OCEAN CITY, N.J. — It just might be the most ridiculous place to have a conversation about the propriety of the Miss America swimsuit: on the Music Pier in Ocean City, home of the Miss New Jersey pageant, overlooking miles of beaches filled with bathing beauties and not-so-beauties.
What could possibly be wrong with a swimsuit?
“I’ve never felt degraded in a swimsuit,” said Jaime Gialloreto, 19, Miss South Shore, a student at Loyola University Maryland, who snagged part of an odd two-way tie for a Night One Preliminary victory in what might be the last-ever Miss New Jersey swimsuit competition. “I’ve always felt I’ve worked really hard. I’ve gone to the gym every day for a year, I’ve eaten right, and this is my time to showcase it.“
Saturday night, Gialloreto was crowned Miss New Jersey 2018 and will now compete, but not in swimsuit, to become Miss America.
“I don’t think that showing your body should be taboo,” Gialloreto said. “It’s almost like we’re telling women they have to cover up to be respected.“
If there were cheers in some places when new Miss America chair Gretchen Carlson announced the end of the swimsuit and evening gown competitions in the iconic don’t-call-it-a-Pageant on June 5, you won’t find many cheers here at the state level, where pageant die-hards compete to make it to Atlantic City, some over and over again.
In the Miss America heartland, where state pageants determine who walks on stage at Boardwalk Hall, these are uneasy times.
In New Jersey, it’s 28 young women who’ve won titles like Miss Veterans Day, Miss Stars and Stripes, and Miss Seashore Line.
Carlson, a former Fox News anchor who was Miss America 1989, took over the organization after a vulgar email scandal ousted the previous male leadership and sent the pageant’s TV production partner packing. Carlson said she was eliminating the swimsuit competition in an effort to modernize the institution, move away from judging on personal appearance, and open the pageant up to a wider range of contestants who might not want to sign on for the bikini-and-heels walk. Lots of former Miss America people cheered, including the current Miss America, Cara Mund, who tweeted a #byebyebikini hashtag.
Despite the epic change, the state pageants caught in the middle of their season are still holding pageants based on the traditional swimsuit, evening gown, talent, and interview criteria.
But maybe for the last time.
These are places where swimsuit and evening gown competitions are embraced, dreamed of, enjoyed. Women interviewed at Miss New Jersey, including the reigning Miss New Jersey, Kaitlyn Schoeffel, second runner-up at last year’s Miss America, say the swimsuit competition made them feel empowered, not exploited. They say it emphasizes fitness and health, confidence and discipline, and not one particular body type. They say giving up swimsuit feels like giving in to the way men viewed the pageant, not women.
‘There’s no better feeling’
The idea of not being able to aim for that iconic walk in a swimsuit or evening gown in Atlantic City feels like something taken away from them.
“I think we are succumbing to the stereotype that a woman cannot be beautiful and smart in the same time,” said Natalie Ragazzo, 22, a graduate of Belmont University, whose platform is ending the stigma of anxiety and depression, and the other half of the Night One tie for swimsuit win.
“It seems that Gretchen Carlson made this decision because of the MeToo movement,” she said. “I think we should get on stage and rock our bodies, and say just because I’m in a swimsuit looking beautiful and sexy does not give anyone a right to sexually assault us and harass us.
“There is no better feeling,” Ragazzo added. “During the school year, if I was having a bad day, I’d pull up my swimsuit walk from last year here and just watch it. It reminded me how hard I worked.”
Focusing on talent, interview, and social-service platforms might help some overachievers, but it leaves some girls next door, those long devoted to the pageant world, who compete for needed scholarship money over and over again, feeling left out.
Some point out that Carlson’s strengths when she won Miss America in 1989 were her talent (violin) and her Stanford pedigree, and say she is simply remaking the pageant in her own image.
“There are a lot of girls who do it who don’t have the greatest talents, but can still do well because of all the other portions of the competition,” says Ragazzo. “On the other hand, I’m excited to see who comes and wants to compete.”
There she is, your ideal?
From a practical standpoint, the contestants are qualifying for Miss America based on one skill set and then being asked to compete on different criteria on national television. And the new criteria are vague. Swimsuit is out; evening gown is being replaced by a wear-what-you-want “live interactive session with the judges.”
Ragazzo jokes that she could sing “Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” for her talent and also wear one.
In Southern states, particularly, the idea that Miss America will not be judged on appearance is upsetting, said veteran pageant consultant Chris Saltalamacchio, who last week was advising 46 clients competing in five states, mostly on platform and interview prep.
“There’s an aesthetic that comes along with being Miss Alabama and Miss Georgia and Miss Tennessee,” he says. “People at those pageants may deny it, but we’re never going to have a Miss Georgia that’s not beautiful. That’s part of the brand. Beauty and health and fitness mean a lot of different things, but they have to mean something. Otherwise why does Miss America exist? There she is, your ideal.”
Saltalamacchio wonders if it’s the judging standards themselves that should be reconsidered in light of #MeToo, rather than the competition. Who says beauty is limited to one body type, one ideal? Who says the concept of beauty, a topic mulled by ancient philosophers and modern reality shows, is anathema?
Besides, rarely does the winner of swimsuit go on to become Miss America. “If you’re going to look at all the different times God used beauty in the Bible, why are we devaluing that?” he said.
For some, this feels as if the pageant has been hijacked by people with a political or social agenda they don’t share, by leadership that stresses one type of Miss America over another.
“I think it’s an attempt to cater to a group that call themselves modern feminists. But really, it’s not feminist to act like a woman can’t be smart and wear a bikini on stage,” said Justine Murray, 19, Miss Tri County, who attends Syracuse University.
“Women should have the right to go out in whatever they want, no matter the size and shape,” she said. “Miss America really judges on your confidence. If you can go on stage in a bikini, you can go to public speaking opportunities, you can really have the confidence to represent. “
Avery Wythe, Miss Atlantic County, a three-sport high school star from Port Republic now at the University of Notre Dame, where she is a football manager and, by the way, can throw a 30-yard spiral, takes a more expansive view of the controversy.
She is more in the model of the current Miss America, Cara Mund, a graduate of Brown University, or other Miss Americas who excelled in academics or sports or music before donning a sash in pageant-land.
“I have mixed emotions,” Wythe said. “It’s iconic. It’s so deep in the pageant’s history. I personally feel the organization itself definitely had the best intentions in mind.”
But still. Even a contestant as accomplished as Wythe is not immune to the allure of, well, pageantry.
“I think there’s something empowering about walking on stage in a swimsuit,” she said. “Not all of us look the same. I don’t think it’s a conflict at all. The pageant and Miss America Organization in general is a great way to showcase that a woman who is beautiful, committed to health, and talented can also have a brain.
“When I tried on my evening gown for my final fitting, I got choked up and teary-eyed,” she added. “This could be the last time I’m buying an evening gown.”