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Why Two Miss USAs Stepping Down Has Sparked Conversations About NDAs and Agency

What's troubling in the recent resignation saga is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs.

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As Venezuelan-American model Noelia Voigt relinquished her Miss USA 2023 title last week, she purportedly noted that Miss USA Organization CEO Laylah Rose was "...actively building a culture of fear and control, the antithesis of women’s empowerment."

Voigt's revelations call into question how the Miss USA Organization – like most other beauty pageant groups – has positioned itself as a platform for women's empowerment.

The saga involving top American titleholders (Miss Teen USA UmaSofia Srivastava being the other) relinquishing their crowns just days apart has raised many serious questions about the pageant's culture and image.
What's troubling in the recent resignation saga is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs.

Miss USA Noelia Voigt and Miss Teen USA UmaSofia Srivastava's winning moments. 

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram)

But what's even more troubling in this entire episode is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs – or non-disclosure agreements – preventing them to actually voice their concerns.

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What Voigt and Srivastava Said

The titleholders stepping down in the same week couldn't have been a mere coincidence, especially when their resignations have been accompanied by seemingly cryptic notes.

In her note, Voigt talked about prioritising one's mental health as well advocating for oneself and others by using their voice.

But the note caused fans to speculate about the things Voigt isn’t saying – after some pointed out that the first letters of her sentences spell out 'I am silenced'.
What's troubling in the recent resignation saga is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs.

Former Miss USA Noelia Voigt's statement. 

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram)

The New York Times later reported that both the titleholders declined to comment (through a representative) citing an NDA. The publication also claimed to have access to Voigt's resignation letter, which allegedly pointed to a "toxic work environment" in Miss USA Organization "that, at best, is poor management and, at worst, is bullying and harassment."

The pageant group also allegedly failed to support her when she filed a sexual misconduct complaint.

Srivastava, who opened her note with a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche – "There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth" – wrote that her "personal values" no longer fully aligned with the direction of the organisation.

What's troubling in the recent resignation saga is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs.

Former Miss Teen USA UmaSofia Srivastava's statement. 

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram)

In a statement to USA Today, CEO Laylah Rose responded, "Our all-encompassing goal at Miss USA is to celebrate and empower women. Our participants make a real difference in this country and around the globe."

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NDAs & Gag Laws: A Much Broader Discussion About Who Gets to 'Speak'

Miss Wisconsin USA 2023, Alexis Loomans, shared, "The majority of the members of the Miss USA class of 2023 support Noelia Voigt's decision to resign from the title of Miss USA," with an appeal to the Miss USA Organization to "release Noelia from the confidentiality NSA clause of her contract, in perpetuity, so that she is free to speak on her experiences and time as Miss USA."

What's troubling in the recent resignation saga is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs.

Alexis Loomans' statement.

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram)

There's one particular hashtag in Loomans' caption that catches the eye – #LetHerSpeak.

What's troubling in the recent resignation saga is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs.

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram)

The 'Let Her Speak' campaign was launched in 2018 in Australia to abolish gag laws that prevent survivors of sexual assault from speaking up. This is a phenomenon that was also widely discussed during the #MeToo movement involving Harvey Weinstein.

Maria Schrader's She Said, based on a book by reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey who investigated the reports of Weinstein's history of sexual misconduct and abuse, explores the stifling nature of NDAs. Most of the survivors they approach aren't able to speak about their experience because they're bound by NDAs.

What's troubling in the recent resignation saga is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs.

A still from the film She Said. 

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

NDAs, usually used to protect intellectual property or related interests of a company or person, have been weaponised against survivors of abuse and sexual assault. In essence, protecting the perpetrator in a world that already places the onus of 'proof' on the survivor. Oftentimes, people with social and economic capital use the power imbalance to silence survivors.

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While standard NDAs are commonplace, there have been instances of these documents being used to 'settle cases', especially ones that deal with gendered violence and discrimination or discrimination against minorities. One of the women who spoke out against Weinstein, Zelda Perkins, has been tirelessly working towards challenging the use of such NDAs.

In an op-ed for The Guardian, she wrote, "They are sold as helping the victim by protecting their name, where in fact a simple one-sided confidentiality clause would do that."

