- The Miss USA 2022 pageant has been engulfed in controversy for weeks.
- Contestants told Insider the organization showed favoritism to R’Bonney Gabriel before she won.
- The Miss USA president, Crystle Stewart, has been suspended amid an investigation by Miss Universe.
When Miss Texas, R’Bonney Gabriel, took the crown at this year’s Miss USA pageant earlier this month, fans of the contest noticed something different immediately. Instead of Gabriel’s fellow contestants rushing to congratulate her, many walked off the stage inside the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, Nevada.
Shock waves ricocheted through the pageant community with allegations from contestants that Gabriel, who became the first Filipino American to win the crown, was favored to win before the pageant officially selected its winner on October 3.
Insider spoke to many of the competing contestants, who said the contest, organized by the president of the Miss USA organization, Crystle Stewart, and her company, Miss Brand Corp., was rigged to favor Gabriel.
“A lot of the girls felt like it was the organization’s plan from the beginning for R’Bonney to win, no matter who else was competing,” Miss Missouri, Mikala McGhee, told Insider.
McGhee, who was one of the many contestants who walked off the stage after the winner was announced, said that she didn’t intend “to knock” Gabriel. “It was to send a statement that we all had an idea of what was really going on behind the scenes. We felt disrespected and paraded around for a show,” she said.
After the ceremony, the Miss Universe Organization, which previously ran the pageant until 2020, launched an official investigation. The organization confirmed to Insider that Stewart had been suspended indefinitely, while Stewart said in a statement to Insider that she was cooperating with the investigation.
Allegations of rigging and favoritism
More than a dozen Miss USA contestants said this year’s pageant was either rigged or heavily favored Gabriel. They pointed to multiple conflicts of interest between Gabriel and Miss USA’s national sponsors.
Two of Miss USA’s national sponsors — Miss Academy, the pageant school owned by Stewart, and the med spa Mia Beauté — are also state sponsors for Miss Texas USA. The companies are based in Houston, where Gabriel lived before winning Miss USA.
Miss Montana, Heather Lee O’Keefe, told “Good Morning America” earlier this month that the official coaching school of Miss USA “sponsored all of the contestants but gave an extremely more generous amount to Miss Texas.” Stewart has denied that claim.
Miss Illinois, Angel Reyes, told Insider that she also noticed several red flags, noting that Gabriel “had personal relationships with judges who served on the judges’ panel during pageant week — an extreme conflict of interest.”
As the winner of Miss Texas 2022, Gabriel was given $10,000 in services from Mia Beauté, founded by Dr. Phi Nguyen, a judge for the Miss USA 2022 state costume contest. The company also featured Gabriel on its Facebook page months before the competition, with the earliest photo posted in May 2021. She then appeared in an Instagram photo with Nguyen a month later.
Gabriel would go on to win the costume competition the night before she was crowned. While the state costume contest doesn’t count toward the final score for Miss USA, many contestants told Insider they were disheartened to see Gabriel already knew one of the judges. Nguyen did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
A third incident also raised questions: The day after Gabriel won Miss USA, a promotional video of her receiving treatments at Mia Beauté’s spa at the Nizuc Resort in Cancún — another Miss USA sponsor — was posted on the resort’s Instagram page.
The post came after Miss USA held a weeklong retreat for the 2022 class at the resort in the last week of June, but Gabriel and Miss Colorado, Alexis Glover, weren’t in attendance because they hadn’t won their respective state pageants yet. They were later crowned on July 3.
While the video showed Gabriel on a solo trip to the Mexican resort, sources told Insider that Glover was never offered the same opportunity, raising questions about Gabriel having an unfair advantage with the two sponsors.
Stewart pushed back on these allegations to “GMA,” saying the resort invited Gabriel to do a promotional video shoot at the end of July, noting that she paid her own way there. During an episode of “The Rundown” on October 6, Gabriel also said she paid for her own flight and shot the video while she was Miss Texas.
Still, the video prompted many Miss USA contestants to speak out, believing it was proof that Gabriel was receiving favorable treatment from sponsors and had possibly already been “chosen” to win the Miss USA pageant. It also had contestants questioning why the Miss USA organization allowed Gabriel to work so closely with a major sponsor just weeks before the competition.
“Things get messy when you have a national sponsor offering more to their home-state girl,” Miss New Hampshire, Camila Sacco, told Insider.
“After that video was released, it was very evident that something was not right,” McGhee said in a separate interview. “That was the first moment I really thought, ‘Wow, we just got played. Big time.'”
