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Miss USA’s toxic culture led to resignations, former title holders allege

(NewsNation) — Former Miss America Cara Mund and ex-Miss USA contestant Heather Lee O’Keefe allege the back-to-back resignations of this year’s Miss USA and Miss Teen USA expose a toxic culture of silencing and mistreatment within the pageant organization.

Mund, who won the Miss America crown in 2018, said Saturday on “NewsNation Live” that the exits of Noelia Voigt and UmaSofia Srivastava spotlight bullying tactics she experienced as a title holder four years ago.

“When you are basically taken your job and you’re stripped of it, you’re silenced,” said Mund, now running for Congress as a Republican in North Dakota. “She had no other way to turn and I just applaud her and her courage to step forward.”

Voigt in her resignation statement announced she was quitting for mental health reasons. Fans noticed that, in her statement, the first letters of each sentence spelled out “I am silenced.”

O’Keefe, a former Miss Montana who competed for Miss USA in 2022, alleged the organization enforces restrictive contracts to prevent contestants from criticizing it publicly.

“From a legal standpoint, I would argue that these clauses … are unconscionable,” O’Keefe said of reported “perpetual non-disclosure and non-disparagement clauses” in the Miss USA contract. “When one party … is forced to sign away her rights without any meaningful choice, this is a clear example of unconscionability.”

The controversy further escalated with a leaked resignation letter published by The New York Times claiming Voigt experienced sexual harassment during her reign.

“It breaks my heart to hear that that happened to her and that she wasn’t receiving the support that she should,” O’Keefe said of Voigt’s harassment claim.

While under new ownership, O’Keefe claimed the pageants previously allowed “the organization to override the judges’ decisions and handpick the winner.”

Mund argued the situation shows that top Miss USA officials lack respect for empowering women. “It’s not just mental health alone.”

“When I stood out … and talked about my leadership challenges as well, you just hope that it’s not that way for the next woman,” Mund said. “And so she’s really taken this on.”