This will be the first year the Miss USA pageant is open to all women aged 18 and over.
The beauty pageant was previously limited to women aged 18 to 28.
Past Miss USA winners and contestants shared their thoughts on the major change with BI.
This will be the first year that any adult woman can compete at Miss USA.
The Miss Universe Organization shocked many in the pageant community after announcing in September 2023 that the competition would no longer be limited to contestants aged 18 to 28. In an Instagram post on January 16, Miss USA confirmed it was following suit.
It's a big change that has been met with mixed reviews among former contestants, including four who spoke with Business Insider. One said the change was a "total cash grab," while another praised it as a "game changer."
A new kind of beauty pageant
When former Miss USA winner Crystle Stewart bought the organization in November 2020, she promised to shake things up. Miss USA under her reign would be "Pageantry Reimagined."
"At the mention of pageants, what comes to mind for most people is a stereotypically slim woman, with big hair and superb polish, but this is not enough for the image of the future," she wrote in a letter that has since been removed from Miss USA's website. "Our mission in reimagining pageantry is to catapult our competitions into the mainstream audience by showing people the confidence and power that pageantry can give to young women."
It was a change that pageant fans hoped would revitalize the industry. Both Miss USA and Miss America weathered scandals and declining ratings throughout the 2000s, prompting both organizations to make big shifts. Miss America did away with the swimsuit competition, while Miss USA now allows married women and mothers to compete.
Stewart's Miss USA presidency was short-lived. She parted ways with the organization months after contestants claimed the 2022 pageant was rigged, although an investigation cleared her of any wrongdoing. The new president, Laylah Rose, has brought her own changes to the pageant, including making the interview round more significant and leaving politics out of the competition.
In a recent interview, Rose told BI that the Miss USA pageant isn't about comparing women against each other.
"We always say in the pageant world that the competition is not with anyone in particular or against your sister queens; the competition is within yourself," she said. "That's what we're looking at, the person that has the right fit for the brand."
However, many of the former contestants who spoke to BI questioned how the pageant would be able to judge women in such different stages of their lives fairly.
"I definitely have some doubts about it," Miss Utah 2020 Rachel Slawson told BI. "I agree women don't expire at 28 or 29; we're just getting started. But it's not necessarily fair for younger women to compete with older women — older women are more confident and have more life experience."
"I'm really not the biggest fan of it," she added. "I wish they were allowing more women to compete in different age divisions. That could have provided more opportunities. It's inspiring for me to watch women of all ages represented, but having them interview for the same spot is confusing."
Asya Branch, who won Miss USA in 2020, told BI she was curious to see how the rule change "will play out" once the competition begins.
"I don't want to say it makes it unfair, but it makes it a bit more challenging and a bit more intimidating for people," she said. "How do you compare someone who's just entering adulthood to someone who has lived 20 years in their adulthood?"
Branch now coaches pageant contestants and said one of the biggest factors her clients worry about is their age.
"If you've got a 19 or 20-year-old contestant, they're worried about the 27-year-old ladies competing because they think, 'Oh, they've had more real-life experience than me, they're more mature, they're more confident,'" Branch told BI. "Age has always been that intimidation factor for many people."
Branch, who won Miss USA at 22, said she uses her journey to inspire contestants.
"I was very young when I first started competing in pageants, but I didn't let age deter me from thinking I could be successful," she said. "It's up to you to perform and prove to them that you are capable of that job."
Miss USA 2003 Susie Castillo, who has been coaching pageant contestants for the last decade, said she has seen firsthand "what a difference even a year makes in the confidence and overall mental development of young women." But she's glad she now has the chance to coach different generations of women.
"I'm excited to see what the future brings for the Miss USA competition and the incredible women who aged out and never competed because they didn't have the means or didn't feel as confident in their younger years," Castillo said. "This rule change is a game changer, and I love it."
What will it mean to be Miss USA today?
Some contestants believe that lifting the age limit will change the purpose of the Miss USA pageant.
"Pageants are supposed to be the thing that guides you," Merissa Underwood, who represented Montana in 2020, told BI. "For me, it opened so many career doors and social doors."
According to the mission statement on the Miss USA website, the pageant provides "young women with the platform to showcase their talents, intelligence, and leadership skills."
"Our pageant is not just about outer beauty," it continues. "We celebrate the inner beauty and intelligence of our contestants. We believe that every woman has the potential to achieve great things, and we are committed to providing them with the resources and opportunities to do so."
The Miss USA pageant has helped launch the careers of everyone from Halle Berry to Kenya Moore. Winners and contestants continue to get modeling contracts, TV hosting gigs, reality TV stints, and Instagram partnerships.
"If you bring in a woman who is 60 and a CEO and has a family, it's really changing the landscape of what Miss USA is," Underwood said. "The organization would have to really change its mission statement. It's no longer going to be a stepping stone for young women."
Branch agrees that lifting the age limit "changes the entire mission and the entire vision" of Miss USA.
"Before we knew who Miss USA was, we knew what her job was and her role in society," Branch said. "Now, I think the organization should redefine what that means and what they're looking for. We don't know what that looks like because this is a completely new world."
Will the rule change help Miss USA stay relevant?
Now that the Miss USA age bracket has vastly widened, more women than ever can compete at the state level — which is why Underwood believes the new rule change is a "total cash grab."
Each state pageant has an owner, which means rules and registration fees can vary widely depending on where you're competing. For instance, California and Florida have no fee to submit your application. It'll cost you $305 in Mississippi and Utah, while Texas charges $1,195. In Alabama, you're expected to pay a $495 entry fee and sell two full-page advertisements for a total of $1,000.
"It's capitalism under the guise of progression," Underwood said. "I really think it's to bring in more contestants at the state level. But I don't think any of the new parameters are drastically going to change who wins state titles."
"At the end of the day, it is a business, and if there's no cash flow, then the business is not successful," Branch told BI. "I don't know if that was the intention or the specific goal or if they're strictly just trying to be more inclusive. But, without a doubt, it's a way to bring in more revenue."
Rose told BI that the rule change isn't about profit — it's about staying relevant. Miss USA is about to follow on the heels of the most diverse Miss Universe competition in history. This year's top 20 included a trans contestant, a body-inclusive contestant, and a married mother.
"We're really proving that we're inclusive," Rose said. "That was the best route the organization saw for Miss Universe, and we couldn't be more proud to carry that on in the US as well."
"We can start running for a marathon at 45, we can pick up a hobby at 50, we can go back to school at 65," she added. "So why would we limit a woman and tell her that she can or cannot do something?"
Only time will tell how much the rule change will impact Miss USA. But Branch hopes the pageant will be able to keep its lifelong fans.
"I'll continue to support the organization," she said. "I just hope, at the end of the day, it stays true to what we've known it to be for so many years and that it doesn't diminish the value of who Miss USA is."
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