The “Mean Girls” (and Boys) Behind the Miss America Organization
For an organization based on women's empowerment, the past half-decade has been marred with a disturbing number of controversies and scandals for the Miss America Organization (MAO). Amid rebranding and restructuring, the competition program has faced allegations of misogyny, leadership changes, revoked funding and accusations of bullying.
With a name like Miss America, you would envision an organizational structure based on upholding the democratic standards of America. Unfortunately, events in recent years have put a much more tyrannical face on the organization, tarnishing its reputation. Let’s take a look at some of the mean girls (and guys) causing some of the problems.
Sam Haskell Takes the Pageant Back to Atlantic City
After just nine months, Mallory Hagan passed on the Miss America title in September 2013 because of schedule and location changes. In an email exchange between Sam Haskell, the pageant CEO, and his daughter, Mary Lane, the two expressed affection for Hagan.
Lane wrote, "Here’s hoping you get another good one!" in reference to the upcoming Miss America 2014 broadcast. Haskell replied, "It’s going to be hard to replace Mallory, but I’m hopeful!" Meanwhile, Haskell was hoping the director of development at his production company, Brent Adams, would pursue a relationship with his daughter.
Haskell Turns on Hagan Because of Adams
While Mallory Hagan was the reigning Miss America, she spent time at Haskell's home, where she met Brent Adams, who supervised most aspects of Haskell’s business and personal life. Fearing the impact a romantic relationship would have on their careers, they decided to date — but not until after she passed on the crown.
Haskell was vocal about his disappointment with this development and tried to convince Adams to forget about Hagan saying, "All of this can be yours. You don’t need a piece of trash like Mallory. You need someone with class and money like my daughter."
Tammy Haddad Calls for Punishment of Dissenters
In May 2014, MAO board member Tammy Haddad wrote an email to Haskell encouraging him to avoid getting riled up by former Miss America. She referred to them as a "pile of malcontents and has-beens who blame the program for not getting them where they think they can go."
She further commented, "80% of the winners do not have the class, smarts and model for success ... You have to let them go. You don’t need them. They need you. We also have to punish them when they don’t appreciate what we do for them."
Kate Shindle Takes Shots at Sam Haskell
Meanwhile, in 2014, Kate Shindle wrote her memoir about her experiences as Miss America 1998. Titled Being Miss America, the book was set to be released in September, and she pointedly targeted Haskell. She expressed her objections to his $500,000 salary, despite MAO operating at a deficit.
Shindle also accused Haskell of blacklisting anyone who disagreed with his leadership decisions. She alleged that he would have the national organization call the state-level pageants with a list of people they were not allowed to associate with if they wanted to continue participating in Miss America.
Gretchen Carlson Stands Her Ground Against Haskell and Haddad
Gretchen Carlson, Miss America 1989, had a history of butting heads with Haskell and Haddad over her desire to modernize the organization and her refusal to attack contestants. In a 2014 email sent to former Miss Americas regarding Shindle's book, board member Lynn Weidner asked, "Is it possible for each of you to speak out in defense of Sam and the organization?"
Carlson's reply was, "It’s one thing to talk about your own personal experience as Miss America … but totally different to attack people individually." In response, Haddad replied privately to Haskell, "Snake, but now u have no doubts as to her loyalty."
Things Get Ugly and Words Are Said
In 2014, Haskell wrote an email to Lewis Friedman, writer of the Miss America telecast, requesting a script change: "Sharon [MAO President] and I have decided that when referring to a woman who was once Miss America, we are no longer going to call her Forever Miss America … please change all script copy to reflect that they are Former Miss Americas!"
Friedman replied, "I’d already changed "Forever" to [the C-word]. Does that work for you?" Haskell responded, "Perfect...bahahaha." Writing to Haskell, Friedman commented that Mallory was "preparing for her new career as a blimp in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade."
Haddad Plots Against Carlson
Former Miss America Susan Powell replied to Weidner's email with a supportive response. Haddad encouraged Haskell to use the email to annoy Carlson. "Why don’t you read Susan Powell’s email on the board call and say it’s a shame that only one Miss America has come forward to offer help in any way."
