‘Empowering’ or ‘exploitative’ — Miss Utah contestants strut in bikinis and high heels one last time

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit competition at the Miss Utah pageant in Salt Lake City, Wednesday June 13, 2018.

In the wings of the Capitol Theatre, Miss Utah contestants rehearse turns and drop to the floor for some last-minute pushups in the seconds before they strut onstage in bikinis, stilettos and something called “butt tape.”

“Who all stumbles on their pivot?” one contestant calls out, eliciting only nervous mumbles from the 18 women who are waiting to have their bodies scored for the last time in this pageant.

It is the final year for the swimsuit competition in the Miss Utah pageant — and when Miss Timpanogos Jesse Craig, crowned Saturday, goes to Atlantic City this fall for the Miss America competition, she can leave her neon-colored bikini at home.

MISS UTAH 2018 WINNERS<br>Winner: Miss Timpanogos Jesse Craig<br>First runner-up: Miss Springville/Mapleton Miriam Hall<br>Second runner-up: Miss Nebo Alexa Knutzen<br>Third runner-up: Miss Orem Amanda Flinders<br>Fourth runner-up: Miss Spanish Fork Dexonna Talbot

Miss America organizers announced this month that the swimsuit event would be eliminated and the evening gown competition will now allow contestants to wear whatever “makes them feel confident, expresses their personal style, and shows how they hope to advance the role of Miss America.”

But at state pageants, like the one this week in Salt Lake City, swimsuit and evening gown competitions are going on as planned for one last year — and the 54 contestants have mixed feelings about taking to the stage in a napkin’s worth of fabric to be given points for “fitness.”

Alexa Knutzen, Miss Nebo, is relaxed backstage before Wednesday night’s swimsuit contest. She strikes a pose in front of a fog machine, which fans her long, blond hair dramatically away from her face.

“I wish I could have this in real life,” she sighs as the fog wafts over her. That she later wins the night’s swimsuit preliminary round is hardly a surprise. A ballet student at Utah Valley University, Knutzen spends hours working out and is at ease having her body watched.

“I have never felt more confident, beautiful and empowered as I have in the swimsuit and evening gown portions,” she says.

Walking around in a swimsuit and high heels is empowering?

“If you can get on the stage in a swimsuit and high heels, you feel like you can do anything,” says Craig, who is back this year after winning first runner-up — and a swimsuit preliminary award — in 2017. “It doesn’t make sense at first, but once you’ve done it, you get it.”

As each woman takes her turn to glow under the black light, her rivals cheer from backstage.

“Oh my gosh, Amanda!” Knutzen yells as Miss Orem, Amanda Flinders, flashes some muscle for the judges. “She is ripped!”

Sara Hafen, Miss Eagle Mountain, gets whoops as she holds a prolonged pose.

“I’m not going to win that category, so I’m just going to milk it,” Hafen says with a laugh afterward in the dressing room.

But for Kylee Robinson, Miss Tooele County, being judged on how her body looks in a swimsuit can’t be made right. Robinson, 21, has lost 115 pounds since her senior year of high school, when she says bullying and body-shaming reached a fever pitch. She had been called “fat chick” for years, but then someone made a fake profile on Snapchat to call her fat and comment on one of her pictures: “Kill yourself now.”

Given the epidemic of youth suicide in Utah, Robinson says, “I consider that a death threat.”

The same month, she was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, and she began to lose weight. But she says it didn’t change her value.

“I thought that I was beautiful. I was beautiful,” Robinson says. “I always said that I’m chubby and I’m sexy.”

Asked about the end of Miss America’s swimsuit competition, Robinson is unequivocal: “It’s about time. It’s. A. Bout. Time.”

“You cannot put a face or a body type on health,” she says. “You cannot put a bikini on the concept of fitness. I should be judged in a scholarship competition on my mind and on my actions.”

Gretchen Carlson, the former Miss America and Fox News host who oversaw the reforms as the pageant’s chairwoman, is a “hero,” Robinson said. She says she suspects more women will want to be in a pageant that is “not subjecting them to doing something they’re uncomfortable with and not exploiting their bodies.”

“I wouldn’t have thought that I have a place here, and the only reason I would have thought that is the swimsuit competition,” she says.

Robinson’s platform at Miss Utah is “Stop the B.S. (Body Shaming),” and she says that she has tried to reach out to teens and schools about body-related bullying, from general fat taunts to nitpicking criticism that “calls out something they wouldn’t even see as a flaw, and turns it against them.”

“If you’re experiencing that, I see you,” she says. “I hope that it means something. It would have meant something to me for a titleholder to say that.”

Craig won Saturday night under the old rubric: 10 percent for swimsuit, 15 percent for evening gown, 20 percent for onstage question, 30 percent for talent, and 25 percent for the composite score from the preliminary rounds held Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights.

Next year, states will mimic what Miss America does in September … whatever, exactly, that turns out to be.

“There’s definitely a sense of excitement for what’s to come, and we still don’t know what that will be,” said Whitney Thomas, communications director for the Utah pageant, who was Miss Utah in 2009. “There’s still a lot we don’t know for sure.”

Miss America 2013, Mallory Hytes Hagan, spearheaded efforts to oust the former top leadership of Miss America. And, under Carlson’s leadership as the new chairman, the organization announced that an “interactive session” will replace the swimsuit competition, allowing each contestant to “highlight her achievements and goals in life and how she will use her talents, passion, and ambition to perform the job of Miss America.”

Although that remains rather nebulous at this point, Craig is also supportive of the changes.

“What I like about this is it’s focusing on the fact that we are well-educated, well-rounded, accomplished women,” said Craig, who recently graduated with honors from the University of Utah.

“Because sometimes when I’m talking to people that don’t know anything about this organization, I feel like I have to justify it and say, ‘Oh, no. We are about scholarships. We are about promoting female empowerment in education.’

“But now I won’t have to do that.”

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