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‘No Miss America should be humiliated’: Before giving up crown, Cara Mund blasts pageant leadership

Miss North Dakota Cara Mund answers questions during the Miss America 2018 pageant before being crowned the winner in Atlantic City last September. (Noah K. Murray/AP)

Updated 5:15 p.m.

In the civil war erupting over the future of the Miss America pageant — with former winners and state organizers at odds over the controversial new leadership of Gretchen Carlson — one voice had been notably absent: Miss America’s.

But now the reigning titleholder, Cara Mund, is speaking out, describing a desperately unhappy year in a job that once turned young women into pop-culture sensations. In a letter to several former Miss Americas on Wednesday, the 24-year-old North Dakota native blasted Carlson’s team for having “silenced me, reduced me, marginalized me, and essentially erased me in my role as Miss America.”

Mund, a graduate of Brown University, described being sidelined at key meetings and media events, undermined by pageant staff, criticized for her clothing choices and barred from penning her own social-media posts. “My voice is not heard nor wanted by our current leadership,” she wrote, “nor do they have any interest in knowing who I am and how my experiences relate to positioning the organization for the future.”

And she says she has been punished for giving an interview this month to the Press of Atlantic City newspaper. After the publication of the article, in which she acknowledged “it’s been a tough year,” she was told her farewell appearance at next month’s pageant would be limited to 30 seconds.

“I haven’t felt like Miss America for the last 8 months, and now, they are even taking away my goodbye,” Mund wrote.

In a short statement late Friday afternoon, the Miss America Organization — Mund’s official employer for the next three weeks — emphasized that it “supports Cara” but added that “it is disappointing that she chose to air her grievances publicly” and that “we are reaching out to her privately to address her concerns.” The statement said her letter included “mischaracterizations and many unfounded accusations,” but did not specify.

The letter is the latest blow to the struggling 97-year-old pageant during a season that some had hoped would mark its comeback. Carlson, the former Fox News host — and Miss America 1989 — took over as chair in January after the ouster of longtime chief executive Sam Haskell, for emails in which he mocked and disparaged several former Miss Americas. Her announcement in early June that Miss America would get rid of its age-old swimsuit competition — a move she said would open up the pageant to more women by emphasizing brains and accomplishment — made national headlines.

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But it also triggered a rift in the network of volunteers and boosters who keep the pageantry going. Twenty-two state pageant organizers issued a call for her resignation, and four new board members left the organization, alleging that they were misled about the reasons for axing the swimsuit contest amid other complaints about governance; last month, Marjorie Vincent-Tripp, Miss America 1991 and an assistant state attorney general in Florida, resigned from her new role as head of the group’s scholarship fundraising arm. And last week, 13 former Miss Americas echoed the call for Carlson’s removal.

It’s unclear whether any of this criticism will gain traction — but it seems guaranteed to make for an uncomfortable time in Atlantic City next month, when the pageant world gathers to crown a new Miss America. In an interview last month, Carlson attributed the criticism to “a vocal minority” and that “change is difficult.”

Mund wrote in her letter that after Carlson’s board took over in January, she “was given three talking points” and told to stick to them: That “Miss America is relevant”; that “the #MeToo movement started with a Miss America” (Carlson, who sued her Fox News boss Roger Ailes for sexual harassment in 2016); and that both she and Carlson were graduates of elite colleges.

“Right away, the new leadership delivered an important message: There will be only one Miss America at a time, and she isn’t me,” Mund wrote.

She noted that Carlson was the only person used to talk publicly about the pageant’s changes, even though “I, as a young leader, have firsthand knowledge and experience regarding the ways in which MAO is supposedly poised for the future,” Mund wrote. And at a meeting with this year’s contestants, Mund said she was not permitted to speak openly and the organization’s new president, Regina Hopper, referred to her by another Miss America’s name. “It was another low point for me,” she wrote. “No Miss America should be humiliated or erased. Ever.”

While past Miss Americas had clothing provided by sponsors for their year of public events, the organization did not secure a sponsorship this year, and Mund “spent all year buying my own appearance wardrobe,” she wrote. “Most of what I bought was rejected, and I was told what I wasn’t permitted to wear. What happened to the new motto of Miss America getting to express her own sense of style?”

Updated 5:15 p.m. with comment from the Miss America Organization.