Shedding Swimsuits In A Miss America Reboot The new head of Miss America says candidates will no longer be judged on their outward appearance. As part of that remake, the swimsuit competition has been axed from this Sunday's event.
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Shedding Swimsuits In A Miss America Reboot

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Shedding Swimsuits In A Miss America Reboot

Shedding Swimsuits In A Miss America Reboot

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) There she is, Miss America...

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been a year of change for the Miss America pageant. For one thing, it's no longer called a pageant. These days, Miss America is billed as a competition, and there's more beyond the change in terminology. Tomorrow night, 51 women will compete in what organizers say is a contest for the modern era. From member station WHYY, Joe Hernandez reports.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: The biggest change to Miss America in 100 years was announced on the show "Good Morning America" on ABC earlier this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

GRETCHEN CARLSON: We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That's huge.

AMY ROBACH: That's huge.

CARLSON: And that means that we will no longer have a swimsuit competition.

HERNANDEZ: That's Gretchen Carlson, the new head of the Miss America organization. She took the job earlier this year after leaked emails showed the former Miss America CEO and other top executives were disparaging contestants. They resigned and a new all-female leadership slate, including Carlson, took their place. Carlson is a former Miss America herself, having won the 1989 pageant. She'd also recently quit her job as a host at Fox News, where she sued her former boss, Roger Ailes, for sexual harassment. Carlson quickly made changes to Miss America when she took over, scrapping the swimsuit section in what she said would be a more modern and evolved competition. It was to be a beauty pageant for the #MeToo era. Carlson declined our request for an interview but described on "Good Morning America" what she and other organizers are calling Miss America 2.0.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

CARLSON: We're not going to judge you on your outward appearance because we're interested in what makes you, you. Tell us about your goals and your achievements in life. And by the way, at the end of the day, we hand out scholarships to these young women.

HERNANDEZ: Some people hailed the changes as long overdue. But almost immediately, there was a backlash about removing the iconic swimsuit section. Critics accused Miss America of bowing to the forces of political correctness. Representatives from 22 state pageants called on Carlson and other top officials to resign. Crystal Lee got second place in Miss America 2014. We spoke via Skype.

CRYSTAL LEE: If you ask any contestant in the Miss America pageant, they want to wear that swimsuit.

HERNANDEZ: For decades, Miss America hopefuls have strutted down the runway in nothing but a bathing suit and high heels.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Miss Georgia, Alyssa Beasley.

HERNANDEZ: They strike poses for the judges and wave to the audience. Lee says she understands why getting rid of the swimsuit section might make it easier for the organization to recruit new applicants. But she says she didn't see the Miss America of old as an attack on feminism.

LEE: I felt, if anything, that being in that swimsuit was a choice. Being in that swimsuit made me feel like I get to do something that women in past generations did not have the privilege to do.

HERNANDEZ: The very first pageant took place in 1921 as a so-called bathers review. Margot Mifflin, a professor at the City University of New York, says it was a way for the women to show their independence by flouting the customs of the time.

MARGOT MIFFLIN: In the decade preceding that, women had to fully cover up. Like, they were wearing, at the turn of the century, basically wool dresses into the water, like street clothes into the water.

HERNANDEZ: But as years passed and women fought for more equality in public and private life, the swimsuit competition came to be seen, by some, as a step backward. What had once been a liberating act for women was now considered an affront to feminism and equality.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Up against the wall, Miss America.

HERNANDEZ: In 1968, a group of women protested at Miss America, saying it was anti-feminist to objectify the female contestants. One protester's sign likened the pageant to a cattle auction. Fifty years later, organizers seem to agree - removing the swimsuit section of Miss America in an attempt to make it less about how women look and more about what they say. Margot Mifflin says it's impossible to tell how the changes will go over with the audience.

MIFFLIN: I think this year is going to determine, at the very least, do people want to watch a Miss America where they don't see women in swimsuits? And if they do, what will they be watching for?

HERNANDEZ: Gretchen Carlson wooed the Miss America judges when she won the 1989 pageant. Now, she has a new challenge - wooing Miss America viewers from her seat in the boardroom. For NPR News, I'm Joe Hernandez.

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