Being crowned Miss America was a lifelong dream for Caressa Cameron. But it became a living nightmare for her — and many others who won the coveted title.
Cameron, who was Miss America 2010 and Miss Virginia 2009, told The Post she felt bullied by then Miss America CEO Sam Haskell a month into her reign. (Haskell resigned from the organization in 2017 after being accused of exchanging sexist and vulgar emails about past contestants.)
“Sam and I’s relationship ended as quickly as it started,” Cameron said. The 36-year-old said she was told she couldn’t invite a female mentor and pageant coach to her own homecoming party.
“Sam said, ‘If she’s attending, I’m not attending.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to not invite someone who was instrumental to my craft over someone I just met,” Cameron recalled.
Haskell and prominent members of the Miss America board snubbed Cameron by not showing up to her party, she claimed. Cameron also recalled accidentally receiving an email in which Haskell allegedly made a snide remark about her mother in one instance asking, “Who does this woman think she is?”
Even upholding her chosen platform — advocating for HIV/AIDS prevention — became impossible, Cameron said, when the organization barred her from traveling to related events.
“I wasn’t given the time to do what I thought the job was going to be. That was the harsh reality,” Cameron said. “You’re told what to do and when to do it. That’s when I realized this is not what I thought it was.”
She and more than 20 other former crown holders divulge decades of bad behavior — bullying, body shaming, racism and misogyny — inside America’s oldest beauty pageant in “Secrets of Miss America,” out Monday, July 10, on A&E.
The docu-series details the unraveling of the 102-year-old pageant once viewed by 80 million people a year, and its ongoing fight to stay relevant. It also examines the whistleblower-leaked emails in 2017 which unearthed misogyny within the board of directors — leading to Haskell’s exit, a turbulent 2018 takeover by Gretchen Carlson and the controversial banning of the swimsuit competition that ultimately led to Carlson’s takedown.
“Secrets of Miss America” opens with Mallory Hagan, Miss America 2013 and a target of Haskell’s disparaging comments about her weight and sex life.
The Post has reached out to Haskell for comment.
“It was about control. He [Haskell] controls everything in everyone else’s life. If you go against him you’re cut out,” says Brent Adams, Haskell’s former assistant who helped bring the disparaging emails to light.
Adams recalls in the first episode hearing Haskell humiliate Hagan behind her back in meetings with entertainment ABC executives — a move that that allegedly thwarted the winner from appearing on “Dancing with the Stars.”
“I was sitting in the office at ABC in LA with high level network executives and Sam was talking about her trying to hook up with [‘Bachelor’ host] Chris Harrison. A lot of people see through that, but it’s still very damaging to be disparaging someone like that, especially to high level people that Mallory wanted to work for,” Adams says in the series.
“Sam allegedly went on to call me a whore and also trailer trash,” Hagan says on the show, lamenting how hard it was to find a career outside of the organization when her reputation was tarnished.
When Hagan and Claire Buffie Adkisson, Miss New York 2010, started their own business coaching and mentoring pageant competitors, Hagan claims, Haskell and the organization went out of their way to prevent women from hiring them. It took a severe toll on the former Miss America’s mental health.
“There was a lot of time where I did not want to be here any more,” Hagan says in the series.
“The worst moment was, I drank a lot of alcohol and I stood on top of my building. And if it wasn’t for my relationship with my parents I probably would have made a very different decision than I did,” a tearful Hagan says. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.)
She’s not the only one who says exhaustion and agony came with the tiara and sash. Cameron, who is black, told The Post of feeling like a target for discrimination — claiming she was forced to chop off her hair midway through her first year as Miss America because the organization refused her proper hair care.
“I never felt uglier. It was very disheartening and it really took a toll on my self confidence. Just feeling isolated, unheard and struggling. I oftentimes felt like I couldn’t or shouldn’t speak up because I didn’t want to rock the boat. I didn’t want to mess this up for the black women that were coming behind me,” she says on the series.
After the controversial emails went public in 2017, Hagan, Cameron and the a number of other contestants felt vindicated.
“Finally people would understand that I was being misrepresented by someone who had a lot more power and authority than I did,” Hagan says of Haskell’s resignation.
But things took a turn for the worse, Cameron told The Post. Gretchen Carlson, Miss America 1989 and a former Fox News anchor, took the reins from Haskell in 2018. But the organization reportedly remained in disarray, with contestants feeling far more divided — particularly about the iconic swimsuit competition.
Some, like Cameron, argued it should remain.
“When Gretchen came in, she completely dismantled the identity of the pageant,” Cameron told The Post.
“When you have an organization that’s built on a tradition — the swimsuit competition — to completely take that out … it’s like going to Ruth’s Chris and them saying, ‘Actually we don’t serve steak anymore.’ They’re a steak restaurant,” Cameron said.
According to her, the swimsuit portion should have been reimagined, not axed.
“I definitely think there were some things that were a little archaic about [scoring]. We shouldn’t just be rail-thin supermodels — it should be a celebration of healthy bodies. That’s where we could have done better. But instead we pulled the whole thing and … [Carlson] told us that the station that was supposed to air the competition that year said they wouldn’t air it because of the #MeToo movement if we included the swimsuit competition.
“It was a blatant lie … people were like, ‘You can’t trust her,’” Cameron told The Post.
“The entire leadership and direction of the organization is being filtered through [Carlson’s] personal brand,” a former board member told The Post in 2020. “The #MeToo movement is not the brand of the Miss America organization. The fact that they are being conflated is a problem.”
“Ms. Carlson misled no one, period,” said Carlson’s lawyer Bruce S. Rosen in an email.
Carlson stepped down that year, but Hilary Levey Friedman, author of “Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America,” told The Post that the changes have rocked the competition’s core identity.
“I think it’s very relevant for the young women who compete,” the author said. “Do I think it will ever be relevant the way it was in the ’40s, ’50s ’60s and ’70s? No.”
Cameron, who runs an event planning business out of Virginia and occasionally judges beauty pageants, said her last official role for the Miss America organization was on the Diversity Equity and Inclusion task force. While she no longer has an official role, she remains hopeful.
“We need to rebrand in a way that shows people that Miss America is modern and still relevant,” Cameron told The Post.
“Our best years can be ahead if we allow them to be.”