Past Miss America participants welcome new CEO's changes

Past Miss America participants welcome new CEO's changes

It's one thing to parade across the stage in heels and an evening gown, with millions watching on national TV.

But it's quite another to do the same wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a sash — even in the days before high-definition television.

"I practically had to starve to meet the expectations of body size back then," 1990's Miss America, Debbye Turner Bell, said Tuesday. "I often ate a whole cherry pie the day after competing in a pageant."

In a move that was roundly cheered by the sorority of winners, new Miss America CEO, 1989 winner and #MeToo champion Gretchen Carlson announced Tuesday that the swimsuit and evening-gown portions of the 97-year-old competition were being scrapped.

In: a focus on contestants' achievements and goals in life, Carlson said, and how they'd use their talents, passion and ambition as Miss America.

Out: the term "pageant" — and much of what comes with it.

"We are no longer a pageant. Miss America will represent a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent and empowerment," Carlson announced. "We're experiencing a cultural revolution in our country with women finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard on many issues.

"Miss America is proud to evolve as an organization and join this empowerment movement."

Among those applauding the move: 1999 winner Nicole Johnson, known for being the first Miss America with diabetes.

"When I participated in swimsuit, I was bothered by the seeming objectification," she said Tuesday. "However, to accomplish my goal of speaking out about health and diabetes, I was willing to be uncomfortable."

These days, not so much. She's also the mother of a teenage daughter, which has changed her view of the world.

"I teach her that beauty comes from character, values, intelligence and leadership," added Johnson, who said she'd never been prouder of the organization's governing body than she was when Carlson announced the change Tuesday.

If a similar approach were to trickle down to the local level, past county fair contestants say, it would be more than welcome there, too.

To a contestant, 1990's Miss Vermilion County swears, "all the girls hated" the swimsuit segment.

"There was no one that said, 'Yes, I get to go out on stage in a swimsuit,'" Julie Busch added. "You'd walk down the runway, do a quick turn around and get the heck off stage as quickly as possible."

It was the same feeling at the Farmer City/DeWitt County Fair, said 2012 queen Danielle Burge.

When she competed, the contestants ranged in age from 16 to 21.

"I don't think any girl that age, when you're forced to put on a swimsuit and be judged, will feel comfortable doing that," she said. "I myself felt self-conscious about it."

Such a turnoff was the swimsuit portion in particular, Busch and Burge said, that it kept many of their friends from participating at all.

"And that's sad, because if you think about it, they always thought of this pageant as a scholarship opportunity," Busch said. "There were girls that needed some scholarship money that missed out on those opportunities because they didn't want to do the swimsuit competition.

"You know, with the evening gowns, they could get kind of risqué too," Busch added. "Who has the best gown? Who cares? It has nothing to do with what you're being hired to do, which is to speak and be a mentor to young girls and represent America. That has very little to do with your look."

Any changes to the formats of state and county pageants would likely come in 2019, if at all.

In Illinois, 12 counties will hold their fair pageants this month — with Macon up first on Thursday and Vermilion (June 20) and Ford (June 25) to follow.

Forty-five more are scheduled for next month, including Champaign (July 15).

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