What really happened inside Miss USA?

Accusations of racism, sexual harassment and rigging have plagued the organization in recent years, but no reigning titleholder has ever quit. Then Miss USA and Miss Teen USA resigned in the same week.

Laylah Rose says she won her first pageant at age 2. With dark, glossy hair and a measured smile, she went on to enter many more. Yet, even as a girl, she dreamed of something bigger. Rose didn’t only want to wear a sash, as her mother and grandmother had done before her: She wanted to run Miss USA.

Last summer, Rose, 45, whose legal name is Laylah Loiczly, finally achieved that goal. In an email, she said she saw “opportunities to improve, enhance and in many ways repair the iconic brand.”

Those repairs were sorely needed. In recent years, Miss USA has weathered allegations of racism and sexual harassment, and has passed from owner to owner — one of them being Donald Trump. The 2022 suicide of Miss USA 2019 sent the organization reeling. In 2023, Rose’s predecessor was suspended after accusations of pageant rigging.

(Jeff Bottari | AP) In this June 16, 2013, file photo, Donald Trump, left, and Miss Connecticut USA Erin Brady pose onstage after Brady won the 2013 Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas.

In her first months in charge of the pageant, Rose got to work. (She bought the rights to manage Miss USA for an initial payment of $1.5 million, according to a preliminary deal document.) She helped secure a multiyear deal with The CW to broadcast the Miss USA pageant for the first time since 2016. In an interview, Renato Basile, a Hollywood producer she hired to work on the production, credited her with “bringing the luster back to Miss USA and Miss Teen.”

But less than a year into Rose’s tenure as the president and CEO of the organization, the reigning Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, Noelia Voigt, who is from Utah, and UmaSofia Srivastava, stepped down within days of each other. In the pageant’s seven-decade history, no winner had ever quit.

Careful observers identified what they believe to be a secret message hidden in Voigt’s Instagram post announcing her resignation: “I AM SILENCED.”

Read more: Utah’s Miss USA cited sexual harassment, ‘toxic work environment’ in resignation, report says

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Miss USA Noelia Voigt at Arempas in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.

The departures rocked the pageant world, but were less than shocking to those who knew Rose. In interviews with over two dozen pageant insiders, several people familiar with Rose said she had a tendency to overpromise and under-deliver. They recalled frequent staff turnover, describing her as abrasive and self-obsessed. Several people said the environment she created at the organization was toxic.

“I’m not surprised that Noelia stepped down,” Kimberly Nicewonder, the longtime director of the Virginia pageants, said of the former Miss USA. “I just thought it would have happened sooner.”

Disillusioned with the crown

Some of the problems simmering inside Miss USA were garden-variety for a tightknit professional community: There was interpersonal conflict, dysfunction and disappointment with a new leader who suddenly seemed to turn everything upside down. But many of the participants and state directors — who run the state-level pageants that send their winners to the Miss USA event — felt those issues exposed deeper tensions within an institution at odds with its own stated mission of women’s empowerment.

For decades, the Miss USA pageant was a splashy, televised affair with hosts including Dick Clark, Bob Barker and Andy Cohen. The winners were proto-influencers, traveling the country to promote personal causes and appearing on red carpets. Some used the pageant as a springboard to professional careers, such as Shawn Weatherly, Miss USA 1980, who went on to star in “Baywatch.” Halle Berry placed as first runner-up in 1986.

The pageant, however, has lost cultural relevance in recent years.

“Interest in Miss USA is way, way down from where it was in the last century and even earlier in this century,” said Hilary Levey Friedman, author of “Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America.”

“There are just so many more opportunities for women now than there were in the ‘50s,” she said.

Voigt was frustrated by what happened after she accepted the glittering crown last September, according to her mother, Jackeline Voigt. Through a representative, Noelia Voigt declined to be interviewed, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

The new Miss USA began making the typical preparations for the Miss Universe pageant, which was being held that November in El Salvador. In the past, the director of Miss USA had accompanied the winner to the global event. Voigt expected that Rose would do the same.

But Rose did not attend the event. Instead, Jackeline Voigt accompanied her daughter to the pageant on her own dime. (Rose said she did not attend because of a family matter.)

