Miss USA resignation scandal pulls back curtain on pageant industry struggles

The sudden resignations of Miss USA and Miss Teen USA have triggered a fresh wave of scrutiny into the pageants’ owner, the Miss Universe Organization, as it continues to navigate what some close to the pageants see as an uncertain future.

Beauty pageants, with a history in the U.S. that stretches back to the 19th century, have in recent decades struggled to maintain relevance as cultural norms have shifted. The Miss America pageant, the main rival to the Miss Universe Organization, has similarly had to figure out how to counter declining TV ratings and its own leadership scandal.

Years of leadership turmoil and shake-ups at the Miss Universe Organization, which has both U.S. and Thailand-based ownership, preceded the current controversy. In 2023, after Miss Universe owner JKN Global Group filed for bankruptcy, its longtime president resigned. Her replacement then resigned in February. In 2020, the Miss Universe Organization handed the reins of the Miss USA pageant to a former titleholder, Crystle Stewart. After favoritism allegations shook up the 2022 competition, fashion designer Laylah Rose replaced Stewart. 

And before that, in 2015, NBCUniversal ended its relationship with the pageants after then-Miss Universe owner and presidential candidate Donald Trump accused Mexico of sending criminals and rapists over the border. NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News.

Now, UmaSofia Srivastava’s resignation as Miss Teen USA, coming just two days after Noelia Voigt’s resignation as Miss USA, has brought fresh attention on Rose, another blow for an organization that has struggled.

“I feel like they’ve already been on unstable ground,” said Dani Walker, a former Miss Montana who competed in Miss USA. “We’re in this age that’s filled with influencers and reality-TV stars and we have Hollywood, we literally have the biggest stars in the world. Those are the reasons pageantry in the United States struggles to stay relevant.”

Walker, who first chronicled her pageant journey on YouTube and has since shifted to covering news and providing commentary on the pageant industry for over 130,000 subscribers, has also documented the recent fallout within the organization. She said U.S. pageantry has undergone a major cultural shift over the past decade, too, with the competition evolving from judging mainly physical beauty to including public speaking skills and a focus on diversity and advocacy. She pointed to the recent success of many former Miss USA contestants, who have gone on to hold careers in entertainment and business.

One of the underlying factors in the turmoil seems to be financial. Claudia Michelle, the former social media manager for Miss USA, shared in her resignation statement that she wasn’t paid for two months. In an interview with NBC News, Michelle said she was told by a Miss USA employee upon being hired in January that “this organization has no money” and couldn’t pay her.

“I wasn’t really an employee. There was no contract signed, there was no onboarding, there was no salary and benefits,” Michelle said. “It’s a testament to how much I love this brand, I was willing to take this on pro bono.”

“This is the leading pageant organization in our country,” Michelle added. “They’re getting low numbers of girls and they’ve already had so many girls step down from this pageant because of this news.”

Other resignations also point to challenges within the organization.

NBC News obtained a copy of Voigt’s resignation letter, in which she pointed to the cultural challenges the organization faces. In the letter, Voigt also accused Rose, the Miss USA CEO and president, of unprofessional and toxic conduct that she said included failing to meet contractual duties, bullying Voigt and lying about Voigt to other people within Miss USA. Rose, who took over Miss USA in 2022, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I’m sure I don’t need to tell you all that pageants have been struggling to stay relevant,” Voigt wrote in her resignation letter. “People are coming to me and others who know me saying they’re nervous about competing in the USA system because they see the mess that’s happening, they see the devaluing of the brand, and they’d rather invest their time and money in more stable organizations with stronger partnerships.”

Shanna Moakler, the 1995 Miss USA and a former reality-TV star who now serves as a state director in the Miss USA organization, posted on Instagram in support of Voigt and about the organization’s turmoil.

“I can’t speak for all State Directors, but I feel confident to speak for the majority; we are not sitting silently; we are working our best behind the scenes to ensure the future of an organization we love dearly,” Moakler wrote.

In light of the current controversies, Walker has encouraged her followers in the pageant community to hold off from competing in Miss USA. It was “heartbreaking” advice to give, inspired in part by what Walker said are increasingly restrictive nondisclosure agreements Miss USA titleholders must sign. When Voigt resigned, the first letter in each sentence of her public statement spelled out “I am silenced.”

“I care about the young women I work with and I wanted to give them a heads up and a little warning of what they’re getting into,” Walker said. “I don’t feel like the Laylah Rose era in its current state is sustainable.”

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