Organizers wanted to make it clear the 99th Miss America competition isn't your grandmother's beauty pageant, and their winner did just that on Thursday.
Virginia biochemist Camille Schrier won the crown just minutes after wowing the crowd with science. Dressed in a lab coat, she gave a colorful chemistry demonstration of the catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide.
Schrier, a native of Pennsylvania, said she hopes to “break stereotypes about what it means to be a Miss America in 2020” by being a “woman of science" who is authentic to herself.
“I'm not the beauty queen,” she said. “I'm the brand ambassador for this organization and I'm more than just someone with a crown on my head.”
Victoria Hill of Georgia placed first runner-up.
No longer called contestants, the 51 women “candidates,” who hailed from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, competed 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.”
For the second year in a row, women were not 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.
Schrier, 24, who spoke on stage about having tackled an eating disorder, said she decided to compete for Miss America after the swimsuit competition was ditched, along with other changes that have been made to modernize the organization.
“I kind of figured that I would never get on that stage because I was a woman who did not want to get into a swimsuit on stage. And I didn’t have a performing talent, which is really ironic now," she said, adding how she's the first Miss America to win with a science experiment, a presentation she brings to schools.
Schrier is a cum laude graduate of Virginia Tech with a dual bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and systems biology and she is currently studying to obtain a doctor of pharmacy degree. Her platform is drug safety.
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.”
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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.
When asked on stage whether the Miss America organization should change even more and allow married women and women with children to participate, both Schrier and Hill said no. Schrier told reporters afterward that she believes the job would be too busy for a mother.
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.
Schrier succeeds 2019 Miss America Nia Franklin, a classically trained opera singer from New York.
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.