When Voigt and her mother returned to the United States, they ran into more problems. As part of her title, Voigt expected to receive a $100,000 salary, a luxury car and an apartment in Los Angeles to live in for the duration of her reign. It seemed like a reasonable expectation: During the televised broadcast of Miss USA, one of the hosts rattled off a list of prizes the winner would receive, including an apartment and a car. Rose said in an email that while Voigt’s contract included a salary, the other prizes were not guaranteed.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Miss USA Noelia Voigt at Arempas in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.

Still, in December, Rose told Voigt the organization had secured her a new apartment, according to Jackeline Voigt. When it never materialized, Voigt, who had already moved out of her apartment in Utah, ended up crashing with friends and family. She confided in her pageant coach, Thom Brodeur, about her housing situation. He jokingly called her “the homeless Miss USA,” Brodeur said.

Finally, in March, Miss USA provided Voigt with a car and a place to live in Miami.

It wasn’t enough. Two months later, Voigt resigned. In her internal resignation letter, obtained by The New York Times, she detailed the allegations about not receiving her apartment and car in a timely manner. She wrote that being Miss USA had affected her health, adding that she struggled with anxiety and took medication to manage her symptoms.

She also described an incident of sexual harassment when, during a Christmas parade last year in Sarasota, Florida, the driver of her car made an inappropriate comment. He asked her if she was “into old men with money,” Jackeline Voigt said her daughter had told her. In her resignation letter, Voigt wrote that the organization failed to support her when she reported the incident.

In late May, Rose replied to Voigt in a 10-page letter obtained by the Times. In it, Rose denied Voigt’s accusations and accused her of carrying out a “smear campaign” against the organization. Rose wrote that she “immediately” discussed the incident at the Christmas parade with Voigt after being made aware of it.

“You indicated you did not need or want to seek redress,” Rose wrote.

Srivastava, the Miss Teen USA, had her own tensions with the Miss USA organization — and with Rose specifically. Her mother, Barbara Srivastava, said in an interview that Rose could be abrasive in emails with her then-16-year-old daughter. (Rose described her communication style as “professional and appropriate.”) The younger Srivastava declined to comment because of a nondisclosure agreement.

Barbara Srivastava said she eventually asked Rose to stop communicating with her daughter altogether: “I said, ‘I don’t want that woman bullying my daughter.’”

Rose would also use the official Miss USA and Miss Teen USA Instagram accounts to leave positive comments about herself, which were made to look as if they were written by Voigt and Srivastava, said Claudia Michelle Engelhardt, who stepped down from her role as social media director for Miss USA in May. Rose denied this claim.

Srivastava’s parents felt unsure about how to handle the situation. Unlike many competing in Miss Teen USA, their daughter was relatively new to the pageant world. They had no idea what to expect when she won.

In March, Barbara Srivastava called Mario Bucaro, the vice president for international relations at Miss Universe, which oversees Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. She and her husband had several video calls with Rose and Bucaro, in hopes that the organization might address how their daughter was being treated.

The meetings, while cordial, didn’t accomplish much, Barbara Srivastava said. She recalled that Bucaro, a former Guatemalan diplomat, praised her daughter and said the organization could help with her dreams of attending Harvard University.

“‘She’s everything that a Miss USA and a Miss Universe should be,’” Barbara Srivastava recalled being told in one meeting.

The ‘Fyre Fest’ of pageants

It wasn’t only the winners who felt wronged by Rose. Some state directors said they were put off when Rose did not ask them to introduce themselves in their first meeting together. (All current state directors interviewed for this article were granted anonymity because they feared retaliation by Rose.)

Soon after, Rose informed the directors that their local pageants were being put on hold — leaving at least one director on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in expenses for events set to be held just a few weeks out, according to several state directors with knowledge of the situation.

The decision also affected hundreds of women around the country who compete in state-level pageants throughout the year, and often spend thousands of dollars on travel, attire, coaching and entry fees.

“I thought I was being pranked,” said VanillaAíday Carter, 27, who lost $400 on a makeup team she had booked to compete in the Miss Washington USA pageant.

Rose kept the national Miss USA competition on the schedule for September as planned, since the 2023 state winners had already been crowned. Under Rose, however, the pageant was haphazard, according to five women who competed in Miss USA 2023.

