Inside Miss USA Turmoil: A Leaked Letter and String of Resignations

When the reigning Miss USA, Noelia Voigt, announced this week she would be resigning from her position, she cited her mental health and wrote about her gratitude for the opportunity.

“As individuals, we grow through experiencing different things in life that lead us to learning more about ourselves,” she wrote on Instagram on Monday.

But an internal resignation letter by Ms. Voigt to Miss USA leadership and the Miss Universe Organization, obtained on Friday by The New York Times, presented a much darker picture.

In the eight-page letter, Ms. Voigt, who represented the state of Utah and was crowned in September, described “a toxic work environment within the Miss USA Organization that, at best, is poor management and, at worst, is bullying and harassment.” She also complained in her letter that the organization had delayed making good on her prize winnings.

The Miss USA Organization did not respond to request for comment.

Ms. Voigt’s departure has spurred at least two other resignations. UmaSofia Srivastava, Miss Teen USA, announced she was stepping down from her role on Wednesday. Arianna Lemus, who represented Colorado at Miss USA in 2023, said on Friday she was resigning in solidarity after seeing Ms. Voigt’s post.

“That was a call to help,” Ms. Lemus, 27, said in an interview.

The sudden departures have touched off wider speculation in the pageant world that crowned winners are legally barred from speaking freely about their experiences with the Miss USA Organization. Many of Ms. Voigt’s past competitors, including Ms. Lemus, shared a statement demanding that she be released from any nondisclosure agreements.

In her resignation letter, Ms. Voigt said she experienced an incident of sexual harassment when, during a Christmas parade last year in Sarasota, Fla., a driver made inappropriate comments toward her.

She said in her letter that the organization failed to support her when she reported the incident.

Ms. Voigt went on to write that serving as Miss USA took a toll on her health, adding that she now struggled with anxiety and took medication to manage her symptoms.

She said she had begun experiencing “heart palpitations, full body shakes, loss of appetite, unintentional weight loss, loss of sleep, loss of hair and more.”

Some people believed Ms. Voigt’s Instagram post announcing her resignation contained a secret message. The first letter of each of the first 11 sentences of the statement spell the phrase “I AM SILENCED,” which some have interpreted as a signal that Ms. Voigt is unable to speak openly about her experience.

Just a few days after Ms. Voigt’s announcement, Ms. Srivastava, who was crowned Miss Teen USA in 2023, also resigned from her post.

“After careful consideration, I have decided to resign as I find that my personal values no longer fully align with the direction of the organization,” Ms. Srivastava, who represented the state of New Jersey at the Miss Teen USA pageant in September, wrote on Instagram.

Her post included a quote from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.”

“I know all of us who love the program want to rush out and do something,” Laylah Rose, the president and chief executive of the Miss USA Organization, wrote in an email to The Times earlier this week, regarding Ms. Voigt’s and Ms. Srivastava’s resignations. “My goal is to provide truly helpful steps we can take together.”

“Our all-encompassing goal at Miss USA is to celebrate and empower women,” Ms. Rose added, saying she was taking “these allegations seriously.”

Through a representative, both Ms. Srivastava and Ms. Voigt declined to comment, citing a nondisclosure agreement. (A copy of the 2023 Miss USA contract obtained by The New York Times appears to bar signees from disclosing any information about Miss USA while employed by the organization.)

After Ms. Voigt’s announcement, several of her fellow Miss USA 2023 competitors posted a statement on Instagram demanding that the Miss USA Organization release Ms. Voigt from any such agreement.

Juliana Morehouse, who competed at Miss USA representing Maine and lives in South Carolina, said in an interview with The Times that the letter originated in a group chat of 2023 participants who were “shocked and saddened” to hear of Ms. Voigt’s resignation. On a Zoom call, they hashed out the message they wanted to share in support of Ms. Voigt.

(Ms. Morehouse did not provide an exact figure but said the number of women who wrote and shared the letter comprised a majority of the 51 competitors at Miss USA in 2023.)

Claudia Michelle Engelhardt, who stepped down from her role as social media director for Miss USA this month, said she felt the Miss USA participants were unfairly pressured into signing their contracts.

“It was pretty much, ‘You have to sign this or you’re not going to compete,’” Ms. Engelhardt, 24, said. “You just worked your butt off to get here. You won your state. What, are you not going to go because you don’t want to sign a contract? They are basically holding you hostage, for lack of a better term, to sign this contract.”

Ms. Morehouse said she was given “a little over 24 hours” to review the contract.

“I don’t think any of us sought legal representation to review it with us,” she said in an interview with The Times. “We had never heard of such an ironclad NDA being implemented in previous years, because this was the first year of the new leadership.” (Ms. Rose became president of the organization last year.)

She emphasized that while her personal experience with Miss USA was a positive one, she hoped speaking out would ensure that was the case for all participants in the future.

Ms. Lemus, the former Miss Colorado USA, said she saw some irony in how Miss USA appeared to be operating.

“This is an organization that preaches women’s empowerment,” she said.

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