It was supposed to be the year the Miss Americas took back the Miss America pageant. Instead, it’s turning into a civil war.
Six months ago, Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host and 1989 titleholder, took over as chair of the 97-year-old beauty contest turned scholarship competition, after an ouster of leadership over leaked emails in which male board members disparaged certain Miss Americas with vulgar language. With the installation of several other past winners in key leadership roles early this year, the pageant seemed to be channeling the empowered spirit of the #MeToo movement.
But Carlson’s team quickly introduced a number of changes that have instead left the Miss America community — a sprawling network of state and local pageant organizers and volunteers, as well as generations of past tiara wearers — sharply divided.
The most public reform — the removal of the pageant’s famous swimsuit competition — drew national headlines when it was announced last month. Some longtime devotees were taken aback.
As Chris Saltalamacchio, a contestant coach in Atlanta put it, “Miss America is supposed to be an ideal in a variety of ways, and to take away the emphasis on beauty and physical fitness, I think we’re taking away some of the things that make them ideal.”
Other changes include calling the pageant a “competition” and the contestants “candidates”; a scoring system that emphasizes talent above all else; and a new mission statement: “To prepare great women for the world, and to prepare the world for great women.”
But many state organizers claim these changes were made either without their full knowledge or based on misinformation. Last week, 22 of them signed a petition demanding the “immediate resignation of the entire Miss America Board of Trustees and president/CEO.” In recent weeks, four relatively new members of the Miss America board — including past winners Laura Kaeppeler Fleiss and Kate Shindle — stepped down amid strife with leadership.
Allison DeMarcus, co-executive director of the Miss Tennessee Scholarship Pageant, which joined the petition, said national pageant bosses told state organizations that Miss America would not be able to find a broadcast television home if it continued to make contestants compete in swimsuits.
But in recent weeks, many began to doubt this argument. A spokeswoman for ABC told the Wall Street Journal that it had already committed to airing the pageant, a decision that “had nothing to do” with whether it had a swimsuit portion.
“The one thing we want to make clear is that the state’s petition has nothing to do with the elimination of the swimsuit competition, the #MeToo movement or resistance to change,” DeMarcus said. “It has everything to do with lack of communication, lack of transparency, misrepresentation of facts.”
“Within a volunteer organization, your currency is belief in the cause and trust,” she added.
The Miss America Organization did not make Carlson or other executives available to talk to The Post by deadline on Tuesday. In a statement released to news organizations this week, the board called it “shameful that critical time and resources are being diverted to address baseless attacks,” adding that “the current Miss America board is unified, reinvigorated and ready to work for the young women this program is about.”
On “Good Morning America” Monday, Carlson said “we’re working through this in the best way we can.” She stood by the swimsuit ruling: “We believe that physical appearance and beauty and being fit — that is empowering. We’re just not going to judge women on that.”
Meanwhile, 31 former Miss Americas have rallied to Carlson’s side, signing a letter saying that they “fully support” her and other board members “who are and have been working tirelessly to move our program forward.”
Controversy has rippled throughout the pageant community. In a separate incident, Maude Gorman renounced her title as Miss Plymouth County following a skit mocking the #MeToo movement that was featured during the Massachusetts Miss America competition.
“I’ve never been a part of a civil war before, because the last one happened 150 years before I was born, but that’s what this is,” Saltalamacchio said. “Friendships are being broken up. You have Facebook comments that require moderation because of how volatile they are. I’m worried fights are going to break out at the lobby bar, if I’m being honest.”
For his part, Saltalamacchio just wants to see everything resolved — however that plays out.
“This organization has given life and strength and love to some of the most incredible women I’ve ever met in my life,” he said. “I hate to see their hearts breaking due to the turmoil that’s going on.”