MARION, Ill. -- Pull back the curtain on the Miss Illinois Scholarship pageant, and you’ll see things unlike any story before.
First, don’t confuse it with Donald Trump’s Miss U.S.A.; that’s old news. Instead, our WGN investigation focuses on another pageant: the historic Miss America Organization that boasts about its scholarship opportunities with the iconic song, “There she is, Miss America.”
Before any young woman can reach her crowning moment, she first has to win the title in her own state. That’s where our investigation began, far away from the glitz and the glamor to a quiet tree-lined street in Lake in the Hills, a northern Chicago suburb. The headquarters for the Miss Illinois Scholarship Association for the past nine years has been a private home owned by a flight attendant, Amalia Schwerdtmann, and her contractor husband Glenn.
WGN did not find the couple at home; instead we caught up with Amalia at the start of this year’s Miss Illinois pageant being held far away from the spotlight in the small southern Illinois town of Marion.
The Illinois Scholarship Association, as it’s officially called, is a not-for-profit run by hundreds of volunteers. However, make no mistake it is Amalia, the board chairman, who rules with an iron fist. Her leadership has angered hundreds of volunteers. When WGN asked her to talk about the complaints, she declined, saying, “Actually, per Miss America, we’re not allowed to talk about it,” and questioning, “Just curious, how’d you find out about this?” The list is public on the Internet, which Amalia called “really unfortunate.”
WGN also spoke with dozens of others, including consultants, former board chairmen, local pageant directors and parents. Each person WGN spoke with detailed his or her own personal horror story. When speaking of his daughter Marisa, who won Miss Illinois 2014, Paul Buchheit said, “She’s always been upbeat, confident, positive, a happy person. But there is a terrible dark side when she has to deal with, well, Amalia or anybody on the board, it’s demeaning. It’s deceiving often times. It’s dehumanizing.”
Vanessa Martinucci, a local pageant director, witnessed it, too. “They are such intelligent and talented young women, and then to see them go off to Miss Illinois and watch Marisa just be torn down, I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Martinucci said.
The complaints started from the very beginning of Amalia’s leadership with Miss Illinois in 2006. WGN obtained a copy of the letter the 2006 winner wrote to Miss America detailing claims of abusive treatment and the loss of some of her scholarship money. Doug Black, a former board chairman, said Miss Illinois 2006 was denied an extension on the last piece of her scholarship money.
What’s more, the winners have to give up their jobs and suspend schooling, earning just $1,000 a month wearing the crown. That’s right at the poverty level. Winners do get a percentage of their appearances. Some engagements are free, others paid, but Miss Illinois isn’t told which is which. In its investigation WGN found there is no accounting. Said Buchheit, “Marissa has asked a few times for simply a schedule of the appearance fees and she’s never been able to get it.”
If a titleholder questions Amalia, she has been known to threaten to withhold their money. Amalia’s husband Glenn acts as the treasurer, which troubles many of those with whom WGN spoke. According to Black, “What you have is one person in charge, chairman of the board, filling all of the operations. That same person has inserted herself as the business manager of Miss Illinois, controls all of the appearances and the rates for all of the appearance fees. And then her husband is the treasurer. So they’re basically controlling all the operations and all the money within one household.”
Some of the women compete for years to become Miss Illinois. It’s a proud moment for them and their parents. However, under Amalia’s reign, the happiness doesn’t last for long. Former Miss Illinois Vice President Meredith Settylmeyer Murphy said the titleholders are isolated immediately. Said image consultant Stephanie Pillar, “She (Amalia) takes their phone. She goes through their personal messages. It’s brutal stuff.”
Pillar went on to discuss a story that has become legendary in the pageant world: It happened to Megan Ervin, Miss Illinois 2012, after she left her phone with Amalia. According to Pillar, “Amalia did cut some pieces, some tassels and strings off one of Megan’s favorite shirts and left it on the bed for her. And was told briefly, ‘When you are bad, I will punish you.’”
The fear is real. Each Miss Illinois WGN Investigates spoke with is worried Amalia would do something to hurt their future and even their families. “What should have been the best year of their life, they want to forget. That’s horrific,” Settylmeyer Murphy said. Rachel Johnson, a local director, said, “To leave with a feeling of despair and resentment, it’s so saddening.”
And it’s not just the winners who wind up losing under Amalia. More than 70 people have resigned their voluntary positions since she took over. That includes pageant leaders, stage handlers, image consultants, hostesses and board members. Those board positions have turned over six, seven, eight times under her reign alone. Said Black, “That person basically saying I can’t take this anymore I’m leaving. I’m not going to volunteer my time anymore.” Others said they were concerned about their careers after leaving because Amalia could do something to retaliate. Pillar added after she complained, “Clients I’ve had for years, I’ve been coaching since they were little girls, call me and say I can’t work with you. The director is saying we can no longer work with you.”
Locally, going to the national level to complain has been just as frustrating and fruitless, according to those we spoke with. None of them received any response from the Miss America Organization.
When we found Amalia at the Miss Illinois 2015 pageant, her car with the license plate Amalia 3 was doubled parked outside the hotel lobby and later parked in a tow zone. We asked her if she’d like to change anything based on all the complaints about her leadership. She replied, “There is always room for change.” When pressed, she took several seconds and added, “Right now having two buses in Marion would be really nice, so I’m not having to travel around and make sure they’re (the contestants) are at the right place at the right time.”
After all, the show must go on.
After WGN started asking questions, the Miss America Organization gave Amalia and her team the boot. But that’s not stopping her. She says she is appealing the decision, and she’s taken Miss America to court to get ahold of $69,000 she says she’s due.
Wednesday night WGN will hear more from Amalia and see how she treated one of her 9- year-old princess. See what happens when we try to question a representative from the Miss America Organization and learn more about Amalia’s fight to hang on to control of Miss Illinois.