From Beauty to Brains: What Does Miss America’s New Strategy Mean for The Pageant Industry?


What does it mean to be Miss America? And in a #metoo #timesup world, do we need to revisit the entire concept?

Although the words “beauty pageant” may bring to mind heavily made up faces, glittering gowns and skimpy swimsuits, according to Chairwoman of Miss America Board of Directors [and SWAAY investor], Gretchen Carlson, the time has come for those same two words to remind young women, instead, to celebrate their uniqueness and follow their professional aspirations.

Photo courtesy of Jessielyn Palumbo

“Everyday when I travel this country I meet somebody who has participated in this [the Miss America] program ... who benefited from [the competition’s scholarship prize] and became lawyers and doctors and members of Congress,” Carlson said on Good Morning America. “We want more women to know they are welcome in this organization.”

Carlson, who today announced that the Miss America pageant would be scrapping its bathing suit and evening gown competitions in favor of a focus on substance and inclusivity, is changing the face of the competitive “beauty” industry. Crowned Miss America in 1989, Carlson also announced that the event would no longer be known as a “pageant” but rather a “competition,” where contestants would be encouraged to wear “whatever makes them feel empowered” and reflects self expression. According to Carlson, the move isn't meant to take away the glamorous portion of the event, but rather put emphasis on judging by a more empowering criteria.

"We aren't getting rid of the evening gown category!," Carlson told SWAAY. "We are simply not judging on a candidate's physical appearance in evening attire. The difference is that candidates will have a choice of what kind of evening attire they will wear -- what makes them feel most self confident. That may still be a glamorous evening gown! We love the idea of the discipline it takes for young women (any women!) to be physically fit -- and we applaud that -- we just aren't judging on that anymore."

With the goal of encouraging more young women to enter the 97-year old event, Carlson, also the first to win a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox CEO Roger Ailes in 2016, wants to make it clear that winning the title of Miss America will no longer be centered on looks.

When asked what would take the place of the bathing suit portion of the show, Carlson tells SWAAY: "We are still finalizing competition elements but some sort of interactive interview live on stage with the judges so the judges and the viewing audience gets to know the substance of the candidates more," says Carlson.

Another goal with the event's new programming, to be sure, is to highlight the fact that the Miss America contest has been historically designed to help women pursue educational and career ambitions.

“We have always had talent and scholarship and we need to message that part of the program better,” Carlson said on GMA. “But now we are adding in this new caveat that we’re not going to judge you on your outward appearance because we are interested in what makes you you. Tell us about your goals and achievements in life and by the way at the end of the day we hand out scholarships to these women.”

But isn’t the pageant based, at least partly, on outward appearances? Some former titleholders and current competitors think so, and are adamant that the appreciation of physical beauty does not detract from, but instead enhances the program’s mission of female empowerment. According to Jessielyn Palumbo, Miss New Jersey USA 2016 (not part of the Miss America pageant system), wearing a bikini on stage actually celebrates femalekind and all the body shapes within it.

“How are bodybuilding competitions, and the Victoria’s Secret show acceptable in today’s society, yet pageantry is still looked down upon?” - Jessielyn Palumbo

“My favorite part of the competition was the bathing suit competition, I never felt more empowered,” Palumbo tells SWAAY. “Why should I feel ashamed of my body? I worked hard and was proud of my dedication & healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, it was a chance to embrace different body types of the contestants, and display that we are all strong. My fit is not the same as another contestant's fit, yet we both lead a healthy life.”

She goes on to say: “Unless you have competed in pageants, or know someone that has, you will never understand the true value of them. People automatically assume ‘beauty pageants are sexist’ and ask ‘why do they even exist?’ Pageants are established to find an incredible woman who is determined to make a difference in the world; someone who is well-rounded in every category which includes intelligence, personality, confidence, healthy lifestyle, and yes poise. Why is that so bad?

Another title-holder, Veanna Johnson, similarly expressed the opinion that cutting the swimsuit competition actually makes the pageant seem less inclusive, as it subcounsly tells women who aren’t a size 0 that they should not be wearing bikinis. Miss Georgia USA 2017 took to the social media waves to say: “I’m sorry but why in order to be inclusive of all sizes do they have to cut the bikini competition? Why not just be inclusive of all sizes...They do know curvy girls wear swimsuits too right?”

On the other side of the coin, women like Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, are siding with Carlson, underscoring the belief that being a representative for the Miss America Organization has nothing to do with physical beauty. Although incidentally gorgeous, Davuluri- the first woman of Indian descent to win the crown- is also an avid supporter of racial inclusivity, gender parity and STEM education.

“Since my time serving as #MissAmerica and beyond, I’ve been fortunate to experience many proud moments in my career & recognition for my advocacy work [sic],” wrote Davuluri on her Instagram page. “My swimsuit score had nothing to do with any of them. Today, the @MissAmerica organization moves into an era where we focus on inclusivity & empowerment by emphasizing what truly matters: substance within. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this evolution.”

Initially presented as a “bather’s review,” the Miss America contest began in Atlantic City as the “Inter-City Beauty Contest.”

Echoing the sentiment was Miss America contestant, Maddie Steele who wrote: “They made the decision hoping the girls who don't fit in the typical pageant size would be encouraged to join the sisterhood of Miss America. Maybe women have expressed that they wish they could compete but weren’t comfortable wearing a swimsuit and heels on stage, which is absolutely fair.”

As the focus on the show moves from entertainment to empowerment, CNN reports that viewership is plummeting. To wit, last year’s Miss America pageant had 5 million viewers, while “a few decades ago” it was 85 million. Critics of the move away from gowns and bathing suits believe that taking away more of show’s entertainment value will only continue to negatively impact its popularity among an audience in search of a glittery show.