Carlson wasn’t featured on the Miss America broadcast, which was unusual considering her prominence. Shortly after that, she resigned from the MAO board, reportedly because Haskell and other board members were maligning her integrity and telling others she could not be trusted.
Lewis Friedman Has a Death Wish
In December 2014, former Miss America 1959, Mary Ann Mobley, passed away. Lewis Friedman sent an email of condolence to Sam Haskell writing, "So sorry to hear about Mary Ann Mobley." Sounds nice, right? Except the subject line read: "It should have been Kate Shindle."
Haskell replied, "Thanks so much, Coach … even in my sadness, you can make me laugh … how was the Kennedy Center Honors? Love you and appreciate you! Sam." Friedman was a long-time screenwriter for the Kennedy Center Honors and had earned two Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Writing for his work on them in 2010 and 2012.
Haskell & Company Grow More Petty
Sam Haskell and other board members for the Miss America Organization continued to obsess over Mallory Hagan's relationship with Brent Adams in 2015. On January 25, Lynn Weidner sent a photo of Hagan with three other "formers" to Haskell. His response was, "OMG, she is huge … and gross … why does he want that?????"
He then forwarded the email to future board COO and President Josh Randle and other MAO board members along with the comment, "Look at MH in this photo … OMG … Why does he want that?" Tammy Haddad replied, "Mallory is barely recognizable."
Sam Haskell, Bully or Victim?
By the end of 2015, Haskell was feeling "viciously and cruelly" attacked by Hagan on a daily basis and wrote an email to Haddad, Weidner and others asking for help. Haddad replied, "I am so sorry. It is ridiculous, but she is not going to stop. She has no control. I think you should hire an investigator to get something on her."
Haskell responded, "Threatening her won’t work, and we already have ‘enough info on her’ to shut down Ft. Knox ... I really think the best way is to shut down her social media and convince the Formers to ostracize her."
Weidner Incriminates Herself in a Sabotage Plot
While it is unclear how Mallory Hagan was allegedly attacking Sam Haskell, Tammy Haddad called them "inflammatory character attacks." Lynn Weidner referenced cyberbullying in her December email response to the group.
"I wish I had an easy answer to this dilemma. If we can prove a direct connection between MH and specific instances of cyberbullying, we could at least threaten her with a lawsuit, right? I do believe that our anti-coaching initiatives are already impacting her business and that our policy of ignoring her is driving her crazy!"
Ending Hagan's Career
It appears that the national Miss America Organization established a policy against the use of coaches to directly target Hagan's business. After her reign, Hagan was working in New York as a pageant coach for the interview portion of the competition.
The national organization informed contestants that they would need approval from their local and state pageant directors to use a coach. Those pageant directors were then given an informal list of banned coaches that included Mallory Hagan's name on it. Before long, her business dried up, and she had to return home to Alabama.
Whistleblowers or Coup Strategists
In August 2017, former Haskell employee, Brent Adams, and former MAO board member, Regina Hopper, decided to approach Dick Clark Productions with the previously cited emails. Dick Clark Production execs, Amy Thurlow and Mark Bracco, who also held seats on the Miss America board, met with the duo and thanked them for the emails and started their own investigation.
Thurlow and Bracco approached the board with the emails expecting decisive action, but they were met with ambivalence. Lewis Friedman remained the writer of the Miss America pageant telecast that September.
Failure to Act
Instead of taking action regarding the derogatory emails, the Miss America Organization had their law firm present Brent Adams with a cease-and-desist letter: "Your deliberate actions constitute a clear violation of the Non-Disclosure Agreement you knowingly and willfully entered into … the letter directed to the Chairman of the Board of Dick Clark Productions, dated September 13, 2017, noticed us of your illegal disclosure of information, which includes several internal email communications."
Refusing to be silenced, Adams and Hopper decided to contact the media with their evidence. This led to the story breaking on HuffPost in December.
