When Robin Fleming posted on her LinkedIn that “the first 90 days as CEO of Miss America Organization has been a whirlwind,” she wasn’t lying. Over the last six years, America’s oldest beauty pageant nearly crumbled under the weight of its former executive leaders. In 2017, CEO Sam Haskell, once exalted for reviving the program to its glory days as must-see TV, was revealed to have been sending disparaging and misogynistic emails about the weight and sexual history of past winners. Former Miss Americas Regina Hopper and Gretchen Carlson (Fox News host from 2005-2016) were brought in to salvage the fallout through an extensive rebranding called Miss America 2.0 and instituted one significant change: nixing the bathing suit competition. Their impact was short-lived: After public accusations by the 2018 Miss America Cara Mund of alleged bullying, Carlson stepped down in June 2019. Hopper, then president and CEO, resigned six months later. As the Miss America Organization (MSO) was gearing up for its 100th anniversary in 2020, interim CEO Shantel Krebs was holding down the fort. Last January, Fleming, a fashion entrepreneur who was the official eveningwear designer for Dancing With the Stars for three years, was named its first full-time CEO.
Now, seven months into the job, Fleming is prepping for the backlash surely to flood timelines as A&E’s Secrets of Miss America airs July 10. Through interviews with more than 20 past title holders, the four-part limited series unveils the toxic culture of body shaming, misogyny and bullying that led to MAO’s scandals. For Fleming, recasting Miss America into more favorable light will not hide its checkered past. Instead, she’s listening and learning because “you really can’t fix something unless you know it’s broken,” she says. “To know who you want to be, you have to be able to look backwards and see where you’ve come from.” Shortly before Secrets of Miss America premiered, Fleming chatted about her thoughts on the series and how she plans on bringing Miss America back to the future.
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What was your first introduction to the pageant world?
Robin Fleming: The very first introduction to the pageant world probably was sitting on a couch eating popcorn with my mother, watching various pageants that were doing live productions on TV… Miss America, Miss USA.
In the early 2000s, you launched a dress shop in Wellington, Florida, and it catered to women buying gowns for balls, galas, weddings, as well as pageants. By 2009, you were a dress sponsor for the Miss Florida state competition. With all of your experience as a creative entrepreneur, what made you want to step into this role as CEO of Miss America — especially now?
Fleming: This is really my give-back chapter. I was a single mom for several years. I have a daughter and a son, and they’re both young adults now. As an empty nester, I was looking for something to deploy all the things I love to do. I love branding and marketing. I love working with brands. That whole reinvention storytelling piece appeals to me. I had run into a girlfriend who was doing production for Miss America, and she had told me they were really in bad shape and in need of new leadership. That sort of got me curious and I threw my hat in the ring.
Was there ever a moment when you were like, “Do I really want this much drama?”
Fleming: Most of that drama happened not around me. I have to say that’s definitely been part of the learning curve. I’ve only been doing this a few months, but would I do it again? Absolutely.
A&E says the Secrets of Miss America series, premiering July 10, will be “exposing the shocking scandals at its core.” When did you first find out that this would be the docuseries?
Fleming: I had been told, when I first sat down as CEO, that there was 100th anniversary celebratory series that was coming out. It was shared as if this was fantastic, that all these people throughout the organization had been interviewed and everyone was very excited to celebrate the 100 years of Miss America. My first introduction was it being called Secrets of Miss America, and it was one of the former Miss Americas who had reached out to me and gotten an email from the producers and was concerned about some of the trailers for it. I’ve seen all four episodes, actually.
What are your thoughts? Do you think they get it right or wrong?
Fleming: First of all, with any 100-year-old brand, there’s definitely going to be organizational missteps, to put it mildly. I would say my inclination is to support all the women who share their stories with the A&E producers. However, in talking with those same women, I’ve talked with about 35 different Miss Americas who’ve indicated they felt the entirety of their voices were not heard. That if you spend eight to 14 hours interviewing and it ends up as a two-minute biting soundbite, there’s much more… Right? Of course, that’s what entertainment’s all about, editing to fit a narrative that’s going to get some eyeballs and get some views. Yeah, my takeaway is that a lot of what is good and true and appreciated and celebrated by the former Miss Americas in this program didn’t make the editing cut.
Is there an example of something that didn’t make it?
Fleming: Many of the Miss Americas had shared with me, for example, Heather Whitestone. She was, I think, arguably one of the most inspirational Miss Americas of her time. She is deaf and she had spent over 12 hours interviewing. And not one minute of her interview appears on Secrets. I do think they bill it as 20 Miss Americas, but I mean, I lost count. I think maybe they only feature six or seven, so she was very disappointed. But again, they thought they were celebrating a 100th anniversary.
Watching the first episode, “Dirty Tricks,” the former CEO Sam Haskell is described as a dictator and the words “anger,” “rage” and “controlling” are used to describe him. How do you plan as CEO to bring change to this organization that has such a stained past?
