MARION, Ill. – For years, the historic Miss America Organization heard complaints about the way the Miss Illinois program was being run.
Nothing was done.
Then WGN Investigates started asking questions and heard from many who quit saying she was dictatorial, abusive and downright mean to some aspiring contestants and their families.
Last night, WGN reported and Miss America acted and removed the chairman.
She countered, saying she was just maintaining high standards and Miss America’s rules and is now fighting back.
But there’s more evidence of how she ran a program that caused even the youngest to quit.
9-year-old Kiera loves performing anywhere. She shines on stage. Polio has shortened one leg, so she now wears a lift, but that doesn’t slow her down. She charmed the judges, winning princess in the Miss Southern and Shawnee Sweetheart pageant and a chance to attend the Miss Illinois pageant.
It’s a dream for all little princesses: a chance to grow up to be Miss Illinois or even Miss America. But a WGN investigation uncovered a more ugly side to the Miss Illinois pageant under the leadership of Amalia Schwerdtmann.
Six months ago Kiera developed more problems, this time with her other leg. It required major surgery and confined her to a wheelchair with months of therapy ahead. With the pageant just months away, Amalia and board officials refused to let Kiera’s mom backstage to assist her daughter, despite a doctor’s note requiring her attendance. The email exchange, according to Kiera’s mother, Heather Cromwell, proved to be a “nightmare.”
After a slew of texts and emails, pageant officials finally relented, but left Kiera in her wheelchair off to the side. The slight prompted Kiera to leave the pageant early. Cromwell said the entire experience was negative. “My daughter went from her bubbly self to just shutting down,” Cromwell said. “She cried. She was a mess.”
Ironically, to participate in Miss Illinois, contestants must raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network. Yet when it comes to one of the hospital’s own, it appears Miss Illinois’ mission was forgotten.
Kiera’s is just one of many stories you’d never hear unless you showed up in the tiny town of Marion, Ill., about six hours south of Chicago. That’s where WGN found its chairman, Amalia, leading this year’s Miss Illinois 2015 pageant festivities.
When questioned about her dictatorial leadership style, Amalia responded, “In any job, in any instance, you’re involved with people have their opinion. A dictatorship. No. We follow the rules of the Miss America organization. And unfortunately some of them didn’t like it.”
The pageant is big news in Marion, but after our interview with Amalia, it wasn’t too friendly — or maybe it was just us. First, we were met by a city employee, a Gladys Kravitz character, like the nosy neighbor from the ‘60s sitcom “Bewitched.” She wanted to know what our story was and whom we were interviewing. Then, there was a Gandalf-like character from “The Lord of the Rings” who famously said, “You shall not pass.” The security guy refused to allow our news cameras into the pageant.
However, there was another story taking place just outside of the pageant. A Miss America executive snuck into town to hold secret meetings with former titleholders to discuss the hundreds of complaints against Amalia. He didn’t want to talk with us, either.
However, a group of volunteers and whistleblowers wonder what took Miss America so long to show up. Said one volunteer, Cara Kokenes, “I had indicated that people coming to us through our petition were interested in media attention. And that was suggested that it’s a bad idea because states that had gone to the media had failed, and states that had not gone to the media had succeeded.”
Yet nothing else worked. Six years ago titleholders, parents, board members and volunteers sent letters complaining about Amalia’s dictatorial reign. Doug Black, a former board treasurer, suggested, “This is a legal and public relations nightmare waiting to happen. You need to address this. You need to take this concern seriously. And like everyone else, I never even got a response.” Others, like volunteer Rebecca Cutler, said they felt let down by the Miss America Organization.
To make matters worse, oftentimes the complaints about Amalia sent to Miss America were turned back to Amalia. Said Black, “So you’re taking it back to the person that’s the cause of the problem and expecting them to fix it. So it’s a vicious cycle that’s been going on for nine years.”
Nearly all the individuals we spoke to expressed concerns that Amalia might try to do something to get back at them or their contestants. “We’ve all felt that way in the back of our minds,” Kokenes said. “We’ve been concerned. We’re going to a pageant with 11 title holders.”
About two years ago, Miss America renewed its Illinois pageant license. It kindly asked Amalia to back off and let the executive director do her job. But, Amalia isn’t one to give up power. When asked if she changed the charter to give herself back the power, she said, “No.” However, WGN obtained a copy of the by-law change that gave Amalia “responsibility of the day to day operations” once again.
Finally, after meeting with the Miss America Organization, we caught up with Miss Illinois 2014, Marisa Buchheit. “The year wasn’t quite what I expected despite many positive attributes and many happy moments,” Buchheit said. “There was a lot of negativity in a lot of things that I didn’t expect. It just wasn’t the fairy tale ending I’d hope for.”
Amalia must have read or heard about some of the hundreds of complaints, because she and her husband temporarily resigned. Still, when asked, she said she changed her mind to “finish what I started.”
Amalia’s attitude is what brought a group of folks to WGN frustrated that nothing in the system was going to change. Kokenes requested that Miss America listen to her plea. “We invested time, energy, love — everything you could possibly imagine into this,” she said. “I mean, our hearts and souls, I think. And that’s our plea to Miss America, is make a change. Make this a great place again because it has been great. It is great in other areas. So allow us in Illinois to thrive the same way. Allow our girls to thrive.”
As for 9-year-old Keira, she doesn’t want anything to do with Miss Illinois. She’s still going to perform, just on another stage.
The Miss America Organization booted Amalia and her team for failing to treat contestants with proper respect, courtesy and dignity, and for failing to conduct her organization to the standards of Miss America.
Amalia has hired a lawyer who has sued Miss America saying she’s owed nearly $70,000 in ticket sales generated by last month’s pageant week in Marion.
Her lawyer says she will appeal her removal.
Miss America said they won’t hear the appeal because she failed to comply to appeal stipulations.
They’re already accepting applications to replace her.
The full statement from Miss America reads as follows:
The Miss America Organization terminated its license agreement with the Miss Illinois Scholarship Association on June 12, 2015, after finding the Illinois organization to be operating in default of the Miss America Organization’s state license agreement. The Miss America Organization originally granted the Illinois organization’s request for a hearing, but after the Illinois Organization failed to comply with the hearing stipulations, the appeal was dismissed. MAO is taking all necessary legal actions moving forward.
Each fall, the Miss America Organization thoroughly reviews the performance and effectiveness of its state licensees across the country based on performance metrics and feedback from various stakeholders. Prior to this review period, our national office was made aware of numerous infractions made by the Miss Illinois Scholarship Association. Consistent with past practices, we acted quickly by sending a national representative to Illinois to investigate the claims of infraction, which resulted in the termination of the license. Based on information discovered through the on-site review by our national representative, the Illinois license was ultimately and rightly terminated.
The Miss America Organization is currently accepting Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from parties interested in seeking the Illinois state license. We will be reviewing the RFPs to identify the new leadership in the coming weeks. The Miss America Organization is committed to maintaining the highest standards of integrity among our state organizations, and we will continue to actively address all concerns as we move forward.