Inside the bombshell scandal that prompted two Miss USAs to step down (2024)

There’s a new Miss USA in town. On Wednesday, Miss Hawaii USA Savannah Gankiewicz took the crown in a ceremony in Honolulu, Hawaii. Gankiweicz was originally named first runner-up in last year’s pageant, but she became Miss USA after her predecessor Noelia Voigt stepped down in a moment of unprecedented turmoil for the Miss USA Organization.

Since Miss USA was established in 1952, no titleholder has ever before voluntarily stepped down. Last week, both Voigt and Miss Teen USA UmaSofia Srivastava resigned their titles, a mere three months before their reigns end. It’s a moment that’s raising major questions about the pageant’s increasingly troubled image.

In her resignation letter, portions of which leaked to the press, 24-year-old Voigt describes a “toxic work environment” within the Miss USA Organization that has badly affected her physical and mental health. She adds that she is now in treatment for anxiety and that she’s experienced “heart palpitations, full body shakes, loss of appetite, unintentional weight loss, loss of sleep, loss of hair, and more.”

Voigt kept things less explicit, however, in her public announcement, which took the form of a cryptic Instagram post published days before. “Deep down I know that this is just the beginning of a new chapter for me, and my hope is that I continue to inspire others to remain steadfast, prioritize your mental health, advocate for yourself and others by using your voice, and never be afraid of what the future holds, even if it feels uncertain,” Voigt wrote.

Seventeen-year-old UmaSofia Srivastava posted her own note to Instagram, saying, “My personal values no longer fully align with the direction of the organization.”

The unsettling implication sent fans scrambling for more information —as did the revelation that Voigt’s post might have contained a secret message. The capital letters of the first 11 sentences in her statement spell out the words “I AM SILENCED,” leading observers to speculate that there’s a lot Voigt would like to say if not for a nondisclosure agreement — including, perhaps, the statements she made in her leaked resignation letter.

“People are under these ironclad NDAs at the moment,” says pageant coach and 2018 Miss Montana USA Dani Walker in a phone call to Vox. Walker, who makes YouTube videos about the internal politics of the pageant world and is friendly with the titleholders, says that she’s been contacted by multiple inside sources who have information she can’t publish online because of those NDAs. “I do, however, know that there are people working in the background trying to find loopholes that are going to allow these people to speak out, to really give everybody the full picture,” she says.

The Miss USA Organization responded to Voigt and Srivastava’s resignations on Instagram by saying that it considered the well-being of its titleholders a “top priority” and that it would be announcing a successor soon but did not answer allegations of a toxic workplace. The organization did not respond to a request for comment from Vox. Meanwhile, many of the state titleholders who competed alongside Voigt in the 2023 Miss USA pageant have released statements of their own standing behind Voigt and calling on the organization to release her from her NDA, “so that she is free to speak on her experiences.”

In her acceptance speech Wednesday, Gankiewicz said that her decision to take the crown was “not made lightly.”

“With my background as a certified mental health first aid responder and training in anti-bullying suicide prevention, I understand the importance of prioritizing your well-being and advocating for those in need,” Gankiewicz said. “I believe that the true change starts from within and I am determined to lead by example and empower the class of 2024 and beyond.”

The Miss USA pageant has been dogged by controversy over the past few years, from the notoriety of former owner Donald Trump to the release of the damning New York Times-produced documentary How to Fix a Pageant last September. For those enmeshed in the pageant world, Voigt’s and Srivastava’s consecutive resignations come as less of a shock and more as confirmation of what they have long suspected: Something is going very wrong inside the Miss USA Organization.

The Miss USA resignations are happening amid toxic workplace allegations

This month’s first resignation from the Miss USA Organization didn’t come from Voigt or Srivastava. It came from social media director Claudia Michelle, who stepped down from her post on May 3. In a candid Instagram post, Michelle made multiple allegations of mistreatment in the workplace. One of them was that unnamed others at the organization used the official social media accounts behind her back, deleting negative comments and blocking critics. That allegation was corroborated by Walker, who was one of the blocked parties, and said in a YouTube video that she spoke with Michelle about it.

