Zodiac Sign · May 17, 2024

A fresh Miss USA has emerged. Miss Hawaii USA Savannah Gankiewicz claimed the title in a ceremony held in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Wednesday. Gankiewicz, who was initially named the first runner-up in last year's pageant, ascended to the role of Miss USA after her predecessor Noelia Voigt relinquished her crown amidst unprecedented turmoil within the Miss USA Organization.

In the history of Miss USA since its establishment in 1952, there has never been an instance where a titleholder voluntarily stepped down. However, last week marked a significant departure from this norm, as both Noelia Voigt and Miss Teen USA UmaSofia Srivastava resigned from their positions, just three months before the conclusion of their reigns. This development has sparked considerable scrutiny regarding the pageant's increasingly tarnished reputation.

In excerpts from her resignation letter, which were leaked to the press, 24-year-old Voigt details a "toxic work environment" within the Miss USA Organization that has significantly impacted her physical and mental well-being. She discloses that she is currently undergoing treatment for anxiety, citing symptoms such as "heart palpitations, full body shakes, loss of appetite, unintentional weight loss, loss of sleep, loss of hair, and more."

Voigt maintained a more veiled approach in her public announcement, which was in the form of a cryptic Instagram post published several days prior. "Deep down, I recognize that this marks the start of a new chapter for me. My aspiration is to persist in inspiring others to stand firm, prioritize their mental well-being, advocate for themselves and others by speaking up, and embrace the future without fear, even amidst uncertainty," Voigt expressed.

UmaSofia Srivastava, aged seventeen, shared her own message on Instagram, stating, "My personal values no longer completely coincide with the direction of the organization."

The disturbing implication spurred fans to seek further details — especially with the disclosure that Voigt's post may have concealed a hidden message. The capitalized letters of the initial 11 sentences in her statement spell out the phrase "I AM SILENCED," prompting onlookers to speculate that Voigt may have much to express if not for a nondisclosure agreement — potentially including the sentiments outlined in her leaked resignation letter.

"People are currently bound by these stringent NDAs," remarks pageant coach and 2018 Miss Montana USA Dani Walker in a conversation with Vox over the phone. Walker, who creates YouTube content delving into the inner workings of the pageant sphere and maintains friendships with titleholders, shares that she has been approached by numerous insiders who possess information she cannot share online due to these NDAs. "Nevertheless, I am aware that there are individuals working behind the scenes to uncover loopholes that would enable these individuals to speak out and provide everyone with a comprehensive understanding," she adds.

In response to Voigt and Srivastava's resignations, the Miss USA Organization took to Instagram, affirming that it considers the well-being of its titleholders a "top priority" and announcing plans to name successors soon. However, it refrained from addressing the allegations of a toxic workplace. Despite a request for comment from Vox, the organization did not provide a response. Meanwhile, numerous state titleholders who participated alongside Voigt in the 2023 Miss USA pageant have issued statements of support, advocating for Voigt's release from her NDA "so that she is free to share her experiences."

In a measured acceptance speech on Wednesday, Gankiewicz acknowledged the weight of the crown. "This wasn't an easy decision," she confessed. "As a certified mental health first aid responder and anti-bullying suicide prevention advocate, I know the importance of self-care and supporting those who struggle." Gankiewicz continued, "Real change comes from within. I'm committed to leading by example and uplifting the Class of 2024 and future generations."

The Miss USA pageant has faced a barrage of challenges in recent years. The shadow of its former owner, Donald Trump, still lingers, and last September's scathing New York Times documentary, "How to Fix a Pageant," exposed further issues. For pageant insiders, the resignations of Voigt and Srivastava were less surprising than confirmatory - a stark validation of longstanding suspicions about dysfunction within the Miss USA Organization.

The first resignation from the Miss USA Organization this month didn't originate from Voigt or Srivastava, but rather from social media director Claudia Michelle, who resigned from her position on May 3rd. In a candid Instagram post, Michelle made several accusations of workplace mistreatment, including claims that unnamed individuals within the organization had been operating the official social media accounts without her knowledge, deleting negative comments, and blocking critics. This allegation was supported by Walker, who revealed in a YouTube video that she had conversed with Michelle regarding the matter after being one of the individuals blocked.

Michelle further alleged a lack of respect towards titleholders, particularly UmaSofia Srivastava and her family. "Management's unprofessional and inappropriate conduct towards contestants is unacceptable," she wrote, condemning "workplace bullying and toxicity in all forms."

The swift resignations – Michelle on Friday, followed by Voigt on Monday and Srivastava on Wednesday within the same week – suggest a coordinated effort.

While Michelle refrained from elaborating on the alleged workplace toxicity, fingers point towards Miss USA president Laylah Rose. Public figures associated with the pageant have spoken out, painting a picture of a hostile environment under Rose's leadership.

