The revelations which led to the suspension and resignation of Miss America Organization CEO Sam Haskell, the President/COO and Board members were sickening and sad. A Huffington Post report uncovered Mr. Haskell had exchanged vulgar and demeaning internal emails including name-calling, slut-shaming and fat-shaming of former Miss America winners. The behavior felt like an uncomfortable extension of the seemingly daily barrage of national #MeToo revelations. They were also personally painful to me. I was late to the Miss America party and I arrived as a skeptic. In 2009, I was invited to be one of the judges for the Miss America competition taking place on January 24 at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas. The event required a weeklong commitment. I took time off work, believing it would be an easy and relaxing assignment. After all, how tough could it be to judge a beauty pageant? It was the first of several assumptions that I held about the event which were ultimately proven to be false.
That the contestants would be beautiful was hardly a leap of faith. Each and every one of them was striking and attractive. Prior to leaving for the week, my then twenty year old daughter had even studied the photos and bios of the contestants and pointed out the woman she believed would be my favorite. She was right from a purely physical perspective but that woman was not my choice for Miss America. I learned that looks were hardly determinative in choosing who should ultimately take the crown. Sam Haskell greeted all of the judges by stressing, in no uncertain terms, that this was not a typical beauty pageant. We were told that our choice for Miss America must demonstrate intelligence, strength, confidence and character as well as poise and beauty. All of us took those marching orders to heart in the following days, which involved numerous and exhaustive interview sessions as each of the contestants faced the panel. We then spent hours discussing and whittling down the field in the various rounds of the competition leading up to the night of the broadcast. The CEO’s apparent commitment to those principles made it all the more painful to reconcile his disturbing emails about the contestants. I felt a sense of betrayal along with the women who were so blatantly disrespected.
I remain proud of my small and brief role participating in a beloved American tradition. In the years since, I have defended the pageant to many who suggested it has become an anachronistic spectacle which objectifies the women it supposedly seeks to celebrate. The bathing suit and evening gown portions of the event do feel like misogynistic and outdated holdovers which perhaps should be jettisoned. Still, the event itself applauds and encourages the empowerment of women and highlights what makes these contestants a source of promise and optimism as well as role models for young girls. We ultimately, and as I recall unanimously, decided upon crowning Katie Stam as Miss America 2009. She embodied all the ideals the organization stressed. I would be proud to call her a daughter, sister or spouse. I am confident that my journey from skeptic to believer was experienced by several of my fellow judges as well. We ended the week confident that we were part of something positive and transformative. The stain on the Miss America organization prompted Dick Clark Productions to sever ties with the event. I am hopeful the scandal does not cause sponsors, supporters and the audience in general to permanently turn away from the Miss America Pageant itself.