The 2016 beauty pageant season has been an interesting one, as social media has played a role in controversy surrounding two recently crowned US winners.
The now-former Miss Florida USA, 24-year-old Génesis Dávila, won the title on July 16 and was stripped of it six days later. She says she’s been unfairly dethroned by a pageant director who accused her of cheating based on a photo she posted to her Instagram account in the days before the competition.
By contrast, the newly crowned Miss Teen USA, 18-year-old Karlie Hay, has retained her crown amid calls that she be relieved of it following the discovery of several controversial tweets wherein she repeatedly used racial slurs.
One of these incidents has made national headlines; the other has resulted in a $15 million lawsuit. Taken together, they provide an interesting look at the cutthroat business of modern beauty pageants — in an age when a contestant’s social media savvy is every bit as crucial to winning as remaining poised during a personality interview and looking nice in an evening gown.
But there’s another key factor influencing the very different fates of these two beauty queens: race. Dávila is Puerto Rican–American and identifies as Afro-Puerto Rican; Hay is white. And since the Miss Florida pageant and the Miss Teen USA pageant are both linked to the same larger world pageant organization, the Miss Universe pageant (although pageants at the state level operate independently from the Miss Universe organization), the racial element has some spectators questioning whether the pageant industry’s overall lack of diversity is the real issue.
A narrow escape for a (white) teen queen
This year’s Miss Teen USA pageant had drawn criticism from spectators before Hay was even crowned, due to a significant lack of diversity among the top five finalists, all of whom were white and blond:
Wow how can we choose from such a diverse bunch https://t.co/0a4JHbP465— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) July 31, 2016
Among those commenting on the pageant’s lack of diversity was black model and pageant spectator Court Kim. Within hours of Hay’s selection as Miss Teen USA on July 30, Kim drew attention to tweets the newly crowned queen posted in 2013 and 2014. In the tweets, Hay, who was 15 years old when she posted them, repeatedly uses the n-word.
Hay quickly apologized for the tweets, stating on Twitter and Instagram that she wasn’t proud of her previous behavior:
Several years ago, I had many personal struggles and found myself in a place that is not representative of who I am as a person. I admit that I have used language publicly in the past which I am not proud of and that there is no excuse for. Through hard work, education and thanks in large part to the sisterhood that I have come to know through pageants, I am proud to say that I am today a better person. I am honored to hold this title and I will use this platform to promote the values of The Miss Universe Organization, and my own, that recognize the confidence, beauty and perseverance of all women.
After reviewing the tweets, the Miss Teen USA organization announced that it would stand by Hay. "The language Karlie Hay used is unacceptable at any age and in no way reflects the values of The Miss Universe Organization," read a prepared statement provided to several media outlets.
"As Karlie stated, she was in a different place in her life and made a serious mistake she regrets and for which she sincerely apologizes. Karlie learned many lessons through those personal struggles that reshaped her life and values. We as an organization are committed to supporting her continued growth."
In an interview with Good Morning America on August 2, Hay elaborated, providing an explanation that some people have subsequently criticized because they feel Hay is blaming "gangsta rap" for her troubles:
"The word was thrown around in the music I listened to, with the friends I hung out with," Hay said during the Good Morning America segment, "and I had no guidance. It was kind of a careless mistake."
But many onlookers aren’t buying either her initial apology or the follow-up comments. One website devoted to analyzing body language observed Hay’s microexpressions and gestures during the interview and came to the conclusion that she was dismissive and insincere.
Meanwhile, a pageant queen accused of cheating insists she’s done nothing wrong.
Miss Florida (who is black) didn’t fare as well
In the adult competition, Dávila held the Miss Florida USA crown for less than a week before she was stripped of her title by pageant executive Grant Gravitt. Gravitt had accused her of violating pageant rules, which state that contestants are not allowed to use professional stylists during the competition.
In statements given to Miami’s ABC 10, Gravitt insisted that eyewitnesses had reported that Dávila using a professional stylist during the competition — and stated that "substantial proof to link her and her vendors to her [hotel] room on an evening which they were not allowed" was available on her Instagram account.
Gravitt also described the alleged transgression as "a poor life choice" on Dávila’s part, and claimed she "sought an unfair competitive advantage" over her competitors.
However, the Instagram post that Gravitt cited, which shows Dávila with stylist Ilde Goncalves, has a clear timestamp of July 9, a full week before the competition. Goncalves later commented on the post in question to assert that nothing prohibited by the pageant had taken place:
I did her makeup the day we posted the picture guys . Not the day of the pageant !!! ( look at the dates ) But there is a lot of envy and hate in this world. Genesis is innocent and deserves her crown ❤️
Because the Florida pageant operates independently, outside the jurisdiction of the larger Miss Universe pageant circuit (even though state-level winners can go on to compete in Miss USA and, if they win, Miss Universe), Dávila had no higher pageant authority to which she could plead her case.