Michelle also wrote that Srivastava and her family had been treated with disrespect. “I feel the way current management speaks about their titleholders is unprofessional and inappropriate; I disavow workplace toxicity and bullying of any kind,” Michelle wrote.

The three women all quit within a week of each other: Michelle on Friday, followed by Voigt on Monday and Srivastava on Wednesday. According to the New York Post, they agreed to quit together and coordinated their resignation announcements.

Michelle declined to provide details about the workplace toxicity and bullying she says she witnessed, but many of those affiliated with the Miss USA pageants have publicly speculated about mistreatment by organization president Laylah Rose.

“Laylah Rose leads by fear and has scared or threatened them into silence,” wrote 1994 Miss Oregon USA Denise White in the comments of Voigt’s post, also alleging the use of NDAs.

“When people ask me how we got here, I have no good answer —except that Laylah did say that she wanted to make history,” Walker said on YouTube, in a response to the news of Srivastava’s resignation.

Thom Brodeur, Voigt’s pageant coach, also criticized Rose’s leadership of the Miss USA Organization in a phone call with Vox. “She’s now on her fourth [management] team in a year, and she has an unprecedented two national titleholder resignations,” he said. “This never happened in the 72-year history of this organization. They’re both gone. So somewhere, at some point, somebody has to look at the leader and go, ‘Gosh, there’s an awful lot of smoke. How come there’s a fire in your house?’ There’s something going on here that isn’t working, and it can’t be all of those other people.”

Voigt’s resignation letter, obtained by NBC, describes Rose as cold and threatening. In the letter, Voigt says Rose threatened to take away Voigt’s salary for minor issues that were never clearly communicated to her. Voigt alleges that when she was scheduled to throw the opening pitch at a baseball game, Rose said she hoped Voigt would be hit in the face by a ball.

In a statement to NBC, Rose said that “the well-being of all individuals associated with Miss USA is my top priority.”

“All along, my personal goal as the head of this organization has been to inspire women to always create new dreams, have the courage to explore it all, and continue to preserve integrity along the way. I hold myself to these same high standards and I take these allegations seriously,” she said.

Brodeur says that the leaked excerpts from the resignation letter match his understanding of Voigt’s relationship with Rose. He adds that he had the original letter read to him and that the full letter is seven pages long. “The stuff that NBC captured is literally the scratching of the surface,” he says. “It goes deeper and it goes a little darker.”

While Srivastava’s resignation letter has not been made public, evidence suggests she was not spared Rose’s wrath either. According to an anonymous source who spoke to the New York Post, Rose treated Srivastava so badly that Srivastava’s parents refused to let her speak directly to their daughter.

In a series of YouTube videos made before the resignations, Walker also alleges that Rose was forbidden to speak to Srivastava directly. Walker adds that she noticed what appeared to be a bizarre form of revenge from the organization in the aftermath. Its official social media accounts began to post congratulations to the pageant runners-up who outscored the official titleholders in various events during the pageant months earlier.

“It’s a really subtle jab to say, ‘Hey, by the way, yes you won the pageant, but you didn’t win Interview. And you didn’t win Evening Gown,’” said Walker in her video. “These are subtle jabs at these titleholders on a really public platform. It’s inappropriate.”

The Post’s source alleges that the organization heavily policed the behavior of titleholders. “Noelia wakes up every day on pins and needles because of harassing emails [from pageant organizers]: ‘Don’t do this,’ ‘Don’t do that,’ ‘Take that post down,’ ‘Unlike that post.’ ‘You can’t speak to anybody, remember your NDA, you can’t go here unless we confirm,’” the source said. The source also alleged that Rose posted to social media under Voigt’s and Srivastava’s names without their approval.

According to both the New York Post’s source and comments made by Voigt on social media, the organization also failed to provide Voigt with the apartment in Manhattan or Los Angeles that is traditionally a part of Miss USA’s compensation package. Five months into her reign, they arranged for her to live in Florida instead.

Walker notes in her videos that under Rose’s leadership, Miss USA has not been appearing at prestigious events like New York Fashion Week or the Kentucky Derby, as is typical. Instead, she’s been making comparatively small-time appearances for pageant sponsors like Supermodels Unlimited. “She literally went about an entire month without appearances,” Walker said in her video. “I’ve never heard of this happening.”

