Mess America: But Still the Largest Source of Scholarships for Women

The past month has been full of “pageant scandals.” From discussions about bodies, state-hopping, age of contestants, and tabulation errors, I can scarcely recall a time that both Miss USA and Miss America were so talked about in the news. Unfortunately it’s all for negative reasons and not for positive ones… The Miss USA  pageant had the former two issues and Miss America the latter. Just as there are differences between the two systems (and some similarities, articulated very well here by former contestant and winner in both), this year the scandals also differ in an important way. The Miss America scandals haven’t been caused by a lie, or alleged lie; instead, they are the result of human error. Below I present my take on both of the issues and then some overall take-aways.

Miss Delaware- Look, the rules are clear. Amanda Longacre is too old to compete at Miss America and never should have been allowed to compete at the local or state level. Many are blaming those in the organization, and they should accept part of the blame as they validated her paperwork– even sending it to the national office where the error was found! But Longacre also is at fault. It is true she didn’t lie, but you don’t sign a contract and not read every detail. Even though she was told it was ok, she knew it wasn’t as she asked in the first place. And interviews like this one where she comes across as whiny and litigious simply don’t help. She is almost 25 as we know, and I have seen preteens hold themselves together better. As she says is new to pageantry; this wasn’t a lifelong dream for her. She is getting national exposure and she needs to capitalize, not whine.

Miss Florida- Truly the more unfair/upsetting situation, and every winner and director’s worst nightmare. On the one hand the Miss Florida Organization did the right thing by correcting the error <insert obligatory joke about Florida recounts>. It is truly unfortunate for all involved as Elizabeth Fechtel (crowned the winner but actually the 1st-runner-up) had already changed her whole school/life schedule in the few days since she was crowned. Also Cowen lost her chance at a crowning moment. I think both ladies are beautiful and seem to be talented (Fechtel was actually Miss America’s Outstanding Teen previously so is used to success and the MAO system) and will be fine. And Fechtel, based on her blog about the situation could *definitely* teach Longacre a thing or two about how to handle a situation like this with grace (I love her line that she was herself before the title and will continue to be herself).

New Miss FL 2014, Tori Cowen, Fox Tampa Bay

Ok, that said, I sense something fishy actually went down in Florida. I followed the Miss Florida competition because I was keeping track of the success of one of the contestants who I have previously met (and she made the Top 10 there on her first try– congrats, Kelsey Beck!). I follow Pageant groups on Facebook (like the Junkies), people on Twitter, and sometimes the Voy boards for updates. Now, the Voy boards can be vicious and full of lies, so I often take what I read with a serious grain of salt– as I’ve talked about on the record before. Throughout the pageant week it was posted many times (hard to tell if it was one person posting many times or actually different people) that Fechtel had been heard saying she did not want to actually win Miss Florida this year. Now if this was said after the mix-up I wouldn’t pay it any heed. But it was said many times before, and even on the night of the competition someone wrote that she would resign if she won… And then six days later this very unexpected news? Odd. If she had resigned she never would have been able to compete again, but this way she can and have a huge leg-up.

Now let’s talk about the error. So Miss America goes on total points UNTIL you get to the Top 5. Then there is a final ballot and all the previous scores are wiped clean. Judges rank 1-5 and each rank gets points assigned to it, and placing someone first gives them many more points than placing someone second. The official story is: “The family says it was told that one of the judges changed his mind while scoring first and second place on the night of the pageant and that “in the last 15 seconds of the time allotted to vote, that he drew lines to reverse his first vote,” mother Dixie Fechtel wrote in an email.” I judged Miss New Jersey last year. I can absolutely promise you there were NO shenanigans and we had no idea who was a returning competitor, who was “well-liked” by the organization, etc. The final ballot can be stressful, but not that stressful. One of the judges next to me did make changes and the Judges’ Chairwoman made him initial all changes and consulted him before moving forward in any round. She was great and FL should have had someone so conscientious. But the addition is so simple it is hard to believe it took so long to figure out… Unless, of course something else went on. We will never know the truth. In any case, I suspect we will see Fechtel on the Miss America stage someday, she is only 20 and has several more years of eligibility, and even if she doesn’t as her supporters say she will be fine.

More than anything though this situation highlights the fact that Miss America is overwhelmingly run by volunteers. People give immense amounts of time and resources to run these local and state programs. Even at the national level high-placed people are volunteers. With so much at stake in terms of finances and credibility, it might be time to establish professional positions at least at the state level.

Speaking of, the National organization is doing the right thing and awarding BOTH Miss Delaware 2014s the full scholarship money (note the huge discrepancy in winnings state to state, here DE gets $9000 and FL gets $20,000). This puts the emphasis on the positive aspect of the Miss America program, that while it is a pageant it is the largest source of scholarship money for women in the world. Even the runners-up pull in large amounts of scholarship monies, especially if they win multiple awards.

And, about those runners-up. I hope these two anomalous situations don’t give false hope to first-runners-up! If anything it should make people feel more sure of results since tabulators, directors, and chairpeople will be triply checking rules and scores from now on. Then again, check out the bio of the newly crowned Miss Wisconsin 2014, Raeanna Johnson. She was also Miss Wisconsin 2012. Why? She was first runner-up and Miss Wisconsin that year, Laura Kaeppeler (now married to Bachelor/Bachelorette producer Mike Fleiss who was her JUDGE at Miss America!), won Miss America so she assumed her duties. Since Johnson never competed on the Miss America stage she was eligible to re-compete. So, on second thought, hold on to your tiaras all you first runners-up, things will change for at least one of you in September!

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