard back.

Miss America CEO Accused of Trashing Mallory Hagan Behind Her Back

Mallory moved to Los Angeles to pursue TV opportunities, but while she seemingly came close to getting jobs, she says in the series, they kept falling through and "it's hard to know what really happened."

Brent alleges on the show that he witnessed Sam badmouthing Mallory in meetings with network executives, including claiming she was "trying to hook up" with Chris Harrison, who at the time was hosting The Bachelor and the Miss America pageant for ABC.

"It was wild and unsettling," Mallory says in the series of hearing that Sam was trashing her behind her back, "but it also made me incredibly angry. Like, just what is wrong with you?"

Claire, Mallory's friend and winner of Miss New York 2011, recalls on the show hearing a rumor that Mallory had slept with someone in every state she'd visited as Miss America. "Which," Claire says, "is categorically untrue."

Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008, also says she remembers hearing at the time that Mallory was "crazy" and "wild," but that didn't make any sense to her, so she ignored it. The same went for Susan Powell, Miss America 1981, who says in the series she "didn't give a lot of credence to things that may or may not be."

Mallory Hagan Felt Like Persona Non Grata

Claire remained involved with the Miss New York pageant and, after three straight Miss America wins from the state (starting with Mallory's in 2013), the pair decided to start their own coaching business.

Soon after, they both say in the series, Miss America issued a directive barring coaching, to help "level the playing field" for contestants who couldn't afford coaches. Then a list of approved coaches was released and their names weren't on it.

Claire and Mallory say they hosted a Christmas gathering in 2014 for a group of friends, including newly crowned Miss America Kira Kazantsev 2015 (one of the Miss New Yorks whom Claire had mentored). Later, the pair say, they found out that Kira got in trouble for socializing with them after pictures from the party were posted on social media.

Also in the series, Savvy (Miss America 2017) says she was told not to speak to Mallory, but by then it was known that Mallory was persona non grata. Betty (2016) says Sam told her there was a cone and "'people outside the cone we just can't associate with." She says she was told that Mallory and Claire were both outside the cone and she abided, because she didn't want to end up on "that black list of Miss Americas."

Mallory Hagan Sinks Into Depression

There was "a lot of time I did not want to be here anymore," Mallory recalls in the series of growing increasingly depressed from feeling shunned by the Miss America organization.

Her lowest moment, she says, came the day she "drank a lot of alcohol" and went up to the roof of her building. "And if it wasn't for my relationship with my parents," she adds, wiping away tears, "I probably would have made a very different decision than I did."

Miss America CEO Sam Haskell Gets Called Out

Mallory says she was in New York with Claire, watching the 2017 Miss America pageant, when she found out Brent had blown the whistle on Sam.

Brent (who spoke to the media at the time) explains in the series that he had been in the loop on all of Sam's emails, as the CEO instructed him to be, so he was privy to a lot—and that he waited to say anything because he didn't want it to look like he was exacting revenge on his former boss.

The correspondence that Huffington Post was first to report on in December 2017 contained derogatory comments about past pageant winners, including Mallory. A message sent to Sam in December 2015 and excerpted in the A&E series noted, "I do believe that our anti-coaching initiatives are already impacting her business and that our policy of ignoring her is driving her crazy."

At the time, Sam fired back in a statement that the "conveniently edited" emails HuffPost reported on were "stolen three years ago by ex employees" and the resulting story about him was "unkind and untrue." What he wrote, he explained, resulted from being "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." More than anything, he stressed, "I have the utmost respect for the women of this program and contestants at every level. It breaks my heart for anyone to think otherwise."

After 49 past Miss America winners, dating back to 1948, signed a petition calling for his ouster, Sam (who had already been suspended by the board of directors) resigned from the organization on Dec. 23, 2017.

Secrets of Miss America included a statement from Sam reiterating that "much of what was reported was dishonest, deceptive and despicable. The material is based on private emails that were stolen...Those who know my heart know that this is not indicative of my character, nor is it indicative of my business acumen."

The premiere of Secrets of Miss America will be streaming Tuesday, July 11. Episode two premieres Monday, July 17, at 10 p.m. on A&E.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.