Gretchen Carlson is a woman on a mission – and a very difficult one at that. The former winner of Miss America in 1989 was this year made the chairwoman of the Miss America board of directors and hopes to do the seemingly impossible with the controversial pageant: banish sexism from a competition that is, arguably, built upon precisely that. Her hiring follows a scandal in which the former chief executive of the pageant, Sam Haskell, ridiculed the intellect and sex lives of its competitors in a series of emails. The emails, leaked by the Huffington Post last year, showed that his misogynistic comments were often made with support from other members of the organisation.
In 2016, Carlson filed a lawsuit against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (who has since died) and was reportedly awarded a settlement of $20m and an apology from parent company 21st Century Fox. Ailes pushed for her termination after she denied his sexual advances; she had worked for Fox for 11 years.
Miss America is another battle of epic proportions that Carlson has every intention of winning. Earlier in the month, she announced the axing of the pageants most divisive section, the swimsuit portion, and a “revamp” of the evening-gown portion, too, with contestants instead choosing an outfit they felt “empowered them”. She also has said it’s no longer a pageant, but a competition. Unsurprisingly, the changes have been met with reams of backlash, with presenter Piers Morgan writing them off as “absolutely ridiculous”. Carlson called the fallout from the overhaul “disingenuous” and “sexist” at this years Cannes Lions Festival, where she took to the stage along with David Schwimmer to discuss their campaign to fight sexual harassment and rebrand the competition.
But can Miss America ever really be relevant in the throes of a newly mainstream feminist movement? And does it need to be? Carlson speaks to The Pool about Miss America’s place in the post-#MeToo era and the challenge of upending a 97-year-old brand as an empowering platform in the middle of a cultural tipping point.
The Pool: What led you to deciding to take on the admittedly difficult task of transforming Miss America?
Gretchen Carlson: Firstly, after the email scandal at Miss America last year and after my experience at Fox News, I think it’s more important than ever to stamp out gender inequality and misogyny in all aspects of society. And, second, it was listening to women who have wanted to be a part of the competition but haven’t felt comfortable being judged on their physical attributes – we want to be inclusive of all women and to align Miss America with its original purpose: to empower smart, passionate and strong women.
The Pool: How has the #MeToo movement affected this decision/conversation around the pageant?
Gretchen Carlson: The #MeToo movement has been an enormous aide in supporting the conversation that needed to happen. As someone who kicked off two years ago in suing my boss at Fox News, this has been an interesting role for me to assume as chair. It has provided a much-needed spotlight and backing that has allowed these voices to be heard.
The Pool: How did your own experiences as a former Miss America inform the changes you want to see?
Gretchen Carlson: Well, I can understand the discipline that is learned from having to get into tiptop shape (especially for me, as a 5ft 3in woman, who has always struggled with my weight). So, we still advocate for a healthy lifestyle – we just aren’t judging on physical fitness any more. We want to be more inclusive. I have experienced how the size of your waist can invalidate your voice, skills or actions.
The Pool: What are the major obstacles that you are predicting?
Gretchen Carlson: The major obstacles come from how the brand has been entrenched in popular culture for decades, which for some meant seeing women as objects of only beauty. Miss America candidates are so much more. We’ve always had the talent category and given out scholarships, so we need to showcase that better. We are open to all opinions. I’m sure there will be some who have been involved in Miss America and have placed importance in the value of beauty who don’t want that to change.
We want the emphasis to be on the people that they are inside, their voices and achievements – that’s what’s important
The Pool: Do you believe its public perception can ever really be changed? Why not an entirely new pageant?
Gretchen Carlson: I believe its public perception can be changed. As well as wanting Miss America to move with the times, there is a lot that it has achieved and can be proud of, which we don’t want to scrap. It has secured a place on the international stage as a platform for women, which should be celebrated and cherished.
The Pool: How do you plan on achieving this massive rebrand of something that has become iconic in how it’s been stereotyped?
Gretchen Carlson: We have made a start by getting rid of the swimsuit competition. And we’re no longer judging candidates on outward physical appearance, rather on the substance of a candidate. By telling the stories of the many incredible women to come through our programme, we will prove that the stereotypes aren’t true.
The Pool: Can you still celebrate women’s physical attributes, something that Miss America heavily relies on, while shifting the purpose of it to be a platform to empower smart and passionate women?
Gretchen Carlson: Well, that’s what we will aim to shift – the reliance on and the judging of someone for their physical attributes. Physical beauty in any context (natural environment, in people etc) can, of course, be appreciated. But for the scholarship competition, we want the emphasis to be on the people that they are inside, their voices and achievements – that’s what’s important.
The Pool: You've chosen to eliminate the swimsuit round of Miss America – what led you to that decision?
Gretchen Carlson: The time is up for putting an individual on a pedestal based solely on their looks. I feel it encourages the sexualisation of women and reduces their worth to what they look like, which is not a healthy attitude that supports equality.
The Pool: The evening-gown portion has been revamped and women will “no longer be judged on their looks”, with you referring to it as a “competition, not a pageant”. Why were these decisions made and why were they important to make?
Gretchen Carlson: They were important to make because it opens the competition to all women and doesn’t discriminate against women based on their appearance. It is keeping up with the important leaps in gender equality that are being so hard fought for across society. It was a unanimous board decision.
The Pool: What shift do you hope these changes will bring about in Miss America’s audience?
Gretchen Carlson: I hope it will encourage an attitude of equality and of seeing women differently – of seeing women as independent accomplished people on every level. We also hope to attract people who appreciate the substance of the programme but, in the past, were not able to see beyond the swimsuit competition.
The Pool: What other organisations or brands do you think need to follow suit and rebrand in a similar way?
Gretchen Carlson: I think almost any organisation and brand can be self-analytical and continually make changes both big and even small to fight for equality.
The Pool: What has the response been to your campaign so far? Any surprises?
Gretchen Carlson: The response so far has been good. It was encouraging to see our hopes confirmed that many people have welcomed it as long overdue. For a society to change its values takes a long time – but we are looking forward to another 100 years! Keep in mind, women only got the vote in America in 1920 after almost a century of protest.