It was finally time for the talent round of Miss America 2020, and Camille Schrier of Virginia was up next. Excited whispers rippled through the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut as the production team unravelled a huge white tarp across the stage and rolled out three massive beakers filled to the brim with red, green, and blue liquids.
Wearing a lab coat and giant pink-rimmed protective goggles, Schrier, a biochemist and Pharm.D. student at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy, began pacing around the stage demonstrating the catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide — or, as she referred to it, “The Elephant’s Toothpaste Experiment.” As Schrier dropped potassium iodide into each of the three beakers, they began to explode in giant bursts of colorful foam, forming a rainbow of puffy clouds behind her. “Keep an eye out because science is really all around us,” said Schrier, concluding her experiment as the audience erupted in cheers.
Schrier ultimately took home the crown that night, but it was a wild ride for the aspiring pharmacist, who never thought of entering Miss America before last year. That’s when the organization eliminated its swimsuit competition, which had long been a dealbreaker for Schrier, who revealed that she had suffered from an eating disorder in the past. “I figured that I would never stand on that stage because I did not want to get in a swimsuit,” she said in a press conference following the telecast. “Putting myself on stage in a swimsuit wouldn’t have been a healthy choice for me.”
Under the rebranding of the organization, which many have dubbed Miss America 2.0, Schrier was able to confidently perform a chemistry demonstration as her talent and become the first Miss America to win the century-old competition with a science experiment. “I love science and I can bring in people that maybe had never seen themselves in the organization,” says Schrier.
For Schrier, the biggest draw of the competition wasn’t the evening gowns or fame, but the $50,000 scholarship she can apply to her medical school bills — and she’s not alone. After undergoing internal relevancy checks, Miss America leadership recently discovered that more women than ever were applying predominantly for the scholarships, which include $50,000 for the winner, in addition to a six-figure salary during her reign as Miss America, $25,000 for the first runner up, $20,000 to the second runner up, $15,000 to the third runner-up, $10,000 to the fourth runner-up, and up to $6,000 to other selected contestants.
So, this year, they shifted the structure of the competition from a traditional beauty pageant to more of a business pitch meeting, including introductions based on professional fields (like STEM, education, and advocacy) and presentations of social impact initiatives. “Women are carrying more debt with regard to paying back the cost of their education, and this gives women a way to participate and win those scholarships without having to talk about physical beauty,” Regina Hopper, Miss America’s new CEO, told me ahead of the 2020 telecast. “We want to reach out to more young women to say, ‘You can define what you want to do and who you want to be.”
But this major rebrand of the competition didn’t happen quickly or easily. Back in May 2018, Hopper took over the organization after leaked emails from then-CEO Sam Haskell revealed that he and his fellow board members were allegedly using vulgar, misogynist language to describe titleholders and contestants. Hopper, a former pageant queen, stepped in as his replacement as President and CEO, and the board tapped television commentator and Miss America 1989, Gretchen Carlson, as chairwoman. Carlson, whose story is depicted in the recent film Bombshell, is also famous for suing Fox News in 2016 over allegations of sexual assault by her former boss and CEO Roger Ailes.
Carlson and Hopper inherited an organization on the decline. Contestant interest was low, and viewership had dropped from 6.25 million viewers in 2016 to 5.6 million in 2017. As the new leaders, Carlson and Hopper decided to eliminate the swimsuit portion and rebrand Miss America as a “competition” instead of an old-school pageant. “We’ve heard from a lot of young women who say, ‘We’d love to be a part of your program, but we don’t want to be out there in high heels and a swimsuit,’ so guess what, you don’t have to do that anymore,” Carlson told Good Morning America.
But with Hopper and Carlson at the helm, state directors began to feel like there was a lack of transparency from the new leadership. They believed they were no longer privy to the changes happening at the top, which affected their day-to-day operations. At the same time, the 2018 Miss America titleholder, Cara Mund, penned a viral letter about her negative experience under Hopper and Carlson. “Our chair and CEO have systematically silenced me, reduced me, marginalized me, and essentially erased me from my role as Miss America in subtle and not-so-subtle ways,” Mund wrote.
The former Miss America claimed that she was punished for an interview in which she opened up about her negative experience and revealed that she was prohibited from using the official Miss America social media accounts, which past contestants had access to. Carlson denied Mund’s claims in a series of tweets, and the Miss America Organization, which investigated them with an independent HR firm, also said they were unfounded. Mund’s lawyers maintained their position and said that the investigation was “flawed.”
