UPDATE: Gretchen Carlson stepped down June 5 as board chairwoman of the Miss America Organization.
"With a promising network partnership, the time is ideal to give new leadership the opportunity to move forward with what has been accomplished,” Carlson said in her announcement. “Miss America will always be a part of who I am and I will enthusiastically watch as the organization continues to grow and succeed."
Carlson will be an advisor to the board, and is being replaced as chairwoman by Shantel Krebs, the former South Dakota secretary of state.
Annie Jorgensen was finishing up an appearance as Miss Georgia in September 2018 when she felt the first rumblings of a year that would be turned upside down.
Jorgensen had competed in a revamped Miss America two weeks earlier. The program had eschewed swimsuits and the word “pageant” for the first time in its 97-year history, the result of a seismic scandal within the Miss America Organization.
Many in the Miss America orbit thought the drama would subside after the national winner was crowned. But in Georgia, it was just beginning; Jorgensen would soon face a leadership change in the organization that made her feel like an “afterthought.” She would lose months of pay she thought was guaranteed. Longtime volunteers would be legally barred from working with the organization, and a new board would be assembled to push forward and keep the show running.
After nearly a year of chaos and confusion, a new Miss Georgia will be crowned on June 15 with no swimsuit, new leadership and many questions.
The changes have made some who have long been involved with Miss Georgia feel alienated from the organization, while others are hopeful for the future. All still have questions as to what that future will look like.
The new board is tasked with putting on the 75th Miss Georgia, the anniversary of an institution that has drawn young women for decades. Miss Georgia has historically been one of the state pageants with the largest number of contestants — more than 50 in 2017 and 2018 — and among the states considered most competitive by those who follow the Miss America Organization closely. Two Miss Americas have come from Georgia, including Betty Cantrell, Miss America 2016, and 21 more Miss Georgias — nearly a third of those crowned — have made the top 15 or higher at the pageant.
The first rumbles of change came in December 2017, when leaked emails showed Miss America leadership disparaging former titleholders and using sexist language. After dozens of former Miss America titleholders and volunteers called for new leadership, Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor and Miss America 1989, took the helm of the organization as chairwoman.
Carlson and a newly appointed board rid Miss America of its famed swimsuit competition and rebranded the annual event from a “pageant” to a “competition,” adding more onstage interviews and questions, allowing contestants to discuss current events and issues important to them on prime-time television. Carlson said the intent was to stop judging contestants’ physical appearance when she announced the change on “Good Morning America” in June 2018.
The beginnings of a split
The changes instituted during the first months after Carlson and the new board took power caused frustration among state pageant directors. The elimination of the swimsuit competition was a surprise to most, with an email alerting state directors of the change in the early morning hours before Carlson announced it on “Good Morning America,” but it was not the core complaint.
Many longtime state pageant leaders’ chief complaints were a lack of communication and feeling shut out by national leadership; they detailed these complaints in a no-confidence letter that called for Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper to resign. The letter was signed by 22 state executive directors, including Mansfield Bias, who led the Miss Georgia Pageant Corporation for more than 35 years. All but four state organizations eventually joined the call for new leadership.
“I was one of the ones who was very excited to see Gretchen when she came in, excited to see Regina. I thought they would be a great team,” Bias said in July 2018, shortly after the no-confidence letter was released. “It’s just fear now, the way we are being treated. … We’ve been asked very little of our opinion, and that is one thing that has been really shocking. At the beginning, we were going to all be stakeholders.” Bias is now legally barred from publicly discussing the Miss Georgia Pageant Corporation’s conflict with the Miss America Organization.
Carlson and Hopper did not step down. Miss America took place, and a winner was crowned — Nia Franklin, Miss New York — and the people who had spoken out against Carlson and Hopper felt the storm had passed, said Emily Ward, Miss Georgia 2009 and an Atlanta attorney.
But in late September, Bias and leaders in four other states, all of whom had signed the no-confidence letter, learned their licenses to operate their state’s pageant had been revoked.
Back in Georgia, Jorgensen got the news: The Miss Georgia Pageant’s longtime leadership was being ousted. The Miss America Organization was revoking their license to operate the state franchise. Leaders from states including New York, which produced four Miss Americas in eight years, also had their licenses revoked. (New York’s was eventually reinstated.) Miss Colorado’s board resigned in protest of the other states’ terminations in September 2018. The Miss America Organization, which selected a new state board in Georgia, has said its process regarding state licensees is confidential.
Bias got the news in an email while accompanying Jorgensen at the September appearance. While the leadership was evaluating its options, Jorgensen was instructed to continue “business as usual,” she said, attending appearances and working with schools and Girl Scout troops on her platform of confidence-building.
Stuck in the middle
The Miss Georgia Pageant had been run by the same board of directors for more than 30 years. It was a labor of love for the unpaid board members, including Bias and his wife.
“We never had daughters, we only had sons, so this was our way of having daughters,” Bias said in July 2018.
In addition to putting on the annual pageant, the board’s yearlong duties included scheduling Miss Georgia’s appearances, coordinating sponsorships, raising money for scholarships and providing ongoing support to former titleholders, like Ward. Multiple members of the Miss Georgia board who were attorneys advised her on what specialties to explore in law school and suggested she join moot court, a mock trial organization that Ward “became known for” at the University of Georgia School of Law.