“Although I think their heart was in the right place, I see this change as the beginning of the end in pageantry,” continues Palumbo. “Viewers of Miss America tune into the pageant not only to see incredibly talented women, but to also see the diversity and fashion. The swimsuit and evening gown portions of the competition are part of the tradition. I think the organization is changing itself to appease to people who will never be pro-pageants. Meanwhile, they’re losing their existing fan base.”

Initially presented as a “bather’s review,” the Miss America contest began in Atlantic City as the “Inter-City Beauty Contest.” Back in 1921 when the competition was first launched, event organizers had to wager for a temporary suspension of a ban on swimsuits in order to crown “America’s most beautiful bathing girl.” At the time, modesty laws dictated not even men could go shirtless on the beach in Atlantic City. The evolution from there saw skimpier swimsuits, lower necklines and higher bikini lines, and, when in 1997 the first bikini was worn on stage, it became the standard bearer for all future competitions. Since then, of course, the focus on women's body's and what many view as innattainable physical ideals has become more and more evident. Critics of the bathing suit competition have called it everything from "tacky" to "dangerous," while its supporters call it "empowering" and "body-celebrating."

So, the question remains: two piece bikini — empowerment tool or distraction device?


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Women in Power: How to Get Better at Mentorship and Business Leadership

If you are reading this, then it is quite likely that you are a business leader and mentor already, and the very fact that you are looking to improve your skills beyond your current capacity means you are already ahead of the game.

In corporate sectors all around, a general trend has been observed which point towards the conclusion that talented women employees do thrive better under female mentorship. What this means is that women at the forefront of corporate leadership today must continue to improve in their ability to both lead and mentor the leaders of tomorrow. This is facilitated by the easy availability of ILM Level 7 Executive Coaching courses and training nowadays, which we are going to discuss in detail next.

Improving as a Mentor: Where Do You Start?

Given that improving on leadership and mentorship skills only concerns those that are already leading businesses and tutoring fresh talent under them, the very first requirement here concerns completing advanced ILM Level 7 Coaching programs.

However, in order to also include a more comprehensive educational curriculum and training to hone your mentorship skills to a point, it would be a good idea to go with a BCF Group program, which will help you to get that widely respected and vastly useful ILM Level 7 Certificate in Executive Coaching and Mentoring.

The BCF Group is one of the UK's most highly rated Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) Approved Centres for ILM Level 7 Executive Coaching Courses. To know more about what exactly to expect during and after completing your ILM Level 7 Qualifications in Executive Coaching and Mentoring from the centre, head over to the official site.

In the meantime, some of the advantages of their ILM Level 7 Coaching curriculums can be highlighted as follows:

  • Advanced understanding of high-level coaching and mentoring theories
  • Critical evaluation of one's own leadership mentoring and executive coaching practices
  • Knowing how to relate someone's personality and nature of business to her own mentoring practices
  • Personal growth: Effective learning and mentoring fellow coaches

Once you have the ILM Level 7 Coaching Certificate, you are finally ready to take on advanced responsibilities as a business leader and significantly improve on your ability to mentor the fresh, female executives and leaders that rely on you for guidance.

Without the necessary advanced education and training, progress would not be possible after a point, but once you do end up completing your certifications, it is time to build on that that knowledge and training by adding your own unique touches towards developing a mentoring procedure for your clients/executives.

Understanding the 3 Different Aspects of Mentorship which Hold the Most Value to Corporate Women

There are various different aspects of business coaching, but most women usually need more assistance and guidance in some particular areas over others. If you have a certificate in executive coaching and mentoring, you most likely possess the ability to cover at least two of them for your clients.

After going through the opinion of numerous business mentors who have had a great deal of experience in working with talented women across multiple fields, the primary mentoring needs of corporate women in particular seem to be divided into three broad categories:

  • Advisory mentorship
  • Strategic mentorship
  • Operational mentorship

Advisory Mentorship: Feedback

Most women working in a corporate environment agree that their managers are not as straightforward or guiding with their feedback to the female executives as they are usually with the male executives. The feedback is, of course, extremely important for growth, and in its absence, improvement and employee evolution is often stunted - even in those with potential.

The advisory role of the mentor is meant to fill this damaging gap by providing her with valuable feedback which she can then use to further her own progress. It is important for everyone, regardless of gender, to get a clear idea regarding what their weaknesses are that they need to work on, as well as getting feedback on their strengths, so that they know exactly what to rely on in times of urgency. The advisory role played by a coach and mentor involves doing both and much more.

Strategic Mentorship: Exposure

Exposure is another part of the industry where women employees and even female business owners are lagging behind, since managers, partners and other decision makers often end up highlighting the best performing men over the equally talented (if not more so) women.

The job of the strategic mentor is to make sure that her clients are not overshadowed by anyone. They work towards bringing the spotlight to talented leaders and executives, so that they too can form valuable partnerships, get promotions, and find more suited roles for their talents. It is to be noted that experienced and well-connected business coaches who have been in the field for a while make the best strategic mentors for obvious reasons.

Operational Mentorship: Advice

Operational mentorship goes beyond just the generic advice, but involves an actual process and step by step solution to overcoming obstacles in a female executive's path to success, be it for an immediate project or a long-term goal.

Just as experienced coaches and mentors are ideal for strategic mentorship, women need more industry specific guidance when it comes to operational mentors. They need to be women who have actually worked in the specific field concerned, or finding practical solutions and forming strategies to overcome specific obstacles will prove difficult, even if the mentor has her best interests in mind.

When you are a highly qualified, experienced and successful female business coach, know that you are not only helping your clients reach success, but you are at the same time being seen as a role model for women working in the corporate sector. Every time you succeed in making another woman reach her goals, you are inspiring more women to follow in your footsteps, as well as showing them how to walk that road to success by mentoring them.