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If Miss America isn’t a beauty pageant, what is it?

Reuters/Mark Makela
Crowned—but for what?
  • Preeti Varathan
By Preeti Varathan

Video Journalist and Economics Reporter

Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Miss America—the first modern beauty pageant—will no longer be about, ahem, beauty.

The contest announced today (June 5) that the next edition in September will drop the swimsuit portion of the competition and be inclusive of women of all sizes.

And if there was any confusion—because ditching swimsuits and including women with a whole range of bodies doesn’t preclude the show still being about beauty—Gretchen Carlson, chair of the Miss America board of directors, said on Good Morning America that “we will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance.”

As Carlson went on to say, that’s huge. While Miss America is part scholarship program, part pageant and has included talent and speaking portions in the past, it is, by far, a young ladies’ beauty competition. Historically, the one thing every Miss America has had in common is that they have been conventionally beautiful, a definition that has  expanded over time. (In 2014, Nina Davuluri became the first Indian-American Miss America, sparking concerns that she wasn’t “American enough.”)

“We are no longer a pageant,” said Carlson.

So if Miss America is no longer a pageant—what exactly is it? Carlson, who was crowned Miss America 1989, believes it is now “a competition.”

The revamped contest will replace the swimsuit portion with a live, interactive session with the judges. The contestants will be asked to display passion, smarts, and an in-depth understanding of the responsibilities of Miss America.

Carlson said since the competition is no longer about heels and swimsuits, it will now champion leadership, empowerment, and how women will pay for college. And, of course, inner beauty: Contestants will “be able to show the world who you are as a person from the inside of your soul,” said Carlson.

The organization will also scrap the evening gown portion for a segment in which women will wear anything that makes them feel confident, to showcase their personal styles.

What changed? For one, Carlson, a former cable-news anchor who became a vocal advocate of the #MeToo movement after settling a sex-harassment suit against Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, is now Miss America’s chair. And for the first time—after an email scandal uncovered sexism at its highest levels—the entire leadership team of the Miss America pageant is made up of women.

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