Gretchen Carlson, who serves as the chairwoman of the Miss America board of directors and won the crown herself in 1989, says she was “incredibly sad and heartbroken” when she read current Miss America Cara Mund’s public letter Friday morning stating Carlson had “silenced,” “marginalized” and “bullied” her.
“I want to be clear that as a proponent of women my entire life, I have never bullied Cara Mund,” Carlson tells PEOPLE exclusively. “We have supported Cara for her entire year and we will continue to support her. It’s just disappointing that she chose to air her grievance publicly and not privately.”
In Mund’s letter, posted three weeks before the scheduled Miss America telecast in Atlantic City on Sept. 9, Mund, who hails from North Dakota, accused Carlson and Regina Hopper, the organization’s CEO, of “disrespect, passive-aggressive behavior, belittlement, and outright exclusion.”
Carlson joined the board of directors in December after the then-CEO reportedly used sexist and fat-shaming language in internal emails that led to several executives and board members resigning. She says she took on the volunteer role in January in hopes of making it more inclusive, relevant and empowering to women. “I have been putting all of my energy and countless hours into moving this organization forward,” she says. In 2017, Carlson wrote the book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back inspired by the many women who reached out to her after she reached a $20 million settlement in her sexual harassment lawsuit against former Fox News chairman Roger Ailes in 2016.
One of the new initiatives put forward by Carlson is the elimination of the famous swimsuit competition in an attempt to downplay the importance of physical appearance alone. Mund states that during a recent Good Morning America appearance discussing the changes, she was told that “GMA only wanted Gretchen on the segment,” adding, “I served as my own advocate and asked if I could attend” despite not getting any airtime.
But Carlson, 52, says this was not the case. “We brought her to New York the day before and provided her with media training. We asked Cara to come to the studio because we thought by chance, even at the last minute, they would maybe include her.” Ultimately, ABC decided to go with a singular interview with Carlson. “There were so many interview requests that day,” says Carlson. “Cara did all the entertainment shows and a lot of radio and print interviews.”
Carlson, who says she plans to reach out to Mund shortly, says she can sympathize with Mund’s comments about this being a challenging year.
“It’s the toughest job you will ever have,” Carlson says of being Miss America. “Every Miss America could tell you if they wanted to about the ups and downs of their year. I could. But you realize as more time passes what an amazing opportunity you have been given to serve as a role model and an ambassador for our country and to make a difference.”