- I went to Miss America for the first time ever, and found the competition to be a cross between a reality show and a job interview.
- The rebranded Miss America 2.0 was held at the Mohegan Sun Casino & Resort in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Thursday night.
- I loved seeing the families covered in gear celebrating their favourite contestant, and the audience was full of women in gorgeous gowns and pageant sashes.
- However, the onstage elimination rounds were coming so fast that I felt like I barely knew the actual contestants.
- New features like the judges’ critiques after the talent portion, plus their decision to eliminate each girl one by one to build up suspense felt like they belonged on an episode of “American Idol.”
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For most of my life, the only thing I knew about the world of pageants came from watching “Miss Congeniality.”
I imagined that they were competitions full of glitz and sparkle, of dazzling tiaras, questions about the perfect date (April 25!), and plenty of dreams for “world peace.”
But after extensively covering Miss Universe this year, I knew that pageants in the 21st century were learning how to combine glamour with politics.
So when I was given the chance to attend this year’s Miss America pageant, I was intrigued to see just what the competition would be like after last year’s major rebranding eliminated both the swimsuit and evening gown rounds.
What I found was a show that felt like a cross between “American Idol” and a job interview, with the atmosphere of a basketball game at Madison Square Garden – nachos included.
I boarded the Northeast Regional train from Penn Station in Manhattan early Thursday afternoon.
The train took me to New London, Connecticut, which is about 20 minutes away from where Miss America was being held in Uncasville, Connecticut.
This year marked the second time that the Miss America competition wasn’t held in Atlantic City, where it first originated in 1921 in an effort to keep tourists around after Labour Day weekend.
Minus a brief stint in Las Vegas from 2005 to 2012, Miss America had always been held in the coastal New Jersey town. But this year the competition not only changed locations, it also switched networks from ABC to NBC, and moved from its traditional Sunday night in September to the Thursday night before Christmas in December.
After a two-and-a-half hour journey, I arrived in New London around 4:30 p.m. — just as the sun had begun to set.
I couldn’t help but feel excited as I stepped off the train and saw a sky the colour of lavender as the sun began to sink into the Thames River.
After a quick dash to my hotel to drop off my bag and change into a dress, I headed to the Mohegan Sun Casino & Resort in Uncasville.
The minute I stepped inside, I was hit with so many flashing neon lights that I had to remind myself I wasn’t in Vegas.
For a second I feared I wasn’t in the right place. But as I began walking deeper into the casino, I started seeing huge groups of families. Some were dressed from head to toe in gear that celebrated their favourite Miss America contestant, while others carried signs with a contestant’s picture or phrases like “There she twirls.”
The casino was also packed with pageant queens of all ages, dressed to the nines in glittering gowns and the sashes that they had won in various state pageants from all across the country. I hadn’t seen this many beautiful dresses since watching last year’s Oscars red carpet.
I then made my way toward Miss America’s red carpet, which had been rolled out right in front of the arena where the competition was going to be held.
The area was crammed with press, along with families and pageant queens hoping to get a glimpse of the contestants and celebrity judges.
At one point a line of former Miss Americas from various decades walked down the carpet, including a glamorous woman with perfectly coiffed white hair wearing a tweed baby-pink suit that looked straight out of Jackie Kennedy’s closet.
Then the celebrity judges — “Queer Eye” star Karamo Brown, Kelly Rowland, and “Superstore” actress Lauren Ash — walked the red carpet.
I got the chance to speak with Rowland, who told me she believes that there is a place for politics on the Miss America stage.
“I think that it would be a part of Miss America’s duty or job to definitely address different things that mean a lot to her,” she said. “And I know a lot of those things do have to do with politics, so I would be disappointed if it wasn’t.”
While Rowland was chatting, a little girl wearing a tiara and sash who had been standing at the beginning of the red carpet screamed “Kelly!” to get her attention.
“I have to go see this little girl over there!” Rowland told me after finishing her answer, walking over to give the girl a hug and take some pictures.