With a mutiny rising, dozens of states signed a petition demanding an immediate change in leadership, and certain state pageant licenses, the preliminaries to the national telecast, were revoked by the Miss America Organization. The conflict even went to the court but couldn’t proceed after the judge denied the request and there were insufficient funds for a lawsuit on the plaintiff side.
What seemed like a never-ending public battle finally saw a turning point this past June when Carlson stepped down as chairwoman and took on an advisory role at the request of the board. “With a promising network partnership, the time is ideal to give new leadership the opportunity to move forward with what has been accomplished,” she said in a statement.
The new network partnership Carlson was referring to was with NBC, which was the original broadcast partner for the pageant from 1997-2005 before it turned over the rights to ABC. The 2020 competition would also shake off its Atlantic City Boardwalk roots, where the first beauty contest took place in 1921, and head north to the Mohegan Sun Casino Resort. They shifted the timing too — from Labor Day weekend to the end of December.
To those witnessing the competition, both in the audience and on live TV, the changes were a stark contrast to the standard beauty competition — gone were the glamorous introductions and evening gown rounds, and in their place were Power Point presentations and suspenseful eliminations that even the new Miss America Board Chair Shantel Krebs compared to Shark Tank. Viewers said the show reminded them of a Ted Talk or a “two-hour job interview.” According to singer and Miss America 2020 celebrity judge Kelly Rowland, that was exactly the point. “The conversation is opening up. It’s not just stand there and be pretty and be judged in a swimsuit,” she said before the show.
According to Hopper, Miss America’s changed format fits perfectly with its new objective of being a scholarship competition — the question is, will audiences see it that way? “Nobody likes change because it’s easy to keep doing the same thing,” Hopper says. “But if you have a product that’s selling at 80,000 or 800,000 and that comes down to 8,000, you have to look at the product, and you have to say: What is it about that particular product that may not be relevant anymore?“
Hopper points to how much the system has changed since it started in 1921. Like, for example, when it eliminated the racist rule that said contestants must be of “the white race” in 1940. Or, in 1999, when it lifted its ban on contestants who were divorced or who have had an abortion. “Once you have an almost 100-year-old institution dropped in your lap, that had just gone through an implosion of the internal infrastructure, you have a responsibility to listen,” she says. “But you also have a responsibility to take action to save it.”
Although all the recent changes can be deemed progressive, the organization is still far from perfect. Even with the swimsuit competition out the door, there was still a lack of body diversity among the 2020 contestants, with no plus-size women or women with disabilities represented. Up until recently, the rules dictated that contestants be “natural-born women.” Now the rules say “female,” but no openly trans or gender-queer individuals competed this year, either. And the organization still prohibits mothers and married women from participating.
The judges tackled two of these topics head on during the interview portions. First, Miss America celebrity judge and Queer Eye star Karamo Brown asked Miss Alabama, Tiara Pennington, about the possibility of competing alongisde trans and non-binary contestants, to which she said she’d be “100 percent on board” to be onstage with members of the LGBTQ+ community. She was eliminated after that round.
Later on, celebrity judge Lauren Ash asked the last two finalists, Miss Virginia and Miss Georgia, “Miss America has never been able to be married or had children. Tell us why they should, or should not be, in this competition.”
Both responded that the winner should not be married or with children so they “can be fully dedicated to her job.” The responses stirred negative reactions from the crowd, on social media, and even from Brown. Upon returning from commercial break, the celebrity judge addressed the final two contestants and said, “I disagree. I believe women with kids could be Miss America” before he announced the winner.
This conversation extended to the press conference, where Brown added, “It’s [the contestant’s] choice to have their opinion on this matter, but I felt it was important that there be a counter-voice. If there is a mother out there that is watching this — because we never know the circumstances of how anyone becomes a parent and if there’s some young parent who is in college but still trying to work and get her degree and wants to be in the Miss America pageant — I thought it was important for her to know that she can do it and that there was no limitations.”
Though the Miss America Organization has not yet released a statement regarding the rule for mothers and married women, Rowland also stood by Karamo’s statement. “I was so happy that Karamo said that,” she said. “Miss America started being a disruptor. Here we are and we’re approaching our next decade in 2020, [women] can do whatever, whenever, and however we want — we make the rules.”
Now, as the organization considers feedback like this and looks toward the future, it hopes to not only upend the current pageant system, but also change what it represents. “Your beautiful can be defined in what you have done and what you want to do,” says Hopper. “As we bring new women into the program, they will be the ones who will carry it on.”
Travel and accommodations were provided to the author by the Mohegan Sun for the purpose of writing this story.
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