Miss America Organization cleans house: Three executives resign, including CEO

Happier times. Newly crowned Miss America Betty Cantrell, center, stands with Miss America Chairman and CEO Sam Haskell III, left, and former Miss America Vanessa Williams at the 2016 pageant.

Contending with a situation that turned ugly fast, the head of the Miss America Organization submitted his resignation, along with two other executives on Saturday, just days after unflattering emails surfaced over shaming of former contestants.

“This afternoon, the Board of Directors of the Miss America Organization accepted the resignation of Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sam Haskell, effective immediately,” said a statement the organization released at 2 p.m. “The Board of Directors also accepted the resignation of Chairman Lynn Weidner. At the board’s request, Ms. Weidner has agreed to remain on the board for up to 90 days to facilitate a smooth transition for the MAO to new leadership.”

Haskell’s resignation comes a day after he was suspended over a trove of emails dating to 2014, in which he and others in the MAO ridiculed contestants over their intellect, weight, and sex lives. The emails were leaked to the Huffington Post on Thursday, and their revelation prompted dozens of former Miss Americas — including former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson and Kate Shindle of Moorestown — to sign a petition calling on the group’s leadership to step down.

Also exiting is president and chief operating officer Josh Randle, who tendered his resignation. Like Weidner, Randle is staying on for several weeks to facilitate a smooth change of leadership, according to the organization. Randle became president in May, and at 29, he was the youngest to hold that position with the MAO.

As his departure was announced, Randle apologized on Saturday to 2013 pageant winner Mallory Hagan, whose weight he and others ridiculed in the emails.

Camera icon ISAAC BREKKEN
In this Jan. 12, 2013, file photo, Miss New York Mallory Hagan reacts as she is crowned Miss America 2013 in Las Vegas. Hagan was among former Miss Americas ridiculed in emails involving MAO CEO Sam Haskell, who stepped down on Saturday.

While the MAO stated it was resolute about ushering in new leadership, the fallout from the scandal is more complicated and has called into question the relevancy of the 96-year-old pageant. On Thursday, Dick Clark Productions — which produces the pageant telecast — terminated all ties with the organization saying it was “appalled by [the emails’] unacceptable content.” Future funding sources for the annual event in Atlantic City also were being reexamined as the MAO conducts a through investigation of the emails.

The resignations of those who controlled an organization with an image of wholesomeness and collegiality come amid a series of other resignations and firings in recent weeks of powerful men in entertainment, politics, and sports over purported sexual misconduct and sexual harassment allegations.

The leaked emails primarily involved Haskell and Lewis Friedman, the lead writer of the pageant’s telecast.

In a 2014 email between the men, Friedman reportedly asked in a crude way if they were the “only ones not to have” had sex with Hagan.

“It appears we are the only ones!” Haskell replied, according to the Huffington Post.

In another exchange, Haskell wrote to Friedman about a script change for the TV broadcast.

“I have decided that when referring to a woman who was once Miss America, we are no longer going to call them Forever Miss Americas. … Please change all script copy to reflect that they are Former Miss Americas!” Haskell wrote.

Friedman replied that he had already done so, using a vulgar term for female genitalia.

Haskell responded: “Perfect … bahahaha.”

The scandal is the latest and most severe to rock the iconic beauty pageant in which young women compete for college scholarship money through categories including bathing suits, talent, and evening wear.

With the exception of a short sojourn to Las Vegas from 2006 to 2013, the pageant has been a staple of Atlantic City for decades, featuring the traditional “Show Us Your Shoes” parade along the Boardwalk, where contestants display footwear representative of their states. Contestants typically arrive after Labor Day for the weeklong event, culminating with the crowning at Boardwalk Hall and giving the casino hotels and restaurants there an economic lift.

 

Camera icon ELIZABETH ROBERTSON
Miss Tennessee Hannah Robison waves to the crowd during the Show us Your Shoes Parade on the Atlantic City Boardwalk on Sept. 12, 2015. The iconic pageant was founded in Atlantic City in 1921.

On Friday, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), which provides a $4 million annual subsidy to host the pageant in the resort town, said it was working with legal counsel to review its contract with the pageant.

The housecleaning also prompted reaction from Atlantic City officials.

“The Miss America Organization is bigger than a handful of people,” said outgoing Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian on Saturday. “She has been part of Atlantic City’s history since 1921, and she will always be part of our history.  Moving forward, I hope all the good that she has accomplished over the years is taken into account as incoming decision makers decide the organization’s future here in Atlantic City.”

Republican Sen.-elect Chris Brown, who represents the city as part of the Second Legislative District, said, “This is the right move for everyone involved including the image of Atlantic City, considering the pageant was created and thrived becoming synonymous with Atlantic City for almost a century.”

In response to the Huffington Post piece, Haskell called it “a vicious article” with conveniently edited emails. On Friday, after he was suspended, he acknowledged he made “a mistake of words.”

By then, it was too little too late as the MAO moved swiftly to remove him, Weidner, and Randle.

Hagan, a former Miss America who was ridiculed in the emails, said she felt vindicated with their release. She said the emails had derailed her career and negatively impacted her reputation.

“For the longest time, I’ve tried to explain to people around me that this is happening or these things are being said,” Hagan told the Today show on Friday. “And to have the ability to look on paper and say, ‘See, I told you. This is what he’s been saying about me.’ … I felt validated in my feelings for the last couple of years.”