A handful of this year’s Miss USA contestants are alleging that the organization gave preferential treatment to R’Bonney Gabriel of Texas, who made history as the first Filipina American to win the title this month.
When Gabriel’s victory was announced, Jasmine Bruce, who finished as the first runner-up in the 2021 Miss Arkansas pageant, analyzed the crowning moment in a series of TikTok videos posted last week. She noticed that some contestants appeared to leave the stage instead of congratulating the winner, something she said is unusual for the competition.
“There’s always pageants where maybe some of the girls aren’t happy with the winner — you know, everyone wants to win,” she said in an interview with NBC News. “But I’ve never seen all 50 contestants walk off stage or react the way that the contestants reacted in the background. To me, that’s very telling. These girls aren’t just upset that they didn’t win. There’s more to the story.”
The controversy over this year’s competition, which gained traction after Bruce voiced her thoughts on TikTok, has led contestants to consider what metrics are being used to award titles that purport to represent state and national ideals. Some of Gabriel’s competitors told NBC News it was not the empowering pageant they had hoped to be part of.
Miss Universe Organization ran the Miss USA competition until 2020, when The Miss Brand Corp., headed by Crystle Stewart, took over. The Miss Universe Organization said Sunday that it had decided to suspend Stewart’s leadership “immediately.”
“Miss Universe Organization will be taking over the Miss USA program while a comprehensive, third-party investigation is conducted,” it said in a statement to NBC News.
On Friday, Stewart, who is a former Miss USA and Miss Texas, said that she and her staff and pageant partners are taking the allegations “very seriously and are cooperating with the Miss Universe Organization as they investigate the allegations.”
Miss USA contestant: Gabriel’s win ‘stung’
Soon after Bruce’s video, some of Gabriel’s fellow Miss USA contestants began voicing their concerns, as well.
Ashley Ehrhart, Miss Oklahoma 2022, said it was “not a shock” to see Gabriel awarded the title.
“It stung because all week, I had thought this could go one way due to the favoritism I saw shown. However, I was still hoping and rooting for myself as a competitor … but it was no surprise,” she said in an interview.
Heather Lee O’Keefe, Miss Montana 2022, said she felt “defeated” after the winner was announced. “There was favoritism,” she said, adding that she believes the pageant is “not doing what’s best for the women who are a part of the organization.”
The contestants who spoke to NBC News did not speculate about what they think were the motivations underlying the alleged favoritism toward Gabriel or offer any reason for their suspicions. They just pointed out instances of what they described as favoritism that they saw throughout the competition.
“It stung because all week, I had thought this could go one way due to the favoritism I saw shown.”
Ashley Ehrhart, Miss Oklahoma 2022
For example, O’Keefe said, Gabriel “was allowed to do different walking patterns on stage, when we were all told to strictly follow the walking pattern that we were given to by the choreographer. She broke that rule, and they let her do it. Her coaches were allowed to sit in on the rehearsals, and anyone whose coach was outside of the Miss Academy wasn’t allowed to be there.”
Stewart, who also owns the pageant training school Miss Academy, clarified that “personnel staff volunteers” were permitted in rehearsals.
Gabriel disputed allegations of favoritism, saying her actions fell within the rules.
“We were all given the same amount of instructions, we were all given the same point to hit, and we all have different variations of what we do,” she told NBC News. “We all have the same stage time. We just had little variations within the rule.”
Stewart highlighted the limited control the competition has over what the contestants do during the live broadcast. “We encourage them to stick to the choreography that’s given to them, but sometimes some of the young ladies add an extra step or two,” she explained.
Some alums of Miss USA came to Gabriel’s defense.
“I was just at the 2022 pageant. … I understand how isolating it is to win Miss USA,” Elle Smith, who was Miss USA last year, said in a TikTok video. She argued that Gabriel was “the clear front-runner.”
“She needed to perform at Miss USA and she did exactly that,” Smith added.
She went on to criticize the 2022 contestants who took to social media to express their concerns, arguing they should have been addressed privately with the organization.
Allegations are ‘misleading,’ Stewart says
For O’Keefe, and others who have since spoken out about the competition, Gabriel’s win helped highlight underlying issues within the organization.
Miss USA, which was owned by former President Donald Trump for 19 years and ran on NBC until 2015, had previously been accused of reducing women to their appearance.
“Unless you researched the contestants online, you’d never know how talented they actually are,” Amanda Krause wrote in an opinion piece for Insider last year. “There’s nothing wrong with women wearing glamorous gowns or bikinis on stage. But Miss USA is doing a disservice to both the contestants and its viewers by not sharing anything of substance beyond that.”
Stewart described Miss USA’s mission and vision in a statement. The organization aspires to “provide resources, experiences, and opportunities to be productive and successful women.”
This year’s competitors included a Harvard grad, a Division 1 basketball player, activists for abuse survivors, and a Supreme Court intern.
Nonetheless, O’Keefe said, she’s worried that the competition is regressing back toward an appearance-based system, failing to evaluate the contestants as holistically as the organization had promised. She cited the organization’s new segment, introduced this year, called “First Impression,” in which judges evaluate the top 16 contestants and immediately “say yes or no,” O’Keefe said.
“So this is completely going against all feminist movements of looking beyond the beauty. It’s so much more than that, and I think the organization really backtracked with bringing this new First Impression round into the competition.”
Stewart said the First Impression round was enacted out of a desire to maximize the number of contestants who would be named semi-finalists, while simultaneously accounting for time constraints. She confirmed that contestants learned of its official addition to the competition “at orientation, at the beginning of the week, when it was confirmed this had to happen for timing.”
Stewart described the allegations made by this year’s contestants as “misleading.”
“As the first African American woman in this leadership role I take this position with all seriousness and regard. When I won Miss Texas USA, Miss USA and more recently, became President of the Miss USA Organization many women of color were inspired and filled with hope,” she said in her statement Friday. “I would not do not anything, such as ‘rig a competition’ that I fought so hard for to win, and jeopardize that hope. The fairness of the pageant and the well being of each and every contestant is my top priority. The allegations against the Miss USA Organization are misleading and against everything I stand for personally and professionally.”
Ehrhart emphasized that she does not question Gabriel’s victory itself. “We’re questioning the process that led to that decision,” she emphasized. “We are out to seek fairness and to seek justice for every single contestant.”
O’Keefe echoed Ehrhart, saying she and other contestants are “not bitter” about Gabriel’s win. It’s “nothing against her personally,” she said.
“We just want to make this right for the girls that are coming after us,” O’Keefe said. “Because this is not the Miss USA organization that we all looked up to as little girls. We just want it to be an empowering thing for women to be a part of and not something that they come out of feeling defeated, like how we’re all feeling right now.”
In January, Gabriel will represent the U.S. at the Miss Universe pageant. She said she remains excited about the opportunity, despite the controversy.
“I’m very grateful to be Miss USA,” she said. “It’s been a dream of mine. Obviously, it’s been kind of a rocky start. But I’m really looking forward to the year ahead and expanding on my platform.”