ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host now in charge of the Miss America Organization, says the organization needs to heal a rift that has seen over a dozen state groups call for her and other top leaders to resign.
In an interview with The Associated Press that Carlson said would be her last on the subject, she said Miss America officials at all levels need to be "on the same page" and she hoped that would happen before the next Miss America is crowned in Atlantic City on Sept. 9.
"It would be important that we all try to come together and have a healing process," she said.
Yet Carlson, chairwoman of the Miss America Organization, dismissed critics as "a noisy minority" unhappy over the elimination of the swimsuit competition from this year's nationally televised broadcast and resistant to change in general.
Carlson, who was Miss America in 1989, also said on Tuesday the decision to eliminate the swimsuit competition has made the pageant more relevant and has been praised by many supporters who considered the pageant outdated and demeaning to women.
Twenty-two state-level pageant officials last month signed a letter expressing no confidence in Carlson, president and CEO Regina Hopper and the current board, claiming "Miss America 2.0 is simply a new title for the same old tactics of obfuscation and fear-based governance." Three states have since disassociated themselves from the letter, the organization said Wednesday.
Several opponents told the AP actions are being considered for the week of the Miss America competition, including litigation, news conferences and public demonstrations outside Boardwalk Hall, where the pageant will take place. However, at least 30 former Miss Americas have voiced confidence in the current leadership.
Hopper said critics are unhappy that Miss America is eliminating the swimsuit competition, a staple of the pageant since it debuted in 1921. She said the reinvention of Miss America is a turnaround that would typically take two to four years in the corporate world but had to be done in eight months, forcing people to come to terms with it much quicker than usual.
Carlson and Hopper were among a wave of female leadership swept into office after emails from former pageant leaders denigrating the appearance, intellect and sex lives of ex-Miss Americas surfaced last December. But the decision to drop the swimsuit competition and the way opponents say it was presented to them led many to rethink their initial support for the new regime.
Many opponents say Carlson and others presented the swimsuit elimination as an ultimatum, coupled with a threat that the pageant would lose its national television broadcast if swimsuits were retained.
"We were told we had a choice — it was either swimsuit or TV," said Leah Summers, executive director of the Miss West Virginia Organization.
"I heard from Regina Hopper and Gretchen Carlson that sponsors and networks will not come if we had swimsuit," added Jennifer Vaden Barth, a former board member and former Miss North Carolina.
Vaden Barth said when she and others questioned that, "they said, 'No, no, no, we didn't mean ABC, we were talking about production companies.'" An ABC spokeswoman told the AP the network never threatened to cancel the broadcast, and Hopper confirmed that in January, months before the swimsuit decision was made, ABC agreed to broadcast the pageant.
Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell said the decision to eliminate swimsuit was presented as a fait accompli.
"I thought it would be like, 'Hey, what's y'all's opinion?'" she said. "But, no. It was, 'I have taken away swimsuit and we expect your support.' If they had taken a poll, they would have gotten a resounding 'no.'"
Carlson said she had heard warnings that this year's swimsuit-less pageant might be "boring" to TV viewers. She said there is "something disturbing" about assuming that a celebration of women's talents and personalities would be boring.
Opponents have said Miss America leaders have failed to say how much will be given out in scholarship money this year. Hopper told the AP that at least as much would be given out this year as last year: around $500,000 from the Miss America Organization and the Miss America Foundation.
Critics say the swimsuit decision was not the genesis of their opposition to Carlson and her team but rather was a symptom of poor management and poor communication.
Hopper said state officials and former Miss Americas were given a voice in the future direction of Miss America but have confused that with veto power.
"Just because you have a voice doesn't mean your particular opinion gets accepted," Hopper said. "States are licensees. If I'm a McDonalds licensee and the corporate office decides, 'We're going to serve chocolate french fries' and I'm sitting here saying, 'I don't want to serve chocolate french fries,' well, you're going to serve chocolate french fries."