Miss New York, Nia Imani Franklin, is Miss America 2.0.
The 98-year-old contest had a challenging run up to coronation this year. There was infighting and backstabbing, scandalous emails and defaced statues. There was the pro-swimsuit faction and those who thought eliminating the runway bikini strut was far overdue. And there was a rebranding, intended to showcase brains more than beauty in the #metoo era.
But the final moment was the same – a beaming Franklin, 25, arms raised up to the sky, and wearing a crown. Franklin, a native of North Carolina, moved to New York City to pursue her vocal career. She said the pageant programs in both states have allowed her to get two degrees in music composition. She receives a $50,000 scholarship along with the title, which she said she'll use to advance arts education programs.
Asked during the competition how her experience in New York prepares her for the job, Franklin said, "I have New York grit. I have moved more than five times because of subletting … I know what it takes to work hard." She brings the crown back to New York, which has won four titles in the last six years.
Runner up was Bridget Oei, Miss Connecticut. Second runner up was Miss Louisiana, Holli Conway.
While crowd favorites, neither Miss Pennsylvania, Kayla Repasky, nor Miss New Jersey, Jaime Gialloreto, of Woolwich Township, finished in the top 15.
>> IMAGE GALLERY: Pictures of the competition
From the start, the pageant, now called a competition, played out as a job interview, albeit a glamorous one. In a departure from some of the random and hot button questions contestants had to answer in past years, contestants now wrote and read questions for each other. Also new was a red carpet competition where the women gave "social impact statements," which ranged in goals from eliminating sexual assault on college campuses to protecting marine life.
The pageant, with historic ties to the New Jersey shore resort, has struggled to draw viewers or tourists in recent years. On Sunday, fliers for '"seat-fillers" were circulating offering free tickets to anyone who showed up dressed nicely with the advertisement. Tickets online go for $20 to $100.
In addition to nixing the swimsuit competition — a move that roiled the pageant community and some current contestants — there was no runway this year, and an added interview question. The 2019 Miss America receives a $50,000 scholarship, and runner-up gets $25,000. In total, the organization will award $307,000 in scholarships.
A comedian warming up the crowd before the telecast mentioned the lack of swimsuits, prompting loud boos.
Some contestants celebrated the lack of swimwear. It meant guilt-free cookies and a less stressful atmosphere, said Kayla Repasky, Miss Pennsylvania. Lydia Tremaine, Miss Indiana, said she cried tears of joy when the swimsuit category was dropped. She described herself as "an average-sized woman," who was consistently told she needed to lose weight to compete.
But other contestants say it was an iconic part of the pageant and a celebration of health and wellness. The newly installed Miss America board chair, Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox anchor and Miss America 1989, was lambasted for eliminating the category and other leadership decisions. State pageant directors in 46 out of 51 states and 22 former Miss Americas called for Carlson's ouster.
Reigning Miss America Cara Mund wrote a five-page public letter saying she'd been bullied and silenced by Carlson and leaders of the organization during her reign. Carlson responded in a letter posted on Twitter pointing a finger at Mund's comments as causing financial problems for the pageant.
While it has been all poise and professionalism at official events, signs of the behind-the-scenes strife were literally draped around Atlantic City. On Friday someone put a "Gretchen Sucks" sash on the statue of Miss America on the boardwalk. Posters around the city with Carlson's picture on them read, "So Fake."
Carlson, for her part, has said she wanted to create a contest that better represented and celebrated modern women. She did not take the stage during the competition but watched Franklin field questions following the show, including one about what she thought of Mund's letter.
"I love Cara but this is my year," Franklin said.
Franklin said she was happy to win without having to put on a swimsuit. "I'm more than just that," she said. "And all the women on the stage are more than just that too."