Coming back to what is happening at Miss USA, the titleholders weren't the first to leave the organisation in the past month. Former social media director Claudia Michelle had also released a statement about the company on 3 May.

What's troubling in the recent resignation saga is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs.

A segment of Claudia Michelle's statement. 

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram)

She spoke about how she was "never truly able to run it (the account) in the professional level" she had planned to, highlighting that she worked without financial compensation for two months. In her post, she also alleges that Noelia Voigt's "ability to share her story and her platform have been diminished," adding, "I have firsthand seen the disrespect towards Uma and her family."

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What's troubling in the recent resignation saga is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs.

The rest of Claudia Michelle's statement. 

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram)

Furthermore, Miss Teen USA runner-up (Miss Teen New York Stephanie Skinner) has refused the crown after Srivastava's resignation "in light of recent events."

She told People, "I worked so hard and sacrificed so much for this goal to become Miss Teen USA and although this title was a dream of mine, I believe one thing I will never give up is my character."

Even Miss Montana USA 2018 Dani Walker, who is also a pageant coach and content creator, spoke up about the issue. On her YouTube channel, she discussed Voigt's resignation (Srivastava hadn't announced her resignation by then) and advised aspiring pageant competitors thus:

"Winning the title of your state and then winning Miss USA does not make you immune to what Noelia and staff members have been experiencing behind the scenes. No amount of funding or money is going to make up for the NDA that you must sign… that you be locked it. Whatever happens behind closed doors, now you’re not going to be able to speak out – not after you crown your successor, not after you resign, not ever! Because the NDAs are so iron-clad [sic]."
Dani Walker, Pageant coach
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Pageantry and Women's Empowerment

It's not always easy to escape one's roots – and pageantry is rooted in the patriarchal notion of judging women's worth by how much they can match archaic beauty standards.

This is a discussion people have been having for decades, even as former beauty queens spoke about the way these 'expectations' to look a certain way had adverse mental and physical effects.

In another part of Michelle's statement, she highlighted why speaking about the issue was important to her: "This is a women's empowerment organisation – and my hope in making this statement is to restore some of the empowerment back to these titleholders that was so deeply lost in their year."

What's troubling in the recent resignation saga is the alleged silencing of the titleholders with 'iron-clad' NDAs.

Noelia Voigt, Claudia Michelle, and UmaSofia Srivastava.

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram)

In response to Michelle's claims, the Miss USA Organization told USA Today, "Miss USA is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive, and supportive environment, and we take these allegations seriously. Indeed, we have and will continue to prioritise the well-being of all individuals involved with Miss USA."

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Miss USA's Fraught History

Before Miss USA entered the news cycle for the most recent developments, it was perhaps most well-known as the pageant formerly owned by Donald Trump. During his 2016 campaign for the presidency, former contestants alleged that he would often walk in backstage where they were undressed.

The power imbalance in this equation is obvious for all to see; a power imbalance often plays a very crucial role in the way accusations of sexual misconduct pan out. The impunity provided by this imbalance is further obvious by the way Trump talked about the instances the contestants talked about.

In 2005, on Howard Stern's show, Trump said, "I'll go backstage before a show, and everyone's getting dressed and ready and everything else," adding, "You know, no men are anywhere. And I'm allowed to go in because I'm the owner of the pageant. And therefore, I'm inspecting it… Is everyone OK? You know, they're standing there with no clothes. And you see these incredible-looking women. And so, I sort of get away with things like that."

In 2023, NYT produced a documentary 'How to Fix a Pageant' that primarily dealt with the alleged cheating scandal of 2022 when contestants had claimed that the then-president Crystle Stewart had rigged the competition. In the documentary, former contestants also accused the then Miss USA vice president Max Sebrechts of sexual harassment.

Sebrechts left his role. In August 2023, the Miss Universe Organization announced that they had found the allegations of rigging to be "false," but Stewart did not return as president.

Looking at the very history of pageants can reveal a lot about the way conversations around gender and identity have evolved.

Over the years, the court of public opinion has been shifting when it comes to pageantry. The only saving grace of the concept is that it works when the women participating have agency and this agency, in turn, empowers others around them. That has also been what Miss USA (and Miss Universe) has preached.

But if beauty queens, who put in years of hard work to become the face of that message, don't feel safe and empowered, who is that message helping?

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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