Dick Clark Productions Deals a Crippling Blow
Meanwhile, Dick Clark Productions was disgusted by the MAO board's decision to support Haskell and Friedman and decided to end their agreement with the organization. In a statement issued to HuffPost, the company stated:
"Several months ago, Dick Clark Productions was made aware of a portion of the emails. We were appalled by their unacceptable content and insisted, in the strongest possible terms, that the Miss America Organization board of directors conduct a comprehensive investigation and take appropriate action to address the situation. Shortly thereafter, we resigned our board positions and notified MAO that we were terminating our relationship with them."
The Blow Out and Backlash
In the aftermath of the leaked email scandal, Miss North Carolina 1991, Jennifer Vaden Barth, started a petition calling for the resignation of all board members involved in the appalling behavior. Mallory Hagan along with more than 40 former Miss Americas signed it.
Haskell was promptly placed on suspension pending an investigation, and within days, Haddad and Haskell resigned, effective immediately. Josh Randle and Lynn Weidner voluntarily resigned from their positions as President and Chairman, respectively, but agreed to remain for up to 90 days to assist with the leadership transition.
Haskell’s Last Defense
Haskell defended himself: "Much of what was reported is dishonest, deceptive and despicable. The material is based on private emails that were stolen ... The story is so unkind and untrue and hurts me, my family and the stewardship of this non-profit. I was under stress from a full year of attacks by two Miss Americas..."
"This was not the CEO of an organization laughing at inappropriate jokes. This was a father whose family was being attacked, and a man whose character was being assassinated daily, and that impaired my judgment when responding to the inappropriate emails. For that, I deeply apologize."
Caressa Cameron Speaks Out
Former Miss Americas, such as Caressa Cameron who was crowned in 2010, noted that the organization's problems were a lack of respect and leadership and not language. Cameron revealed that just 30 days into her reign, she experienced problems with Haskell.
When she wanted to invite her previous coach to her homecoming party, she recalled, "Sam Haskell said I was not to invite her. She could not come. He basically threw a temper tantrum, and then he didn’t come." She was also prevented from participating in events related to her HIV/AIDS prevention platform.
Gretchen Carlson Seizes an Opportunity
Among the most vocal of the former Miss Americas, Gretchen Carlson and Kate Shindle both made themselves targets of Haskell and company's attacks. Both took to Twitter to call for a "thorough housecleaning of the board."
A growing consensus wanted Carlson and Shindle to take the helm and run the MAO. Carlson was elected Chairwoman of the Board of Directors on January 1, 2018. Former titleholders filled the remaining board openings on an interim basis while Carlson was supposed to conduct a national search for the new CEO.
Regina Hopper Gets Her Way
On May 17, 2018, a new form of scandal hit when Gretchen Carlson installed Regina Hopper, one of the email whistleblowers, as President and CEO of the Miss America Organization. State organizations and former Miss Americas were upset that a national search had not been conducted, as Gretchen promised. In effect, a leadership coup had occurred within the organization.
As part of the restructuring, Carlson pushed for a Miss America 2.0 that would no longer be a pageant but a scholarship "competition," featuring "candidates" instead of contestants. She also removed the swimsuit competition from the program.
Pushing People Out
Nearly half of the nine-person MAO board was pushed to resign after fewer than six months in the position. Former winners Kate Shindle and Laura Kaeppeler Fleiss resigned in June, citing "toxic culture" as the reason behind their departure.
The previously signed resignation letters from their interim roles were used against Former Miss North Carolina, Jennifer Vaden Barth, and Former Miss Maine, Valerie Crooker Clemens, to force their resignations. They reported to The Wall Street Journal that Carlson issued a letter stating they were trying to gain control of the organization in order to force them out.
The Bikini Has to Go
While the swimsuit competition had long been a sticking point for pageant protestors, many felt that removing it in light of the #MeToo movement was a cop-out. Miss South Carolina 2011, who has recovered from an eating disorder she developed during her competition days, said:
"I think the Miss America Organization could have done something a little bit different and embraced people of all shapes and sizes. To me, taking it away completely says, ‘If you’re not that size, you don’t belong in a swimsuit.' We have to change people's mindsets and let them know women are beautiful at all shapes and sizes."
