Gretchen Carlson, the chairwoman of the Miss America board, and Miss America CEO Regina Hopper have come under fire for their leadership after the swimsuit competition was eliminated from the pageant. A letter signed by a group of former national titleholders calls for their immediate resignation.
The drama surrounding the upcoming Miss America pageant shows no signs of coming to a resolution.
With just four weeks left before the 2019 pageant gets underway in Atlantic City, a group of former titleholders have issued a letter calling for the immediate resignation of Gretchen Carlson, chairwoman of the Miss America board of trustees, along with pageant CEO Regina Hopper.
“We insist that our current Charwoman and CEO resign now, not after September 9 (the date of the pageant),” the letter says, adding that the message is “not meant to be a personal attack on any one individual.”
Unrest has consumed the pageant community in the wake of the decision to eliminate the swimsuit competition, but critics say problems with the pageant’s current leaders surpass bikinis.
Miss America 2016, Betty Cantrell Maxwell, shared the letter on Instagram Thursday. The message was addressed to “faithful stakeholders,” the Miss America State Titleholders Association, volunteers and Miss America 2018, Cara Mund.
The letter agrees with Carlson’s wish, as expressed in a recent interview with the Associated Press, that the Miss America community “come together and have a healing process,” but says contestants and volunteers find it hard to trust Hopper and Carlson.
The message addresses “the loss of your elected board members” and the resignation of staff from the Atlantic City-based Miss America Organization this summer.
“We continue to read newspaper articles that are not representing the organization in the best light,” the letter says. “None of the other MAO leaders have lost so many board members an staff in such a short time.”
The former Miss Americas say they were given the opportunity to replace the former CEO and chairman of the board with “our very own sisters,” which did usher in the temporary appointment of former titleholders to co-chair roles on the board. From there, Carlson was supposed to head up a national search to find a new CEO.
“We did not get that,” the letter says, referring to the appointment of Hopper as CEO.
“Instead, she (Carlson) selected the sole candidate for board consideration and together they have taken the organization in a direction that we do not condone.”
Hopper played a role in the eventual ouster of Haskell, the former CEO, because she helped to bring his leaked emails to the attention of Dick Clark Productions, the pageant’s former partner, which eventually dropped the organization after it took no action against leadership.
The letter asks that Miss America issue an apology to state and local titleholders, volunteers and sponsors “if anything was done purposefully or unintentionally to divide our program.”
A total of 11 former Miss Americas signed the letter, including two from New Jersey — Suzette Charles, who served several weeks as Miss America 1984 after Vanessa Williams resigned over a nude photo scandal, and Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998, who resigned from the Miss America board this summer. Charles, a former Miss New Jersey, hails from Mays Landing and Shindle (who won as Miss Illinois) grew up in Brigantine and Moorestown.
The other signees are Marjorie Vincent-Tripp, Miss America 1991, who recently resigned from her post as chairwoman of the Miss America Foundation’s board of trustees; Laura Kaeppeler Fleiss, Miss America 2012, who recently resigned from the Miss America board; Carolyn Sapp Daniels, Miss America 1992; Heather Whitestone McCallum, Miss America 1995; Nicole Johnson, Miss America 1999; Angela Baraquio Grey, Miss America 2001; Ericka Dunlap, Miss America 2004; and Caressa Cameron-Jackson, Miss America 2010.
This letter follows one signed by 22 state pageant directors that called for Carlson and Hopper’s resignation, along with the resignation of the entire Miss America board. Those criticizing Carlson and Hopper’s leadership say the rift has much to do with the way the swimsuit decision was made.
“‘Miss America 2.0’ is simply a title for the same old tactics of obfuscation and fear-based governance,” the petition read, referring to efforts to rebrand the pageant, which has also made changes to the evening gown part of competition (instead of just walking down the runway in gowns, contestants are invited to wear other types of outfits and talk about their social impact initiatives, or platforms.)
Critics say that volunteers, former titleholders and the Miss America board, which voted on the issue, had been told that ABC would not air the pageant unless swimsuits were no longer part of the picture. But Carlson and Hopper say they never made the claim.
