Nia Imani Franklin, Miss New York, is Miss America 2019. (Photo: Getty Images)
Nia Imani Franklin, the 23-year-old Miss New York, won the title of Miss America 2019 — bringing with it $50,000 in college scholarships — on Sunday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ.
The 2017 titleholder Cara Mund, who stirred serious controversy in the pageant world after publicly accusing Miss America organization leadership of “silencing” and “bullying” her during her reign, got a standing ovation from the live audience as she took her final walk in a gorgeous emerald Sherri Hill gown. She then crowned Franklin, who took the traditional first walk in a white gown.
With her performance of opera vocals, Franklin wowed the crowd, which was studded with girls and teens in crowns and sashes to represent local pageants and Miss America’s Outstanding Teen states. During the final question-and-answer portion, she responded “New York gusto” to judge Laila Ali’s question about how being from the state (and city) had prepared her for the job of Miss America.
The first runner-up was Miss Connecticut Bridget Mary Oei, winning $25,000 in scholarships after bringing the audience to its feet with a rousing Irish step-dance number for the evening’s talent portion. The second runner-up was Miss Louisiana Holli’ Conway — a clear audience favorite throughout the evening — winning $20,000 in scholarships.
But the seven judges — which included athlete Laila Ali, music producer Randy Jackson, journalist Soledad O’Brien, and musician and TV host Carnie Wilson — ultimately landed on Franklin, who has a fierce passion for music and performance and composed her first song at the age of 6. Her winning score was comprised of the following: 25 percent preliminary composite score, 30 percent talent competition, 25 percent onstage interview, and 20 percent evening wear. Hosts Ross Matthews and Carrie Ann Inaba injected the evening with sass and humor.
During her 2019 rein, Franklin, a graduate of the University of North Carolina for the Arts, will promote her social impact initiative, Advocating for the Arts.
At a press conference immediately following the broadcast, Franklin was asked what she felt needed to happen to keep Miss America going in the future. “I don’t mean to be cocky, but I think you’re looking at her,” she said.
Wilson praised the new titleholder at the press conference. “The minute Nia opened her mouth, I was like, ‘That’s Miss America 2019.’ I just had this feeling,” she said. “I think she represents the organization beautifully: She’s poised, she’s intelligent, she’s relatable… I think she’s a fantastic human being.”
The Miss America contest was started in 1921 by a group of Atlantic City businessmen who created a week of festivities, including the Atlantic City Bathing Beauty Contest, as a way to extend the summer resort season past Labor Day. It was a success and eventually evolved into a scholarship competition that now has a heavy focus on contestants’ social platforms, which ranged this year from mental-health awareness to STEM inclusion.
In just the past several months, the Miss America Organization has undergone a dizzying amount of changes: a turnover in leadership following a sexist email scandal involving former CEO Sam Haskell, the appointment of Gretchen Carlson as chair of the board, the death of the swimsuit portion of the competition, the airing of public grievances between Mund and Carlson, and the overall rebranding of what’s now being called Miss America 2.0 — a “competition” and not a “pageant,” with “candidates” and not “contestants,” who will no longer be judged “on their outward physical appearance.”
For the most part, Sunday night’s newly unveiled event felt as if it had one eye on the future while still keeping one on the past.