Behind the images of beauty pageant contestants parading in swimsuits, there might be much more than meets the eye. Cases of racism, abuse of power, harassment, gruesome techniques to stay slim before the swimsuit round, and eating disorders. AMC Crime presents Secrets of Miss America, a four-episode documentary mini-series that delves into the controversies that have plagued this popular US beauty pageant for decades. To do so, they have interviewed 20 former Miss Americas who are sharing their stories for the first time.
Over the course of the four episodes, the mini-series narrates how the pageant, once watched by over 80 million viewers, has fallen into decline in recent decades after failing to adapt to the changing paradigms of beauty and sexuality in American society.
The controversies began to surface during Sam Haskell's tenure as CEO of the Miss America organization in the early 2000s. "He was used to controlling those around him," recalls Mallory Hagan, Miss America 2013, who remembers that wearing the crown meant was a responsibility "24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long." She was not allowed to bring men, not even her father, into her bedroom, and having a partner was strictly prohibited because holding her title meant being "America's sweetheart" — or at least making Americans think so. Trouble arose when she fell in love with one of the organization's members, initiating a relationship that Haskell went to great lengths to end, but did not stop even once she succeeded. "I wasn't prepared for the craziness and psychological warfare that would come," Hagan reveals.
After pulling strings to prevent the young woman from achieving her dream of working as a television presenter and sabotaging her business as a pageant coach, Haskell started spreading false rumors about her. "He started saying I was a slut and that I was trash," recalls the former Miss, who admits that she thought about ending her life. "My lowest moment was when I drank a lot of alcohol and went up to the roof of my building. If it hadn't been for my relationship I have with my parents, I would have made a very different decision to the one I made," she remembers tearfully.
But the controversies within the organization went far beyond animosity toward a specific Miss. In leaked emails, Haskell criticized the weight of some pageant winners and made misogynistic comments about them, severely damaging their reputations. In one of these emails, he even discussed the need for a winner to undergo blood tests because she had supposedly slept "with 25 men". Eventually, he resigned from his position while Miss America continued to lose relevance, with plummeting viewership ratings and a massive debt burden.
After this incident, amid the Weinstein case's media frenzy, Miss America wanted to revamp its image and reinforce female empowerment. To this end, the organization appointed a new female CEO, Gretchen Elizabeth Carlson, a former Miss America in 1989, and a Fox News presenter who accused the network's former president of sexual harassment. Among Gretchen's aspirations, who sought to create a Miss America 2.0 by eliminating practices with sexist connotations, was to abolish the swimsuit competition that had characterized the pageant from its inception.
"I went 24 hours without drinking before a swimsuit competition to dehydrate myself"
The contestants participating in the documentary highlight destructive practices aimed at meeting established beauty standards before walking the runway. Young women wrapped their legs in cling film smeared with hemorrhoid cream to eliminate cellulite, bikinis glued to their buttocks to prevent movement while walking, last-minute abdominal exercises or squats to make "muscles stand out," they claim.
On top of that there were laxatives, caffeine pills, illegally sold weight loss drugs, and extreme diets based on baby food. "I went 24 hours without drinking water before a swimsuit competition to dehydrate myself to the point where my muscles showed, and I wasn't the only one doing it," affirms Hagan. These practices even led to cases of anorexia, as recounted by Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008, who recalls entering a "horrible and dark cycle of self-harm." "We saw how some girls who were once happy turned into zombies," she says.
Gretchen's goal, who definitively removed this segment from the Miss America competition in 2019, was to demonstrate that the contestants had much more to offer than just their bodies. However, many former contestants disagreed with her decision, considering that the swimsuit walk, besides being part of the pageant's DNA, made them feel "empowered" on stage, which led the CEO to resign shortly after implementing the measure.
In addition to sexism, another of the scandals surrounding Miss America has been racism. Several former contestants say that they have encountered problems during their time doing beauty pageants simply because of the color of their skin and that they have had to change some of their physical features, such as the shape of their hair or the colour of their eyes, because they felt they had a better chance of success.
For over 30 years, due to a rule imposed in 1948, the beauty pageant was restricted to white women, and although this rule was gradually removed in the 1950s, its indirect effects linger to the present day. It took until 1984 to see a black woman win Miss America, Vanessa Williams, and her victory was fraught with controversy. Although some young black girls saw it as a triumph, some criticised that she was chosen because her features, with green eyes, fair skin and straight hair, made Americans feel "comfortable", but were far from the characteristic features of African American women.
Ericka Dunlap, Miss America 2004, asserts this while displaying one of her favorite photographs from her reign. To be chosen as Miss America, she explains that she had to wear gray contact lenses and hair extensions: "I was trying to conform to the beauty standards of long straight hair, lighter eyes, a thinner nose and wearing a size 32 to be accepted. I did everything I could do without surgery." A view echoed by Nita Whitaker, Miss Louisiana 1984, who believes that a woman wearing dreadlocks or braids "would never have been accepted". "We need the pageant to reflect what America is like, because we are a country of immigrants, and Miss America has to reflect the modern version of who we are, not the one that our ancestors, the slave owners, created," she concludes.