Franklin, who came up through the pageant circuit in her home state of North Carolina, sang Puccini’s “Quando m’en vo” during the talent portion. “I want America to see that classical music is still alive and thriving, especially that an African American woman is singing opera,” she said. “Because there’s so many kids out there that don’t know that they can do classical music.”
Aside from the actual competition, all eyes were on Miss America in the wake of the chaos that kicked off last December, when two executives resigned after the exposure of crude emails sent by pageant leaders about contestants. Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor and Miss America 1989, took over as chair. Then this summer, plans for a pageant revamp (which included eliminating the swimsuit competition) triggered an exodus of board members and high-profile calls for Carlson’s resignation. Miss America 2018 Cara Mund of North Dakota wrote a scathing letter last month about her unhappy year working for the organization.
On Monday, ratings showed that 4.3 million viewers tuned in, which marks a 19 percent drop in total viewers from last year. (ABC pointed out it was the most-watched entertainment program of the night, as the pageant was up against the first Sunday night football game of the season.) And Here were some of the best, worst and weirdest moments during the two-hour telecast — and, as promised, it was bikini-free.
* Miss Michigan immediately caused a viral moment.
The beginning of the show kicked off, as usual, with all the contestants proudly introducing themselves and their states. The intros were extremely tame — until Miss Michigan drew gasps from viewers as she delivered a harsh call for attention to the Flint water crisis.
“From the state with 84 percent of the U.S. fresh water but none for its residents to drink,” she said, “I am Miss Michigan Emily Sioma.”
* Miss Connecticut slayed the talent competition.
Some contestants sang songs, others played the piano, a couple delivered spoken-word monologues — and then came Miss Connecticut Bridget Oei, who performed an Irish step dance and moonwalked. The moonwalk really sent it over the edge; alas, it wasn’t enough for the win, as she was named the first runner-up behind New York.
* Miss Florida’s answer during the Q&A.
Miss America now has two interview segments, so there are even more opportunities to go viral for all the wrong reasons. Miss Florida Taylor Tyson avoided that fate, even with a spin on the classic tough interview question of “What’s your biggest weakness?” Judge and country radio host Bobby Bones asked Tyson to name her “most challenging and difficult failure.”
“Failure is a funny word because it implies defeat. And I have had many setbacks in my life, but I’m a firm believer that every setback is a setup for your comeback,” Tyson said, skillfully dodging a specific answer. “And from every tribulation that I have faced, every rejection that I have had, I have used that to turn it into learning how to be a better version of myself.”
The audience roared. “Well said!” declared host Carrie Ann Inaba.
* The constant promotion of “Miss America 2.0.”
Earlier this year, when Carlson announced the elimination of the swimsuit competition, she said, “Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent and empowerment.” As the telecast kicked off, the contestants appeared in a pretaped segment and uttered phrases that describe themselves as competitors in the new “empowered” version of the show: “Smart. Confident. Strong. Talented. Accomplished. Principled. Commanding. Impactful. Diverse. Inclusive.” And on and on.
Admirable, of course — but the show proceeded to pat itself on the back one too many times, with the repeated phrase “Miss America 2.0″ and pushing the narrative that Miss America is still extremely relevant in our culture. (According to Mund’s letter, this is a talking point that the show really wants to get across.)
And in case you managed to miss the swimsuit news, the show emphasized that the segment is dead. Miss Alabama Callie Walker confessed she was shocked when she heard the announcement but assured the audience that it’s for the best: “Sometimes change is hard, but change is good.” At one point, co-host Ross Mathews interviewed Miss America 1948 BeBe Shopp, who was sitting in the crowd to remind everyone that the competition is evolving with the times, going “from swimsuits to educational programs.” We get it, we promise! No more swimsuits!
* Miss New York’s answer to the Q&A.
Nia Franklin won the competition, so who cares if her answer in the final interview segment wasn’t the best? Still, we can’t get it out of our minds. Judge and boxer Laila Ali asked, “How has being the candidate from New York prepared you for the job of Miss America?”
A softball question, but Franklin went with this: “I have New York grit. I have moved over five times because of subletting. In New York, it can be a little difficult because of the pricey rent, but I’ve overcome that.”
Hey, Washingtonians understand the nightmares of sublets and ridiculously expensive rent as much as anyone — but isn’t there a better example of “grit”? Regardless, she quickly managed to save the answer with a much better follow-up: “And also, as a New Yorker, I understand what it takes to work hard. I came up on a Lincoln Center fellowship because I’m an artist. And I am really excited to share my platform, my social impact, advocating for the arts, and make sure all students have access to a quality education.”
* Cara Mund’s final walk as Miss America.
It’s likely that many viewers had no idea that Mund slammed the Miss America Organization in her recent letter, saying officials “silenced me, reduced me, marginalized me, and essentially erased me in my role as Miss America.”
But for those who were aware of the drama, it was awkward to see Mund beam happily and wave as she took her stroll around the stage at the end of the night — and declare in an already-taped voiceover message: “The night I got this important job, I knew I could accomplish anything. It opened the door for endless opportunities.” She added, as she stated last year, that she’s headed to law school and will work toward her dream of becoming North Dakota’s first female governor.
“Miss America gave me the platform,” she said, “And I am just getting started.”