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Miss America drops swimsuit portion and won't judge on looks

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When the Miss America pageant started in 1921, having young women parade around in bathing suits seemed like a great way to get tourists to come to the Atlantic City Boardwalk afte (WLS)

When the Miss America pageant started in 1921, having young women parade around in bathing suits seemed like a great way to get tourists to come to the Atlantic City Boardwalk after Labor Day.

But how America views women has changed drastically since then, and the Miss America Organization is run by women who don't think it's such a hot idea.

Accordingly, when the pageant is held this September, nearly a year into the #MeToo era, it will no longer have a swimsuit competition.

"We are no longer a pageant. We are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance," said Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America and the new head of the organization's board of trustees, Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."

For decades, women's groups and others had complained that the swimsuit portion was outdated, sexist and more than a little silly.

Carlson, whose sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes led to his departure, said the board had heard from potential contestants who lamented, "We don't want to be out there in high heels and swimsuits."

In December 2017, the CEO and top executives of the Miss America Pageant resigned after leaked emails exposed sexist and lewd comments about past contestants and winners.

The resulting shake-up led to the top three positions being held by women.

Instead of showing off in a bathing suit, each contestant will interact with the judges to "highlight her achievements and goals in life and how she will use her talents, passion and ambition to perform the job of Miss America," the organization said.

Carlson said the evening-wear portion of the competition will also be changed to allow women to wear something other than a gown if they want. The talent portion of the contest will remain.

"It's what comes out of their mouths that we care about," Carlson said.

"I'm really, really pleased. And I think it's past the time we should have done that," said Rachel Johnson, volunteer for Miss Chicago and former Miss Illinois contestant.

Johnson said she sees Miss America continuing to evolve and stay relevant.

"I never really looked at swimsuit as something that was demeaning or degrading to me as a woman," Johnson said.

Octavia Reese, who won Miss Michigan in 2005 and went on to compete in the Miss America pageant, said she knew swimsuits were par for the course, but saw pageants as a chance to win scholarship money.

"You're not judged by anything that comes out of your mouth. You're judged by how well you wear yourself, your body, your skin, in that suit walking across a stage in front of sometimes hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers," Reese said.

Reese said she's not concerned about whether rating will suffer because of the changes. She said in the era of #MeToo there are more important things to focus on.

"My beauty is not for your consumption. My bellybutton is not for your consumption. And at this point, we're going to be judged on the content of our character and not the firmness of our thighs," Reese said.

The nationally televised broadcast, set for Sept. 9 on ABC, might suffer. Carlson said that the swimsuit portion is not the highest-rated portion and that viewers seem more interested in the talent competition.

The Miss America pageant is not the cultural event it once was. The 1988 broadcast was seen by 33.1 million viewers, according to the Nielsen company. Last year, 5.4 million people watched.

Because many of the state and local competitions that decide the Miss America finalists have already begun, the dropping of the swimsuit portion will not take effect at those levels until next year's competition, the organization said.

Mallory Hytes Hagan, Miss America 2013, was a particular target of the emails, many of which ridiculed her weight gain after she won the title. In a Facebook video Tuesday, Hagan said she weighed 124 pounds when she was crowned. She said she is now 164 pounds, which she said most people would consider normal.

She is running for Congress in Alabama as a Democrat.

"There are tons of women across this country who are not 'swimsuit-ready' who are doing some really bad-ass stuff in their communities," she said. "We should be honoring them, and that doesn't involve putting on a two-piece bathing suit and walking on stage in heels."

WLS-TV contributed to this report
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