Dark Secrets Of The Miss USA Pageant

The following article includes mentions of mental health issues, suicide, and addiction.

Miss Texas R'Bonney Gabriel's historic win at the 2022 Miss USA pageant marked the first time a Filipina American won the coveted crown. The beauty queen also broke barriers when she became the first Asian American to earn the title of Miss Texas USA in 2021. Gabriel was excited about what her win meant for other Filipina-American women looking for representation in the media. "I'm getting messages on Instagram and just social media of Filipina women [and] girls telling me they're so excited, they're happy, they're crying tears of joy because they are inspired to go after pageantry," she gushed on "Houston Life."

During that same interview with "Houston Life," Gabriel also shared that she had to stick to a strict diet to prepare for the pageant. This is a peek into the many harsh and sometimes cringeworthy realities of beauty pageants that often go unnoticed.

The Miss USA competition has a history of shocking scandals, eyebrow-raising rules, and hidden tragedies. Still, there are arguably many more controversies that Miss USA has yet to fully acknowledge.

The pageant's strict rules are shocking

For years, the Miss USA pageant's requirements excluded women for arguably unfair reasons. Historically, these requirements resulted in a lack of diversity among contestants. Until 2022, the Miss Universe Organization, which hosts the Miss USA pageant, refused to scrap outdated rules that were put into place in 1952 when the first competition was held.

One of the most shocking requirements could be found right on the pageant's website until recent years. The site's FAQ page previously read in part (via Bustle): "No, contestants may not be married or pregnant. They must not have ever been married, not had a marriage annulled nor given birth to, or parented, a child. The titleholders are also required to remain single throughout their reign."

Thankfully, the Miss Universe Organization announced in August 2022 that it would permit mothers and married women to compete starting with the 72nd pageant in 2023. Although Miss USA pageants have revisited these requirements, this doesn't change its discriminatory history, including excluding women of color in the past. The first Black Miss USA, Carole Gist, wasn't crowned until 1990 — a whole 38 years after the first Miss USA pageant took place! But the competition has become more racially inclusive in recent years. In fact, the titles of Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss America were all held by Black women in 2019.

Miss USA 1957 Mary Leona Gage had to hide her past

Pageant contestants are all smiles on the Miss USA stage, but their cheerful demeanors often hide dark truths. This was the case for the late Mary Leona Gage, who was crowned Miss USA in 1957. Gage's title was revoked just one day later after it was discovered that she lied in order to qualify for the pageant.

As previously mentioned, mothers and wives were not eligible to compete at the time. According to The Baltimore Sun, Gage had claimed she was 21 when she was actually 18. She also hid the fact that she had been married for four years and also had two children. It turns out that the beauty queen's lies were part of an attempt to escape a difficult situation. Gage's interview with The Baltimore Sun revealed that she had been pursued by her much older husband at only 13 years old. She had hoped the Miss USA pageant would allow her to escape her home life.

After Gage lost her title, she attempted to pursue a career as an actor but was ultimately unsuccessful. She later faced mental health struggles and lost custody of her children. "There's really no way that this could have a happy ending, is there?" Gage told The Baltimore Sun decades later. "Why? Because my dream is dead — having all my children around the table at one time, and me serving them turkey and all the trimmings." Gage passed away in 2010 of heart failure at the age of 71.

2006 winner Tara Conner admitted to drug use

Miss USA contestants have to deal with the pressure of maintaining a squeaky-clean image. Tara Conner, who received the title of Miss USA in 2006, faced backlash after she failed to maintain this perfect image. Conner risked losing her title after it was revealed that she had been using drugs and drinking prior to her being of legal age. Luckily, former Miss Universe Organization co-owner Donald Trump was rather forgiving even after the scandal made headlines. "I've always been a believer in second chances," Trump said at a press conference held that December (via People). "Tara is a good person. Tara has tried hard. Tara is going to be given a second chance."

Soon after the scandal came to light, Conner checked into a rehabilitation facility to receive treatment for her substance use. The following month, she opened up to People about the extent of her experimental drug use. "Cocaine was one of the drugs that I did use," the pageant queen revealed after successfully completing treatment. "It's hard to look back at that. I was an equal-opportunity [user] — I would try anything once."

The runner-up for Miss USA 2006 Tamiko Nash would have taken over Conner's title if it was determined she was no longer eligible. Nash revealed how she felt about her competition getting a second opportunity. "If I were in this situation, I myself would want the benefit of the doubt," she told ABC News. "I would want a second chance."

