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Is this the beginning of the end of beauty pageants?


Now we turn to a scandal that's shaking up the beauty pageant world. Miss USA and Miss Teen USA recently stepped down. The organization that runs both of these competitions is under scrutiny. Now, former Miss USA Noelia Voigt cited mental health while the former Miss Teen USA, UmaSofia Srivastava, pointed to a misalignment of, quote, "personal values" within the organization. For more insight on this, we are joined here in studio by Amy Argetsinger. She's style editor at The Washington Post and the author of the book, "There She Was: The Secret History Of Miss America." Welcome.

AMY ARGETSINGER: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Amy, just for starters, can you briefly walk us through what we know so far about these resignations?

ARGETSINGER: We haven't gotten a lot of details. It seems as though both the former Miss USA and the former Miss Teen USA are probably bound up by nondisclosure agreements. They've alluded to being limited in what they can say. But some details have trickled out, just reading between the lines of their messages to the public on Instagram and by some comments that their mothers have given in interviews.

And the general impression you have is that they feel like they were just shabbily treated by the pageant management - that they were subject to criticism and disorganization. You've seen some phrases tossed about - bullying, sexual harassment that wasn't taken seriously - things like that. But the precise details have not come out.

SUMMERS: The resignation statement that was put out by Noelia Voigt, who was Miss USA, went viral. And followers online were pointing out that her statement's first 11 sentences started with letters that spelled out, quote, "I am silenced," unquote. I mean, do you think that's Internet conspiracy theory or that she's trying to say something significant there?

ARGETSINGER: For once it does not seem to be internet conspiracy theory. People close to her have said, yeah, this is how she feels - that was an intentional message. And that's the message we've gotten - is that this was somewhat coordinated. These young women talked to each other. Their resignations had been preceded by that of the social media manager for the organization.

More quietly, though, a couple of longtime executives with Miss USA stepped away in the past several months since the pageant management changed hands back in August. This is an organization that's in some upheaval, and that goes back a long ways.

SUMMERS: Voigt hasn't commented further on her resignation statement, but a longer version of that resignation letter was obtained by some news organizations. And in it, she accused the Miss USA organization of, quote, "a toxic work environment that, at best, is poor management and, at worst, is bullying and harassment." Given what you know about this organization, about its history, did those charges surprise you?

ARGETSINGER: No, they really didn't surprise me. Part of that has to do with the fact that this was the pageant organization - Miss USA, a subsidiary of Miss Universe - that was owned in part by Donald Trump.


ARGETSINGER: I think we all remember hearing in 2015-2016 some of the accusations, some of the stories that came out about his behavior around contestants, the way he talked about them. But going back further, Miss USA has always had something of a culture issue. From the start, Miss USA has always kind of had a bit more of a glamour model...


ARGETSINGER: ...Mentality than Miss America. It doesn't have a talent competition. It doesn't have the emphasis on scholarship. So it has always kind of had a bit more of a modeling-type reputation, with the baggage that goes along with some of that.

Looking more recently, though, it's a struggling - a financially struggling organization. A lot of us spent years seeing this as a big television program. We may think of it as being this big institution, this big monolith, but it's not. All these pageants lost TV ratings. They lost business. You really started to see television viewership for these pageants begin to dip about 20 years ago.

SUMMERS: So are we seeing the beginning of the end of the beauty pageant as we know it?

ARGETSINGER: Oh, I think we are. There are all kinds of small pageants that are continuing to have a lifespan out there that you've never heard of because they're not on TV. It's possible that Miss America, Miss USA are going to join the ranks of those more obscure pageants if they can find a way to survive.

SUMMERS: That's Amy Argetsinger, style editor at The Washington Post and the author of the book "There She Was: The Secret History Of Miss America." Amy, thank you.



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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Katia Riddle
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.