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It’s not just about bikinis: Inside the battle for the future of Miss America

The reigning Miss America, Cara Mund, on the night of her crowning last September in Atlantic City. (Noah K. Murray/AP)

In January, two dozen former Miss Americas were bunking in a grand rental home in Kissimmee, Fla., for a weekend of sisterhood. There was swimming and spa treatments and kitschy fun with an old Miss America board game. But Gretchen Carlson — the veteran TV news host and 1988’s first violin-playing Miss America — could stay only an hour or two. She was there on business.

Weeks earlier, she had been named the new chair of the Miss America Organization, taking over after a leak of nasty emails prompted a sweeping purge of old leadership. Now Carlson was here to tell her fellow Miss A’s — who had cheered and championed the shift — that their beloved pageant was in jeopardy amid the shifting sensibilities of the #MeToo era. The historic swimsuit competition was at the crux of the problem.

Miss America was founded as a contest for bathing beauties of the Roaring Twenties. But Carlson warned that in 2018, sponsors and broadcasters would shy away from a show that sent young scholarship seekers traipsing across a stage in bikinis. And could the pageant survive without TV?

Miss America organization executives announced on June 5 that the show will scrap the famed swimsuit competition. (Video: Reuters)

Things can get a little loud when the Miss Americas get together. Forget the cliches about baton-twirling, big hair and world peace: This has always been a contest of charisma. “It’s hard to win an argument in a room like that,” said Caressa ­Cameron-Jackson, the 2010 titleholder, “when everyone is equally articulate and equally passionate.”

Still, even as they debated how to change the swimsuit contest or whether to ax it altogether, “we were all on board” with the pageant’s fresh start, said Leanza Cornett, Miss America 1993. “It was a lovefest.”

Six months later, the lovefest is over. Questions about Carlson’s leadership have sent rifts through the sisterhood, splintering through the network of volunteers who run the state and local contests that send contestants to the Atlantic City pageant.

The directors of 22 state pageants have called for the resignation of Carlson and new president Regina Hopper, a former Miss Arkansas and Beltway lobbyist. Four members who joined the board with Carlson in January have left, including two prominent Miss Americas who quit over a “toxic” climate. An effort at damage control — the release of a letter of support for Carlson’s team from 30 former Miss Americas — backfired: “This is the first time I have seen [the statement],” said 76-year-old Maria Fletcher, Miss America 1962, in a furious Facebook post. “I did NOT give you my approval to use my name!” (Carlson apologized.)

Many feel that Carlson’s team misled the pageant world about the reason for last month’s surprise announcement to drop the swimsuit competition and that this year’s contestants are left with a hazy sense of the rules for the Sept. 9 competition. Carlson responded in an interview: “Change is difficult.”

“I love that people think we can take an organization that’s been struggling with relevancy for 15 years,” said Hopper, “and fix it in four months.”

The Miss America Organization named former broadcaster and beauty queen Gretchen Carlson as chair of the organization on Jan. 1. (Video: Reuters)

But others fret that Carlson is projecting her own brand — as a fierce, brainy commentator who helped launch a movement when she sued Fox News CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment — on an organization that, for all its eager attempts at social relevance, still wants to be fun. Sightings of reigning Miss America Cara Mund have been scarce (her bosses say her public events are better targeted now), with Carlson making the appearances to promote the competition’s new look.

“I feel like they’ve tried to take Miss America and attach it to Gretchen’s ‘MeToo’ movement,” said Mansfield Bias, longtime chairman of the Miss Georgia pageant. “There are a lot of people who are upset about that.”

Thirty years ago, Carlson was a new kind of pageant queen. A valedictorian, a Stanford undergrad, an accomplished classical musician.

Ever since Miss America kicked off as a larkish beach publicity stunt in 1921, organizers had been trying to class it up — adding a talent contest, selling war bonds, doling out scholarships, taking up causes. In 1987, Carlson’s mother read about a push to put “more focus on excellence and less focus on the beauty element,” Carlson recalled in her 2015 memoir, “Getting Real.” Carlson took a leave from college to devote herself to violin practice and grueling workouts.

“I was nervous about the swimsuit competition,” she wrote. “The first thing I had to do was get in shape, which meant losing 15 to 20 pounds.”

She did it — and won. Afterward, one of the judges, screenwriter William Goldman, described her as “chunky.” (Reader, she was not.) Decades later, it still stung.

“His objectification of me and the other women in the pageant was demeaning,” she wrote.

Carlson built a high-powered broadcast career on CBS’s “Early Show” and later “Fox and Friends.” And as one of the most famous of the former Misses, she took a central role in the coup that overtook the pageant in the final days of 2017.

