ATLANTIC CITY — Is Miss America unraveling?
With a little more than six weeks to go until the swimsuit-less Miss America 2019 is to be chosen inside Boardwalk Hall and broadcast on ABC, some state pageant winners are balking at signing contracts required to compete for Miss America, former Miss Americas are resigning from the board and foundation, and the storied but hobbled Atlantic City institution is described by one former Miss America as "coming apart at the seams."
"It's a mess," said Suzette Charles, Miss America 1984 and a former Miss New Jersey. "We've been on life support for a while. State directors have threatened not to send their girls to Atlantic City."
Under the new leadership of board chair Gretchen Carlson, Miss America 1989, and CEO Regina Hopper, the organization has made dramatic changes that have rocked the state pageant system that feeds the national competition, including the elimination of the swimsuit competition and shifts in evening wear. The words pageant and contestants are now competition and candidates.
Carlson and Hopper took over this year in the wake of an email scandal that revealed that former CEO Sam Haskell was disparaging former title winners in vulgar language. The ascension of former Miss Americas to leadership and board positions was greeted as a triumph in the #MeToo era of women speaking up about sexual harassment, but several board members, including Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998 and a South Jersey native, have since resigned.
Hopper, in an interview Wednesday from Orlando, where state title holders were attending orientation, denied that there were any issues with the organization other than resistance to change.
"All of our candidates are here. We just had a great orientation," said Hopper, a former Miss Arkansas. "They're all excited. Everyone's set."
But this week, Marjorie Vincent Tripp, Miss America 1991, resigned as head of the Miss America Foundation, according to Charles and other sources. Hopper said in an interview in Washington this week that the scholarship money awarded to Miss America was the foundation's responsibility.
Some state winners have balked at signing the contract required of them to compete in Atlantic City, which includes, among other items, a clause that scholarship money is "contingent upon availability of funds in any given year." They also object to clauses in the employment contract.
Hopper said the contracts are the same as in previous years and denied reports from state directors that 15 were unsigned. "They're all in, except a couple," she said.
A group of 22 state pageant organizations, including Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, have been in revolt for the past several weeks, signing a petition this month calling for the resignation of the entire board as well as Hopper and Carlson.
They contend the new leadership lied to them about ABC, saying they would not telecast the pageant unless the swimsuit competition was eliminated, which Hopper and Carlson deny, and further "attempting to bully, silence and manipulate state titleholders and volunteers."
The state pageant directors meeting this week coincides with the Miss America Outstanding Teen competition and orientation for state pageant winners.
Leah Summers, the state director for the Miss West Virginia organization, said state directors expected a shift toward transparency and empowerment with the new leadership but have gotten neither. "We had this new invigoration and excitement," Summers said Wednesday. "It's turned out to be no different than where we were before."
"With the pageant, oops, competition, hopefully happening in Atlantic City," she said, "there's so much uncertainty, there's so much fear."
She said she hoped the infighting does not alienate potential sponsors. "Hopefully we will be working toward coming together," she said.
Charles said she and others believe that neither Carlson nor Hopper has the experience to lead the organization, and she pointed to cutbacks in staff, a lack of a visible marketing plan for the Sept. 9 pageant, and the organization's precarious financial underpinnings. For the last three years, the organization has been propped up by $12 million in funds from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
"It's a joke," said Charles, who, as the Atlantic City liaison, urged the organization to start fund-raising and community events, such as a 5K race or golf outing, but was told that the only event would be a Gretchen Carlson leadership seminar. "You can go on any game show and win more than what Miss America is offering. Then, you're going to say, 'If the funds are there, we'll give it to you.' "
Hopper said the organization is relying on volunteer public relations help but will be hiring new communications, website, and social-media staff. She said the changes were necessary to address a system that in the 1980s drew 85,000 participants nationwide, but now has just 4,000.
"The recognition of Miss America is sky-high, but the relevancy of Miss America has dropped," she said.
The contracts were due last Friday, but the Miss America Organization (MAO) has extended the deadline to Aug. 3 after contacting contestants directly, a move that state pageant directors said itself was improper.
In a letter to the national organization obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News, the state directors said they will not turn over the contracts to title holders to sign until changes are made.
They are demanding to see any employment agreement that the new Miss America would be required to sign, "especially one which gives MAO the right to consider her role as Miss America to be 'at will' and to terminate her status and year of service 'at any time and for any reason,' in direct contradiction to the representations made in the Application and Contract referenced herein."
The directors are also objecting to a clause giving Hopper the right to "cause any state titleholder to forfeit her state title," or terminate her eligibility to participate in the national finals. "There is no due process or right to appeal," they said.
They further object to a clause that gives the Miss America Organization "the right to amend and/or modify the foregoing rules at any time without notice."
"We further require proof prior to the National Finals that the funds announced as scholarships are held in trust for the 2019 class of titleholders and cannot be accessed by MAO or MAF [the foundation] for any reason except to distribute to those titleholders who are entitled to receive them," the letter states.
The 22 jurisdictions that signed the petition calling for the ouster of leadership are Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
On Tuesday, Carlson spoke at the Washington Press Club and defended the moves. She said her goal was to "move this pageant forward into complete relevancy as we approach our 100th year" and make the organization financially sustainable.
Hopper, also speaking at the press club event, said the Miss America competition will be like a job interview and will allow women to choose what they will wear in, for example, the segment previously known as "evening wear."