There’s been an attempt to rebrand the pageants. Hence, the removal of the swimsuit competition.
There’s been infighting. Several former pageant winners and 46 of the state organizers who send contestants to the annual competition have called for the resignation of its new chair, Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host and Miss America 1989.
Still, Miss America struts on.
This year’s state winners dutifully arrived at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., for the preliminary competition, all gunning to get the crown Sunday night.
There was Miss Illinois twirling through lyric dance routines to inspirational Josh Groban tunes. And Miss Virginia, rocking a black velvet cape at the classical piano keyboard. There was Miss North Carolina, promoting financial literacy, and Miss Texas, diplomatically threading the needle on one of the most polarizing questions of our day: how about those national anthem kneelers?
“I do believe that when the NFL players are kneeling they are standing up for what they believe in,” said Madison Fuller, a kindergarten teacher from Tyler, Tex., with a talent for ventriloquism, to cheers from the Boardwalk Hall crowd Wednesday night. “However, I do think that there is an avenue to do that in a way that can promote change, tangibly, and not by doing it during a national anthem but actually providing change so that they no longer have to face this issue.”
The pageant is still happening, though the subculture has slightly come undone.
Outrage over Carlson — who’s faced an exodus of board members and allegations of mismanagement — hit a fever pitch last month when the reigning Miss America, 24-year-old Cara Mund, publicly accused Carlson and Miss America President Regina Hopper of bullying and sidelining her in her final months on the job — a soap opera played out on network morning shows, generating the most controversy (and attention of any kind) the pageant has seen in 30 years.
Many state directors grudgingly went along with the decision to drop swimsuits — a headline-making announcement in June that Carlson said was about women’s empowerment and inclusion. Later, though, they felt misled by the reasons for the change, claiming that pageant brass had falsely led them to believe that no TV network in the #MeToo era would air the pageant with its old scholarships-and-bikinis formula.
The dispute has made the climate toxic, with Carlson blasting her critics as resistant to change and guerrilla signs going up around town calling Carlson “So Fake.”
And yet, a rumored boycott never took hold. Along with contestants turning out, so too did the disgruntled community of volunteers and superfans.
Rachel Johnson, a commercial insurance agent from Chicago, signed on as a volunteer as soon as she aged out of competition and now devotes 10 to 25 unpaid hours a week to local-level “Outstanding Teen,” Miss America’s little-sister contest.
And at a time when the pageant has lost much of its cultural sway, they are among the loyalists who can still be counted on to buy tickets and fill the room.
“It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes an army to raise a Miss California,” said this year’s titleholder, Mackenzie Freed, who arrived from Lodi, Calif., with a small brigade of state board members, local judges and a 50-year volunteer.
So here’s what the rebranded pageant looks like. The traditional runway is gone. Some of the sashes are black with white letters, which looks funereal to some but clean and modern to others. The TV commercials are glitz-free — no waving from stages, just some close-up earnest chitchat.
And emblazoned on the stage backdrop are words such as FEARLESS, ROLE MODEL, INTELLIGENT, STRONG.
The title of “Miss” seems to be missing from just about everything except the brand name, with candidates being called to the stage by their state.
Mund, the reigning Miss America, appeared onstage during the preliminaries and gave a pleasant little speech, as if everything was normal. Carlson was conspicuously invisible.
And of course, there was no swimsuit competition. In its place was an interview session, in which contestants answered questions, pop-quiz style, about their opinions on current events — the kind of talky stuff that has always truly determined who will be Miss America in backstage judging.
This was fine by many of the contestants, who speak positively about the pageant’s new look.
But it left some of the superfans a little cold.
“It’s very different without swimsuit,” said Marylou Cooke of Staten Island, a veteran of some 30 Miss America crownings. “It seems strange not to see it.”
“Aw, big-time strange,” agreed Anthony Scuteri, another longtime pageant hand with the Miss New York system.
Backstage, though, the contestants profess to being unaffected by the turmoil of the past year.
“I think it is a mix of disheartening and exciting,” says Miss Virginia, Emili Elizabeth McPhail, a recent Hollins graduate, maintaining excellent eye contact while holding forth about the challenges for institutions undergoing change.
“The states are standing up for what they believe in. Cara Mund is standing up for what she believes in,” she adds. “I am proud to be part of a group of people who are trying to do the right thing.”