“‘Chaos’ is the best word I can use to describe the Miss USA pageant,” said Regan Ringler, 26, who competed as Miss Tennessee USA. So many things went wrong that she joked it was like the “Fyre Fest” of pageants.

Problems arose before the competition even started. To compete in Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, contestants were required to sign a 25-page “Official Entry Form/Contract,” which was obtained by the Times. The document authorized the organization to conduct “physical and mental examinations” of contestants and to request medical records from any doctor who had ever treated them. It also gave the organization the right to terminate Miss USA’s employment in the case of “facial or physical disfigurement.”

(A 2022 contract to compete in local and state pageants for Miss America, another pageant system, did not include these terms.)

Rose said Miss USA contestants had a month to sign, but according to emails obtained by the Times, multiple women received the documents after 8 p.m. the day they were due. If they didn’t sign, they could not participate in the event.

(Jason Bean | The Reno Gazette-Journal via AP) Miss North Carolina Cheslie Kryst, forth from left, wins the 2019 Miss USA final competition in the Grand Theatre in the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nev., on Thursday, May 2, 2019. Alejandra Gonzalez, fifth from right, of New Mexico was the first-runner up, and Oklahoma's Triana Browne, right, the second-runner up during the competition in Reno.

The pageant got off to a rocky start. Several Miss Teen USA contestants arrived at the airport with no one there to greet them or help them get to the venue, multiple state directors said.

Rose denied these allegations. “All teens were supervised and had both chaperones and security,” she wrote.

For some Miss USA contestants, the interview portion of the event did not go as they had expected. Interviews account for half of a contestant’s score and are the only opportunity for participants to be judged on something other than their looks.

While contestants waited in a holding room during the pageant, Rose came in and made an announcement. “What she said to us was, ‘There’s going to be no political questions, nothing about religion, nothing about sex,’” said Rachelle di Stasio, 27, who competed as Miss New York USA 2023.

Several women felt that Rose was discouraging them from talking about the more substantive pieces of why they wanted to earn the platform that came with Miss USA’s crown. (Rose said in an email that she instructed judges to ask about such topics only if they were part of a contestant’s platform.)

Di Stasio had planned to talk about her experience as a survivor of sexual assault and her advocacy work, which had been her platform as Miss New York. Judges asked about her career in ballet. Then the conversation shifted: “The next question that this judge specifically asked me was: ‘Would you still be discussing your platform and talking about these issues if you were to become Miss USA?’” she recalled. It felt like a trick question, she said, and she paused before answering that she did not plan to shy away from the issue.

(John Locher | AP) Miss District of Columbia USA Kara McCullough, center, reacts with fellow contestants after she was crowned the new Miss USA during the Miss USA contest Sunday, May 14, 2017, in Las Vegas.

When she did not make the competition’s Top 20, she felt that the conversation may have been the reason.

“The national stage is supposed to be a safe space for these girls to go and have their voices heard and be able to promote their personal platforms and showcase their beauty and their strength and their intelligence,” Nicewonder, the Virginia director, said. “It’s just not a safe space anymore.”

Months later, she left the Miss USA organization after three decades. The “unprofessionalism” of the new leadership was among her reasons, she said.

An uncertain future

In the aftermath of Voigt’s and Srivastava’s resignations, the once-coveted Miss USA and Miss Teen USA crowns have become hot potatoes. Savannah Gankiewicz, the new Miss USA, the runner-up to Voigt, said she had faced “bullying and harassment” since stepping in to take the vacant crown. The next in line for Miss Teen USA declined the position.

One of Rose’s triumphs, the television deal with The CW, is under scrutiny. The CW is “evaluating its relationship with both pageants,” the network said in a statement last month.

Would-be contestants of state-level pageants have been dropping out as a result of the recent drama, some directors said, disillusioned with the meaning of the crown and sash they had once so fervently sought. Brodeur, the pageant coach, said eight of his clients had decided not to compete this year. On social media, Voigt is still asking to be released from her nondisclosure agreement.

Many in the pageant world would like to see Rose ousted, but she seems to have no intention of stepping down. She told the Times she was looking forward to more exciting changes at Miss USA.

“These women are truly poised to change the world,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.