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The biggest scandals in Miss America history

Miss America Contestants at the Miss America Pageant 2007
Image: Miss America Contestants at the Miss America Pageant 2007 | Everett Collection /

Secrets of Miss America uncovers the long-kept secrets of America’s oldest beauty pageant and exposes the shocking scandals at its core. Pageant insiders, including more than 20 former Miss Americas, tell their stories in one documentary for the first time. Watch as they detail the true cost of wearing the now-infamous crown and sash.

The show is available to stream on Crime + Investigation Play.

Beauty pageants have always been a controversial issue, but they are also a core part of American culture. Miss America is of course the largest and most well-known of all the pageants, with beauty queens from states across the country coming together to compete for the ultimate prize.

However, Miss America has also been racked with scandal and controversy and below we’re exploring just some of those explosive moments in the history of the competition.

2017: Misogyny revealed at the top

Of all the scandals that have rocked Miss America, the revelations about CEO Sam Haskell in 2017 are amongst the most shocking. In December 2017, HuffPost published several emails written by Haskell to others within the organisation. The emails were full of insults, including misogynistic language used to talk about the women competing in the pageant. The emails spoke about contestants by name and referred to them in derogatory terms.

While Miss America has not always been heralded as a fine example of equality, for there to be such negativity around the competitors from the man in charge was a real shock. Haskell resigned two days after the emails were published.

2022: The year of the rigged victor, or was it?

Allegations that Miss America 2022 was rigged set the competition on edge once more. It’s not the first time there have been complaints of rigging, but in our social media age, all the nastiness was very public and very accessible to anyone who wanted to get involved.

Contestants themselves complained that the competition was rigged in favour of R’Bonney Gabriel. They began posting on TikTok complaining they ‘never stood a chance’, as they believed that R’Bonney was set to win irrespective of other competitors. R’Bonney denied all the allegations and went on to win Miss Universe in 2023.

1968: The year of the protests

There have been protests against Miss America on several occasions, but it was back in the 1960s when the pageant’s real opposition began. The 1968 Miss America competition in New Jersey saw a large group of around 400 women protesting, bringing along sheep with crowns and shouting ‘Ain’t she sweet, makin’ profit off her meat’. They also filled a huge garbage bin with mops, aprons, cosmetics and bras.

Critics found the pageants particularly problematic as the participants actively engaged in the objectification of their own bodies.

2017: Cara Mund outs the bullies

In September 2017, Cara Mund was crowned Miss America in Atlantic City. However, soon after her win, she accused the pageant leaders and decision-makers of bullying and manipulating her during her reign. She made accusations against the CEO Regina Hopper and chairwoman Gretchen Carlson.

In a letter to former Miss Americas, Mund highlighted how she had been frequently mistreated by those in charge. She said she felt silenced, marginalised, and didn’t get to use her role as Miss America in the ways she had hoped.

1983: Vanessa Williams gives back the Miss America crown

Vanessa Williams is better known as an iconic actress, but her career began in pageantry. In the 1980s she was an up-and-coming beauty queen and made history in 1983 as the first African-American Miss America.

However, a year after her coronation and when her reign was coming to an end, unauthorised nude photographs taken when she was working as a photographer’s assistant were published in Penthouse magazine. Williams was then forced to give up her title and deal with the backlash of huge public humiliation. Williams had also been receiving racist abuse and death threats due to the colour of her skin.