Then I walked into the Mohegan Sun Arena, where I was immediately greeted with a refreshments stand.
I couldn’t help but feel like I was in Madison Square Garden back in Manhattan – minus the New York Knicks and Rangers jerseys.
I did a lap of the arena to see what was on offer, finding that the stadium’s refreshment stands were mostly selling the classic pre-game snacks of nachos, beer, and hot dogs.
I also came across two huge tables selling Miss America merchandise.
There were $US10 tote bags for sale, along with sweatpants, a tank top with the competition’s modern tiara logo, and a $US30 “Miss America 2.0” crop top.
With just a few minutes before the competition was set to begin, I grabbed a slice of pizza before heading in.
I hadn’t eaten for seven hours, and for some (erroneous) reason thought I couldn’t bring food into the arena.
One of the fellow reporters I had befriended on the red carpet remarked that I “shotgunned” this slice of pizza.
As I walked into the arena, the 51 Miss America contestants were already standing or seated in their designated spots for the introductory segment.
Meanwhile, the energy at the stadium was on par with any MSG game I’d ever been to. Groups broke out in chants, screaming the name of their favourite contestant, while others stomped their feet or drummed their chairs.
Miss Connecticut Jillian Duffy, the hometown favourite, unsurprisingly had the biggest cheer squad, including two friends who stood up and screamed every time she appeared on stage. I have never seen two more impressive hype girls.
I was seated behind Miss Missouri Simone Esters’ family members, who each held a sign that had her picture on one side.
On the other side of each sign was a letter that, all together, spelled out “Simone.”
Esters’ proud relatives stood up and waved their signs every time she appeared onstage. It was hard not to get wrapped up in their pride and joy for Esters, along with their sadness when she was cut just before the top two were named.
The introductions were grouped by the contestants’ majors and chosen professions.
As almost every girl listed off what she studied in school or what she did for work, along with her chosen philanthropy, it was clear that the competition was going to keep the focus away from any of its old school pageantry.
Miss America eliminated the swimsuit and evening gown rounds of the competition after former Fox News host (and Miss America 1989) Gretchen Carlson became board chairwoman of the organisation in January 2018. Carlson took the reins just a few weeks after emails from then-CEO Sam Haskell and various leaders within the Miss America Organisation – in which they fat-shamed contestants, called them c—-, and even wished for a past winner’s death – were leaked in an expose by HuffPost.
Carlson stepped down in June amid heavy criticism from various state pageant organisations for her decision to eliminate the swimsuit competition, as well as accusations of bullying from Miss America 2018 Cara Mund. Nineteen former Miss America winners had called for her resignation in an open letter.
After the 51 contestants were introduced, the top 15 were immediately named.
Thanks to both “Miss Congeniality” and my recent coverage of Miss Universe, I knew that this quick elimination was standard for pageant competitions.
But I was surprised to find that the top 15 never reappeared together on stage. Instead, they were quickly cut to a top seven.
The contestants had to wait backstage to find out if they had made it through the next elimination round, which the audience watched from a screen above the stage.
After spending all year training for this moment, it felt unfair to me that the contestants who made it to the top 15 wouldn’t get a chance to go through even one round before being cut again.
Mund appeared to share my frustration.
How about we see the entire top 15 and not just randomly cut them before they even compete? These women worked hard and deserve to be celebrated… #MissAmerica2020
— Cara Mund – Miss America 2018 (@CaraMund) December 20, 2019
After each of the top seven answered three questions from the judges — which ranged from the political to the personal — two more girls were eliminated.
An hour of the competition had passed, and I still felt like I barely knew the women onstage.
I was excited for the talent portion to come along, but could barely see Miss Missouri’s incredible baton twirling display.
The stage was so dark that I was only sure that Esters had caught her batons (which she did every time) once the people who were seated closer to the stage began to cheer.
