In the days since the pageant’s final night on Oct. 3, contestants have accused the Miss USA organization of giving preferential treatment to Gabriel and Miss USA’s umbrella corporation, Miss Brands, run by Crystle Stewart, has been suspended by the Miss Universe Organization.
Miss Brands is being investigated for claims that the pageant outcome was fixed and/or that the organization of the contest was favored for a particular contestant to win, the Miss Universe Organization told The Washington Post.
In a statement to state directors seen by The Washington Post, the Miss Universe group said that Stewart is cooperating with the investigation. Miss Universe operated Miss USA until it was licensed to Stewart in 2020. Now, Miss Universe has taken over Miss USA again.
Stewart did not respond to a request for comments and Miss USA passed on questions to Miss Universe.
After Gabriel was crowned, only the show’s emcees greeted her on stage, according to Bill Alverson, a lawyer from Alabama who has been a pageant coach for 30 years.
“There was a lack of support from her fellow sister competitors,” said Alverson, who coached seven contestants who lost to Gabriel that night, including first runner up Miss North Carolina Morgan Romano.
That was only the first sign that Miss USA, a beauty pageant held since 1952 and not to be confused with the not-for-profit Miss America pageant, was about to face challenges.
The morning after the competition ended, fellow contestant and Miss Montana Heather O’Keefe posted on TikTok that the pageant was “suspect.”
O’Keefe accused Miss USA of allowing Gabriel perks others weren’t given: being out past curfew during pageant week, being put on sponsors’ social media pages, and a trip to Mexico.
“The girls, including myself, felt disrespected because R’Bonney was very close to the staff members and directors of the pageant, and they were blatant about that. She also had personal ties with a judge who scored the costume competition, and we can see that she was personally communicating with national sponsors, which is a violation of the contract,” Miss District of Columbia Faith Maria Porter told The Washington Post.
Gabriel told E! News that she did not receive any preferential treatment. “It was not rigged. I would never enter any pageant that I know I would win,” she told E! News. “I have a lot of integrity.”
But allegations against the pageant continue to fly on TikTok, and O’Keefe is careful to blame the organizers and not Gabriel.
Gabriel did not respond to requests for comment.
For beauty pageants, most of which are judged subjectively, allegations of preferential treatment are not rare. “The idea that pageant contestants are catty, competitive, and out to get each other feeds into a big stereotype in the industry,” said Hilary Levey Friedman, the author of “Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of Beauty Pageants in America.”
Alverson said every competition, no matter how small, has complaints and rumors about rigging.
However, he added: “I have never heard of a pageant with this level of rigging.”
Alverson’s specialty is preparing contestants for the interview round. The coach, who worked with Gabriel’s competitors, suspects that the organization preplanned Gabriel’s questions. He said she was treated like “the favored child of Miss Academy.”
The stakes for a beauty pageant that has been moved off major network TV are low, especially compared to the risk of getting caught cheating. But Friedman said there are a few reasons why organizers might want to rig it.
The winner of the competition represents and works for Miss USA for a year. “It’s possible that an organization would want the winner to be easy to work with, to not have an attitude, to be really savvy at social media,” said Friedman.
Organizations could also be invested in certain winners because of social cache — like the first person of a certain race, she added.
“The only reason you would rig a competition like this is for financial advantage,” said Alverson. If sponsors appear to love a contestant, that could be incentive to push that girl forward, he said.
“There is also a conflict of interest at play,” said Friedman. When Stewart took over Miss USA, she was already heading Miss Academy, a pageant training school in Texas, that coached many of the contestants for Miss USA.
She added that the pageant world is quite insular, and since both Miss USA and Miss Academy are for-profit, people didn’t think it was too unusual that Stewart headed both organizations.
Alverson believes Stewart should have divested her ownership of one of the organizations.
This is not the first time Miss USA has been accused of letting its organizers have influence over who would wear the crown. “When former president Donald Trump owned Miss USA, everyone knew that he would pick the favorites,” said Friedman. “This has been the organization’s historical reputation.”
In the 1980s, judges for Miss USA would hold up their scores for each contestant as she walked by, creating a level of transparency in scoring. The pageant no longer uses that system.
“Moving forward, Miss USA needs to be more transparent about how they are scoring the contestants,” said Friedman. She says that if the organization doesn’t improve its credibility, the pageant may have fewer interested contestants in the coming years.
“I love pageantry, I think it teaches us confidence and uplifts women,” said Porter, 2022′s Miss District of Columbia. “But it’s hard to have faith in a pageant that shows signs of deep corruption and unethical practices. It’s time pageants evaluate their scoring system.”