Now that it’s gone, the Miss America pageant’s swimsuit competition has found no small bevy of defenders, according to Minnesota-raised former Miss America Gretchen Carlson.
As chairwoman of the organization, Carlson led the move to eliminate the much-maligned bikini-and-stiletto parade beamed from the glossy Atlantic City, N.J., stage to the world.
For years, Carlson said the pageant had been pushed to defend the bikini contest as a celebration of discipline and fitness. Now that it’s gone, Carlson said she’s being questioned for eliminating the showcase of supremely shaped physiques — and the work entailed in getting to that shape.
“It’s kind of a no-win situation,” she said. “It’s an interesting observation.”
She’s been booked with interviews since the announcement, without time to check in on much of the coverage, but said she never expected to have 100 percent support for the move. The organization, which she aggressively defends as a scholarship program, not a beauty contest, is in the process of reshaping the pageant to focus on intellect, personality, talent and accomplishment, she said.
“We have not messaged correctly the caliber of women we’ve had,” Carlson said.
Judges now will focus not on appearance, but on getting to know “who the person is and their goals and substance,” Carlson said.
How that will look is still being worked out, but “stay tuned” for the airing of the pageant on Sept. 9, she said. The changes came too late for state pageants this year but will be in place for 2019.
Carlson, who won in 1988, said she used her winnings, about $50,000, to pay for her final year at Stanford University. The national platform gave her a springboard into a career in television, most recently as a personality on Fox News.
She became more prominent as a women’s workplace advocate after filing — and ultimately settling — a harassment lawsuit against former Fox Chairman Roger Ailes. She also wrote a book after the experience, “Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back.”
Now 51, Carlson said she entered the pageant on the strength of her violin-playing skills: talent at the time was 50 percent of the score. She knew she wouldn’t win the swimsuit competition but had to train for it anyway, running around the block of her childhood home in Anoka.
“That was the hardest category for me because I’ve struggled with weight all of my life,” Carlson said, adding that she was a “chubby” kid and is a petite 5 feet 3.
“I’m not saying women shouldn’t be healthy … but we’re not judging them on that,” she said.
Asked if that means a significantly overweight woman or a woman in a wheelchair could become Miss America, Carlson said, “potentially” to the first and “sure” to the second.
Despite decades of criticism for the bikini competition, Carlson said she’s now getting lots of, “Oh, wait a minute, we loved the swimsuit competition, what are you doing?”
Ultimately, she said, “The goal is to not have any YouTube videos of people making fun of our candidates.”
In the meantime, she’s rolling with the criticism. “That’s what being a leader is all about, making bold and brave decisions,” Carlson said.