Miss USA 2018 Sarah Rose Summers mocked two contestants

In 2018, the newly crowned Miss USA, Sarah Rose Summers, proved that contestants don't always get along. Summers made headlines after she took to Instagram Live to seemingly mock two other Miss Universe contestants for not speaking English fluently, per People. Both Miss Cambodia Rern Sinat and Miss Vietnam H'Hen Nie were on the receiving end of Summers' apparent torment. In the video, the pageant winner commented on both women's non-understanding of English. Summers also said, "Miss Cambodia is here and doesn't speak any English, and not a single person here speaks her language. Can you imagine? [Miss Australia Francesca Hung] said that it would be very isolating and I think yes, and just confusing all the time."

The beauty queen later took to Instagram to issue an apology, in which she suggested she didn't realize her actions were offensive at first. "In a moment where I intended to admire the courage of a few of my sisters, I said something that I now realize can be perceived as not respectful, and I apologize," she wrote in part in the caption of the December 2018 post. "My life, friendships, and career revolve around me being a compassionate and empathetic woman. I would never intend to hurt another." 

Unfortunately for Summers, her lengthy apology didn't keep the backlash at bay. If you take a look at the comments under the post, you'll see that many social media users were still disappointed in the pageant winner.

Donald Trump allegedly violated contestants' privacy

Former U.S. President Donald Trump became co-owner of the Miss Universe Organization in 1996. He moved on from the company in 2015, but only after numerous allegations of his reportedly inappropriate behavior toward contestants came to light. Miss Teen USA is affiliated with the Miss Universe Organization, and a number of former teen contestants came forward to claim that Trump had inappropriate interactions with them, as well, as reported by BuzzFeed News

Former Miss Vermont Teen USA Mariah Billado, for example, claimed that the businessman walked in on contestants in their shared dressing room. "I remember putting on my dress really quick because I was like, 'Oh my god, there's a man in here,'" she told BuzzFeed News in 2016, claiming that he then said, "'Don't worry, ladies, I've seen it all before.'" Trump himself seemed to detail similar instances during an interview on "The Howard Stern Show" back in 2005. He told Stern (via CNN), "Well, I'll tell you the funniest is that before a show, I'll go backstage and everyone's getting dressed, and everything else, and you know, no men are anywhere, and I'm allowed to go in because I'm the owner of the pageant and therefore I'm inspecting it." 

Trump displayed a questionable attitude toward the contestants once again when he complained during a 2016 interview with "Fox & Friends" (via Time) that former Miss Universe Alicia Machado "gained a massive amount of weight" following her 1997 win. He also reportedly called the Venezuelan pageant winner "Miss Housekeeping" and "Miss Piggy."

Miss USA Cheslie Kryst died by suicide

In January 2022, it was revealed that former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst died by suicide. The 2019 beauty queen's tragic death sparked conversations about mental health among beauty pageant contestants after her mother came forward to reveal she had been dealing with depression. "Cheslie led both a public and a private life," Kryst's mother, April Simpkins, said in a heartbreaking statement shared with Extra. "In her private life, she was dealing with high-functioning depression which she hid from everyone — including me, her closest confidant — until very shortly before her death."

Simpkins dropped another bombshell during an appearance on "Red Table Talk" that May. Speaking about Kyrst's past suicide attempts, she revealed, "It was after that first attempt that she and I grew very close, and I wanted her to feel comfortable calling me: 'If ever you're in crisis, call me.'" The mom also spoke about her late daughter's high-functioning depression. "Depression is not always marked by someone laying in bed or unable to do things," Simpkins said during the interview. "You know, there are people who are high functioning who can get through the day 'cause they wear the face, and we all are taught to wear that face. And Cheslie wore the face."

Contestants claimed that the 2022 pageant was rigged

The 2022 Miss USA pageant was at the center of controversy after Miss Montana Heather Lee O'Keefe took to TikTok to reveal that she and other contestants believed the competition was rigged. While Miss Texas R'Bonney Gabriel took home the crown, O'Keefe explained that she felt the win was preplanned, saying, "Most of the Miss USA contestants feel very strongly that there was favoritism towards Miss Texas USA, and we have the receipts to prove it." Miss New York Heather Nunez chimed into the conversation via Instagram Stories. "The way I entered this pageant and gave it every last bit of my heart and soul," she wrote in part (via the New York Post). "We were humiliated, thinking we entered something with a fair chance."

