During her whirlwind run as Miss South Carolina USA 2012, Erika Grace Powell sat down for a lengthy discussion with her new boss, Donald Trump. Within minutes, the real estate mogul won her over with his boisterous personality, fiscal smarts and congenial approach.
But her fond memory of Trump has become clouded in recent weeks after his comments about Mexican immigrants embroiled his empire in a scandal that has raised questions about whether fans and contestants should continue to support his Miss Universe contest. Powell, who stills supports the pageant, said she wished he had chosen his words more carefully.
“He's a down-to-earth guy in kind of a loud way. If we aren't used to this by now, I think his words will always be taken the wrong way,” she said. “However, I don't think he should have called out one race and blamed the entirety of our U.S. immigration policy issues on them.”
For Miss Universe Organization pageant contestants, both past and present, navigating how to handle the disastrous aftermath of Trump’s comments has become tricky. Many women see his pageants as an opportunity to pursue lifelong career goals, see the world and gain a platform to advocate for issues they truly care about. But Trump’s discriminatory remarks about Mexicans has some beauty queens worried that if they support his pageants they will be sending the wrong message. If they denounce him, on the other hand, they could be hurting the beauty pageant aspirations some have held on to since they were young girls.
Trump stood at a podium last month during his presidential campaign speech spewing anti-immigration remarks that would have the country still buzzing weeks later. As a result, Macys, NBC, PGA, Univision and other brands cut ties with the billionaire. Politicians distanced themselves, activists called him out and several hosts and performers associated with the pageant bowed out. But there’s another group of people that were affected by the fiery controversy that Trump ignited: the women in glittery gowns and sparkly crowns who have for years stood by his pageant organizations.
Every year, young women coveting for the crown take the stage at the internationally-recognized competitions of Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, all produced by the Miss Universe Organization and owned by Donald Trump since 1996. The beauty pageants have long been an opportunity for women to jumpstart their careers while serving as positive role models to young girls. Winners spend their reign representing their platforms, raising awareness and funds for charitable alliances, and traveling, according to the website. All that the stage stands for, however, has recently been threatened by Trump’s comments, which included calling Mexican immigrants "drug dealers and rapists."
Paulina Vega, the 22-year-old 2014 Miss Universe winner and a native Colombian, has come under pressure to give up her crown after Trump’s insulting comments. Vega took to Instagram Monday, posting a photo of her sash and writing, "I find Mr. Trump’s comments unjust and hurtful. As a Colombian and as Miss Universe, I want to show my support and validate the sentiments of the Latin community.”
Trump fired back, calling Vega a hypocrite for criticizing him but keeping her crown. But many beauty queens involved in the Miss Universe Organization said his comments have left them in a tough spot. Some said that as role models, they should take a stand against Trump. Miss Mexico, Miss Panama and Miss Costa Rica have all dropped out of the contest in recent weeks amid the fallout from his remarks.
For Brenda-Smith Lezama, a 21-year-old dual citizen of Mexico and the U.S. who served as Miss Missouri Teen USA 2013, Trump's comments were hurtful. She said she was disappointed by his blatant disrespect. "I do not agree that Miss Universe Organization participants have to ‘put up’ with anything in order to be successful in pageantry," she said in an email. "Miss Universe Organization participants are intelligent and opinionated young women. In this and any other situation we find a way to express our feelings, even if they oppose the views of our superiors. Pageantry gives us the platform to stand up for our beliefs and the grace to do so in a respectful manner.”
Smith-Lezama, who keeps busy as the student body vice president at the University of Missouri-Columbia and as a freelance contributor for Seventeen.com, said she feels bad for the people that work behind-the-scenes. “My experience with my director and the rest of Miss Universe Organization staff could not have been better,” said Smith-Lezama. "They believe in our dreams, push us to be better and above all, they put our physical and emotional well-being above everything. Those are the people who are being directly affected by the downward spiral of this year’s pageant caused by one’s man’s comments.”
For many women, dealing with Trump and the controversy that surrounds him is necessary in order to compete. Allie Leggett, Miss Kentucky USA 2013, who is now a 21-year-old tall, tan and blonde model who spends her free time outdoors, said that from her experience, Trump has the last say in who gets crowned. “If you want to excel in the organization then disagreeing with him wouldn't be the way to go,” she said. Still, Leggett has hopes that soon, someone new will be in charge. “I see a higher power saying ‘You're fired!’ and someone who understands the value of the competition stepping up to take his place,” Leggett said. “I don't think someone so closed-minded should be in charge of such a prestigious organization.”
Other pageant queens are big Trump fans. Chelsea Cooley, Miss USA 2005, said Trump’s competition served as a launching pad for her career, and she has remained loyal to Trump and the organization. Now a professional singer, the 31-year-old pretty brunette attributes Trump as her personal mentor on her LinkedIn page.
“To have to ‘put up with’ someone or an organization that provides the very stage and opportunity that will catapult your career and dreams is a little off-putting to me,” Cooley said in an email. “I am very thankful for the backing that Donald Trump and NBC have provided the pageants for all these years. I – along with all the other winners and contestants that have graced the Miss USA and Miss Universe stage – am where I am today because of that opportunity.”
But pageant Coach Bill Alverson, deemed by the New York Times as the “pageant king of Alabama,” said pageant contestants shouldn’t feel pressured to endorse Trump’s unpopular stance. “Putting up with him (Trump) to achieve a dream is totally wrong. They (pageant contestants) represent their states and should not forget that,” he said.
Still, he said he hadn’t heard on his end of any contestants dropping out because of the remarks. Alverson added that the contestants shouldn't be rude or abrasive toward Trump, and that Trump’s comments do not and should not represent the pageant.
Powell, the Miss South Carolina USA 2012 winner, had her own motivations for competing in Miss USA. For her, it was an opportunity to launch a career. She has since found work in music, acting and modeling.
Powell said she strongly believes that the popularity of pageants isn't going anywhere anytime soon. She hopes Miss Universe will continue to succeed, even without its partnership with NBC.
"I think today it's a job, and just like any other job you're going to have to work with people who you don't agree with everything they say,” said Powell. “To each girl her own prerogative…I think that beauty pageants will continue to be popular because there will always be pretty girls who dream of crowns on their heads and strong women who want the opportunity to do something more with their education, career goals and life."