Ward represented the Miss Georgia Pageant Corporation in settlement negotiations with the Miss America Organization, but spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution solely in her capacity as a former Miss Georgia.
The ousted Georgia board joined those from West Virginia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania and Jennifer Vaden Barth, a former Miss America Organization trustee during Carlson’s tenure, in suing the Miss America Organization. The suit was withdrawn in March due to a lack of funds on the plaintiffs’ side.
Jorgensen has felt “kept in the dark” for most of the process.
“I wasn’t able to do my job as Miss Georgia,” Jorgensen, who lives in Duluth with her aunt, said in an interview with the AJC.
Since December, she’s been acting as her own manager, booking appearances across the state and taking in the fees. She’s needed them more than ever in the past few months; in March, she learned her $750 monthly stipend and car insurance coverage would not continue, she said in a speech to contestants at the Miss Georgia Forum, where women vying for the crown learn details about the upcoming competition. The former board’s termination also caused the loss of a $10,000 donation that would have funded Jorgensen’s visits to Georgia schools during her reign.
Until she hands over the crown on June 15, she’s living solely on the money coming from appearance fees, and Jorgensen, who graduated from the University of Georgia in May 2018 with a journalism degree, continues to operate as her own business manager.
Despite the financial issues, Jorgensen finds joy in her day-to-day work, teaching Girl Scout troops and schoolchildren her #IGotThis confidence curriculum, visiting children’s hospitals and serving as a spokesperson for the Georgia Manufacturing Association.
“You have to be president of your fan club, CEO of your company,” Jorgensen told the AJC. “You have to go and get it yourself.”
Others are more optimistic about how the next Miss Georgia will fare under the new board.
“They are people who care bucketloads about these girls,” said Atlanta pageant coach Chris Saltalamacchio. “If leadership had to change, there’s no better way to have it change than have these people who care so much about these women and this organization. The board is working incredibly hard to make this successful.”
The new board does not know how much, if any, stipend Miss Georgia will be paid, but they intend for it to be a full-time job. The winner will get a $15,000 scholarship, slightly down from the $17,500 that came with the crown last year. That’s part of $50,000 in scholarship money that will be awarded in the competition. In addition, Wesleyan College is contributing $300,000 in in-kind scholarships, meaning scholarships will be waiting if Miss Georgia or other award winners want to attend.
The uncertainty has not come without consequences. Multiple businesses have dropped sponsorships. Twenty-nine women are competing at Miss Georgia this year, compared to 54 in 2018 and 53 in 2017.
Members of the new board say they are determined to improve the situation. They’re already working to raise more money for scholarships and operational funds, said Michael North, a member of the new board and a 27-year veteran volunteer within the organization.
“I want to work together to make the next Miss Georgia’s path easier than what Annie has had,” North said.
The major task at hand has been preparing for the Miss Georgia competition, which not only includes a new format and new judging criteria, but is also the 75th anniversary of the organization. There were initial doubts about whether it would stay at its longtime home, the River Center in Columbus, due to budget issues. They were able to make the numbers work in part by raising ticket prices, North said.
“It’s been an exceptional year. There have been no guidelines, no manual on what we have been through at a national level, at a state level and we have learned a lot,” said Trina Pruitt, another new board member who previously ran local pageants.
The changes have shaken many who have been long involved with Miss Georgia and the Miss America Organization. Carly Mathis, Miss Georgia 2013, grew up in the organization’s orbit: Her mother competed as Miss Albany in 1985 and ran a local pageant before Mathis began competing in pageants at 13. She signed a petition calling for Carlson and Hopper’s ouster and believes she’s been blackballed from judging pageants, which she’s done twice since handing down the crown.
“It’s sad. I don’t know where my place is now,” Mathis said. “This organization that basically shaped me into who I am and brought me so many amazing memories and so many amazing opportunities basically changed overnight. It became an organization that I basically wasn’t a part of.”
Neither Mathis nor Ward, Miss Georgia 2009, plan on attending the pageant’s 75th anniversary. There will be a reception honoring the former board members, but Mathis said the rest of the event feels foreign to her.
“I’m worried about the future of the organization. I’m scared for the next Miss Georgia who has to go to Miss America and deal with Gretchen Carlson,” Mathis said. “When I was Miss Georgia, it was a very well-oiled machine, and now you don’t know what will happen at any moment. Miss Georgia shouldn’t have to go through that.”
Others, like Saltalamacchio, have hope that the new board will be successful and continue what he sees as the heart of the program: empowering women. Saltalamacchio came on as a sponsor for Miss Georgia this year for the first time in part because he was encouraged by what he saw from the new board.
As the 29 Miss Georgia hopefuls cram their cars with gowns, makeup and definitely no swimsuits, questions still loom. But the new board and its supporters are hopeful that they can find success with the new leadership and new rules.
“We all need to exhibit patience. Things are going to be different,” Saltalamacchio said. “They’ll be different here and in Tennessee and New York and Pennsylvania and Colorado. Just because a board hasn’t changed in 30 years doesn’t mean it’s been doing everything right.”
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