It’s been a dizzying couple of weeks for the Miss America organization, to say the least.
Following the publication of offensive, misogynistic emails between CEO Sam Haskell and other top officials, Haskell resigned, as did the president, Josh Randle, chairwoman Lynn Weidner, and several other board members.
Then Gretchen Carlson — Miss America 1989 and the former Fox News anchor who sued Roger Ailes for sexual harassment 18 months ago, leading to his ouster and to her rise as an empowering voice for women in the workplace — was named Miss America’s chairwoman. It was the first time a former Miss America has led the nearly 100-year-old organization — and she won’t be alone. So far, new board members include former Miss Americas Kate Shindle, Heather French Henry, and Laura Kaeppeler Fleiss.
Carlson, in an exclusive interview with “Good Morning America” on Friday, said, “I’m looking at this as a call of duty. I had no intention of ever having this position. It’s a volunteer job and it’s a huge undertaking. But for me, in being a former Miss America, I felt compelled to come back and help the program.”
She said that she was “shocked” by the “appalling” content of the emails. “But part of me also knows, after my life over the last 18 months, that this kind of behavior is prevalent, unfortunately,” she added.
Carlson, who settled with Fox News for $20 million and subsequently published a book about her experiences, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, admitted that when she first sued Ailes, it was “a lonely experience.” But now, banding together with other former pageant winners, she feels powerful and ready to revolutionize the organization. She also told “GMA” that she was not ruling out a run for political office.
“We are a work in progress on this board,” Carlson added. “But the majority of us are all former Miss Americas and I find that incredibly empowering … that some of the women who were allegedly maligned are now running the place.”
One of those allegedly maligned by Haskell and others includes Mallory Hagan — Miss America 2013, who appears to have been both fat-shamed and slut-shamed by men high up in the organization. And while she has not at this point been named as one of the new board members, she tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she would relish the opportunity.
“I have my own ideas for Miss America and for the forward movement of the organization, and as someone who has been working with young women across the country, I think I have a pretty good finger on the pulse of what these young women want to see out of the organization,” Hagan says. “I trust Gretchen’s leadership. And if that’s in the cards for me, and I hope it is, then I’d be happy to serve the organization in that capacity. And if it’s not, I’ll still do whatever I can to help.”
Hagan says that when news of the disturbing emails first broke, she was not surprised at all. “Initially, I felt really relieved. For four years, I’ve been trying to tell people that this was going on, that I was being maligned. I just couldn’t prove it. So I feel relieved people know I wasn’t making things up. I look back at how some of the people on those emails discussed other former Miss Americas, and other people in general … and it wasn’t shocking. It was pretty familiar.”
Others who know the inner workings of the pageant were not shocked either, including pageant coach Valerie Hayes, who tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “I’d like to say that I was surprised by the email scandal, but I absolutely was not. Sam Haskell was ruthless in his climb to power, and once he worked his way up on the Miss America organization board, he systematically eliminated everyone who questioned him. No one who has ever had any direct interaction with him could have been surprised.”
Hayes adds that she’s thrilled with the pick of Carlson as well as with Shindle and French Henry, and says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them becomes president.”
But what can even the most evolved, empowered women hope to fundamentally change about such a broken, scandal-tainted pageant and organization? And why would they want to attempt the task?
Even Carlson had noted in a college paper, excerpted in her book, that being a part of Miss America had its downside. “In looking back on my experience, I now realize that being Miss America exacerbated all of the inferiorities women face on a daily basis in a man’s world,” the young student had written. “While women are expected to manage their emotions, stick to women’s work, do emotional labor and serve men, Miss America is really expected to fulfill these duties. It was as if it was OK to treat Miss America with such disrespect. Before I knew it, I had become a target on which men could and did project their true perceptions of women.”
But perhaps it’s because of this that Carlson now sees the role as an obligation.
As for Hagan, she says, “I hope that they can accomplish bringing the Miss America brand and organization into this century. I think that what we saw was several men at the helm of a women’s organization, and that in and of itself just doesn’t make sense as far as where we are in the world today.” Plus, she says, in the past decade or so, “we’ve done a really bad job branding and marketing what Miss America does on a regular basis. Every day, she’s out in the community, lending her voice or ability to organizations, meeting people and speaking at schools and universities. So what I’m hoping is that the women … will do a great job promoting what Miss America is 365 days a year versus the one night a year that people see the pageant on television.”
Hayes also has high hopes for the newly envisioned organization, including “financial transparency at the local, state, and national levels,” published contestant scores, the establishment of a review panel and process for contestants and titleholders to lodge complaints about local and state directors, and the elimination of the swimsuit competition.
Ah, yes. The swimsuit competition.
While Shindle, now a Broadway actress and president of Actor’s Equity, declined comment on Friday, she spoke with Yahoo Lifestyle in 2016 and had the following to say when asked about the hot-button topic: “I’ve said for years that those more superficial elements of Miss America are things that could go away if the Miss America organization had the courage to say, ‘We feel that young women are interesting enough to stake our entire future on their place in the world and what they have to say and the leadership qualities that they are able to offer.’ I don’t know that the pageant has ever quite gotten there. It would be so exciting if they did.”
Hagan, meanwhile, has two thoughts on the matter. “The first is that the swimsuit competition is a piece of a larger picture. Part of being a well-rounded, balanced young woman is your health and fitness. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with promoting across the country what it means to be physically fit and nutritionally fit,” she says. “On the flip side, though, I don’t think that seeing me in a swimsuit is any indication of whether or not I’m nutritionally fit. So there’s a plus and minus side of the equation, and I’ll leave it at that. Is it necessary? No. Is it fun and empowering when you’re a part of it? Heck yeah.”
Carlson, when asked about the swimsuit competition on GMA, was cagey. “I have so many great ideas for this organization, and I will be talking about all of those with all the other board members, and the eventual CEO and staff of Miss America. So what I would love to say about that is: Please stay tuned. Because I plan to make this organization 100 percent about empowering women,” she said. “Changes are coming — potentially, big changes.”
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