McGhee said that she had heard of alleged “rigging weeks before setting foot in Reno — all in favor of Miss Texas. Being new to pageantry, I didn’t pay much attention. I thought it was pageant gossip.”
Miss Universe takes action and Stewart is suspended
After the Miss Universe Organization held a town hall that same week, its CEO Amy Emmerich and president Paula Shugart informed the women in a midnight email on October 8 that Stewart and her company, Miss Brand Corp., had been suspended immediately.
“Miss Universe Organization will be taking over the Miss USA program while a comprehensive, third-party investigation is conducted,” the email obtained by Insider read. “The investigation will be led by the law firm Holland & Knight and the findings will be used as the basis for the appropriate action.”
The Miss Universe Organization confirmed to Insider that the investigation remains ongoing. A spokesperson for Stewart told Insider that she was complying with all requests from Miss Universe.
A day before her suspension, Stewart told Insider in a statement that the “fairness of the pageant and the well-being of each and every contestant” was a top priority.
“The allegations against the Miss USA Organization are misleading and against everything I stand for personally and professionally,” she continued. “As a former titleholder, I learned firsthand the importance of a fair and unbiased pageant competition and I respect the voices of the Class of 2022 and every woman’s right to have their voice heard.”
Stewart intended to ‘reimagine’ the pageant world
When Stewart bought the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA licenses in November 2020, the move was met with fanfare from the pageant community.
Not only was she the former director of the Miss Houston pageant, but Stewart was also a former Miss USA herself, winning the crown in 2008 while representing Texas. She was also the first Black woman to ever take the helm at Miss USA.
Stewart folded the historic pageant into Miss Brand Corp., which includes her pageant school, Miss Academy. In a letter addressed to fans posted on the pageant’s website, Stewart said that she would usher in a new era — one that would make pageants relevant again. She called it “Pageantry Reimagined.”
“At the mention of pageants, what comes to mind for most people is a stereotypically slim woman, with big hair and superb polish, but this is not enough for the image of the future,” she wrote. “Our mission in reimagining pageantry is to catapult our competitions into the mainstream audience by showing people the confidence and power that pageantry can give to young women.”
“Pageantry Reimagined” was Stewart’s response to declining interest in Miss USA. What originally started in the 1950s as a rival to Miss America became a TV juggernaut in the 1960s, racking up nearly 40 million viewers by the late ’70s.
But as times changed, so did viewership. By 2014, less than 6 million people tuned in to watch — a number that plummeted to less than 1 million the next year, after NBC dropped the pageant following controversial remarks by Donald Trump, who owned the pageant from 1996 to 2015, during his presidential campaign.
Stewart was meant to revive Miss USA, but her reign became mired in controversy almost as soon as it began.
Following the 2021 pageant, multiple contestants said that Stewart’s husband, Max Sebrechts, who was vice president of Miss USA at the time, had sexually harassed them during the competition.
In a statement sent to Insider, a spokesperson for Miss Universe said the organization was made aware of the allegations against Sebrechts in late December 2021 and “immediately requested a review.”
“The Miss USA franchisee, Miss Brand, removed the employee from its organization in January 2022 and new protocols and processes were established and put in place,” they added.
Insider obtained a letter that was sent to the 2021 contestants informing them that Sebrechts was stepping down as vice president in January 2022. The letter said Sebrechts was “focusing his efforts on other business ventures” and did not mention the allegations.
A source close to Stewart confirmed to Insider that she and Sebrechts have since separated. Sebrechts did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
A winner under fire
Contestants told Insider that their decision to speak out after this year’s pageant wasn’t an attack on Gabriel, who denied allegations that the pageant was rigged in an interview with E! News. She did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Heather O’Keefe said Gabriel could’ve won Miss USA “fair and square.”
“I think it’s terrible that they are tainting her year with all of this favoritism,” she added. “I think she’s gorgeous and I think she’s deserving of the title. This is not about R’Bonney. This is about the Miss USA organization.”
Mikala McGhee agreed, adding that Stewart’s Miss Brand being affiliated with Miss USA is a “conflict of interest in every single way.”
The contestants said they hope to bring change for women, who may have spent years of work — and thousands of dollars — to compete on that stage in the years to come.
“We are given the opportunity to use our voices to stand up for what we believe in and be a voice for the unheard, which is why many of my sisters are speaking out against what we experienced,” Miss Ohio, Sir’Quora Carroll, told Insider. “We want to protect the women to come in the future and to protect the longevity of what Miss USA is truly about.”
“We’ve really put our reputations on the line to be a voice for this in hopes that change will come for future women,” Camila Sacco said in a separate interview. “This is our take on #PageantryReimagined.”