Leaked video reveals the lie of Miss Universe’s empowerment promise

Miss Universe Cordoba 2024 Magaly Benejam (L) is crowned Miss Universe Argentina 2024 by Miss Universe Argentina 2023, Yamile Dajud, during the final of Miss Universe Argentina beauty contest in Buenos Aires on May 25, 2024. The winner was the representative of the province of Cordoba, Magaly Benejam, 29, who will represent Argentina in Miss Universe International 2024 to be held in Mexico next September. (Photo by LUIS ROBAYO / AFP) (Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images)

In the leaked video of a board meeting from last November, Anne Jakapong Jakrajutatip, part owner of the Miss Universe organization, can be heard offering her unvarnished views on the real value of diversity for the pageant she’s charged with overseeing.  She muses that it will be good for the pageant’s image to allow women from nontraditional backgrounds to compete in a potential Miss Universe reality show, but ultimately, “they cannot win.”

“The trans women, the women with husbands, divorced women …” Jakrajutatip explains in the video, which was given to Vox by a former employee in attendance at the meeting and previously unreported in the mainstream US media. “This is a communication strategy, because, you understand … they can compete but they cannot win. We just put the policy out there. Social inclusion, as people would say.”

Later in the video, a version of which circulated in Asian and Latin American media in February but was not widely available in the US, another board member suggests, “We can have a casting for models of all different colors, sizes, whatever. We are also looking to commercialize that kind of thing — an agency. ‘Miss Universe Model Agency.’”

Jakrajutatip appears to agree with the casting idea. “We can have real size beauty, the contestant. Very big size,” she says. But she also agrees when another board member cautions that “we’ll have to control the audience” lest “they vote all for the big size.”

The main point, Jakrajutatip explains, is that the ensuing buzz will allow them to market Miss Universe products. “It’s all connected,” she concludes. “For money!”

The Miss Universe Organization has not responded to a request from Vox for comment. In a statement on Facebook in February, Jakrajutatip seemed to tacitly confirm the existence of the video but said that her words were taken out of context. “The malicious edited video was out of context and used to manipulate other people which led to the public confusion, misunderstanding, misinterpretation and wrong conclusion,” she said, adding, “I’m a trans woman and a mother myself who all my life fight for the gender equality rights to be where I am.”

Jakrajutatip acquired the Miss Universe Organization in 2022 in her capacity as CEO of the Thai television production company JKN Global Group. In 2023, JKN filed for bankruptcy, and in January 2024, Jakrajutatip sold half her shares to Mexican businessman Raúl Rocha Cantú. Cantú, who appears in the video but says very little, was the franchise owner of Miss Mexico. He made the news in 2011 as the owner of a casino that was burned to the ground in a cartel-related massacre. The meeting in the video allegedly took place in November 2023, before the sale was finalized.

The main point, Jakrajutatip explains, is that the ensuing buzz will allow them to market Miss Universe products. “It’s all connected,” she concludes. “For money!”

Jakrajutatip’s comments carry extra significance given the recent controversies swirling around the Miss Universe Organization following the resignations of both Miss USA and Miss Teen USA at the beginning of May. The Miss Universe Organization is the parent company of the Miss USA Organization, and their pageants are sisters. The winner of Miss USA qualifies to compete in the Miss Universe pageant a few months into her reign. Both former titleholders are under NDAs and have made limited comments on their resignations in public, but the reports that emerged in the following weeks allege that they experienced a toxic workplace environment and bullying at the hands of Miss USA Organization president Laylah Rose. (Rose said in a statement to NBC in May, “All along, my personal goal as the head of this organization has been to inspire women to always create new dreams, have the courage to explore it all, and continue to preserve integrity along the way. I hold myself to these same high standards and I take these allegations seriously.”)

As the controversy grew hotter, those in the pageant world demanded to know where the Miss Universe Organization stood. But the Miss Universe Organization was conspicuous by its absence. Thus far, it has issued no statement regarding Miss USA and has made no moves to install new leadership. 

At this point, it’s worth asking the question: What is the Miss Universe Organization for? And who is it serving, if not the very women who spend their lives striving for the crown?

Officially, Miss Universe advertises itself as “The Greatest Celebration of Women.” 

“The Miss Universe Organization (MUO) is a global, inclusive organization that celebrates all cultures, backgrounds and religions,” it says. “We create and provide a safe space for women to share their stories and drive impact personally, professionally, and philanthropically.”

The idea that pageantry offers a safe space to celebrate womanhood is central to the mythology of the institution. When I first spoke to pageant insiders about the Miss USA scandal, they repeated over and over again that Miss USA exists in order to empower women and that the alleged bullying of the departing titleholders was a betrayal of the cause, an aberration of what pageantry is supposed to be about.

What it’s supposed to be about is the soft and feminine-coded skills of presentation and poise — essentially, what sports are to the hard and masculine-coded skills of strength and speed. In theory, pageantry is a place where girls and women can learn how to speak in public and how to present themselves with confidence. 

“Pageants are one of the very rare and few places where we teach young women life skills,” pageant coach and former Miss Montana USA Dani Walker told me. “Most important is poise, confidence, the ability to interview and speak on stage. Those life skills are very applicable and transferable to many things that you want to do in life outside of pageantry. That is the point. That is why we exist.”

Jakrajutatip’s leadership was originally interpreted as fitting this narrative. At the time, the idea of Jakrajutatip, who is a trans woman, at the head of a company once co-owned by Donald Trump was greeted as a sign of social progress. Jakrajutatip’s tenure, reported the BBC, came just as “the pageant becomes more inclusive,” with married women and mothers allowed into the competition for the first time.

I believe the people I spoke to who told me that they found their pageant experience empowering. At the same time, Miss Universe’s stated goal of female empowerment and its recent emphasis on inclusion have always been at odds with the contents of the actual pageant. 

Most of the Miss Universe franchise pageants still consist of asking the contestants to walk across the stage in different outfits — in evening wear, in swimsuits, in costumes themed to their home region. Unlike Miss America, the Miss Universe pageants have no talent competition. There’s an interview portion that varies in length across the different events, but in Miss USA, the contestants are only asked to speak onstage for 30 seconds. 

Miss Universe’s stated goal of female empowerment and its recent emphasis on inclusion have always been at odds with the contents of the actual pageant

“The judges could not care less about your accomplishments,” a recent Miss New York USA contestant wrote in a blog post, “they only want to see that you can string together a few words without sounding daft (an accomplishment for some girls). You could say anything in interview if you answer the question they ask, and answer it confidently.”

If the goal is in fact to value traditionally feminine accomplishments in a way that empowers all women, it’s fair to ask why the contestants are, for the most part, being judged according to a very narrow standard of physical beauty. Is it actually empowering women as a class? Or is it empowering a small group of individual women who have a good time competing in pageants because they fit the brief?

The leaked video of Jakrajutatip’s meeting puts the lie to Miss Universe’s mission statement in the same way that the swimsuit competition does. It shows an organization that uses empty rhetoric about inclusion and diversity as a cover for the same blinkered vision of womanhood it has always pursued: a pageant queen who is thin, cis, and very young, a Barbie doll pre-epiphany.

As the video goes on, Jakrajutatip muses on the importance of having all Miss Universe brands “empower women.” “Female empowerment,” she says. “Whatever is better than this?”

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