The Miss America Organization suspended its CEO Friday, less than 24 hours after leaked emails surfaced showing him and others disparaging the appearance, intellect and sex lives of former Miss Americas.
Sam Haskell will remain suspended for an indefinite period while the organization investigates the content of the emails, their distribution within the organization, and how they came to wind up in the possession of the Huffington Post, which published them on Thursday.
“The board will be conducting an in-depth investigation into alleged inappropriate communications and the nature in which they were obtained,” the group said in a statement issued Friday evening, hours after 49 former Miss Americas signed a petition demanding the resignation of Haskell and other pageant officials.
“In addition, the board wishes to reaffirm our commitment to the education and empowerment of young women, supporting them in every way possible,” the statement read.
It did not indicate whether Haskell would be paid during his suspension.
Calling much of the report “dishonest, deceptive, and despicable,” Haskell issued a statement Friday evening that the material was “based on private emails that were stolen three years ago by ex-employees.”
He said he was under stress from “a full year of attacks by two Miss Americas,” and that “those who know my heart know that this is not indicative of my character, nor is it indicative of my business acumen.”
“This was not the CEO of an organization laughing at inappropriate jokes and speaking about a former Miss America in email conversations,” he continued. “This was a father whose family was being attacked, and a man whose character was being assassinated daily, which impaired my judgment when responding to the inappropriate emails sent to me about them. For that, I deeply apologize
The Huffington Post reported on the emails, including one that used a vulgar term for female genitalia to refer to past Miss America winners, one that wished that a particular former Miss America had died, and others that speculated about how many sex partners another former Miss America has had.
A petition organized by former Miss North Carolina Jennifer Vaden Barth garnered the signatures of the former Miss Americas. It called the emails by Haskell and others “despicable” and faulted officials who “sat by without objection while such derisive comments were passed around.”
“We are deeply disturbed and saddened to learn of the sickening and egregious words used by Miss America leadership,” the petition read. “We collectively call for their immediate resignation.”
Several of the emails targeted Mallory Hagan, who won the 2013 pageant, claiming she had gained weight after winning and speculating about how many men she had sex with.
“My hope is that this story that broke will bring light to the type of behavior that’s been in leadership of the Miss America Organization and really help us put in place some people who care and who embody the mission of Miss America,” Hagan said in a Twitter video . “Having somebody bully you, demean you, degrade you in any way is not OK.”
Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell, who signed the petition, told The Associated Press she “lived under this misogynistic leadership for a year of my life, and I’m definitely glad to see all of this evidence come into the light.”
She also said pageant officials “told me which former Miss Americas I wasn’t allowed to associate with or pose for photos with.”
In other emails, a former writer for the pageant notes the death of one former Miss America and muses that he wished 1998 Miss America Kate Shindle, who wrote a book critical of the Miss America Organization, had died instead. Haskell responded to the email, indicating it made him laugh.
And Haskell wrote of tactics that would drive 1989 Miss America Gretchen Carlson “insane.” The Huffington Post reported she had clashed with Haskell and pageant officials over her push to modernize the organization, and her refusal to attack other former Miss America winners.
On Friday, the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority began reviewing its contract with the Miss America Organization, which has about $4 million left on it, after numerous local and state officials called for the final year of the deal to be killed.
The emails already cost the pageant its television production partner and raised questions about the future of the nationally televised broadcast from Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall the week after Labor Day each year. Dick Clark Productions told the AP on Thursday night that it cut ties with the Miss America Organization over the emails, calling them “appalling.”
Hilary Levey Friedman, a Brown University professor who studies beauty pageants, said the contest is in deep trouble.
“Forget about the TV producer, I think it will be hard to attract contestants. I think that’s a major issue,” she said. “How can the many volunteers that have supported the program for many years encourage young women to get involved where the leader at the top is dismissive of women.”
But there is a silver lining, Friedman said, especially if women are hired to lead the organization.
“If that happens, they have the opportunity to speak out on issues that matter to young women today in particular and make a statement about the future of the American woman,” she said.
The Huffington Post article shows that Haskell and others directed considerable attention to Hagan. He forwarded an email he had been sent regarding Hagan to a writer for the pageant, who has since been terminated.
The writer responded by questioning whether he and Haskell were part of a tiny group of people who had not had sex with Hagan.
According to the Huffington Post, Haskell replied: “It appears we are the only ones!”
WHYY’s Aaron Moselle contributed to this report.