The abdication of two beauty queens shows the ugly truth about Miss USA | Arwa Mahdawi

Scandal and secret messages at Miss USA

Drama is afoot in the pageant community, after both Miss USA and Miss Teen USA recently handed back their crowns and issued cryptic statements announcing their resignations.

On Monday, Noelia Voigt, who became the first Venezuelan American woman to win Miss USA in September 2023, posted a statement on Instagram saying she was stepping down for her “mental health”. According to armchair detectives, the message also contained a hidden cry for help; it was widely observed that the first letter of the first 11 sentences of Voigt’s resignation statement spelled out “I am silenced.”

“We need to listen carefully, because someone is trying to tell us something important,” the TikTok influencer AnnaNoel Olsen said in a viral video about Voigt’s post. “I can’t even imagine how many contracts, NDAs, all the things she is under. Her putting this in there was so someone would find out.”

There certainly seems to be something rotten going on at Miss USA. Within 48 hours of Voigt’s resignation, Miss Teen USA followed suit. In an Instagram post, Miss Teen USA, UmaSofia Srivastava, said her “personal values no longer fully align with the direction of [Miss USA]”.

While Voigt and Srivastava have both been tight-lipped about what’s going on, Claudia Michelle, who resigned from her role as Miss USA’s social media director last week, has been rather more open. In a statement posted on Instagram, Michelle noted that she hadn’t signed any contracts or NDAs so was “in the position to speak on what I have witnessed”. Which, to paraphrase Michelle, is a toxic and chaotic organization that didn’t pay her for the first two months or give her the tools needed to do her job. Michelle also insinuated that Miss USA and Miss Teen USA had been treated unprofessionally by the organization and said: “I disavow workplace toxicity and bullying of any kind.”

Miss USA has responded to Michelle’s claims by saying it was “troubled to hear the false accusations made by a former Miss USA employee”.

While it’s not entirely clear what’s going on at Miss USA, the suggestion that it might be a toxic work environment hardly comes as a huge surprise. For all the guff about the pageant celebrating more than just outer beauty and being some sort of women’s empowerment organization, it’s still very much about putting women’s bodies on show. It’s hard to escape misogyny when it’s very much the core of your brand.

This, of course, also isn’t the first time the beauty pageant world has been hit by scandal – they are a regular occurrence. Last year, for example, the global organizer of the Miss Universe beauty pageant cut ties with the Indonesia franchise after several claims of sexual harassment. Organizers allegedly asked contestants to strip to their underwear to check for “scars and cellulite”.

Donald Trump, who owned the Miss Universe Organization, which includes Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, from 1996 until 2015, has also been accused of harassing contestants. A number of former Miss Teen USA contestants (some of whom were as young as 15 at the time) have said that Trump walked in on them while they were changing. Trump also publicly bragged about doing this sort of thing. “I’ll tell you the funniest is that I’ll go backstage before a show and everyone’s getting dressed,” Trump told Howard Stern. “No men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in, because I’m the owner of the pageant … and so I sort of get away with things like that.”

One reason that powerful men like Trump have been allowed to “get away with things like that” is because they know how to weaponize the law and use tools like non-disclosure agreements to shut down their victims. In recent years, spurred by the #MeToo movement, there has been a crackdown on the misuse of confidentiality clauses to protect the careers of abusers. There has been a lot of progress in this regard: including the Speak Out Act, a 2022 law limiting the enforcement of non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment disputes. Still, as the Miss USA scandal seems to show, victims of misogyny are still being silenced.

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The Guardian

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