The Miss America Organization, amid a firestorm over the revelation of offensive internal emails that ridiculed contestants, announced Friday that its top executive had been suspended and that its board of directors would conduct an investigation into the controversy.
Sam Haskell, Miss America's executive chairman and CEO, agreed to abide by the board's vote, the organization said in a statement emailed Friday evening following a furious reaction that raised questions about the viability of the 96-year-old pageant.
"The board will be conducting an in-depth investigation into alleged inappropriate communications and the nature in which they were obtained," the organization said. "In addition, the board wishes to reaffirm our commitment to the education and empowerment of young women, supporting them in every way possible."
Dozens of former Miss Americas on Friday called for the resignation of pageant organizers over the emails.
Past winners, including Kate Shindle, a Moorestown native who won the crown in 1998, said the organization's leadership needed to be purged but the institution, which holds its annual pageant at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, should be preserved.
Much of the anger focused on Haskell, who participated in the email exchanges.
In a statement released Friday night, Haskell apologized for some of the emails, but claimed he was "under stress from a full year of attacks by two Miss Americas, and while I don't ever want to offer an excuse, I do want to offer context."
Haskell called the original story, published by the Huffington Post on Thursday, "vicious" with "conveniently edited emails" that were stolen three years ago by former employees.
"Much of what was reported is dishonest, deceptive, and despicable," he said.
He later added, "I have the utmost respect for the women of this program and contestants at every level. It breaks my heart for anyone to think otherwise."
Haskell's statement was issued after Shindle asked for his resignation.
"Today, I read that a member of the production team wished I were dead, and that executive chairman and CEO Sam Haskell laughed about it," Shindle said in a statement posted Thursday night on Twitter.
What was reported "makes me physically ill," Shindle said.
"I still believe that Miss America has relevance and purpose in 2017 and beyond," she said. "But in order to achieve that purpose, the entire board of directors must immediately resign, including and especially Sam Haskell. Only then can the women of Miss America reclaim its rich history and catalyze what is a clearly necessary evolution."
In its report, the Huffington Post included some of the emails, which engaged in fat-shaming, mocked some former winners' intellect and sex lives, and used a vulgar term for female genitalia when referring to past winners.
Gretchen Carlson, Miss America 1989 and a former Fox News host, also posted a statement on Twitter with the hashtag #ResignNow: "As a proud former Miss America and former member of the board of the Miss America Organization, I am shocked and deeply saddened by the disgusting statements about women attributed to the leadership of the MAO. No woman should be demeaned with such vulgar slurs."
Dick Clark Productions, which produces the nationally televised pageant, announced on Thursday and reiterated on Friday that it had cut its ties to the Miss America Organization because of the emails, about which the company learned several months ago.
"We were appalled by their unacceptable content and insisted, in the strongest possible terms, that the Miss America Organization board of directors conduct a comprehensive investigation and take appropriate action to address the situation," the company said Thursday. "Shortly thereafter, we resigned our board positions and notified MAO that we were terminating our relationship with them."
The New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which provides a $4 million annual subsidy to keep the pageant in Atlantic City, announced Friday that it was working with its legal counsel "to undertake an immediate review of its contract with the Miss America Organization and Dick Clark Productions to assess what steps we may need to take."
Chris Howard, the CRDA's executive director, said the report about the emails and the behavior of the pageant's leadership were "troubling."
Incoming Atlantic City Mayor Frank M. Gilliam Jr. said it was time to end public funding for the pageant.
"Due to the egregious and unacceptable comments made by the CEO of Miss America I have asked the CRDA to terminate its contract," Gilliam said in a statement on his Facebook page. "Women are one of life's most precious gifts and Atlantic City will not tolerate such statements."
Outgoing Mayor Don Guardian also condemned the email comments.
"I hope that the Miss America Organization does the right thing, and asks everyone who was involved with these emails to step down," Guardian said in a statement.
New Jersey State Sen. Colin Bell of Atlantic County also called on the CRDA to end its relationship with the Miss America Organization.
"We can spend the millions on projects/events that have more benefit to Atlantic City. It was well past time even before these horrible emails came to light," Bell wrote on Twitter.