ATLANTIC CITY — With the Miss America competition searching for a new home, the battle for the future of the storied but hobbled institution has landed in court.
Board chair Gretchen Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper “orchestrated an illegal and bad faith takeover” of the Miss America Organization, imperiling the nearly 100-year institution, the lawsuit, a copy of which was sent to the Inquirer and Daily News, contends.
Named as plaintiffs in the 35-page suit are four state organizations, including the Miss Pennsylvania Scholarship Organization, and ousted Miss America board member Jennifer Vaden Barth, a former Miss North Carolina, who has been outspoken in her opposition to the current leadership.
“This is the first step in restoring the integrity and credibility of Miss America, which has been a cultural icon since 1921,” Vaden Barth, now a program manager for Google, said in a statement.
The lawsuit asks the judge to reinstate four members of the board, who either have resigned or were ousted, whose votes to limit Carlson’s power were thwarted during a contentious June 2018 meeting, the lawsuit contends, in which Carlson became “belligerent and hateful."
It further asks the court to reinstate four state operating licensing agreements, including Pennsylvania’s, arguing that Carlson lacked the authority to terminate those agreements under Miss America bylaws.
Carlson fired back in a statement issued Thursday: “Lawsuits will not reinstate swimsuits.”
She said the state directors opposing her are “spewing disinformation and aligning themselves with those who oppose the change,” referring to her decision to eliminate the swimsuit competition. She called the lawsuit “just the latest unseemly effort to take power and turn back the clock."
The longtime Atlantic City institution will no longer receive millions in subsidies from the State of New Jersey and has been shopping around its competition to other cities with a Request for Proposals seeking significant financial resources and other perks, including a comped presidential suite for Carlson, the former Fox News host and 1989 Miss America who took over the organization and has vowed to modernize it. (On Twitter, Carlson said the RFP was put together by an outside company. “Never would request that personally,” she wrote in response to a question. )
Carlson and Hopper eliminated the swimsuit competition, which upset many of the more tradition leaders who had been loyal to the organization. They further cut ties with several of the state organizations that spoke out against them, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The lawsuit’s other plaintiffs are the state organizations from Tennessee, West Virginia. and Georgia.
In the lawsuit, filed Thursday morning in Superior Court, the plaintiffs accuse the leadership of mismanaging finances, misleading officials about the future of its telecast, and “disseminating blatant mistruths … manipulating the rules and disregarding established laws,” in addition to the bylaws of Miss America itself, “to suit their own personal purposes" and agendas, including Carlson’s promotion of the #MeToo movement.
"Carlson used the rules when it [was] convenient, and ignored them when it [was] an impediment,” the lawsuit says.
Both sides agree that that the Miss America institution has been damaged in the last year by the infighting.
In its own statement, the Miss America Organization said it would “aggressively” pursue and “vigorously” defend itself against the lawsuit, which it called baseless. In a statement sent via Hopper’s email, the organization accused the plaintiffs of waging a smear campaign that is damaging the institution.
The statement said the organization would continue to pursue a competition that makes Miss America “more diverse, inclusive and relevant.”
The lawsuit, however, says the actions of Carlson and Hopper have caused fewer candidates to enter the local competitions, putting those feeder programs into financial jeopardy.
It further accuses Carlson and Hopper of bullying and trying to silence various members of the board of trustees, misrepresenting the views of former Miss Americas, and breaching their duty by causing “financial and reputational” loss to the Miss America Organization. (Carlson and Hopper say it is the state directors who have been bullying volunteer leadership.)
The state pageant organizations are seeking a temporary restraining order from Superior Court Judge Michael Blee that would prevent the Miss America Organization from taking further action against state organizations. An earlier statement that the order had been issued was not correct, said attorney Paul Perkins, representing the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit dates the current crises to the publication of now-infamous emails by the former leadership of Miss America disparaging former titleholders in vulgar and sexist terms. That led to the takeover by former Miss Americas, but it has been Carlson who has maintained the strongest grip on the struggling organization.
Vaden Barth organized a GoFundMe account that has raised more than $40,000 for the court effort to win back control over Miss America.