The 96-year-old Miss America pageant has long been a cultural flashpoint.
To its advocates, its an empowering scholarship program for gifted young women; to its detractors, an outdated sexist tradition that values physical appearance at least as much as talent. But emails obtained and published by the Huffington Post show that some of the ugliest criticism of Miss America contestants is coming from the leadership of the Miss America Organization.
The emails show the organization’s chief executive, board members, and former head writer trading snide comments about former contestants’ weight and sex lives. They discussed plots to shun and silence former Miss Americas (using the non-profit’s money) who offended the leadership in some way. A campaign against one former winner led to a blackballing of her pageant coaching business, which subsequently collapsed.
“I have decided that when referring to a woman who was once Miss America, we are no longer going to call them Forever Miss Americas,” CEO Sam Haskell wrote in 2014 to Lewis Friedman, then the show’s lead writer, in the emails obtained by the HuffingtonPost. “Please change all script copy to reflect that they are Former Miss Americas!”
“I’d already changed “Forevers” to “Cunts.” Does that work for you?” wrote Friedman, who no longer works for Miss America.
“Perfect…bahahaha,” replied Haskell, who is still the organization’s CEO.
Miss America participants get scholarship money, and the visibility of a title can help winners launch subsequent careers. But actually running the Miss America Organization is the far more lucrative gig. Haskell earns $500,000 annually as CEO of the non-profit organization, according to the Huffington Post. (The organization has also been duplicitous about the amount of money disbursed in scholarships, as John Oliver reported in a 2014 segment.)
Quartz tried to reach the Miss America Organization for comment today (Dec. 22), but its office is closed for the holiday.
The organization’s boosters still claim that it’s “a nationally recognized and positive force for the education and the empowerment of young women,” as one board member told the Huffington Post. But that’s a very difficult line to maintain when it’s clear that at least the highest-ranking members of the top leadership (who are all white guys, by the way) speak in exploitative and sexist terms of the women whose performances make their job possible. The leaked emails are a record of an executive talking about the people at the heart of his organization as products, which contradicts the pageant’s claims that its message is pro-women.
For example, Haskell has defended the pageant’s oft-maligned swimsuit competition as a body-positive part of the pageant’s heritage that is definitely not about objectifying young women. In his emails, he replied to a forwarded photograph of one former contestant he deemed to have gained an unacceptable amount of weight with “OMG she is huge…and gross.” (Curious about what counts as “huge and gross” to the leader of a nationally recognized and positive force for the education and the empowerment of young women? Here you go.)
When it becomes clear that the leadership of an organization has no respect for the people within it, either the leader has to go—or the organization does.