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.
“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.”