Even Karamo had to call out the lighting during the broadcast, telling Esters: “Simone, the lighting was not that great on you, but you know what? You still shined great, honey.”
But Miss Virginia’s science experiment really did look as cool as it did on television.
The colourful streams of foam shot up toward the ceiling after Schrier, a biochemist, combined potassium iodine with hydrogen peroxide, dish soap, and food colouring.
I was surprised, though, when the judges offered critiques following the contestants’ question and talent rounds.
This appeared to be a new addition to Miss America 2.0, but I found it made the competition feel like a reality show.
Their critiques seemed out of place, and some viewers at home agreed:
What is happening right now? Why are the judges giving feedback on the responses? What in the America’s Got Talent is going on here? I don’t like it. All the hard work of these girls and they’re getting eliminated like that?! This is awful. #MissAmerica #MissAmerica2020
— Ruby B. Johnson (@Ruby_B_Johnson) December 20, 2019
The judges in Miss America 2.0 have a lot more to do than judges in past years. But the follow ups and critiques seem superficial.
— Amy S. Rosenberg (@amysrosenberg) December 20, 2019
I was even more confused when the judges began eliminating the contestants one by one.
After the top seven were called out, every following elimination round went down like an episode of “American Idol.” The women would all hold hands as the judges read out each contestants’ name, building up the suspense before revealing if she had made it to the next round.
Much like with the judges’ critiques, I thought the way the elimination rounds were handled felt more fit for a reality show. While Miss America 2.0 had done away with much of the pageantry, it had replaced the glittering gowns and swimsuit round with the kind of TV tropes that, to me, felt out of place in the rebranded competition.
As Schrier was named the new Miss America and the confetti began raining down the stage, I wondered what the future held for the competition.
Schrier, who openly talked about her struggles with an eating disorder during the competition, later revealed during a press conference that she would never have tried out for Miss America if the swimsuit round hadn’t been eliminated.
It was wonderful to see a scientist win the competition and for women in STEM to be so celebrated on national TV. Schrier is also proof that the elimination of the swimsuit round has made Miss America more appealing to women who didn’t grow up in the world of pageants.
But it was clear throughout the show that Miss America 2.0 is still trying to find the balance between being a fun televised event and a serious competition. I would have loved to see more of the contestants’ talents onstage, or a display of costumes that each woman designed to represent her state – an event for Miss Universe that contestants have turned into a way to speak out on social issues affecting their countries.
After the press conference, I made my way back to the casino to check out Miss America’s official after-party.
The after-party was held in Mohegan’s Vista Lounge, which was made up of jagged walls that glowed and made the entire bar look like a psychedelic igloo.
Walking up the stairs to the bar, I noticed that a star-filled purple sky had been projected onto the ceiling — complete with a dancing Santa Claus.
The overall bar was incredibly cool, and it was fun to see contestants kick off their heels (literally) and dance with their families after a year of hard work.
After a glass of prosecco and some passionate dancing to Whitney Houston, it was time to call it a night.
Seven hours after the night began, I was finally in bed.
Overall, it was incredible to watch firsthand how much work goes into just one of these competitions.
One of the best parts of getting to attend Miss America was seeing these women’s families. From their handwritten signs to their custom T-shirts, the pride that these people felt for their daughter/sister/cousin/niece/best friend filled the atmosphere throughout the night and was beyond touching to witness.
It will be interesting to see where the revamped Miss America – and pageants in general – go next. The swimsuit round remains in Miss USA and Miss Universe, along with many state pageants, but it’s clear that these competitions are only going to get more political as they continue.
Whatever happens, I’ll be watching.
- Read more:
- 13 things you didn’t see on TV during the Miss America pageant
- Miss America Camille Schrier stands by her controversial comment about why she believes contestants shouldn’t be married or have children
- Miss America judge Karamo Brown disagreed with the finalists after they said the winner should be single and without children
- People watching the revamped Miss America competition were thoroughly unimpressed
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