CHARLESTON, W.Va.– Pageants are a popular way for many women around West Virginia and the United States to receive scholarship funding to enhance their education, and big changes are coming to the Miss America and state pageants that are held around the country.
On Tuesday Gretchen Carlson, chairwomen of Miss America’s board of directors, announced that the program is doing away with its swimsuit competition to change the focus from contestants’ physical beauty. Carlson said that Miss America isn’t a pageant anymore but a competition.
The effects will impact state pageants as well, and Miss West Virginia Executive Director Leah Summers said the program is embracing these changes.
“There’s two things I know are always certain: one is that you’ve always got to change and change is never easy. They’re both things I know to be true, and the Miss America organization has been a wonderful program for young women, encouraging scholarship, community service, for years and years, and while that fundamental premise isn’t changing, the way that we go about finding that, encouraging that, needs to change,” she said in an interview on MetroNews’ “TalkLine” on Wednesday.
The Miss West Virginia organization has been a part of the Miss America program for 75 years, according to Summers, and has helped young women receive scholarship money in the years since then. However, many have criticized the pageant for being outdated and only focusing on women’s outer beauty, so these changes will help turn those views around.
“This recent announcement of going away from the swimsuit competition, and actually not completely doing away with evening gown but changing the way we talk about that, is just one way to really start making the differences, the changes that we need to make,” Summers said.
Summers said that she thinks these new changes will bring more women into the organization.
“No organization, no company, no business, no program can exist being stagnate and stay the same,” she said. “You’ve got to challenge the status quo. You’ve got to be responsive to those people that you’re hoping to attract to your program, be in this case contestants, sponsors, other participants. Be true to your roots, but find new ways to reach people.”
These changes in the Miss America organization are coming into place after new leadership took over earlier this year. Carlson replaced former chairwomen Lynn Weidner after Weidner resigned due to a lewd email scandal.
Summers said that the Miss West Virginia organization likes the leadership change.
“One of the wonderful about new leadership at Miss America is that they’re very engaged with the state programs and the state directors in particular,” she said. “All state organizations are volunteer organizations, not just non-profit organizations, but truly volunteer-driven organizations. So, the new leadership has been very involved in speaking to us to gather our thoughts on lots of different issues.”
While many are welcoming the changes to the pageant, some are against it.
“There are people who really value that element of tradition that the swimsuit competition brings to Miss America and has always been there. In fact, that’s how Miss America started, as a swimsuit competition to extend the tourist season in Atlantic City,” Summers said. “So, there are people who are really connected to that foundation and that tradition, and I understand and I respect that.”
The changes will not go into effect until the Miss America pageant starts on September 9. The Miss West Virginia pageant that starts on June 28 will not be affected.
Summers said that many women value other aspects of the competition much more than the swimsuit competition.
“What we’ve learned through a lot of research is that swimsuit isn’t as important to them (contestants), but that understanding and having a platform for talent and for making social change really is important, and Miss America needs to hear that and adapt,” she said.
Overall, Miss America is a scholarship organization, and Summers said that’s the point of the competition.
“I just think times have changed, and we need to evolve, and hopefully that will attract more young women and more sponsors,” she said. “The more sponsors we have, the more scholarship dollars we can make available, and that’s what this is all about.”
Story by Jordyn Johnson