The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Miss America leadership steps down as controversy envelops the organization

Sam Haskell, the ousted chief executive of the Miss America Organization. (Mel Evans/AP)

The top leaders of the Miss America Organization resigned Saturday after the revelation of emails in which previous pageant winners were disparaged and called crude names.

Sam Haskell stepped down as chief executive, and board chairman Lynn Weidner submitted her resignation, according to the organization, which puts on the annual pageant.

Pageant President Josh Randle and Washington media maven Tammy Haddad, a board member, also resigned.

The resignations came after 49 former Miss America winners signed a petition asking for Haskell to step down after the publication Friday by HuffPost of emails sent between Haskell and organization staffers and board members that included sexist, insulting comments about former Miss Americas and laid bare deep dysfunction within the organization.

In one published email, a telecast writer told Haskell he would refer to all former Miss America winners as a crass word for female genitalia.

“Perfect…bahahaha,” Haskell replied, according to the report.

Haskell released a statement Friday night apologizing for a “mistake of words,” but he called the HuffPost story “dishonest, deceptive, and despicable.”

The emails HuffPost reported are, at a minimum, indicative of deep fissures within the Miss America Organization, a group known for lofty propriety and an aversion to scandal. But it is no surprise that they’ve emerged as the “Me Too” movement has swept the nation, bringing bad behavior to light in every corner of society.

“The language used and the attitudes toward the former Miss Americas was completely shocking because they’re usually treated with a lot of reverence,” Hilary Levey Friedman, a professor at Brown University who studies pageant culture, told The Washington Post. “The totality of it was quite surprising. And at this moment in American culture, this feels particularly weighty.”

Caressa Cameron, a Fredericksburg, Va., native who held the Miss America title in 2010, said in an interview with The Washington Post that the problem was not one of language, but of respect and leadership style.

Haskell joined the Miss America organization in 2005 after a successful career as a talent agent, and he is largely credited with bringing the pageant back to prominence. But former pageant winners are claiming that he ruled with an iron fist and shamed and blackballed women who didn’t comply with his wishes.

Cameron said her troubles with Haskell began 30 days into her reign, after she invited a woman who had coached her to a homecoming party being thrown in Cameron’s honor. “Sam Haskell said I was not to invite her. She could not come. He basically threw a temper tantrum,” she recalls. “And then he didn’t come. He didn’t come, along with very prominent members of the organization and the board.”

Cameron said the organization prevented her from participating in events related to her platform, HIV/AIDS prevention, and that she was once mistakenly copied on an email in which Haskell referred to her mother as “uneducated trash.”

Much of the HuffPost report focused on Haskell’s ire with the 2013 Miss America, Mallory Hagan. The article included emails in which Haskell makes insulting remarks about Hagan’s body and sexual history. The story also includes emails attacking former winners Kate Shindle and Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News host who sued network chairman Roger Ailes over sexual harassment. According to the report, a key production partner, Dick Clark Productions, ended a deal with Miss America after reviewing the offensive emails

Cameron said she and a group of other former Miss America winners organized to demand the resignations of the entire board and leadership team.

Haddad, who is also reportedly quoted in some of the negative emails, had submitted her resignation from the board earlier in the year, but she made it effective immediately after the HuffPost report was published Friday. “The women who put their hopes and dreams into this program are the best of America,” Haddad said in a statement.

Cameron said she and the other former winners would like to see the reins of the pageant handed to Shindle and Carlson for temporary stewardship.

“I don’t think it’s the end,” Cameron said. “Women who are this driven, this educated and this connected — we can definitely steer this thing and make it greater than it’s ever been.”

The Miss America pageant took place on Sept. 10. Here’s how the Internet reacted to the pageant's political Q&A period. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

Emily Yahr contributed to this report.