Here’s a rundown of the drama unfolding behind the scenes:
Email scandal creates leadership vacuum
The first shakeup came in late December. Huffington Post revealed that CEO Sam Haskell mocked competitors with misogynistic language in organization emails. Haskell apologized for the “mistake of words,” but called the HuffPo article “dishonest, deceptive and despicable.” Dozens of former Miss Americas, including Carlson, called for him and the rest of leadership to resign. Shortly after, he resigned along with President Josh Randle and board of directors Chair Lynn Weidner.
In conversations among former Miss Americas, Carlson, a past board member, emerged as one of the top candidates for chair while the search continued for president and CEO. The former Fox News anchor was riding a publicity wave from her new book, which addressed fallout from her sexual harassment lawsuit against the network’s CEO. Roger Ailes resigned in July 2016 as more women came forward with similar allegations. The network reached a $20 million settlement with Carlson and apologized to her.
There was talk of Carlson serving as one of two interim co-chairs, according to emails reviewed by CNN. But in a call with the board, Carlson presented herself as the sole choice, said Miss America 1966 Deborah Berge, one of the board members who appointed her in December. Berge says she and others were eager to save an organization they loved and readily appointed her.
“I thought she was a perfect choice because she has had a wonderful career, she’s a very public figure and she must have a lot of contacts that would be beneficial,” Berge said. “I had no second thoughts when she came to the board and said, ‘You need to appoint me.'”
When the organization announced Carlson’s appointment, there was no mention of a co-chair or that the role was temporary. The organization told CNN that a majority of “formers” nominated Carlson for the role, and there was no talk among those people about a co-chair, spokesman Karl Nilsson said.
Allegations of a ‘toxic’ boardroom
Carlson took on the volunteer role with some “hesitancy and trepidation,” Nilsson said. But in media appearances she maintained an enthusiastic and hopeful outlook. The organization was struggling financially and in the midst of an identity crisis, but Carlson pledged to work with all Miss America stakeholders to find a path forward.
A new board led by Carlson started in January, consisting of three former Miss Americas and two state executive directors.
Two former state titleholders joined the board in February, followed in May by Regina Hopper as president and CEO and Florida assistant attorney general Marjorie Vincent-Tripp, also a former Miss America, as chair of the Miss America Foundation’s board of trustees.
The organization heralded the appointment of its first all-female leadership team as ushering in “a new era of progressiveness, inclusiveness and empowerment.” By the end of July, most of those people had left, having either resigned voluntarily or involuntarily, depending on whom you ask.
Some of the members became trustees, which meant they had a fiduciary responsibility to tens of thousands of stakeholders across the country, many of them volunteers who work year-round putting on local pageants.
Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle, now an actress and singer who’s president of the Actors’ Equity union, said she left the board to escape a “toxic” environment. She felt that she and others were expected to act as a “rubber-stamp board” for ideas that burnished Carlson’s personal brand rather than the organization, she said.
“I felt that our good-faith attempts to practice oversight were characterized as destructive, hostile and/or unappreciative of other people’s hard work and long hours. Ultimately, I believed that I was not going to be able to fulfill my legal fiduciary duty in the current climate, for which any Trustee can be held personally liable,” she said in a letter dated June 27 to members of the Miss America Organization. The letter was cosigned by three other members who left.
One of them, Miss North Carolina 1991 Jennifer Vaden Barth, recalls one meeting when Carlson “yelled at and berated” the board. “That is when I realized that I would never be able to lend the best of my skillsets to the organization. Instead, I was going to have to speak out about the lack of transparency, integrity and good governance,” she said.
The organization’s spokesman, speaking on behalf of Carlson, called the allegations in the letters “false and slanderous.” He declined to comment further, saying it would legitimize “disgruntled voices.”
In July, Page Six reported that remaining board members said Shindle and another former trustee opposed Carlson as chair, then “maintained an adversarial tone that permeated every discussion and decision.”
Bathing suit controversy
The departures came less than three weeks after Carlson announced that the swimsuit competition was no more. Many welcomed the decision as a meaningful step away from the objectification of women. But the change fomented division within Miss America’s ranks.
According to Shindle and Barth, the board’s decision to end swimsuit was not unanimous, despite the Miss America Organization’s claims to the contrary. They say Carlson presented it as a binary choice: drop swimsuit or they would lose the ABC telecast. The Miss America Organization told CNN that dropping swimsuit was not a prerequisite for telecast and that Carlson did not present it as such.