Miss America conflict rages on as national organization revokes state licenses

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After a period of prolonged conflict and high tensions, several state pageants have had their licenses revoked by the Miss America Organization.

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Miss America 2019, Nia Franklin, may flash her megawatt smile and make regular appearances at high-profile events, but all is not well with the pageant.

In the run-up to the Miss America pageant last month, state pageant organizations warred with the Atlantic City-based Miss America Organization after its decision to drop the swimsuit competition

State pageant officials and volunteers said their opposition had much to do with the leadership style of Gretchen Carlson, chairwoman of the Miss America board, and Regina Hopper, CEO of the Miss America Organization, and little to do with the swimsuit change. 

Now, the conflict has come to a head again as several states have had their licenses revoked by the national organization.

The Associated Press reports that four states have received notices from the Miss America Organization saying their licenses have been revoked, including Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Georgia. This means these states are no longer part of the pageant and have to give their scholarship money to the Miss America Organization. A group of about 15 more states have been threatened with probation.

The Miss America Organization would not talk about the moves, saying the actions regarding state pageants is confidential. 

In July, following the swimsuit decision and the announcement of the revamped pageant, a group of 22 representatives of state pageants, including Sally Johnston, executive director of the Miss New Jersey pageant, signed a petition calling for the resignation of Carlson, Hopper and the entire Miss America board. In the days before the pageant, that number had more than doubled to 46 state representatives.

Joining them were a group of 11 former Miss Americas which swelled to 23 on a petition that called for state and local pageant directors and Miss America volunteers to sign their names to a vote of no confidence in the leadership. (The petition now claims more than 22,745 signatures.)

Last month, Jennifer Vaden Barth, Miss North Carolina 1991, who says Carlson pushed her off the Miss America board (Carlson denied this and said Barth’s contract was always temporary), started an “MAO Leadership Change Fund” GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a legal challenge by state organizations to the Miss America Organization. 

The campaign, which seeks $100,000 and has so far generated $22,286, also seeks to fund “necessary public relations services to help restore public trust and respect in the governance of the Miss America Organization.”

The pageant unrest only worsened when Cara Mund, Miss America 2018, wrote a scathing letter alleging that pageant officials Carlson, Miss America 1989, and Hopper, Miss Arkansas 1983, had bullied and silenced her during her reign. Carlson denied the allegations and claimed that Mund’s decision to go public with her letter had cost the pageant a potential increase in scholarship money.

Carlson and other former titleholders had assumed leadership positions at the pageant starting in January, after a December scandal over the previous CEO’s leaked emails (which contained misogynistic comments about former Miss Americas) resulted in his ouster. 

In September, Franklin, 24, won the 2019 Miss America pageant, becoming the first Miss America to win without having to wear a bathing suit (and the fourth Miss New York in six years to take the title).

“I’m worth more than that,” Franklin said of the swimsuit competition’s exit after the pageant, adding that she was able to eat more as a result of the change. But each contestant in the pageant had competed in swimsuit to win their state crowns, since the change was implemented with just a few months to go before the 2019 pageant.

When the decision to drop the swimsuit competition was mentioned during the pageant at Boardwalk Hall, the audience produced a chorus of boos. The internal pageant conflict was palpable in other ways. Save for a contestant arrival ceremony that served as a kickoff to pageant week, Carlson and Hopper did not make public appearances and sat in the post-crowning press conference without addressing media.

A day after Franklin was crowned, the Miss America Organization released the results of an internal investigation of Mund’s bullying claims. A report found that Mund’s claims were without merit, but an investigator never interviewed Mund because the reigning titleholder wanted to wait until after the pageant to conduct an interview. Mund and her lawyer have rejected the pageant’s investigation, claiming it was not an independent inquiry because the parties who picked the firm to investigate the allegations are associated with the pageant. 

Mund, 24, has continued to reference her alleged treatment by pageant officials in videos and posts on Instagram.

The Miss America pageant, in keeping with previous years, was down in the ratings for its first broadcast without a swimsuit competition, drawing a total of 4.3 million viewers and losing more than a million viewers from the 2018 pageant.

Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at akuperinsky@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKup or on Facebook.