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Setback for women or long overdue? Former Miss Americas on end of swimsuit competition

“We are in a new era," said Mallory Hagan, 29, the 2013 Miss America. "This is a way to modernize and open the door for a new wave of contestants."
Contestants wave from the stage of the 2018 Miss America Competition on Sept. 10, 2017.Lou Rocco / ABC via Getty Images

At a private retreat in January, more than four dozen Miss America winners came together to discuss a question looming over the pageant’s future: Should the swimsuit contest be scrapped?

The Miss America Organization was considering the change as part of an effort to refocus the pageant away from the contestants’ personal appearance and toward their goals and achievements. In seeking to remain relevant, the nearly 100-year-old organization, under a new group of women leaders, including former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, is looking to reverse declining viewership.

On Tuesday, five months after that debate-filled winter retreat, Carlson announced the board had unanimously voted to scrap the swimsuit event and replace it with televised interviews with contestants. The news was largely applauded by former Miss Americas — but not all. While some former winners called the contest’s end long overdue, at least one argued that it has been a fundamental part of the pageant’s history.

“You’ll never get 100 percent on your side,” said Carlson, who was crowned Miss America in 1989 and was elected chair of the board in January after an email scandal that forced out the previous chair, a man. “But it was about time for the organization to come up to the relevancy of 2018.”

Miss America 1988
Gretchen Carlson won the 1989 Miss America crown. Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic / Getty Images

After the announcement, Kira Kazantsev, 26, who won the 2015 crown, shared her excitement with NBC News. “I thought this was the best thing they could do for future of the organization," she said. While the swimsuit competition was “a big part of our history,” she added, “it’s time to move forward and change.”

Mallory Hagan, 29, the 2013 Miss America, agreed.

“I don’t think you need to put on a swimsuit to tell that someone is physically fit or beautiful,” Hagan said. “We are in a new era. This is a way to modernize and open the door for a new wave of contestants.”

But Betty Cantrell, 23, who won the 2016 title, said the move would take away from the event’s focus on health and fitness.

“Miss America is about having beauty and brains — it’s not about being Miss Businesswoman,” Cantrell said.

After she won, Cantrell worked to promote healthy lifestyle initiatives to combat obesity in her home state, Georgia. She also thinks the change diminishes the progress women have made in taking pride in their bodies.

Image: Miss Georgia Cantrell reacts after being crowned Miss America 2016 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City
Miss Georgia Betty Cantrell reacts after being crowned Miss America 2016.Mark Makela / Reuters

“It’s essentially saying that women shouldn’t be proud to be in their own skin. We’re telling women to cover up,” Cantrell said. “This is setting women back decades.”

Kirsten Haglund says the swimsuit competition itself was setting women back. The 2008 Miss America had an eating disorder before joining the pageant and hoped her win would help her promote a healthy body image among girls. But once she started traveling as the title holder, she discovered the swimsuit competition cast a negative shadow on her message.

“I saw how difficult it was to give that message of body positivity when the public message of Miss America has been objectified as just a beauty pageant,” Hagland, 29, said.

The swimsuit competition dates to the founding of the crowning of Miss America in 1921 as a bathing beauty revue in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The debate over the competition has lasted almost as long.

Yolande Betbeze Fox, who won the 1951 title, became one of the first internal critics when she refused to wear a bathing suit in promotional photos after being crowned Miss America.

Contestants in the first Miss America pageant line up for the judges in Atlantic City in 1921
Contestants in the first Miss America pageant line up for the judges in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in Sept. 1921. Miss America started as a bathing suit contest on the uncomplicated theory it might help fill Atlantic City hotel rooms for an extra week past Labor Day at the end of the summer season.AP file

In 1993, the Miss America Organization encouraged viewers to call in and vote on whether the show should drop the swimsuit event and focus on young women's intellect and talents instead. “The swimsuit competition has been controversial since the early 1920s, but it's been retained because the majority of the people like it,” Leonard Horn, the pageant’s CEO, said at the time.

While the swimsuit competition was popular, ratings for the show have fallen in recent years, and some former Miss Americas have criticized the organization for failing to adapt to modern sensibilities. Last year’s pageant brought in 5.6 million viewers, down from 6.25 million who tuned in in 2016 and 7.9 million in 2015, according to Nielsen figures.

The #MeToo movement provided the final push to ax the swimsuit competition — and not just because it increasingly appeared in poor taste. Leaked emails last year revealed CEO Sam Haskell making sexist and crude comments about past contestants, leading to his resignation and costing the organization its relationship with Dick Clark Productions, which had co-produced the pageant.

Carlson was elected chair of Miss America’s board in January, and several other former winners joined the board as well: Laura Kaeppeler Fleiss (‘12), Heather French Henry (‘00) and Kate Shindle (‘98).

Carlson said the decision to drop the swimsuit competition was not based on ratings or sponsorship considerations.

As Miss America moves away from its roots as a beauty pageant, the question now becomes what exactly the title represents. The organization has long promoted its scholarship program and the platforms the winners embrace, which recently included healthy eating, protection for women facing domestic violence and advocacy for children with incarcerated parents — but the competition has also largely focused on beauty and fitness, and it’s unclear if moving away from that history will draw more viewers.

“I hope they get the reaction they want but I don’t think that this will help with their ratings,” said Cantrell, the 2016 winner. “I’m concerned for the future of this organization.”

For some Miss Americas, including Nina Davuluri (՚14), the first Indian-American winner, the swimsuit competition was nearly a deal breaker.

Miss New York Nina Davuluri, left, reacts with 2013 Miss America Mallory Hagan after winning the 2014 pageant in Atlantic City.Lucas Jackson / Reuters

“I know it was so much part of a tradition, but it was a struggle and obstacle for me, especially coming from a conservative family,” Davuluri, 29, said.

Hagan, the 2013 winner, said she saw the swimsuit competition as something to endure in order to get the scholarship money and national platform that come with the crown. This week, she won the Democratic Party’s nomination in an Alabama congressional race.

“To me the swimsuit competition was always a means to an end,” Hagan said. “I think this makes a lot of sense to end it, and hopefully we can focus on what these women are doing in terms of civic service.”