In a separate TikTok video, O'Keefe pointed out that Gabriel received services from NIZUC Spa, which is affiliated with Miss USA sponsor Mia Beaute, in July 2022. According to the Miss USA website, the pageant winner receives complementary services from Mia Beaute as part of their prize package; However, O'Keefe alleged that Gabriel visited the company's spa before she was even crowned Miss USA that October, which she suggested was proof the winner was chosen in advance.

Another former contestant, Jasmine Jones, shared a series of TikTok videos in which she claimed that competitors seemed uninterested after Gabriel was announced as the new Miss USA, further alleging that this showcased how something seemed off with the pageant. Both Gabriel and the Miss USA Organization have since denied the rigging allegations.

A pageant manager quit due to 'workplace toxicity'

Amidst accusations of rigging and concerns over contestant mental health issues, the Miss USA pageant's reputation was further tarnished when its social media manager, Claudia Michelle, quit on May 3, 2024, blaming an unhealthy work environment for her departure. In a statement released on her social media, Michelle lamented over not being compensated for her work during the first two months of her tenure and that she wasn't allowed a budget to hire any employees for the social media team.

But Michelle was particularly livid over her belief that management was stifling Miss USA title-holder Noelia Voigt and Miss Teen USA champion UmaSofia Srivastava. "I believe Noella and Uma's mental health and happiness has taken a toll and I cannot remain silent about that," wrote Michelle on Instagram. "I feel the way current management speaks about their titleholders is unprofessional and inappropriate; I disavow workplace toxicity and bullying of any kind."

Jumping in to perform damage control, Miss USA president and CEO Laylah Rose quickly issued a response. "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," Rose said in a statement to People. "Please be assured that the well-being of all individuals associated with Miss USA is my top priority." However, Rose quickly discovered she had more immediate fires to put out.

Miss USA steps down, claiming mental health issues

Two days after Miss USA's social media manager made her public exit from the pageant, 2023's Miss USA tiara recipient, Noelia Voigt, cut short her year-long reign by five months. She announced her sudden retirement on May 5, 2024, declaring that mental health problems were responsible for her decision. "Never compromise your physical and mental well-being," she wrote on her Instagram. "Our health is our wealth." An accompanying statement on her post seemed innocuous enough, until some social media sleuths decoded her entry after discovering that the first letter of each sentence in her announcement spelled out, "I AM SILENCED." 

The decoded phrase proved to be prophetic when Voigt's resignation letter from the organization leaked, accusing the pageant of facilitating a hostile domain that hampered her duties as Miss USA. "There is a toxic work environment within the Miss USA organization that, at best, is poor management and, at worst, is bullying and harassment," wrote Voigt (via NBC News). "This started soon after winning the title of Miss USA 2023."

Far less brazen was a rather cordial statement posted on social media, credited to Miss USA and its president and CEO, Laylah Rose, that wished Voigt all the best. "We respect and support Noelia's decision to step down from her duties," read the statement on Instagram. "The well-being of our titleholders is a top priority, and we understand her need to prioritize herself at this time."

A clash in values kiboshes Miss Teen USA's tenure

The Miss USA organization took yet another hit when another individual associated with the organization also jumped ship. In this case, it was the reigning Miss Teen USA herself, UmaSofia Srivastava, who gave up her sash and crown on May 9, 2024. "After careful consideration, I've decided to resign as I find that my personal values no longer fully align with the direction of the organization," she said in a statement posted on her Instagram. Srivastava didn't specify the nature of that divergence, but the fact that she was the third highly-publicized individual to leave the pageant in less than a week ramped up speculation that things were not going well within the institution.

One reason why both Srivastava and the recently-departed Miss USA titleholder, Noelia Voigt, haven't elaborated on their sudden retirements most likely has to do with the non-disclosure agreements they signed with the pageant, according to its former social media manager. "Having not signed any contracts or NDA's, I feel as if I am in the position to speak on what I have witnessed," said Claudia Michelle, who left the organization earlier in May, on Instagram.

While Michelle didn't reveal any examples, others hope that the former titleholders will be able to speak out. A day before Srivastava left, a group of former Miss USA contestants demanded that the organization trash Voigt's NDA. "Our goal is to give Noelia her voice back," read the statement on Instagram.

If you or anyone you know needs help with mental health, is struggling or in crisis, or needs help with addiction issues, contact the relevant resources below: