When Cara Mund won Miss America last year, she never anticipated the challenges that would come during her reign.
Months after the North Dakota native took home the crown, the Miss America Organization became embroiled in scandal as offensive email chains leaked in December. In the exchanges, former CEO Sam Haskell, along with other organization leaders, crudely discussed the appearances of women who had competed in the pageant with demeaning and misogynistic language.
“That was a tough time,” Mund tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Transitioning is always hard. I figured there would be some growing pains.”
Pain, Mund says, “came indeed.” According to the 24-year-old beauty queen, the treatment she claims to have experienced under the new leadership of chairwoman Gretchen Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper was nearly paralyzing. In a five-page open letter — written to fellow Miss America winners and shared via her official Facebook page Aug. 17 — Mund detailed the bullying she allegedly endured at the hands of Carlson and Hopper, including hurtful comments about her appearance and an intent to have her “silenced.”
“The treatment just kept getting worse and I kept thinking to myself, ‘Is it my fault?'” Mund says, adding that her first uncomfortable encounter with Hopper was telling of their future dynamic.
“The first instance of bullying that really sticks out to me? Back in January, the very first time I met Regina. She told me she’s not nice. We were walking down the hall and she gave me some kind of compliment,” Mund recalls. “And my response is typically like, ‘Oh, that’s so nice of you.’ And she turned around and she said, ‘Oh, I’m not nice.'”
Later, as Mund claims in her letter, Hopper went as far as to criticize her sartorial choices. Of a Karl Lagerfield dress Mund once wore, Hopper allegedly said, “Yuck. You should burn that. Don’t ever wear that again.”
Aside from Hopper’s alleged insults, which, as Mund says, “took a toll” on her emotional well-being, Mund says that Carlson barred the Brown University graduate from participating in high-profile appearances that past titleholders have historically been a part of.
“There was a National Press Club luncheon in D.C. that the CEO and chairwoman took. And it’s fine. They can have it. But why wasn’t I asked to do that? I had voiced this concern before,” Mund tells THR. “When we go in to get sponsors or attend big events, they should bring Miss America because I’m a product of the organization. I’m determined, I have an opinion, I am well-spoken and educated. Plus, I want to work! To have this job means the world to me and I want to make each day count.”
But, under Carlson’s leadership, Mund says her contributions as Miss America have been minimal at best. Adding to a long list of letdowns, she also says she was blocked from attending a trip to Cannes this year, where Carlson spoke about the relevance of Miss America in the #MeToo era. The former Fox & Friends anchor and onetime Miss America was hailed as an early voice of the movement after coming forward with her claims of sexual misconduct against the late Roger Ailes; she also offers advice about how to conquer workplace harassment in her 2017 book, Be Fierce.
Mund finds it hard to reconcile Carlson’s public persona with the woman Mund claims has “systematically silenced me, reduced me, marginalized me, and essentially erased me in my role as Miss America in subtle and not-so-subtle ways on a daily basis.”
She elaborates to THR: “After all this, I do admire Gretchen’s courage to come forward when she did because I now realize how tough and how scary it is. At the same time, I wish I would have had support from her because she is someone who went through harassment — at a different level, obviously, and in a different situation — but she knows how bad it can be on the other side.”
“I just want to be heard in the same way she wanted to be heard,” adds Mund, who says she’s been vocal about her issues with the organization’s leadership since January. “My voice matters just as much as she feels hers does.”
Mund’s pageant sisters are certainly paying attention. More than 20 former Miss Americas, many of whom have expressed public praise for Mund, are now demanding that the entire Miss America board of directors, including Carlson and Hopper, resign. A petition calling for the same has been signed by over 21,000 people.
In the state of New Jersey, where Miss America is crowned each year in Atlantic City, workplace bullying is defined as “deliberate insults, threats, demeaning comments, constant criticism, overbearing supervision, profane outbursts, blatant ostracism, being overworked or simply not communicating with colleagues.”
Mund believes that what she has experienced falls under this definition. However, she tells THR that she’d like to avoid taking legal action against Carlson, Hopper or the Miss America Organization. “I think we all have the same goal,” says Mund. “I hope we all want Miss America to survive. I prefer not to take legal action. I just want us to air it out, point out the concerns and fix them. Let’s move on.”
Carlson refuted Mund’s claims in a lengthy Twitter statement Aug. 19. Since then, she has attempted to reach Mund via phone. “I just prefer written communication at this point,” Mund says. “There’s been a loss of trust, so that’s what I’ve requested.”
After sharing her letter, Mund says she’s been receiving “emails about security instructions” for Sept. 9, the day she is set to hand over the crown to a new competitor at Miss America 2019. “But they’re also forwarding media requests directly to me, to handle on my own,” she says. “So, I have no idea what’s going on. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘Is this a game? Is this a setup?’ Those are thoughts I have, and thoughts I have had throughout my tenure.”
Mund has also thought about the “possibility” of being dethroned before this year’s pageant takes place — which would be a first in the 97-year history of Miss America. But, if she does have to hand in her tiara and sash ahead of time, she’ll do it with a smile on her face.
“Yes, it is a possibility that they take away my crown. But if they strip me of my title early, speaking out would have been well worth it. I have no regrets,” she says. “I want the next winner to know that she’s stronger than she thinks she is. I kept thinking I was going to break, but I didn’t. Women are so strong. And I want her to know that she has my support and the support of everyone who supported me.”
Mund, who has plans to attend law school in the fall of 2019, concludes: “She needs to know that she has a voice and it’s important. If she feels like she can’t use it, grab that microphone and use it louder. She can really cause change.”