For the Miss America Organization, 2018 has been one big mess (America). Fallout from HuffPost's bombshell report alleging "unprofessional conduct" on the part of the organization's then-CEO Sam Haskell, as well as other top executives, led to a literal spring cleaning on the board, with former Fox News anchor (and 1989 Miss America) Gretchen Carlson taking over. A few months later, controversy erupted over the decision to cut the pageant's swimsuit competition; Page Six reported extensively on numerous occasions about "battle lines" being drawn backstage between warring factions of staffers and pageants alums-resignations rolled out, petitions demanding another board overhaul did the rounds. And in mid-August, charges of workplace bullying and mistreatment were leveled at Carlson and other MAO staffers by the reigning Miss America, Cara Mund.
The Miss America Organization has refuted Mund's claims, while in turn allegedly punishing her for speaking out by cutting back her presence at the 2019 Miss America pageant on September 9th. (But then also, perhaps surprisingly, allowing Mund the opportunity to speak out with "no restrictions," she says.) Ahead of her trip back to Atlantic City, where she's now helping shepherd this year's state titleholders through pre-competition prep, Mund spoke with Cosmopolitan last week about Miss America's "Mean Girls," as The New York Times coined it, her tumultuous year of service, and basically why she isn't just throwing her tiara in the trash and running off into the sunset. Because she'd be forgiven if she was, really.
On making her Miss America dream a reality:
My dream since I was a little girl was to be Miss North Dakota-it was never Miss America. When I got to Miss America, I said, "I'm going to make history." But I thought history was making it to the top ten!
But I went in knowing what the job entailed, though, because I competed for four years [before I won Miss North Dakota]. I wrote my senior thesis on Miss America! There were media stories coming out, before my letter came out, suggesting that I didn't understand what the job was. No. I knew what it was! At the same time, I had an expectation that I was going to be treated like an employee at any other company.
On when she first realized the job wasn't working out:
I started voicing concerns at the end of January. [At that time], the Miss America Organization had just had a leadership change. We were adapting. And I wanted to make sure that, you know, my perspective was heard. I journal everything, and I have detailed notes about how I was treated. [In the last few months] I started looking back at some of those notes, and things that I was saying-things like, “I've never felt more alone.” I had raised my issues with [Miss America Organization] staffers, and with the board. But there's not a grievances process set up for Miss America; I felt like I had exhausted all my options. I didn't think I mattered anymore-I didn't feel like Miss America.
And no-one knew what I was going through. I wasn’t allowed to talk outside 'the family.' The Miss America CEO told me that. I wasn’t allowed to say,"Hey, this is what was said to me, and this is how I was treated." For a while, I kept thinking, "Is it me? Am I doing something bad?" And I was continuously bending over backwards to make sure I wasn't. Because I wanted to do a great job! I mean, you only get to be Miss America once. But the treatment just got worse and worse. And when you hit nine, ten, eleven months on the job, you realize, “I've done everything I can, and it's not changing." If I was in a different job, and I was being treated this way, I would have probably quit.
And on why she decided to speak out:
Recently, some of [my Miss America sisters] were texting and asking me what was happening, and what's been going on. You know, 22 states had signed the petition [calling for Carlson and the current MAO board to resign] before my letter even came out; there was a lot of unhappiness and instability. And I was stuck thinking, "Am I going to get in more trouble for opening up to my sisters?" Now I want to say to them, "Look, I wasn't ignoring you. I just didn't know what to say-and I was told I couldn't say anything." In the end I sent them all a letter-I had three weeks [of my reign] left at that point. I needed my sisters to know what was happening.
On Miss America CEO Gretchen Carlson's claim that Mund speaking out caused the loss of $75,000 in scholarships:
I feel bad if that's true. But I think to at least know who that sponsor is, that would be helpful-because I would want to apologize! And explain myself. Because at the same time, our two biggest sponsors reached out to me offering their support. So it's... you know, OK, I felt that this was something that definitely could have been done behind closed doors. What was so interesting was for the board to say that I should have handled things privately, and then they went public!
And on whether she is still considering legal action over "workplace bullying":
I would prefer not to at this point. I only have two weeks left [in the job], and so what I want is to make it better for the next girl. It's not about getting revenge, but making sure that she doesn't have the experience I had, and that [for her] it's close to the reality of what a dream job it is for the little girl wanting to be Miss America. And yes, it is a tough job! Any Miss America will say that. You’re on the road all year long here, you’re going from appearance to appearance. But it's also one of the most amazing jobs, if handled in the proper manner.
On whether she can pass on the Miss America tiara in good faith:
It's not that I can't recommend [being Miss America], because I still am a product of the organization. But I think an overall restructuring is important because of what Miss America can do-it's a business, and it needs to operate like a business if it's going to survive. And I want it to survive. I want to see it live for another 100 years-because of the scholarship opportunities it gives women, the confidence, the poise. I want to be one of those older Miss Americas who walks out on stage during the competition [each year]. That's always one of the best parts of the show!
And on what she hopes her legacy as Miss America will be:
Before all this, it was that I want young girls to know that they can achieve their dreams wherever they come from. I didn’t have that-I didn’t have a ton of pageant coaches, and I didn’t have the resources other states had. I remember, I got to Miss America, and some of the other girls were talking about things like apartments and cars [which they had been gifted] for their year [as the state titleholder]. I was like, “I got six free haircuts!”
But now, again, it's about the next girl, our next Miss America-it's for her to know that she's going to have those people supporting her from the very beginning, which is so crucial. She'll know it'll be better, and that her sisters are going to fight for her. And if it helps open the door for other women to say, "I've had a similar experience"-for me, that's a kind of closure. This has been really tough, but I definitely feel more at peace with my time as Miss America.
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