ATLANTIC CITY — The nearly century-old Miss America competition was launched for 2019 on Thursday with waves, smiles, lots of hairspray, and no sign of the controversy that has characterized the last few months.
The 51 contestants greeted a small crowd on the Boardwalk Thursday afternoon to begin 11 days of events and competition culminating in the pageant on Sunday, Sept 9.
Earlier this month, current Miss America Cara Mund wrote a five-page public letter criticizing the organization and its board chair, Gretchen Carlson, saying Mund had been bullied and silenced. Carlson responded in a letter posted on Twitter pointing a finger at Mund's comments as causing financial problems for the pageant. The organization then announced it would investigate Mund's claims. And on Thursday, hours before the welcome ceremony, Mund's lawyer sent a letter to the organization calling the planned investigation flawed and arguing it should be conducted by an independent third party.
There was no such back and forth on the Boardwalk.
In 90-degree temperatures, Mund sat in the front row of the audience, less than 10 feet away from Carlson. The two did not interact, though Carlson did give Mund a shout-out in her speech, noting some of the groundbreaking careers Miss Americas have gone on to. "And did you know that our current Miss America wants to be the first female governor of North Dakota?" Carlson asked as the crowd applauded energetically.
Carlson, a former Fox News anchor and Miss America 1989, has spoken out against workplace sexual harassment and taken on the role of redefining the organization. She replaced the former chair after his ousting following an email scandal in December 2017. As part of the remaking of Miss America, Carlson eliminated the swimsuit competition. The decision prompted outcries from former and current members of the organization, including 22 pageant directors who called for her ouster.
Thursday, Carlson's message to open the pageant was for unity and the celebration of female advancement.
"When this organization started in 1921, it was women in bathing suits out on the Boardwalk, but what was significant was that that was radical for that time," she said. "Women weren't seen in public in swimsuits."
She went on to say the organization added the talent category and scholarships in 1945. "Not very many women were going to college at that time, so, very progressive thoughts," she said. "And here we are today."
The only person to hint at any controversy was Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam, who said the city that birthed the pageant was very proud of what the organization has done "in the midst of turbulence. But at the same time, women power always rules."
>> PHOTO GALLERY: Last Year's 2018 Pageant Finals
For proud parents in the audience, the day was about seeing their daughters shine. Each contestant walked to center stage, said her name, university and major, and then signed a map of the United States in the state she represents. Maria Gialloreto wore a "Miss New Jersey mom" T-shirt and waved at her daughter, Jaime, from the audience.
"I'm putting it all behind us. I'm just focusing on Jaime and the other 50 girls," said Gialloreto, who lives in Woolwich Township. "She would have loved to perform in swimsuit, she was a swimsuit prelim winner, but you can't change it, so you've got to move on."
Mund spoke at the ceremony, telling the contestants this would be among the most memorable weeks of their lives. Afterward, she said in an interview that her letter stood alone and largely dodged questions about her criticisms of the organization.
Asked if the pageant needed to change, she said, "I think in my letter … my letter's telling. At the same time, I'm a product of this organization. I'm going to be able to go to law school because of the scholarship money I earned. So, to be here today and this week is about supporting these women, and honoring them and encouraging them."
The North Dakotan seemed relieved to get a lighter question about her connection to Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. She went to middle and high school with Wentz and said she was rooting for the team in the preseason game against the Jets on Thursday night. "When he got drafted to the NFL, I knew it didn't matter where you came from, if you had the hard work and dedication," she said.
Before the ceremony ended, CEO Regina Hopper turned to the stage of women, seated together for the first time, and asked, "Well, is there anything else you want to say?"
There was a short pause and then a unanimous: "Thank you!" as they waved at the crowd.