The recent article published by the Huffington Post exposed emails written by Sam Haskell and board members that were deeply troubling. The emails engaged in name-calling, insults, and slander of several former Miss Americas. I’d like to say that I was surprised by the email scandal, but I absolutely was not. Sam Haskell’s ruthless climb to power began the moment he joined the Board of Directors. And as he worked his way up to Executive Chairman and CEO, he systematically eliminated everyone who questioned him. No one who has ever had any direct interaction with him, or members of his senior level staff, could have been surprised.
To be fair, Sam did help return the pageant to broadcast TV. And he did sign a contract with Dick Clark Productions to enable the reigning Miss America to get publicity and celebrity appearances. But those things quickly vanished after the publication of the emails. Unfortunately, his leadership was the perfect example of that old saying, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Now, under the leadership of Gretchen Carlson, Miss America 1989, as Chair, and new board members Kate Shindle, Miss America 1998, Heather French Henry, Miss America 2000, and Laura Kaeppeler-Fleiss, Miss America 2012 there’s an opportunity to get things back on track. But what if that’s not good enough? What if instead of a return to the status quo, Miss America takes this opportunity to re-establish itself as a leader in pageantry? Gretchen indicated in her Good Morning America interview that she was open to change, and I believe her. So, here’s a list of the top 4 things I’d like to see the Miss America Organization do differently:
1. Financial transparency at the local, state and national levels. Contestants and volunteers have no visibility to how funds they raise are used at the local, state and national levels. There have been complaints about local and state directors who have allegedly engaged in questionable financial practices. But it seemed to many that MAO just ignored those complaints. As a non-profit organization, I believe that MOA should be obligated to provide easy access to financial reports and require fiscal accountability throughout the organization. Financial transparency is expected of the top-rated charities, and MAO should offer no less to its contestants and volunteers.
2. Publish contestant scores. In the past, MAO provided scores at the local and state levels. This information was helpful for contestants to understand their strengths as well as areas for improvement. But the scoring was suddenly discontinued without a specific explanation. I suspect it’s because local directors, and some state organizations, did not invest enough time in selecting and orienting judges. Often directors are primarily focused on recruiting contestants and managing the production of the pageant. Judging seems to be an afterthought. The result has been judging that contestants complain is poor, inconsistent and/or political. Instead of fixing the problem, MAO just stopped providing scores to the contestants. In order for judges to be held accountable for their scores, those scores must be published. Contestants need to see that judges are evaluating them fairly, based on their skills, and not “tanking” them in favor of a judge’s friend-of-a-friend. And in order for directors to be held accountable for selecting and training good judges, scores must be published across the board – not just to the individual contestant. Girls as young as 3 years-old are scored in dance, gymnastics, and other competitions where the scores are flashed on a screen or publically available. Pageant girls are just as strong as girls competing in other events. Not publishing scores protects judges and directors – it does not empower contestants.
3. Eliminate the swimsuit competition. Although the Miss America pageant was started as a bathing suit competition in Atlantic City to extend the tourist season, the swimsuit competition is the #1 reason people outside of pageantry don’t take the competition seriously. Traditionalists feel that the swimsuit competition must be kept at all costs to honor the pageant’s heritage. Based on that theory, contestants should still be competing in ankle-length bathing dresses. Miss America has evolved from a 1920’s publicity stunt with a cash prize of $100 to a program awarding millions in scholarships to encourage academic achievement and community leadership. If it wants to continue the evolution and move forward as a leader in encouraging and empowering women, it should not actively contribute to the body-shaming and “perfect selfie” culture of today’s society. The fastest growing pageants in the US are the pageants that do not include swimsuit or any type of “fitness” competition. The majority of pageantry has left the swimsuit competition behind; it’s time that Miss America does too.
4. Establish a review panel and process for contestants/titleholders to lodge complaints about local and state directors. Sam Haskell and his team, through their example, gave directors across the country the impression that their contestants and titleholders were just there to boss around and feed their own egos. Some directors give contestants/titleholders the impression that they won’t win at the next level if they don’t do everything their director tells them to do. Many directors force local and state titleholders to purchase and wear gowns they don’t like, change their talents to suit the director, and discontinue working with their support team and only take advice from the director. I’ve even heard directors state that parents aren’t allowed to give a titleholder advice. The new leadership should have a specific process, to evaluate and remove state and local directors who engage in harassing and controlling behaviors. The emphasis should be mentoring and support, with no tolerance for control and harassment. By establishing a review panel, “it’s all about me” directors could be identified and removed to the benefit of the entire organization.
To be clear, I know that there are many, many wonderful directors, staff and volunteers at all levels in the Miss America Organization. But we all know that it only takes one or two individuals in a position of power with a personal agenda to ruin a titleholders year. I wholeheartedly agree that the vast majority of people associated with MAO truly embrace the goals of educating and empowering women. I’m just suggesting that these organizational changes would make it easier for everyone to do so. After all, aren’t we all in it to improve ourselves while contributing to the success of others?