By Emily L. Foley
Sep 06, 2018 @ 4:00 pm
Donald Kravitz/Getty Images

The Miss America pageant was created 97 years ago, as a popularity and beauty contest to entice vacationers to visit Atlantic City. Over the years, it has evolved into much more — a scholarship program, and a platform for young women to raise awareness of their community service pursuits and jumpstart their professional ones, for example. But the show’s roots remained, and taking onstage turns in bathing suits and fancy gowns continued to be central to its draw. Then in June, under the new leadership of Gretchen Carlson, a television commentator and former Miss America herself, the swimsuit round of Miss America was eliminated — as was the word “pageant.” Carlson informed the world that the preferred nomenclature was “competition,” and Miss America 2.0 was born. And while this kind of change in the name of progress seems de rigueur in 2018, amid the constant cultural reevaluating brought on by the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, a surprising amount of controversy and discord followed the announcement.

“A lot of people don’t like change,” shares Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, and the first Indian-American ever to win the title. “When I won Miss America, I went in with the idea that the organization needed to change, and I was part of that,” she says. “The girl next door has evolved — but when I won, there was lots of backlash. Change is hard, but it’s also really important.”

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And those changes are still happening by the minute when it comes to the two-hour televised event which airs at 9 p.m. on Sunday, September 9, on ABC. Just days before, contestants are still unsure exactly how many interview questions they will be answering live, and if any of what used to be called their “private interview” will now be aired on TV. The exact scoring of the various components has also not been offered up to the public (or reporters). What is clear is that there will be no swimsuits, and during what used to be the formal wear portion of the competition, the women will apparently now be allowed to choose whatever type of attire they prefer, and the focus will instead be their platforms and backgrounds. One stalwart, however, will be the talent competition.

Courtesy Matt Boyd Photography and the Miss America Organization

Current Miss America Cara Mund says it has been revealed in just the past few days that the talent portion of the competition is now worth 50 percent of each woman’s score: “The elimination of swimsuit may open the organization up to more people, but it might exclude other people to put so much weight on the talent portion,” she says.

“I think everyone was already welcome [in Miss America], and you saw that across local and state levels. My hope is that the increase in talent doesn’t discourage people who would say, ‘I don’t have a talent, I can’t do that,'" which is a worthwhile concern when you consider the type of talents usually displayed during the show. Baton twirling, yodeling, and ventriloquism, for example, are not uncommon on the Miss America stage. “I do know that although my talent was dancing, during my year as Miss America, I have not danced once, so for that aspect to be worth 50 percent of your score — why compete with something you’re not going to do?”

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This sentiment is echoed by Chris Saltalamacchio, a pageant coach who has worked with recent title holders such as Jennifer Davis, who was last year’s Miss America runner-up as Miss Missouri, and the current Miss Vermont. “When the announcement was first made, I had girls in front of me crying, saying, ‘Why did I go to the gym every day for the last month?’ So while I’m not upset about swimsuit going away from the competition, I do think these girls should be given the chance to showcase their physical abilities,” he says. “To say that the Miss America competition is no longer about physical appearance — that is completely impossible!”

Saltalamacchio also questions whether inclusivity is really the underlying goal of these changes. “I think it would be great if women of different shapes and sizes can embrace competing now, but I don’t know about people saying swimsuit is what kept many women away from competing over the years. I’ve been involved with this organization for 13 years, and talent is usually the reason I hear from people who say they can’t compete. I hear that tenfold over someone saying they don’t want to get in a swimsuit.”

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Mallory Hagan, Miss America 2013, and a current candidate for Congress in Alabama, found herself at the center of much of the organization’s recent turmoil, after former Miss America CEO Sam Haskell’s emails crudely discussing Hagan’s weight and sex life surfaced last December. As far as she’s concerned, changes to the swimwear element of the show are clearly a step forward. “I don’t think there is a world where this isn’t a positive step,” she says. “We have no shortage of Instagram models and health and wellness models out there who put their bodies on display, but we don’t have plenty of young, motivated, service-minded young women in the public eye to look up to. That is the void Miss Americas have been filling for years, and the job description isn’t changing, but now we are able to show the public what it is we’ve been doing all this time.”

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Two weeks ago, 51 new women, each a newly crowned title holder from her respective state (and Washington D.C.), arrived in Atlantic City to begin preliminary competition and rehearsals for the televised portion of this year’s event. Just by winning their state titles, these young women were inaugurated the “new class” of Miss America, and inherited the host of changes — and hefty dose of unknowns — awaiting them. It seems they are up for the task. “We’ve all accepted that we’re the first class of Miss America 2.0, and I’m very welcoming of the changes here,” says Miss Mississippi, Asya Branch. “Your appearance in a swimsuit doesn’t dictate your ability to be Miss America. Previously, [viewers] have questioned, ‘How did this person become the winner?’ and now they’ll have more insight into what we stand for, and who we are.”

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Nia Franklin, Miss New York, agrees: “I am a curvy woman, and I am proud of that, and I’ve never felt excluded because of my body type, but now that there is no swimsuit competition, it does feel more inclusive for everyone,” she says. “We’re giving out scholarships, and at the end of the day, especially in 2018, it’s not necessary to wear a swimsuit to get a scholarship.”

Some of the changes more explicitly benefit the contestant pool. For example, at 25-years-old, Miss Wisconsin, Tianna Vanderhei, is only able to compete this year because the maximum age was recently raised a year from 24. That was Carlson’s first change to the organization’s official rules, in order to allow more women working toward advanced college degrees a chance to get their hands on those scholarships. “This is absolutely a pivotal year for Miss America, and that is why we current 51 competitors created the hashtag #wearemissamerica,” Vanderhei says. “We know we were put here this year in particular for a reason, and we are strong enough for these changes.”

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The hashtag shows a mix of girls-night-out like photos of contestants sharing celebratory meals with one another, between personal affirmations about having the inner fortitude necessary to walk across that stage a winner. Strength comes up a lot, and it's a big part of what Miss Arizona, Isabel Ticlo values in this kind of competition, as the fitness award winner at her state pageant. “I don’t think these changes are saying you don’t have to be healthy, you just don’t have to be judged in a swimsuit, anymore,” she says. “Progress is a great thing, and change usually leads to progress.”

While the competitors largely see Miss America 2.0 to be proof of positive progress, it’s possible the evolution itself could’ve been handled more inclusively. “I wish more people had been involved in the process of creating these changes,” says Mund. “I think reaching out at the local and state levels, asking girls who are currently competing if they have concerns — we have such outstanding, smart women in our midst, and they are such a resource,” she says. “[It should] have been the stakeholders and not just leadership making the decisions about the changes.”

Indeed, change is hard, and after months (and often years) of rigorous training in the gym and on the catwalk, only to discover they should have perhaps spent more time practicing the piano or singing scales, this new class knows firsthand. Perhaps a percentage of their score should be based on flexibility? So far, it looks like the new rules, for this new class, are just one more challenge they’re game to accept. As Mund puts it, “This year’s winner will just be that much stronger of a Miss America, because she will have gone through all this change.”