National News

Miss America Ends Swimsuit Competition, Aiming to Evolve in ‘This Cultural Revolution’

Posted June 5, 2018 8:17 p.m. EDT
Updated June 5, 2018 8:19 p.m. EDT

For the first time in nearly a century, Miss America contestants will not strut onstage in swimsuits this year, the organizers announced on Tuesday, as the pageant tries to redefine its role in an era of female empowerment and gender equality.

Miss America and swimsuits have been synonymous since its first contest in 1921 on the Atlantic City boardwalk. But what started as contestants wearing one-piece bathing suits, conservative by today’s standards, became women in revealing bikinis and high heels parading around for a leering television audience.

Now under mostly female leadership, the Miss America Organization said Tuesday that it was scrapping the swimsuit competition, starting at the national contest in September, in a sweeping change that will also reshape local and state contests.

“I’ve talked to tons of young people who’ve said to me, ‘I’d love to be a part of that program, but I don’t want to parade around in a swimsuit,'” Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor who is now the organization’s chairwoman, said in an interview. “I get it.”

The organization, confronting its own harassment scandal and searching for its place in the #MeToo era, had worked on the new format for several months. The nine members of the board of directors — seven are now women — unanimously approved the change in March. It was kept a secret until two days ago, when state directors and former Miss Americas were informed.

Carlson, who assumed a prominent voice for women’s rights in the workplace after filing a harassment lawsuit in 2016 against the former Fox chairman Roger Ailes, said the competition would focus more on the contestants’ talents, intelligence and ideas.

“We are not going to judge you on your outward appearance,” Carlson, who was Miss America in 1989, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday. “We are moving it forward and evolving it in this cultural revolution.”

The changes will be immediate for Miss America, but will take longer to arrive at local and state events, Carlson confirmed. Since state contests are underway, they will not adopt the new format until after the national competition in September.

The Miss America Organization has undergone a rapid change in the past six months. Carlson was named chairwoman in January, and several women were appointed to the organization’s highest ranks.

Those changes came after emails surfaced in December showing that Sam Haskell, the former chief executive, had made disrespectful and misogynistic comments about former pageant winners. Miss America is also confronting dwindling viewership as people turn away from live televised events.

Earlier this year, the Miss America Organization brought in the advertising agency Young & Rubicam to help with its branding. Y&R conducted interviews with several past pageant winners, state volunteers, board members, and other stakeholders. The message from Y&R was clear: Miss America needed to modernize to relate to younger women today. Their recommendations included focusing on the career achievements of past winners, and suggested that the swimsuit competition could distract from that message.

“This will be more inclusive,” said Jennifer Vaden-Barth, a Miss America board member, who was also Miss North Carolina 1991. “It’ll allow us to put the ownership of a woman’s presence and beauty in her hands.”

Miss America started as a beachside beauty pageant in 1921 in an effort by Atlantic City to extend the summer vacation season. At the first competition, the top finisher was crowned Miss America and a runner-up received the swimsuit trophy.

Over the decades, the Miss America Organization struggled to reconcile its stated mission — empowering women and handing out millions of dollars in scholarships — with requiring contestants to wear revealing attire.

The organization’s leaders have said for more than 20 years they had thought about altering the swimsuit competition. Until recently, though, they continued to defend it, asserting that the competition is about poise in uncomfortable situations and fitness, not thinness.

In last year’s edition of the instruction manual for state-level judges, the organization noted that many view the swimsuit portion as exploitative. “It is the Miss America Organization’s belief that those who feel that way really don’t understand the competition itself,” it said. “Regardless of what we may each believe about the role of the Miss America Organization’s titleholders, the American public has an expectation that she will be beautiful and physically fit.”

Yet some former contestants have spoken out against the swimsuit competition, saying it led to serious physical and mental problems. Kirsten Haglund, who was Miss America in 2008, wrote on Facebook on Tuesday that the swimsuit portion “perpetuated the objectification of women more than it empowered them.”

The directors of the Miss America state contests, who were told of the changes two days ago, offered a range of reactions to the announcement, with some welcoming it and others expressing dismay. On Twitter, the Miss Georgia pageant reassured fans that its contest next week will still include swimsuits.

“It’s discouraging to hear, I was definitely a proponent of it,” said Chaz Ellis, the interim executive director of the Miss South Carolina Scholarship Organization, adding that he supported the national group despite the changes. “It’s about physical fitness, it’s about a healthy lifestyle.”

Not everyone in the pageant world, however, agreed that the swimsuit portion was entirely about judging fitness. “I don’t know if that’s completely honest or accurate,” said Leah Summers, the executive director of the Miss West Virginia Scholarship Organization, who won that state’s title in 1991.

Summers said she anticipated “pretty dramatic changes” from the national organization after the appointment of a new chairwoman and new female board members. She said the new leaders are trying to keep Miss America relevant.

And, she noted, the news would no doubt bring contestants a measure of relief. “There’s something to be said about not having to think about walking across a stage in a bikini,” she said.

Beth Knox, executive director of the Miss North Carolina Scholarship Pageant, said that she was thrilled at the development: A woman’s goals and aspirations were far more important than how she looked in a swimsuit.

“If people really listen with an open mind to the reason this change is being implemented, I just do not see how anyone could not support this improvement,” Knox wrote in an email. Miss America is one of two major pageants in the United States. The other, Miss USA, was founded in the early 1950s by a swimsuit company after Miss America would not allow the company to use pictures of its contestants for advertising. Miss USA also operates Miss Teen USA and is part of Miss Universe, the international pageant that Donald Trump owned from 1996 to 2015.

Officials at the Miss Universe Organization did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment on Tuesday about whether they would also end the swimsuit competition.

Miss America and Miss USA have long positioned themselves as different pageants. Miss USA is a for-profit show-business enterprise focused on beauty and whose contestants typically reveal more skin and do not have to perform a talent. Miss America is a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization with affiliates in 50 states and in the District of Columbia.

The announcement by the Miss America Organization was more than two decades in the making. In the early 1990s, the organization acknowledged the controversy over the swimsuit portion and asked viewers to vote on whether to keep it.

“We are not stupid,” Leonard Horn, the organization’s chief executive, said in 1993. “We are very sensitive to the fact that the swimsuit competition has always been our Achilles’ heel. The swimsuit competition has been controversial since the early 1920s, but it’s been retained because the majority of the people like it.”

The Miss America winner in 1993, Leanza Cornett, said at the time that the swimsuits should be scrapped. But another unscientific poll by the organization in 1995 found that two-thirds of respondents wanted it to stay.

It is unclear whether advertisers were consulted on Miss America’s decision, but the industry has been working in recent years to improve how women are portrayed on TV both in commercials and in programming. The Association of National Advertisers has led an effort called #SeeHer that has been assigning scores to ads and some shows based on whether women are depicted respectfully and as good role models for other women and young girls. Earlier this year, AT&T said it had started talking with networks and cable companies about incorporating such scores into its ad buys.

“We firmly support this change,” said Stephen Quinn, the chairman of the initiative and the former marketing chief of Walmart. “It is important and consistent with #SeeHer’s mission to increase the accurate portrayal of women in media.”

Last year, 5.6 million viewers watched “The Miss America Competition” on ABC, down 10 percent from 6.2 million in 2016 and 7 million in 2015. But many live shows have experienced similar ratings declines, including “Sunday Night Football,” the Olympics, the Oscars and the Grammys.

Carlson said Tuesday that viewers’ opinions had changed. The swimsuit portion of the competition was “not a highly rated part,” she said.

“People actually like the talent part of the competition,” she said.