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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It’s Time for Women to Stop Worrying About Being “Too Much”

We are living in a time when women are rising to new heights which means they are regularly being confronted with the fear of being "too much". For women in business this is pervasive and costly.

A few ways women can be perceived as "too much" are:

Speaking up about their successes and achievements.

Sharing one too many photos of their cute kids.

Telling one too many people about that date night.

Looking a little too good in that swimsuit.

These can lead to being publicly attacked on social media or privately slandered which in turn leads to women dimming their light and walking on egg shells in hopes of avoiding conflict and judgement.

The minute a woman feels it's unsafe to shine she will begin to overthink, worry, and fear how she shows up in the world.

Forgetting to announce the book is done and the interview is live.

Choosing to focus on what's still on the to-do list rather than what's been checked off.

Many female entrepreneurs are subconsciously altering their behavior in an attempt to not attract too much attention to themselves, rather than focusing on allowing authenticity and magnetism to attract their ideal clients and community.

Women are afraid of being criticized, ostracized, and abandoned by other women for simply being who they are. This leads to quite the quantum when being who you are is simplest way to accelerate the growth of your business.

New research shows men are far more comfortable with self promotion than women are. Researchers found that men rate their own performance 33 percent higher than equally performing women. What we know is that self promotion pays off and this is where women are missing the boat.

The world needs more women to step into leadership roles and no longer be intimidated about creating six and seven figure careers.

Here are five ways to release the fear of being "too much":

1. Approve of yourself.

While it feels good to receive outside validation it will never be enough if you don't first appreciate yourself. The key to having a healthy support system is to make sure you are part of it. Being your biggest critic is what your mother's generation did. It's now time to be your biggest cheerleader. Becoming aware of self talk will reveal what belief is ready to be re-wired. Create a simply mantra that affirms how incredible capable you are.

2. Connect deeply to those you serve.

One powerful way to shift out of people pleasing behavior is to get clear on who actually matters to the wellbeing and success of your life and business. Leadership is not about being the most popular, instead it's a decision to be brave for those who can't be. Take a few minutes each day to visualize and meditate on those your business serves and supports. See your future clients moving toward you every time you choose to stand in your power and use your authentic voice.

3. Remember the legacy you wish to leave.

Having your life purpose and legacy in writing is one of the most transformational exercises you can do. Reading this often will keep you focused on what matters. Knowing what you wish to leave in the hearts of those you love most is incredibly grounding. You didn't come here to keep your mouth shut, dilute your truth, or dim your light-you came here to make a difference.

4. Forgive those who have been unsupportive in the past.

The past has a way of informing the future in a negative way when there is unresolved pain. Take a few minutes to get quiet and ask yourself who you have unforgiveness towards or maybe their name came to mind as you read this article. Listening to a forgiveness meditation or writing a letter to the person you are ready to forgive are both simple and effective ways to process and heal.

5. Be part a community of bright, successful women.

Meaningful relationships with others who have similar aspirations is what will keep you out of isolation and playing small. These connections can happen in a networking group, online community or a local Meetup. Thriving in every area of life is depend on you knowing where you belong and being celebrated there. Don't wait to be invited, go actively seek out people and places that support your dreams and desires.

6. Accept you can have it all.

Women have been fed a lie for generations that says, you can have love or money. Decide you can have it all and allow it to flow to you. You can have a successful career and an amazing mother. You can balance motherhood and loving marriage. Don't let anyone write the rules for you. This is the time to create the life you desire on your terms.

7. Celebrate everything!

The fastest way to leave the haters in the dust is to celebrate everything! At the end of each day lay in bed and recall the best moments. At the end of each week, publicly acknowledge and celebrate what's good in your life. Once a month, have a celebration dinner and share it with those who have helped you in the journey. If there's something good happening, talk about it with everyone who will listen!

May you be a woman who chooses to shine so that others may be reminded of all they can be and do.