For years, A’Leah Burrell has had a dream.
Burrell, 21, wants to wear the crown of Miss America. She is one of 53 women competing to become Miss Georgia at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts this week. The winner of the state crown will compete in the Miss America pageant in September.
“I started on my road to become a Miss America at a young age,” Burrell said. “My mom competed in the organization, and I knew the benefits of the organization. But as a girl who is a Size 14, I never really felt like I fit that stereotypical mold that had been shaped for the organization. I felt that was the only thing that kept me away from being a title holder within the organization.”
But Burrell, who is Miss Gwinnett, keeps coming back and is one of the contestants most directly impacted by last week’s decision by the Miss America Board of Directors to eliminate the swimsuit competition. Though there will be a swimsuit competition in the state pageants like Miss Georgia this year because the decision came late, it has been eliminated from Miss America.
I had people come up to me and say, ‘You could be Miss Georgia if you just lose 20 pounds.’ So, I get it. I think it’s a great change that is going to make a great difference for the organization.
A’Leah Burrell, Miss Georgia contestant
For Burrell it is welcomed news. As she has competed in pageants for more than a decade in Virginia and Georgia, Burrell has fought her weight and its impact on her ability to win titles. And it is not lost on her that this change was driven in part by 2013 Miss America Mallory Hagan’s disclosure she had been fat-shamed by pageant officials when she gained weight after winning the crown. The controversy forced dramatic changes in the organization, including the ouster of CEO Sam Haskell after his emails about Hagan were disclosed in December.
“To have women like Mallory Hagan step forward and say, ‘This is how it affected me. This is how we can become more relevant. This is how we can effect change’ means a lot,” Burrell said. “I get the body shaming. I had an executive director give me an exercise ball as a going away gift. I had people come up to me and say, ‘You could be Miss Georgia if you just lose 20 pounds.’ So, I get it. I think it’s a great change that is going to make a great difference for the organization.”
Burrell was in a teen pageant when she was given the exercise ball instead of the robe another girl received. Not long after that, Burrell began a battle with anorexia, and she still wears the emotional scars of that fight.
“It is not something that I am proud of,” she said. “It is not based on the fact of me feeling like people were forcing me, although I did have people forcing me because they felt like it was what I needed to do. But at the end of the day, you want something bad enough, you will go to crazy lengths to do it.”
And Miss America has been a powerful lure, Burrell said.
“I have wanted nothing more, for the longest time, than to be Miss America,” she said. “I felt like that is what I had to do to attain that. It wasn’t until years of therapy, finding who I was, that I realized I didn’t have to change for others. I just have to hope they embrace who I am.”
The decision to eliminate the swimsuit competition has been met with mixed reactions. Hagan has praised it, while others such as 2016 Miss Georgia and Miss America Betty Cantrell have been critical.
“It’s essentially saying that women shouldn’t be proud to be in their own skin. We’re telling women to cover up,” Cantrell told NBC News. “This is setting women back decades.”
That is not how Hagan, who lives in Opelika, Ala., and is running for an east Alabama congressional seat, feels.
“I completely understand how some women could be empowered by the swimsuit competition,” Hagan said in an interview Tuesday. “I have never disagreed with the organization’s push to have women embrace a healthy lifestyle. But wearing a swimsuit has nothing to do with what Miss America does the rest of the year. ... We should be trying to find the next generation of women leaders, not looking for who has rock-hard abs.”
Miss Georgia contestants compete in a wide range of categories, with some counting more than others in the final judging, which is done by an 11-person panel. The swimsuit competition counts for 15 percent of the total in the preliminary rounds and 10 percent on the final night, when the field is trimmed down to 15 quarterfinalists.
Brooke Doss, 24, is making her fifth appearance in Miss Georgia, where she has been first-runner up the past two years. Doss, who is Miss Atlanta this year, has been a swimsuit competition winner in the past and considers it a part of the overall evaluation of a contestant.
“I have won swimsuit prelims and I have gotten scholarship money from that phase of competition and I find it very fun,” she said. “I like staying in shape. I am someone who would do that anyway. Eating healthy, I think it’s important to promote that for young women.”
But Doss understands why the decision was made.
“It is about empowering women.,” she said. “It is about so much more than your body. Miss America goes around the country promoting her platform and supporting Children’s Miracle Network and doing so many things that have nothing to do with what size she is. So, I think it’s important to let young women and young girls know that you can make an impact no matter what the number is on the scale.”
Cassie Myers, vice president of media for the Miss Georgia Board of Trustees, said the reaction from the contestants has been mixed.
“We have some girls who are adamantly against the change, that love swimsuit, feels like it empowers them, they work hard, and it is one of those moments that culminates for them,” Myers said. “And we have some girls who are 100 percent for the change, who don’t think you need to be judged on what you look like. Just because you are not a Size 0 does not mean you are not strong and you are not fit. ... This is now giving the girls who had the dream of becoming Miss America that reality.”
“For me, while I am excited for the change, I am personally excited for the change because it gives other girls the opportunity to compete in the organization,” Burrell said. “I never once felt I wasn’t empowered by the swimsuit competition; I never once felt objectified by men — or women. For me, that opportunity to get on that stage was the opportunity to redefine beauty, to show that physical fitness comes in many different shapes and sizes.”
Burrell knows she does not fit the mold some people expect from a pageant contestant.
“I am a Size 14, but people looking at me in a swimsuit, just because I don’t fit that mold of what they expect a woman to look like in a swimsuit, doesn’t mean that I am not physically fit,” she said. “They don’t see the effort I have put in to losing 20 pounds in the last eight months. They don’t see that because all they see is I don’t look like my competitors in a swimsuit. I do feel empowered by the swimsuit competition. I enjoy the fact that I get to get on that stage and show the judges and young girls that beauty comes in many different shapes and sizes and we can’t define someone based on their size.”
Doss said she is inspired by Burrell’s story, even though she doesn’t relate to it.
“We all go through issues with body image, no matter what size we are,” Doss said. “There is always that idea of perfection we have in our minds and it is unattainable and is not healthy to have. To hear somebody who has competed for several years and to hear she has been made to feel this way, I think it is very important to draw attention to it. It is important that the Miss America organization is paying attention to that. And it will encourage girls like her to keep competing and keep going.”