Still, she fought back. She promptly served the Miss Florida pageant and its co-owners with a $15 million defamation lawsuit and filed an emergency injunction to prevent the pageant from taking away her title.
At a press conference on August 1, Dávila’s lawyer, Richard Wolfe, declared, "We believe [Gravitt] acted maliciously and intentionally, to defame and hurt my client," and accused Gravitt of cropping the date from the Instagram photo when citing it as evidence in order to falsely accuse Dávila of breaking the rules.
"I've never seen such a strong smoking gun showing one man's malice," Wolfe said.
Dávila told Miami news station NBC 6 that on the night when she allegedly used the professional stylist, she had been visiting a family friend in her mother’s hotel room. And during the August 1 press conference, she insisted that she’d done nothing wrong:
I am innocent. All these false allegations have taken me completely by surprise. I have faced many challenges in my life, but nothing like this. I am honest, hardworking, [sic] who was raised in ideals and principals. I am putting all my faith in my attorney and the justice system to prove my innocence and save my reputation.
Two very different beauty queens experienced very different outcomes — possibly because of race
The language that each of these beauty queens has used in addressing her respective scandal is noteworthy. So are the responses they were met with.
Dávila, who is Puerto Rican, insisted she was raised with her ideals fully intact.
Hay, who is blond and white, and who had the backing of her pageant organization, spoke of gaining values over time thanks in part to the guidance of the pageant organization.
Both women spoke of "hard work" — a mantra of the ideal American. But some of Hay’s fellow contestants seemed skeptical about her values. Hellen Smith, a black woman who was crowned Miss Oklahoma Teen USA in December, told Cosmopolitan that Hay "did not actually apologize. It seemed like she's sorry that she insulted people, not she's sorry she said it in the first place."
Smith has argued that even though the pageants are run separately, each contestant still represents the Miss Universe organization — Dávila as a potential Miss Universe pageant contestant, Hay as Miss Teen USA.
She notes that the Miss Teen USA pageant stood by Hay despite her tweets amounting to a pernicious and common form of racism, while the local independent Florida jurisdiction allowed Dávila, who is black and accused of wrongdoing by a white pageant official, to be stripped of her title over what Smith viewed as a much less offensive incident.
"Girls have had their titles taken away from them for much less," Smith told Cosmopolitan, citing Dávila’s loss of the Miss Florida crown after someone accused her of breaking pageant rules by using a professional stylist. "Someone with a national title hasn't had their title taken away for using racial slurs." Smith added that while Miss Teen USA winners don’t go on to participate in a version of Miss Universe, Hay still "is a representation of Miss Universe because she's Miss Teen USA."
No matter what, the pageant circuit could benefit from further diversity
Miss Teen USA 2010, Kamie Crawford, who is black, has also spoken out against Hay. On Twitter, she noted that Hay’s tweets were, on one level, an easily preventable social media gaffe. But she also suggested to CNN that the ability to interact sensitively with members of other races should be a qualifying factor for the Miss Teen USA crown. This is a qualification that Hay clearly lacked, at least at age 15.
On a more macro level, both Crawford and Smith have pointed out that the Miss Teen USA pageant’s lack of diversity might have factored into the problem. After all, for many white contestants like Hay, learning how to be sensitive to other races might not be a as urgent as it is for contestants of color, who are often held to a different standard when it comes to interacting graciously with people from all backgrounds.
Like many other pageant circuits, the Miss Universe organization has a historically white background and has been slowly making up for lost time; it took the Miss USA pageant 38 years after its founding in 1952 to anoint a black winner, Carole Gist, in 1990. In 1991, Janel Bishop became the first black woman to win the Miss Teen USA crown, nine years after that pageant was founded in 1983.
Since then, the Miss Teen USA pageant has made progress. It’s worth noting that in addition to Crawford’s win in 2010, one other recent Miss Teen USA has been a woman of color — 2012 winner Logan West is biracial. Meanwhile, the adult competition has also improved in terms of diversity; the 2016 Miss USA contest featured only one white woman in the top five, and Lt. Deshauna Barber, who is black, went on to become the first active Army Reserve officer to receive the crown.
If the Miss Teen USA pageant’s top five finalists more consistently reflected the full range of American diversity, it's logical to expect that a broader range of knowledge and awareness of how to deal with racially sensitive issues would come with the talent pool, and subsequently benefit all of the contestants.
Then again, racial sensitivity failed to protect Dávila from accusations of cheating and the subsequent loss of her crown. Whether or not she actually did cheat, it’s revealing that at the state pageant level, the use of a personal hairstylist in competition is considered a violation serious enough that it might cost a winner her crown, while at the national level, dropping racial slurs in a public forum as a teen and never bothering to delete them from your social media account is something for which you can receive a pass.