A Scholarship Competition Without Scholarship Funds
In the weeks leading up to Miss America 2019 (held in September 2018), Miss America 1991, Marjorie Vincent Tripp, resigned as head of the Miss America Foundation. In part, she made the decision because she claimed the scholarship money awarded to Miss America was the foundation's responsibility.
The problem with that is 15 state directors reported their winners were refusing to sign the competition contract because of the clause that says scholarship money is "contingent upon availability of funds in any given year." Miss America 1984, Suzette Charles, said, "It's a joke. You can go on any game show and win more than what Miss America is offering."
Cara Mund's Slip of the Tongue
In July, Miss America 2018, Cara Mund, made a comment at a New Jersey Dairy Queen appearance: "It’s been a tough year. There have been a lot of things I can’t control. It has felt like I wasn’t always heard or utilized or appreciated."
She claims she was notified within 72 hours of her punishment for speaking out. "I was told my final farewell as Miss America would be cut to a total of 30 seconds for the national telecast." She went on to write a letter revealing the torment and bullying she suffered at the hands of Carlson, Hopper and Adams.
Cara Peels Back the Curtain
In her letter to past contestants, Cara Mund asserted that "new leadership delivered an important message. There will be only one Miss America at a time, and she isn't me." Instead, Gretchen Carlson would be the focus of all Mund's public talking points, including the claim that the "#MeToo movement started with Carlson’s lawsuit."
The movement actually started with Tarana Burke in 2006 and was boosted to viral status in 2017 by Alyssa Milano. By the end of her reign, Mund was only allowed to post on her own personal social media sites. MAO posted for her on all Miss America accounts.
Blaming the Victim
The organization responded to Mund's claims by saying she had opportunities to give her opinion and manage her own social media accounts. However, they also issued the statement, "It is disappointing that she chose to air her grievances publicly, not privately."
In a Twitter response, Carlson denied the accusations of bullying and blamed Mund's letter for costing the organization a $75,000 scholarship. An independent external review attributed "miscommunications and mixed messages" as the heart of the issues between Mund and MAO: "Communications surrounding branding, clothing and appearance were less than clear and created confusion and frustration."
The States Raise Objections
Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, along with 19 other state pageant organizations, called for the resignations of Regina Hopper and Gretchen Carlson as well as the entire board in a vote of "no confidence" for "lack of transparency and adherence to best practices."
Among their allegations were claims that leadership lied when they said ABC would not telecast the competition unless the swimsuit program was eliminated. State directors also objected to the contract clause that gave Hopper the unilateral right to "cause any state titleholder to forfeit her state title" without due process or the right to appeal.
Ruling with an Iron Fist
With the revolt of state organizations and a GoFundMe page started by Jennifer Vaden Barth to raise funds to legally replace the board, the Miss America Organization took decisive action, retaliating in a shocking manner by swiftly terminating the licenses of seven states.
The states cut off included Georgia, New Jersey, New York and Tennessee. The terminations required them to replace their current leadership and turn scholarship bank accounts over to the Miss America Organization. They also began threatening 15 other state organizations with probation and were quick to praise the states that were still supporting the current MAO leadership.
Doubling Down on Poor Word Choices
A September 2019 press release for a new scholarship doubled-down on the swimsuit controversy by stating, "In reaching out to the Miss America Organization, the donor made clear the important reason for the generous gift. As a young woman who wanted to compete in a local Miss America competition in the 1980s, she was discouraged by her parents because they believed ‘Miss America does not look like us, and an educated woman does not parade around in a swimsuit.’"
Cara Mund responded via Instagram, "Female empowerment doesn’t mean insulting, alienating and discrediting the thousands of women who paved the way." Bite the hand that feeds you much, Cara?
Gretchen Carlson Resigns
After securing a new network partnership with NBC, Gretchen Carlson resigned from her position as board chairwoman in June 2019. She stated, "The time is ideal to give new leadership the opportunity to move forward with what has been accomplished."
Carlson was replaced by former South Dakota secretary of state Shantel Krebs with attorney Brenda Keith serving as vice-chair. After instituting new leadership in the terminated state organizations, all 50 states, plus D.C., were eligible to compete in the 2020 competition on December 19, 2019. The swimsuit and evening gown portions of the event are still not part of the competition.