Just before Christmas, HuffPost published leaked emails in which chairman and CEO Sam Haskell and a small group of board members crassly disparaged and gossiped about 2013 Miss America Mallory Hagan and other former winners. Within hours, 49 Miss Americas had signed a letter demanding their ouster.

Miss America leadership steps down as controversy envelops the organization

It was a formidable show of unity from an eclectic group — liberal activists, conservative evangelists, showbiz pros, lawyers, stay-at-home moms, boutique owners, health advocates and an obstetrician — who had all once worn the same tiara.

“We told him that enough was enough,” said Heather White­stone McCallum, who gained fame as the first deaf Miss America in 1994. “We forced him to resign.”

Even after board members linked to the emails stepped down, Carlson and Kate Shindle — the 1998 winner and president of the Actors’ Equity union — came back with a call for a “thorough housecleaning.”

Most of the remaining board members agreed to step down — after installing Carlson, Shindle and two other Miss Americas in their place. On Jan. 1, Carlson became the new chair, an unpaid volunteer post. It was a triumphant moment for the Misses, who had long sought a larger voice and now felt they had one of their own in charge.

Since she announced in early June that "Miss America 2.0," as she calls it, would have no swimsuit competition, Carlson has tried to dismiss fears that she's ushering in a somber new program, obsessed with grades and goals.

Of course, she says, physical appearance and poise will still matter — just as they would for any job interview. But the job of Miss America — these days envisioned as a nation-traveling young role model and advocate — has never required wearing a swimsuit, so why should the audition?

Carlson critics, though, say their beef has never been about the demise of swimsuit. “It’s about transparency,” said Suzi Doland, head of the Miss Colorado pageant.

State directors say they accepted the move after being informed in conference calls that a show with bikini’d contestants was at risk of losing its broadcast home on ABC. But the holes in this logic began to dawn on many of them right around the time ABC aired commercials touting the latest season of hot-tub frolics on “The Bachelor.”

Carlson and Hopper deny misleading anyone. The deal with ABC had nothing to do with swimsuits, but questions about swimwear’s relevance had been a big part of negotiations with other partners.

In June came the surprise board resignations of Shindle and Miss America 2012, Laura Kaeppeler Fleiss. Shindle, in a letter to supporters, complained that the pageant hadn’t yet lined up any major sponsors; Fleiss claimed that “dissent was routinely shouted down.”

In a startling retort, Carlson’s board accused Shindle and Fleiss of conspiring to seize control of the organization and other alleged acts of self-dealing. (Neither replied to requests for interviews.)

The moves rattled state directors already agitated by other concerns about the looming pageant, including ambiguity about a new scoring system.

“We have no information about what we’re sending our young women into,” said a state pageant director who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Others are panicked that a swimsuit-less contest will shift an uncomfortable emphasis to talent. The most erratic category of all, it can veer from Carnegie Hall-caliber vocals to novice-level xylophone to goofy, good-natured acts like ventriloquism or clogging.

“Half the women in the Miss America pageant don’t have a talent that is worth 50 percent of the score!” laughed one former winner. Carlson, though, notes that talent used to count for 50 percent back in her day — an era when more than 10 times as many young women were drawn to compete in local pageants.

Carlson chalked up the backlash to “a vocal minority.” Bias, though, maintains many other state directors would have joined the 22 seeking Carlson’s resignation but “they’re scared.” Nerves were further set on edge by the board’s ominous email to state directors promising “no immediate license termination” for the 22 petition-signers.

For former Miss Americas, the chaos is dispiriting. “An environment has been created where some in our ranks are afraid to speak their truth,” said White­stone McCallum, who recently resigned her post on a Miss America task force. She, too, wants to see Carlson resign.

Even now, many pageant stalwarts wonder whether there could have been other ways to show off "lifestyle and fitness," as Miss America long euphemized the swimsuit contest.

Perhaps they could have emphasized athleticism? Sent the contestants out in workout gear? Then again, say some — what’s so bad about swimsuits anyway?

“What kind of world is this that we’re telling women they can’t walk in a bikini because they might be objectified by someone?” asks Betty Cantrell, Miss America 2016. “Girls know what they’re signing up for.”

Heather French Henry gets the empowerment argument. She won the swimsuit competition in 1999, on her way to being crowned Miss America, and she had no qualms.

But “the perception to the general public at large is what we have to deal with,” said Henry, a new board member who has stood by Carlson. “The misperception is that we have made these young women [wear swimsuits] to participate for scholarship money.”

And at the end of the day, they’ll still have evening gowns. And sashes. And, for one woman, a glittering tiara.

“We’re not taking away the glam,” Carlson vowed. “For a lot of young women, that’s really important to feel self-confident.”