Northeast Arkansas pageant directors conflicted about Miss America changes

A Miss Arkansas 2017 contestant competes in the swimsuit portion of the pageant. (Source: KATV)
A Miss Arkansas 2017 contestant competes in the swimsuit portion of the pageant. (Source: KATV)

BLYTHEVILLE, AR (KAIT) - The decision to eliminate the swimsuit and evening gown contests and rename the Miss America Pageant to the Miss America Competition had people across the country talking Tuesday.

Those involved with the local pageants in Region 8 were also hearing the news for the first time and reacting to the change.

"I think we have been shifting that way for quite a while," Marietta Jerome, a former pageant coach and director said about the decision. "I think we have moved into their platform and what they're all about and the causes that they give their effort to."

Jerome coached young women for more than 35 years. Several of them have gone on to win Miss Arkansas and one of her former queens, Debbye Turner, was crowned Miss America in 1990.

Jerome believes the swimsuit portion of the pageant instilled good values in the contestants.

"Having the swimsuit competition made the young women accountable and they made healthy choices in their diet and their exercise," Jerome said. "And now they may focus away from that."

She also admits to seeing the other side of the argument, though.

"People question why would you wear a swimsuit in heels and you're all about scholarships so I can see how that doesn't jive too," Jerome said.

She did describe herself as "old-school" and said it's just part of the pageant tradition.

Much of the discussion about the change does focus on the tradition of the competition that originally began as a bather's revue nearly 100 years ago.

"It 100%, I think, goes against the whole tradition and meaning and background of what the Miss America Pageant is," said Abby Houseworth, Miss Northeast Arkansas Pageant Director.

Houseworth is also a former Miss Arkansas competitor.

She agrees that the beauty and fitness portions of the contest forces the women to commit to time in the gym and a healthy diet.

"She has to prioritize to go to the gym and she has to make it a conscious effort to not eat that last piece of cake or not go have pizza every night with her friends," Houseworth said. "She is actually disciplined enough and training for the swimsuit competition and it shows on stage who makes that a priority and who doesn't."

The organization said Tuesday that it hopes this move can make the competition more inclusive.

Jerome and Houseworth both agree that more participation could be a positive benefit of the change.

"Our participation has gone down drastically in the last few years," Jerome said. "This may welcome in girls that would not be confident to get out in a swimsuit. They don't have to do that and they still have their talent and they still have something to say."

The former coach said it would be good to give more women access to the scholarships that the Miss America Organization offers.

Houseworth said her main concern is that this announcement was made just 5 days before the Miss Arkansas preliminaries are set to begin.

She is worried this may change the judges' focuses.

"Subconsciously, no matter how hard you try, if you're sitting at the end of the week trying to pick the best contestant for Miss America and you know swimsuit isn't a factor, that has to change your decision making."

The state pageants will still have swimsuit and evening gown portions of the competition this year.

The changes will begin with the Miss America pageant in September.

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