In a phone call with Vox, Walker explained that access to those kinds of events is one of the major draws of being Miss USA. “Miss America is known primarily for their scholarships,” Walker said. If Miss America is a students competition, Miss USA is a competition for a career woman: “They’re provided salary and access to prestigious events.”

The most damning claims about Rose appear in both the Post’s account and Voigt’s leaked resignation letter. The story goes that when Voigt attended a Christmas parade for the organization last year, she was harassed by a man who was riding in a car with her. When Voigt complained to Rose, according to the resignation letter, Rose responded, “We cannot prevent people saying things to you at public appearances, it is, unfortunately, part of the role you’re in as a public figure.” Two people who Voigt confided in about the incident confirmed the story to Vox.

Rose is a relatively new addition to the Miss USA Organization, joining as president in 2023 after working as a fashion designer. Controversy, however, is not new to Miss USA.

Miss USA’s sleazy history

For many Americans, Miss USA is probably best known for being the beauty pageant Donald Trump used to own (the one that’s not Miss America). Trump’s role in the pageant became part of the news cycle during his 2016 campaign for president, when former contestants alleged that he used to walk backstage to ogle them while they were undressed.

Trump was forced to sell the Miss Universe franchise (Miss USA’s parent organization) due to legal complications after he made a series of racist comments about undocumented immigrants during his first campaign event in 2015. He sold it in 2016 to talent agency WME-IMG, but the new ownership came with its own problems. WME-IMG sold the franchise in 2022 to Thailand-based JKN Global Group, and one year later, JKN filed for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, in 2022, contestants claimed that then-president Crystle Stewart had rigged the competition for the eventual winner. But the allegations under Stewart’s reign didn’t end there. In a series of TikToks, 2022 Miss Montana USA Heather O’Keefe listed her grievances. She and her fellow contestants were confined to a resort for the week of the competition with barely any access to the outdoors, O’Keefe claimed. The organization forced them to pay for all of their own expenses, including the T-shirts they were required to wear on camera.

In 2023, FX released the New York Times-produced documentary How to Fix a Pageant. The documentary centered on the alleged cheating scandal of 2022, but it also made more explosive claims. Former contestants featured in the documentary claimed Max Sebrechts, at the time vice president of Miss USA and married to Stewart, sexually harassed them. Sebrechts stepped down shortly after the news broke. Stewart also resigned in 2022, and was replaced by Rose.

In our current cultural moment, when beauty pageants are frequently considered passé, the official line from the people who love them is that pageants exist to empower women. “We are more than just a pageant,” says the “about” page on the Miss USA website. “We are a community of empowered women who are committed to making a difference in the world.”

“Pageants are one of the very rare and few places where we teach young women life skills,” says Walker. “Most important is poise, confidence, the ability to interview and speak on stage. Those life skills are very applicable and transferable to many things that you want to do in life outside of pageantry. That is the point. That is why we exist. Sure, the crowns and the sashes, they’re fun. But that’s not the point of what we’re doing here. We’re actually creating a platform that is taking young women to the next level.”

For critics like Walker and Brodeur, empowerment is the sticking point here. “Step down,” says Brodeur, rhetorically addressing Rose, “because you have now shown yourself ill-equipped to run this organization. You are not a woman that empowers other women.”

According to Rose’s critics, the Miss USA Organization has betrayed one of its fundamental promises. Instead of giving young women the confidence to build bigger lives for themselves, the organization has instead asked its young contestants to pour enormous amounts of time and money into perfecting their appearance for a corporate structure that harasses them, exploits them, and then instructs them not to complain.

“Our titleholders work very hard,” says Walker. “They deserve respect and they deserve to feel like they’re working in a safe space and that this title is worth all of that effort.”

Otherwise, who exactly is Miss USA empowering?

Update, May 16, 10:25 am ET: This story was originally published on May 10. It has been updated to include news of the new Miss USA crowning.

Inside the bombshell scandal that prompted two Miss USAs to step down (2024)

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