The next Miss America will get more than a $50,000 scholarship. She’ll also carry the burden of being the first winner in a new era, one in which looking good in a bikini matters a whole lot less than the ability to articulate ideas or carry a tune.
Under the leadership of Minnesota’s Gretchen Carlson, who won the crown in 1989, Sunday’s televised event has scrapped the swimsuit parade while putting a heavier emphasis on the interview and talent segments. Contestants now have the option of donning evening gowns during interactive sessions with judges — or choosing something that better reflects their personal style.
The changes come in the midst of the #MeToo movement and dwindling TV ratings. Last year’s event drew 5.6 million viewers, a drop of 3 million from just five years ago.
The decision has drawn support and backlash. The current Miss America, Cara Mund, accused Carlson and other board members of bullying and trying to silence her.
Will the move save the 96-year-old event? Pageant experts and former competitors weigh in.
On how past controversies have led to this point:
Michelle Filling-Brown, acting dean of Cabrini University’s school of humanities and social sciences in Philadelphia: “It’s sort of miraculous that this is happening on the 50th anniversary of protests in 1968 and the first Miss Black America, which was staged as a sign of protest. In 1974, Miss America Rebecca Ann King deflected a lot of stereotypes about Miss America just being a sex object by going to law school. In 1951, winner Yolanda Fox refused to model for the swimsuit company, Catalina. These kinds of conversations have been going on for a long time, and it’s really culminated in this.”
On the offstage battle between current Miss America Cara Mund and board chairwoman Gretchen Carlson:
Filling-Brown: “I think you’ll see a lot of support for Cara after her claims that she was bullied by the new board. Expect to see some interesting commentary online whenever she gets screen time.”
Charity Bess, Miss Minnesota International 2013: “I think Gretchen is bold. She’s taken a stance to protect the image of women in a positive way. She’s aiming to differentiate herself.”
Jacquelyn Vranicar, former Miss Minnesota contestant and board member: “Miss America needs to be a celebrity. There needs to be glamour; there needs to be public interest. Gretchen could have taken Cara along for the crazy ride the organization has been on this past year. She could have used her professional experience to put Cara’s face on every national television station. They would have known her and, in turn, known Miss America. Right now, it seems, Gretchen is all anyone can talk about.”
On eliminating the swimsuit competition:
Hilary Levey Friedman, education professor at Brown University and president of the Rhode Island National Organization for Women: “It’s not a surprise that the swimsuits are gone, but what does surprise me is that there’s no fitness element at all. The athleticism of women should be celebrated. It’s not just what a body looks like; it’s what a body can do. Serena Williams is a great example of that.”
Cyrina Ostgaard, Miss Minnesota contestant in 2015: “I’m glad it’s gone. It’s been a long time coming. There is something to be said for tradition, but in the end the organization needs to adapt to ideals that push it forward. I’m naturally thin, but that doesn’t mean I’ve worked harder or done more to prepare physically than someone who is a few sizes larger. This most certainly could have led to many women resorting to unhealthy methods to achieve a winning swimsuit body, which is completely counter to Miss America’s ideals to push women to be themselves with confidence.”
Julia Schliesing, Miss Minnesota contestant in 2014: “I’m sad to see it go. I knew I could do anything after going on stage in a swimsuit and heels. Getting physically fit can have a positive impact on people’s mental health.”
Vranicar: “I’m disappointed and, quite frankly, upset. Taking it away feels like conceding to every critic who ever said we were nothing more than a bunch of bimbos in heels. It’s not about being sexy in a swimsuit. We are showing the world we are strong, determined, committed to a healthy lifestyle, and that being a fit, strong woman is something to celebrate.”
On the increased emphasis on talent and the interview segment of the show:
Friedman: “The show is two hours. How can you really get to know the contestants in that short a time? If they are really going to push the interview and talent portions, there has to be a bigger investment. Maybe there’s some kind of fun, serialized way to get to know the women over a longer period of time, like ‘American Idol’ does.”
Ostgaard: “The stronger focus on talent I don’t agree with. This hurts the chances of someone who may not have had years upon years of talent training but is phenomenal at the interview. It’s like the organization is saying it only matters what you do on stage, not who you are offstage. I’m not saying get rid of it, but keep the focus higher on things like the interview and onstage questions.”
Tiara Gowen, Miss Minnesota contestant in 2017: “I believe getting rid of the swimsuit competition and putting a focus on talent was a mistake. While uncomfortable and my least favorite part of the competition, swimsuit was empowering and challenging. It really pushed my boundaries and enhanced my self-confidence. I believe emphasizing talent more than the other categories will deter people from competing.”
On the challenge that the new winner will face:
Friedman: “It’s up to that person to figure out a way to use that platform to achieve a particular goal, to share a vision of the world that she has. And we know not everyone will agree with what that is.”
On whether the changes will trigger more interest:
Carla Beaurline, Miss Minnesota contestant in 1990 and ’92: “I understand the organization is trying to make it more relevant in today’s society, but I don’t think it will be successful in the long run. I think the changes were made too quickly. Taking the swimsuit competition out right before the finals is like being drafted in the NFL and then being told you are going to play with a hockey puck after you sign your contract. Let people choose to compete knowing the percentages and the rules ahead of time rather than changing them midstream.”
Maggie Hennefeld, assistant professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota: “I’ve very skeptical. This re-branding seems like a blatant PR move to do damage control after all the leaks about board members who ‘slut-shamed’ and ‘fat-shamed’ so many women, and to stay relevant in a time of rapidly changing social politics around gender and identity. They should use the pageant to challenge conventional beauty standards, open up the competition to a broader range of women of different body types, ages, backgrounds, as well as to more LGBTQ women.”
Gowen: “Eliminating the competition altogether would be a mistake. There are those girls who grow up idolizing Miss America, who want to push themselves to be better, with or without a crown. Being a titleholder is much more than the five areas of competition. You learn how to carry yourself, interview, talk to new people, hold a conversation, speak on camera, time management, responsibility and so much more. When you look at the crown, it is detailed, intricate and beautiful, just like each individual woman in the world.”