ATLANTIC CITY – What can you say about Miss America forging ahead without its iconic swimsuit competition, but holding fast to time-honored traditions of beauty, brains, scholarship, service — and extreme backbiting and name-calling?
About a week leading to Sunday's televised event — formerly known as a pageant — that included someone draping the Miss America statue on the Boardwalk with a "Gretchen Sucks" sash, mocking Gretchen Carlson, the beleaguered former Fox News anchor who took over as chair of the Miss America organization this year?
About Carlson, a Miss America 1989 and prominent #metoo activist, who stepped in after the former leadership was caught fat-shaming former Miss Americas in emails and who now finds herself the target of a relentless campaign to get her to resign being waged by, naturally, a group of former Miss Americas?
Whatever Carlson thinks of them, and of outgoing Miss America Cara Mund, who accused Carlson of bullying and harassing her, you can be sure she's not putting it in emails.
If you're Miss Pennsylvania Kayla Repasky, you would simply note that the elimination of the swimsuit competition has, among other things, lightened things up backstage and throughout the week leading up to the Miss America 2.0 telecast because, well, cookies.
"Being here and not having to worry about your body as much is very, very nice," Repasky said this week in an interview. "It's made it a lot more enjoyable. I've eaten so many cookies. I feel like we all look more normal, too."
Full disclosure: Miss Florida Taylor Tyson spoke of backstage brownies.
But this year is anything but normal, with a "Job Interview" portion — a 20-second answer with ominous music counting down the seconds; in other words just like any job interview — replacing swimsuit, and a "Red Carpet" evening-wear segment replacing the traditional gown and runway competition.
The red carpet featured generic questions — "What do you want to tell America?" "What's on your mind?" — and scripted answers about Social Impact Statements, previously known as platforms. A more elaborate "interactive" interview session with judges previously promoted to replace swimsuit appears to have been scrapped, at least for preliminaries.
The whole thing amounted to a bit of a buzzkill during preliminaries, with the glitzy runway production number now an abbreviated walk across the stage punctuated by little speeches. The swimsuit portion, the part where you could at least reflect on a century of Atlantic City weirdness, was replaced by … more talking.
Say what you want about swimsuit and the runway, their absence takes away something cool and previously undeniable about Miss America: that it was, after all these years, still connected to this long, strange, but beloved Atlantic City history and ritual. The event feels unmoored without them.
What can you say, then, but there they are, one more time — could it be one last time? — finally able to wear what they want and eat brownies backstage.
Here's a guide about what to watch for Sunday night and beyond.
Stripped of much of its kitsch and glamour, will a two-hour group job interview make it in the ratings? Up against Sunday Night Football (and Rosh Hashanah), can Miss America 2.0 get the ratings it needs to inspire confidence, sponsors, and a re-up of subsidy from the State of New Jersey? With ABC deep into The Bachelor, The Proposal, and other reality madness, is a more straightforward Miss America Competition the ticket to televised relevance?
Lots of candidates are with the program. One used Carlson's signature "Fierce," in her answer, a bit of a pander. It's still Carlson's baby, and branding counts. Watch for the premed, pre-law, neuroscience majors with serious musical chops who communicate well to promote women's issues and have lives outside of pageant-land. A few deliberately positioned themselves for the post-swimsuit era, like Miss Vermont Julia Crane, who called attention to her 5-foot-tall, size 6 body. Miss Colorado Ellery Jones, a neurobiology major at Harvard, promoted healthy relationships on campuses.
Miss Indiana Lydia Tremaine, a self-described "average-sized woman," at a size 8, whose weight has fluctuated, said wearing a bikini was not in her "comfort zone." She wore a one-piece at the state competition and welcomed a post-swimsuit crowning. "When we're talking about $50,000 in scholarships, it should have nothing to do with our bodies," she said.
Much of the talking during preliminaries felt safe, but Miss Virginia Emili McPhail said she deliberately defied "pageant girl" expectations when asked about kneeling during the anthem. "Kneeling is absolutely a right to stand up for what you believe in," she said. "Absolutely, it's about police brutality." She was awarded a scholarship for that answer, so look for the candidates who swing for the rafters.
Sources said Miss Arizona Isabel Ticlo was wearing her swimsuit under her Bollywood outfit when she performed on stage for preliminaries. Alas, she did not do a reveal. Some candidates are sticking to calling themselves "Miss" in their state introductions, where the 2.0 format means you just say your state. And then you become … America.
It probably won't be like Judge Brett Kavanaugh's hearing in D.C., but don't rule out some kind of shouted expression of protest from the audience Sunday night.
Talent counted for half of preliminary scores, so this boosts actual talent, like Miss New York's Nia Franklin, a classical composer and singer. But half the fun was always those "talent-y" candidates. Who can forget the great Kira Kazantsev, Miss America 2014, who won with a red Solo cup performance? This year, Miss Alaska Courtney Anne Schuman gave a speech about her love of rocks. It was awesome. And please, advance a tap dancer! There are still lots of them, notably Miss North Carolina Laura Matrazzo, who tap-danced to Patti LaBelle. Alas, only one ventriloquist, Miss Texas Madison Fuller.
Miss Delaware Joanna Wicks speed-paints.
Like any job candidate (just ask the Penn kids doing nonstop on-campus recruiting this month), what you wear is important. The opening number is "Night on the Town," interpreted variously from short dresses to palazzo pants to Miss Wyoming Beck Bridger's jeans on night one, track suit and stilettos on night two. Critics on social media thought the overall look was "a whole Glamour issue of fashion don'ts," upholding another great Miss America tradition: snark.
Later, some seemed a bit overdressed for the job-interview portion with hot-pink pantsuits and off-the-shoulder dresses, but hey, it's a glamorous job. In theory.
Without the stress of swimsuit, an event that required butt glue, last-minute muscle toning, and food vigilance, as Miss Pennsylvania noted, the contestants seem more relaxed, less manic, more relatable. Maybe that's the point, but will that make for a ready-for-prime-time event?
Can the pageant survive? A lot will depend on whether New Jersey's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority digs deep into its pockets again to keep the organization afloat. And whether Carlson digs in, or makes her escape. She's been barely visible this week, a far cry from the treacly born-again-in-Hollywood speeches now-disgraced former CEO Sam Haskell made on preliminary nights.
Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955, stuck with the (debatable) idea that Atlantic City still cares. "It's such an institution," she said at a luncheon for former Miss Americas at Ventnor's Enlightened Cafe, in support of the cafe's recovery programs. "It's so important to Atlantic City."