“It is patently false to allege that Miss America claimed that the elimination of the swimsuit competition was a prerequisite to airing the telecast on ABC,” the Miss America Organization said in a statement. “In fact, the Miss America Organization had confirmation from ABC in January, months before the swimsuit issue was voted upon, that it would air the Miss America Competition on September 9, 2018.”
This is the pageant’s last year of a three-year contract with the network. It’s also the last year of a three-year contract with the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, through which the pageant secured $4.3 million for the coming pageant, which begins with preliminary competition on Sept. 5.
“There were, however, extensive production company and creative partner negotiations in which the elimination of swimsuit was noted as a prerequisite to partner with MAO,” the statement continued.
Vaden Barth, one of the former board members, told the Associated Press that Hopper and Carlson said “sponsors and networks will not come” if the swimsuit portion was still in effect.
“We do not accept the inaccurate words about the sponsors and swimsuit competition,” reads the letter from the 11 Miss Americas read.
But this isn’t the only group of former Miss Americas to speak out. Directly after the state director petition circulated in July, 30 former Miss Americas signed a letter of support for the leadership.
Hopper and Carlson have characterized opposition to their leadership as Miss America devotees who are resistant to necessary change. In her recent interview with the Associated Press, Carlson, a former Fox News host, called those opposing her leadership as “a noisy minority.”
Cantrell Maxwell has since used the hashtag #noisyminority as a point of pride.
“Just because you have a voice doesn’t mean your particular opinion gets accepted,” Hopper said in the same story. “States are licensees. If I’m a McDonald’s licensee and the corporate office decides, ‘We’re going to serve chocolate french fries’ and I’m sitting here saying, ‘I don’t want to serve chocolate french fries,’ well, you’re going to serve chocolate french fries.”
The letter from the 11 former Miss Americas said the “hope is to unite in collaboration and lift the ideals of Miss America up higher than it has ever been before.”
Carlson became chairwoman of the Miss America board in January after an email scandal that caused the ouster of the former CEO. In June, she announced that Miss America would no longer be judging contestants, who she now calls “candidates,” on physical appearance and no longer require them to wear bathing suits and heels.
When former CEO Sam Haskell and other executives were pushed out after his emails were leaked, showing misogynistic and body-shaming language in his correspondence with pageant staff, Carlson headed up an effort to stock the board with former titleholders. Regina Hopper, Miss Arkansas 1983, came on board as CEO of the Miss America Organization in May, Vincent-Tripp was named chairwoman of the Miss America Foundation’s board of trustees.
For the first time in pageant history, all of the pageant’s major executives were women.
But the new leadership structure began to crack not long after the announcement of the swimsuit decision. Two board members — Jennifer Vaden Barth, a former Miss North Carolina, and Valerie Crooker Clemens, a former Miss Maine — said they were pushed out, while Carlson said they departed because their contracts were temporary. Then two other board members — Shindle and Fleiss, also resigned.
Vincent-Tripp became the latest executive to resign in July. While she didn’t give a reason for her exit last month, she also signed the letter opposing Carlson and Hopper.
Carlson sued former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes for sexual harassment in 2016. The following year, Carlson, the author of “Be Fierce,” a book about sexual harassment and inequality in the workplace, became a prominent voice in the emerging #MeToo movement. But critics have accused Carlson of using the momentum of #MeToo and her status to push the swimsuit change.
Carlson denied this, saying dropping the swimsuits helps to update the pageant and make it more inclusive. One goal, she said, was to make the competition more attractive to potential participants. Past feedback had indicated that for some, the swimsuit portion was a major barrier to entry, she said.
But current and former contestants, including Dunlap and Cantrell Maxwell, have spoken out in support of the swimsuit competition. If Carlson and Hopper took a poll of state pageant directors, contestants, volunteers and former titleholders about getting rid of the swimsuit portion, “they would have gotten a resounding no” Cantrell Maxwell, 23, told NJ Advance Media in July.
“On another point, it’s like, we need to at least get thorough September so we can have a competition,” she said.
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