The changes come on the heels of a major shake-up of the Miss America board. In December, chief executive Sam Haskell and board chairman Lynn Weidner stepped down after a report by HuffPost revealed disparaging emails sent by pageant leaders and staffers about former contestants, using crude language.
Shortly after, Gretchen Carlson — the former Fox News anchor who won Miss America in 1989 — was named the organization’s new chairman. Carlson released a statement Tuesday that also credited the Me Too movement with overhauling the event. Carlson, who sued Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes for sexual harassment in 2016 and received a $20 million settlement, has become one of the most outspoken advocates for victims in the Me Too era.
“We are no longer a pageant. Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent and empowerment,” Carlson said in a statement. “We’re experiencing a cultural revolution in our country with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues. Miss America is proud to evolve as an organization and join this empowerment movement.”
On social media, the organization already has a new hashtag for the occasion: #byebyebikini. Carlson also appeared on “Good Morning America” Tuesday and emphasized that the “pageant” will now be known as a “competition.” The organization’s goal is to be “open, transparent and inclusive,” she said, particularly to women who may not have felt comfortable participating in the past.
“We’ve heard from a lot of young women who say, ‘We’d love to be a part of your program, but we don’t want to be out there in high heels in a swimsuit.’ So guess what? You don’t have to do that anymore,” Carlson said. She said that the telecast will also revamp the evening gown competition: “We’re no longer judging women when they come out in their chosen attire, their evening wear, whatever they choose to do. It’s going to be what comes out of their mouth that we’re interested in, when they talk about their social impact initiatives.”
When “GMA” anchor Amy Robach asked about potential ratings drop, given that some viewers may want to see women in swimsuits, Carlson dismissed the idea.
“Interestingly enough, that’s not a highly rated part of the competition. People actually like the talent part of the competition,” Carlson said. (Last year, the pageant drew 5.6 million viewers, down from the previous year of 6.2 million.)
Miss America first launched in 1921 as a swimsuit pageant, a publicity stunt to promote Atlantic City beaches. As the years went on, the winner of the swimsuit preliminary competition became a good indicator of who was likely to win the crown.
According to pageant coach Valerie Hayes, Miss America executives have had discussions about eliminating the segment for several years, and the introduction of new leadership provided the perfect opportunity — particularly because the board is now populated with former contestants who understand the pressure that comes when appearing in a bikini on television.
“I think that their personal experience is coloring the direction that the pageant is going in,” Hayes said.
Hayes called Tuesday’s changes “brilliant” for two reasons: Pageant enrollment numbers have dropped, and she said many young women have cited their reluctance to wear a bathing suit onstage in the social media era, when the image will be immediately circulated and judged. And second, the financial aspect for the organization: Some sponsors were squeamish about attaching themselves to a pageant that featured a swimsuit competition.
“Now this enables [Miss America executives] to approach companies and say, ‘We’re a leadership program and an academic achievement program — that’s consistent with the mission and values of your company,’ ” Hayes said. And more women might be inspired to participate, even if they don’t fit the stereotypical image of a size-zero pageant winner. “This opens the door to many more contestants.”
Plus, now the organization can eliminate criticisms that have become sharper in the reckoning of the Me Too era, as the swimsuit segment was often criticized for being outdated and demeaning. Such shifts are a new theme in pop culture. Earlier this year, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue made tweaks intended as progressive, such as having models write empowering messages on their bodies. People magazine renamed its “World’s Most Beautiful” edition to “The Beautiful Issue” — as the magazine said, “to make clear that the issue is not a beauty contest.”
“It’s hard to imagine that this would have happened if not for this cultural moment right now,” said Hilary Levey Friedman, a professor at Brown University and pageant culture expert. “I do think it’s been historically difficult in recent years for the Miss America program to tout itself for scholarship — but you have to wear a bathing suit and walk in high heels to get it.”