Fleming: Let me first address the whole Sam Haskell situation. Of course, I had met Sam very briefly as [a Miss Florida dress] sponsor for the Miss America organization and shook a hand, said hello. That was the extent of that. He did have a reputation in the industry as an agent [Haskell had worked for WME as worldwide head of television], but I didn’t have that experience with him. I didn’t work with the organization when he was at the helm.
I would hope that Miss America’s kind of a mirror [for] America. And obviously, [when Haskell was CEO] that was pretty much the #MeToo era — women standing up and saying, “Hey, men sitting in these power positions are abusing their power.” I think that’s a story that people can relate to because they’ve heard it already and there’s been continuing conversations, obviously, about that.
You’re also up against today’s culture standards: inclusion, sexism, feminism. How are you going to stack up against what a lot of people may feel are outdated norms that MAO is showcasing?
Fleming: You can agree that stereotypes are really hard to deal with and pageantry definitely has been stigmatized by the stereotype: women in bikinis parading around in high heels and so forth. And that is, while it was a part of the former organization, I have to give thanks to Gretchen Carlson who removed the bikini from the stage. In fact, they devote a whole episode to that in the A&E special.
Given that these stereotypes are not easily overcome, what I am going to lean into is what Miss America’s opportunity is for young women, which is very relevant. It is an empowerment platform. I think women find their authentic voices, they become leaders within their communities, they further their educations and hopefully launch their own businesses.
But Miss America overall isn’t going to be just a single final night where the girls are taking the stage; it’s a 365-day environment opportunity. We give out over $3 million in cash scholarships. With the current conversation on student debt, I think it’s incredibly relevant that this organization is the world’s largest scholarship organization for women. We give out probably 10 times that cash award annually in in-kind scholarships. For example, every teen winner on a state level who completes her national competition and has a certain GPA, receives a four-year full ride to the University of Alabama.
It’s pretty weighty when it comes to helping families afford college, as well as hiring women to get engaged in their community, become community leaders, find their voices, learn interview skills, learn how to speak from a position of leadership. These are all relevant to women today. Absolutely.
For the women who have spoken out in Secrets of Miss America, what are plans to keep the conversations going with past winners who have been bullied or had real issues with the organization?
Fleming: That was the first thing I did when I saw the series, was reach out to the former title holders, both those who had participated and those who had not. We had several Zooms, and I wanted to reassure them that we support them in their authentic sharing of their story.
From my perspective, they were all very valuable. They spent a year as Miss America. They had a variety of experiences, most of which were, I would guess, positive. They helped their career initiatives, and the chance to encourage women to be courageous and to share from the heart and fully. That was No. 1 for me, was just to let them know they are still the sisters of this organization, and sisterhood is the foundation upon which this entire program is built.
I’m in solidarity with them and I am so excited to say, I think most of them, after many conversations, feel like it is a new era at Miss America and they’re excited to be a part of it. Cara Mund, who had a very well-documented journey with her year, was a judge this year in the state of Washington. We had Kelly Cash on stage. Heather French Henry, who was former Miss Kentucky, and then Miss America for the Millennium, was also a host on a different stage. Carissa Cameron’s mother was a judge. So, many of the women that were featured have already come back into the program with the reset, if you will.
We’re not going to call it Miss America 3.0 though. I think we’ll just stick with Miss America. But what I did, I will say, I changed the name. Miss America was always known as Miss America Organization or in lingo, MAO, right? Now stands the O stands for the Miss America Opportunity. We’re going to pivot from the focus on the organization, and I want to become a more consumer-centric business. The consumers are the young women going through our program and O stands for opportunity.
At the end of the first episode of the docuseries, there are listings for helplines for mental health and suicide. What will Miss America Organization do to address those important issues?
Fleming: Fundamentally, the role of Miss America has also changed this year. Before, the old organization had Miss America on a very tight schedule. They weren’t allowed to return home, they weren’t allowed to have boyfriends. It had very archaic viewpoints on how women, who are ambassadors, should be handled, managed.
When I sat down with our new Miss America, Grace Stanke, she was enrolled in school as a nuclear engineer. This is her senior year. My first question to her was, after we ripped up her old contract, “Do you want to help me write a new contract? My second question is, would you like to stay in school full time and finish your class this year?” Honestly, she was excited to get started on her year as Miss America. We worked out an arrangement where she was going to school part-time and studying abroad, and she could choose to go back to her hometown in Wisconsin.
She could stay at an apartment we had for her in Florida, or she could stay with friends when she’s traveling. A lot more flexibility, as well as a lot more input. I think that’s the no. 1 thing in terms of mental health, is treating the young women in the program as if they are young adults, which they are, and capable of making many of those decisions for themselves. Then also keeping in perspective for them that this is just one year in their life, and that if they do want mental health services or would like to have a therapist, etc., we would totally support that.
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