There she is, Miss America 2.0: Can the contest survive its swimsuit-free reboot?

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Miss America 2017 had something that won’t be seen during this year’s competition on Sunday: the swimsuit portion. (Photo: Donald Kravitz/Getty Images)

The crowning of Miss America has, for better or worse, been a predictable, annual tradition that many folks have counted on for the better part of 97 years. But now, as the 2018 finals approach and are set to be televised live from Atlantic City, N.J., on Sunday, there is rising crescendo of buzz with a message that’s been hard to ignore: Change is gonna come.

And depending on what camp you’re in, that’s either wonderful or terrible news.

It’s the former, according to the Miss America Organization itself, which has completely rebranded the main event, now called Miss America 2.0 — not a “pageant,” but a “competition,” with “candidates,” not “contestants.” The controversial swimsuit portion was scrapped by Gretchen Carlson after she was named chair of the board, and slick new promotional videos (“Miss Conceptions”) flip the script from beauty competition to Ivy League-level discussion and interview process.

“Starting this year, candidates will no longer be judged on outward appearance,” announces the website. “The choice of wardrobe is now open so everyone can express their own very individual style. But more importantly, their voices will be heard. Throughout the competition, candidates will have opportunities to advocate for their social initiatives. And to demonstrate how they are uniquely qualified for the exciting, challenging 365-day job of Miss America.”

In what has been an early, hopeful sign of change during this week’s preliminaries, Miss Virginia Emili McPhail, 22, won the onstage question scholarship of $1,000 by taking a strong stance when asked how she would advise the NFL on the controversy over players kneeling during the national anthem. “Kneeling during the national anthem is absolutely a right that you have to stand up for what you believe in, and to make the right decision that’s right for you,” McPhail said, as reported to the Press of Atlantic City. “It’s very important that we also have to take into consideration that it is not about kneeling: It is absolutely about police brutality.”

Event co-hosts this year are Carrie Ann Inaba and Ross Matthews, and the lively mix of celebrity judges include Laila Ali, Bobby Bones, Jessie James Decker, Randy Jackson, Soledad O’Brien, Alli Webb, and Carni Wilson.

Still, the Miss America Organization has been beleaguered as of late, with Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper the target of ire from officials at the state level, former Miss America titleholders, and ardent fans, many of whom are upset over the elimination of the swimsuit competition and believe that Carlson is wrongly aiming to reshape the organization to fit a modern, feminist image in the age of #MeToo.

Journalist, author, and former Miss America Gretchen Carlson has been the focus of ire since becoming chair of the Miss America board. (Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

Adding to the recent round of drama have been public accusations of bullying from sitting Miss America Cara Mund, and, as of Friday, a lawsuit alleging that the organization owes attorney fees of nearly $100,000.

“Change is difficult,” is how Carlson defrayed the brewing troubles to ABC News in July, in response to a still-circulating petition calling for her ouster.

Throughout the negative press and back-and-forth accusations, Carlson, as well as the organization, have issued statements and stuck to a positive, forward-looking spin. Responding to recent charges by Mund that she’s been “belittled,” “erased,” “silenced,” and “bullied” by those now in charge, the organization noted that it “supports Cara,” and that her letter included “mischaracterizations and many unfounded accusations.”

Carlson used Twitter to post a lengthy Aug. 19 response, which noted that she was “saddened beyond words” by the accusations, which she flat-out denied, saying, “I have never bullied or silenced you.” She further pointed out, “You are at the epicenter of a very historic moment for women. Over the past two years, our country has undergone a seismic shift in how professional women are depicted and treated. Cara, you have the opportunity to be at the forefront of real, positive change for young women across this country. I am so hopeful you’ll be a part of that.”

On the popular, gossipy, online Voy pageant forums, the anger felt by some passionate Miss America fans has been palpable during this week’s discussions of preliminary contests. “[Miss Tennessee] is so f’in gorgeous!!! I hope she runs to [Miss] USA after it’s all over. Gretchen will never let someone this beautiful be crowned but I can’t even remember the last blonde stunner crowned,” one noted.

Miss America 2.0 is attempting to rebrand what began as a strict beauty pageant, seen here circa 1935. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hundreds of comments on the latest post on the Miss America Facebook page speak about Carlson and Hopper with resentment, with accusations that they’re “running it into the ground,” seemingly for attempting to bring the event into the modern era.

“No runway. No swimsuits. No evening gowns. What next? No crown? The way they have treated this year’s Miss America is inexcusable. I have watched EVERY PAGEANT FOR 50 YEARS. I am speechless right now regarding the state of the pageant. Some of us have lived and breathed everything Miss America for as long as we have lived. We are sick to our stomachs. Please save Miss America,” one person wrote.

But the question many are asking is this: Is Miss America worth saving?

It was initially created, after all, as a publicity stunt (the “Atlantic City Bathing Beauty Contest”) to extend the summer tourist season on the Jersey Shore. And while the pageant has since morphed into a competition for college scholarships — for smart, determined, all-around-gifted young women who just happen to be gorgeous to put forth their platforms — it’s never truly escaped its pageant origins, leaving many out there to wonder if it’s fixable, or worth keeping alive at all.

Some of the biggest fans aren’t ready to weigh in on that one quite yet. As the Pageant Junkies’ Carrie Lakey noted in a recent blog post about all the drama, “I’m not here to offer my personal comments on the changes themselves – My job in the online blogging pageant/competition universe is to observe, take a few jabs at the wackos on all sides of the arguments, offer some rationalization, and try to provide a teeny bit of perspective to an otherwise inflammatory situation. Wish me luck.”

Miss America 2.0 airs Sunday night at 9 p.m. on ABC. Check back at Yahoo Lifestyle for updates.

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