Published 8:11 PM EDT Sep 9, 2018
We live in a divided America these days so, of course, we're divided over Miss America, too, even as antiquated notions of "beauty" lose their cultural significance. Maybe because of that.
So here we are again, back in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where 51 women from the states and the District of Columbia arrived to "compete" for the title of Miss America even as the people running the show carry on their combat behind the scenes, on social media or even in the streets.
On the surface, the conflict is about whether contestants should compete in skimpy swimsuits, long a part of pageant protocol. Below the surface, it's about who controls the 97-year-old Miss America brand. And deeper still, it's about America's latest wrestling match over the meaning of feminism and female empowerment in the 21st century.
It's all a deadly serious matter to critics, defenders and fervent fans of these annual displays of comely young women parading down runways in gowns and crowns.
The 2019 Miss America Competition will be broadcast live Sunday 9 on ABC (9 EDT/PDT), co-hosted by “Dancing With the Stars” judge Carrie Ann Inaba and Ross Mathews, a panelist from "RuPaul's Drag Race."
Who's involved and what's their beef? We explain:
Gretchen Carlson: The 1989 Miss America winner and Fox News anchor is the reform-minded new pageant chairwoman. Intent on dragging Miss America into the 21st century, she announced in June that Miss America 2.0 is no longer a "pageant," it's a "competition."
"We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That means we will no longer have a swimsuit competition," Carlson said on "Good Morning America."
Cara Mund: The reigning Miss America was among those not pleased by the changes. She loudly claims she has been bullied by pageant officials including Carlson seeking to control what she says.
She said she was left out of interviews and not invited to meetings and that her televised farewell speech was cut to 30 seconds after she indirectly hinted at trouble with pageant leadership in a media interview.
"Our chair and CEO have systematically silenced me, reduced me, marginalized me, and essentially erased me in my role as Miss America in subtle and not-so-subtle ways on a daily basis," she lamented in a letter she wrote to former Miss Americas. "The sheer accumulation of the disrespect, passive-aggressive behavior, belittlement, and outright exclusion has taken a serious toll."
She and Carlson have since feuded on social media and in the press about who bullied whom and who should have reached out to the other first before going to the media.
The state pageants' view
Representatives from 22 state pageants signed a petition calling for the resignations of Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper and expressing "no confidence" in the Miss America Organization's board of trustees.
In response, 30 Miss America winners issued their own letter, saying they “fully support Gretchen Carlson (and) our unified board who are and have been working tirelessly to move our program forward."
Origins of the dispute
Miss America has been embroiled in drama since December 2017, when CEO Sam Haskell and several other board members abruptly departed following the leak of vulgar and sexist emails denigrating the appearance, intellect and sex lives of former Miss Americas.
As the #MeToo movement to call out sexual abuse and harassment took flight, Carlson, who left Fox after she successfully sued the network accusing Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment, became the new face of Miss America, while Hopper became the new CEO.
Why a swimsuit isn't just a swimsuit
Carlson has argued that it's more important to judge women on what comes out of their mouths instead of what they wear or don't wear. She said it's "disturbing" to assume viewers might be "bored" by a pageant that celebrates women's talents, ideas and personalities without the usual jiggle and wriggle.
"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 and a swimsuit,' " she said when she announced the swimsuit decision. "So guess what? You don't have to do that anymore. You're welcome. Please come join us."
But Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell told the Associated Press the decision to eliminate the swimsuit portion was presented to the state pageants as a fait accompli, with little time to adjust to the change.
"I thought it would be like, 'Hey, what's y'all's opinion?' " she said. "But, no. It was, 'I have taken away swimsuit and we expect your support.' If they had taken a poll, they would have gotten a resounding 'no.' "
Taking it personally
Some critics have taken to op-ed pages to protest that the changes are an implicit dismissal of all the thousands who competed in the past under the old traditions – and what was so wrong with those traditions anyway?
"Why does Miss America have to change its standards to please people who are never going to like the pageant anyway? Why can't it be called a pageant? When did that become a dirty word?" Lea Schiazza, Miss Pennsylvania 1985, wrote in a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer in June.
"With this change, is it saying that I'm not good enough? That my swimsuit win negates everything else on that ballot where I scored? I guess I'm not smart or talented because I have a trophy. Girls like me don't belong anymore."
On the other hand, Jennifer Aniston – who plays an ex-pageant queen in her upcoming movie, 'Dumplin,’ " – is thrilled about the swimsuit ban. In an interview with InStyle, she questioned how a swimsuit could be a considered a valid measure of a woman's worth.
"You know, a swimsuit body is a body in a swimsuit, no matter what that body is. It’s time to just stop thinking beauty is in the shape of a size 4, and the right butt size, and the right waist size, and the right measurements. It’s just old. We’ve done it. We’ve been there. Let’s move on," she declared.
The scholarship money
After Mund went public with her complaints, Carlson took to Twitter to deny she bullied Mund and to claim that Mund's actions had cost Miss America $75,000 in scholarship money. "We are already seeing a negative ripple effect across the entire organization," she said.
Mund pooh-poohed that. "Sending out this letter, I've had so much support, and two of our top sponsors actually messaged me directly and told me they were proud of the courage to stand up for what's right."
Hopper told the Associated Press that at least as much would be given out in scholarship funds this year as last year: around $500,000 from the Miss America Organization and the Miss America Foundation.
Talk about healing
On Aug. 8, in an interview with AP that Carlson said would be her last on the subject, she said she hoped for healing and unity by the time the next Miss America is crowned.
"It would be important that we all try to come together and have a healing process," she said. At the same time, she dismissed her critics as "a noisy minority" mostly unhappy about the elimination of the swimsuit competition.
But the conflict was far from over as contestants begin arriving in Atlantic City. It might even get worse, at least in public.
Some of the critics told the AP they planned to make a public stink, including filing lawsuits, holding news conferences and mounting demonstrations outside Boardwalk Hall where the pageant is taking place.
Cachet, not sashay
Inside the hall, an onstage interview has replaced the swimsuit competition. And that has generated some controversy of its own, touching on hot button issues including NFL player protests during the national anthem.
Miss Virginia Emili McPhail told judges that players have the right to protest by kneeling, noting that the real issue is police brutality, propelling her to a preliminary win Thursday.
On Friday, Madeline Collins, Miss West Virginia, was asked onstage what she feels is the most serious issue facing the nation.
She replied: "Donald Trump is the biggest issue our country faces. Unfortunately he has caused a lot of division in our country."
Collins did not win the interview contest. That honor went to Miss Massachusetts Gabriela Taveras, whose question dealt with how Americans traveling abroad should interact with people in other countries.
Taveras said it is important to let people in other nations know that, "We as Americans are supporting them and that we are there to help them."
Contributing: The Associated Press