Denise White, Miss Oregon USA 1994, commented on Voigt's post, alleging Rose's use of fear tactics and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence critics. YouTuber Sarah Walker, reacting to Srivastava's resignation, expressed confusion at the organization's state, hinting at Rose's potential role.

Adding fuel to the fire, Voigt's pageant coach, Thom Brodeur, slammed Rose's leadership in a phone interview. He highlighted Rose's high staff turnover and the unprecedented resignations of two national titleholders. "There's an awful lot of smoke," Brodeur stated, implying a direct connection between Rose's leadership and the turmoil. He further claimed leaked excerpts from Voigt's resignation letter, a seven-page document, only hint at the severity of the situation.

The letter, according to NBC, portrays Rose as cold and threatening. Voigt alleges Rose threatened pay cuts for minor issues and even expressed a malicious hope of Voigt being struck by a baseball during a public appearance. Rose, in a statement, maintained her commitment to the well-being of Miss USA affiliates and denied wrongdoing. However, Brodeur asserts the leaked excerpts merely scratch the surface, suggesting a darker reality.

While Srivastava's resignation letter remains private, evidence suggests she also faced Rose's harsh treatment. An anonymous source for the New York Post claims Rose's behavior towards Srivastava was so severe that Srivastava's parents limited their daughter's communication with her.

In a sequence of YouTube videos produced prior to the resignations, Walker further asserts that Rose was prohibited from directly communicating with Srivastava. Walker additionally observes what she perceives as a peculiar form of retaliation from the organization in the aftermath. Official social media accounts began posting congratulations to the pageant runners-up who had outperformed the official titleholders in various events during the pageant months earlier.

An anonymous source for the New York Post revealed a culture of strict control exerted on the titleholders. The source described constant nitpicking emails dictating their actions and limitations, coupled with threats of NDA enforcement and restricted communication. Allegedly, Rose even went so far as to post on social media accounts belonging to Voigt and Srivastava without their consent.

Adding to the discontent, both the source and Voigt's social media comments suggest the organization failed to deliver a promised Manhattan or Los Angeles apartment, a standard part of the Miss USA compensation package. Instead, after five months, Voigt was relocated to Florida.

Walker further highlighted a noticeable decline in prestigious event appearances under Rose's leadership. Prior to her tenure, Miss USA typically attended events like New York Fashion Week or the Kentucky Derby. Instead, Rose focused on promoting pageant sponsors at smaller venues. "She literally went about an entire month without appearances," Walker stated, emphasizing the significance of such events for career-oriented Miss USA contestants.

The most serious accusations come from The Post and Voigt's leaked resignation letter. During a Christmas parade, Voigt was allegedly harassed by a fellow passenger in a car. When she reported the incident to Rose, the response, according to the letter, was dismissive – "part of the role" as a public figure. Two individuals Voigt confided in corroborated this story to Vox.

Miss USA is perhaps most widely recognized by many Americans as the beauty pageant formerly owned by Donald Trump (distinguished from Miss America). Trump's involvement with the pageant gained prominence during his 2016 presidential campaign, particularly when former contestants alleged that he would enter backstage areas to observe them while they were changing.

Trump was compelled to divest himself of the Miss Universe franchise (the parent organization of Miss USA) due to legal entanglements after he made a series of racially charged remarks about undocumented immigrants during his initial campaign event in 2015. He sold the franchise in 2016 to the talent agency WME-IMG, but the transition in ownership brought its own set of challenges. In 2022, WME-IMG sold the franchise to the Thailand-based JKN Global Group, yet within one year, JKN filed for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, controversy swirled within the organization. In 2022, accusations of a rigged competition and contestant exploitation surfaced. Miss Montana USA, Heather O'Keefe, took to TikTok, detailing confinement, limited access to the outdoors, and financial burdens placed on contestants.

Adding fuel to the fire, the 2023 documentary "How to Fix a Pageant" unearthed sexual harassment allegations against then-vice president Max Sebrechts. Sebrechts resigned shortly after, followed by president Crystle Stewart in 2022.

This turmoil comes at a time when pageants are increasingly seen as outdated. Yet, the Miss USA website promotes itself as a platform for empowered women.

"We are more than just a pageant," it declares. Supporters like Sarah Walker echo this sentiment, emphasizing the development of life skills like poise and public speaking.

However, critics like Walker and Thom Brodeur question this narrative.

"Step down," Brodeur urges Rose, the current president. "You have shown yourself ill-equipped ... You are not a woman that empowers other women."

The core issue, according to critics, is a betrayal of the organization's promise. Instead of empowering women, Miss USA allegedly exploits them, demanding exorbitant investments in appearance for a profit-driven system that disregards their well-being.

"Our titleholders work very hard," says Walker. They deserve a safe space and a title worth the effort."

The question remains: who, if anyone, is Miss USA truly empowering?

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