[UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Miss America Organization, below, which was received after publication.]
Just before Cara Mund was crowned Miss America 2018 last year in Atlantic City, she made an empowering statement about success: “If you have the ability to do it and you dream it, you can do it,” she declared from the stage.
Now, nearly one year later, she sounds defeated and is pointing her finger at leaders of the 97-year-old Miss America Organization as the reason. In the midst of continued turmoil there following leadership changes earlier this year, Mund is making public claims that she’s been “belittled,” “erased,” “silenced,” and “bullied” by those now in charge, including board chair Gretchen Carlson.
“It was devastating” was how Mund summed up her 2018 experiences in a letter that she posted on a popular online pageant forum and also sent to all state titleholders on Friday morning.
The Miss America Organization issued a brief statement to Yahoo Lifestyle in response to Mund’s letter: “The Miss America Organization supports Cara. It is disappointing that she chose to air her grievances publicly not privately. Her letter contains mischaracterizations and many unfounded accusations. We are reaching out to her privately to address her concerns.”
Mund, 24, who began speaking out about her tumultuous year earlier this month through coverage in the Press of Atlantic City, further elaborated in the lengthy letter on what she calls “condescending” treatment. Her alleged experiences include being pressured to stay off camera and to stick to three main talking points in public (including the contest’s relevance in the #MeToo era), hurting her relationship with sponsors, and controlling what she wore and what she said at community volunteer events.
She writes that she recently began researching definitions of “workplace bullying,” and found that “in the State of New Jersey, it is defined as ‘deliberate insults, threats, demeaning comments, constant criticism, overbearing supervision, profane outbursts, blatant ostracism, being overworked or simply not communicating with colleagues,’” with more subtle forms including “‘withholding or supplying incorrect work-related information, sabotaging projects, passive/aggressive behavior, blocking promotions, providing unclear or contradictory instruction or requesting unnecessary or menial work.’”
And that, Mund notes, “is my year in a nutshell.”
Mund’s letter has found swift support from some former Miss America titleholders, including Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell, who posted about it on Instagram with the hashtag #StandWithCara, and Miss America 1992 Carolyn Sapp Daniels, who posted her support on Facebook.
“This morning a brave and shocking letter was leaked out from our Miss America,” Sapp Daniels wrote. “She has been bullied and belittled. I am writing to urge you to take action today by signing the state org petition and the Change.org petition for leadership change at the Miss America Org. This leadership behavior is not what any of us stand for and not why we volunteer. Please join me and urge swift action.”
A post shared by Betty Maxwell (@thebettycantrell) on Aug 17, 2018 at 6:59am PDT
The petition Sapp Daniels references, already signed by more than 7,000 supporters, calls for a vote of “no confidence” in the current Miss America Organization leaders, Carlson and president Regina Hopper.
The two women came aboard in January, after Miss America CEO Sam Haskell, President Josh Randle, and several board members all resigned following HuffPost’s publication of internal emails that insulted contestants.
Carlson (who was Miss America 1989) made waves several months later, in June, when she announced that the pageant would no longer include a swimsuit competition. That news — not necessarily the content of it but the way in which it was sprung on others, reportedly — then led to the directors of 22 state pageants calling for the resignations of both Carlson and Hopper. It also resulted in the departure of four people who had joined the board with Carlson in January, including two former Miss Americas who quit over what they called a “toxic” environment.
As the Washington Post noted recently, many involved in Miss America are conflicted about the swift changes and “fret that Carlson is projecting her own brand — as a fierce, brainy commentator who helped launch a movement when she sued Fox News CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment — on an organization that, for all its eager attempts at social relevance, still wants to be fun.”
“I feel like they’ve tried to take Miss America and attach it to Gretchen’s ‘MeToo’ movement,” Mansfield Bias, longtime chairman of the Miss Georgia pageant, told the Washington Post. “There are a lot of people who are upset about that.”
Carlson, however, has publicly chalked up all the strife to growing pains.
“Change is difficult,” Carlson told ABC News in July, in response to the petition calling for her ouster. “When I took on this role of leading this organization six months ago, we had a lot of work to do. And swimsuit has been a part of Miss America since it started in 1921, and many of the volunteers and state … executive directors have been around for a long time, and it is tradition. But at the same time, this board unanimously decided that we needed to move this program forward, and we are so thrilled with the people that we have heard from.”
Mund did not respond to a request from Yahoo Lifestyle for further comment. But she made this point in her letter: “I don’t want to leave this mess for the next Miss America. This is not a self-serving organization, and I want her year to be better than my year. This letter is for her. I don’t want her to have to live in constant fear, expecting to be degraded and punished while she should be having an amazing experience. If you want Miss America to be relevant, then the leadership needs to understand she is not a wind-up toy who they can power up to spit out the meaningless words that are put into her mouth, and then put back on the shelf until it’s time to do it again. Miss America is fragile right now. She needs all of us if she is going to survive.”
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