UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) — The final night of the 99th Miss America competition kicked off with a glamorous red carpet photo shoot Thursday, but organizers hoped to make it clear this isn't your grandmother's beauty pageant.
No longer called contestants, the 51 women "candidates," who hail from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, were vying for a $50,000 scholarship and the "job" of Miss America, a one-year paid position they hope to use as a public platform for their "social impact initiative."
Miss Tennessee Brianna Mason, 24, is from Nashville, but her grandparents, Roderick and Eva Jeanette Morton, live in Chattanooga, along with other relatives.
For the second year in a row, women will not be judged in a swimsuit or how they look in an evening gown. Instead, a series of interviews and talent demonstrations will determine who is best qualified to wear this year's crown.
"To make it relevant for these young women, it was important for us as a scholarship and service organization to make sure that we were reflective of this generation, meaning that you no longer had to be defined by some sort of ideal," said Regina Hopper, president & CEO of the Miss America Organization.
Morgan Nichols, Miss Carolina, had her own message. She walked down the red carpet wearing a billowing, long skirt topped by a plain white T-shirt that read: "Stronger."
While Hopper acknowledges there has been some push-back from "old pageant" people who liked the old way of doing things, she said there's been greater interest in the competition since the roll-out of Miss America 2.0.
This year also marks the first time the multi-day event is being held at Mohegan Sun, tribal casino and entertainment complex in suburban southeastern Connecticut. Miss America organizers announced plans this summer to leave Atlantic City, New Jersey — for the second time in its history.
Miss America also switched from ABC back to NBC to broadcast the glitzy finale to an estimated 4.5 million viewers. And for the first time, preliminary events and the finale — held in Mohegan's 10,000-seat arena — are being streamed live on the NBC app.
"We've had many, many large events. This probably reaches the most people," said Jeff Hamilton, president and general manager of Mohegan Sun. "We're just really, really excited about it."
Miss America organizers and NBC have not yet agreed to a multi-year contract with the Connecticut casino. A decision is expected in the coming months.
Thursday night's ultimate winner will succeed 2019 Miss America Nia Franklin, a classically trained opera singer from New York.
This year's talent winner, Camille Schrier of Virginia, was emblematic of the changes at Miss America under the now all-female leadership team. Schrier won a $2,000 scholarship for her chemistry demonstration of the catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide.
The decision to drop the swimsuit competition did create great controversy and criticism of Miss America officials, including former board chair and former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, who said in 2018 that Miss America would represent "a new generation of female leaders focused on scholarship, social impact, talent and empowerment." Carlson has since stepped down.
Atlantic City businessmen came up with the idea for a pageant in 1921 as a way to extend the summer tourism season beyond Labor Day weekend. It became synonymous with the New Jersey seaside resort but moved to Las Vegas in 2005, returning to Atlantic City in 2013.