Pop culture has long mimicked pageantry. It’s reflected in Taylor Swift’s sequined leotard, Beyoncé’s unmistakable strut, and even Margot Robbie’s twinkling grin in Barbie. The melangé of glam and controversy in pageantry encouraged The New York Times’ Lauren Herstik to co-produce the documentary How to Fix a Pageant.
“You have things like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé and Barbie this year each earning a billion dollars, or just about to get there,” Herstik tells Rolling Stone. “There’s a lot of connections between that kind of culture and it’s rooted in the pageant world.”
In FX’s How to Fix a Pageant, presented by The New York Times, former Miss USA contestants expose the chaos within the organization. The women discuss sexual harassment allegations against a former Miss USA vice president as well as rigging claims against the Miss USA president.
In the documentary, Taylor Hale, a former Miss Michigan 2021 contestant and Big Brother winner, recounts when Miss USA vice president Max Sebrechts offered to carry her costume and leave it inside her hotel room. After dropping it off, Sebrechts, who was married to Miss USA president Crystle Stewart at the time, allegedly gave her a hug and began to caress her hair. Then, Hale says he took it a step further.
“He whispered in my ear and said, ‘You’re so gorgeous,’ and he kissed my cheek, but it was really the corner of my mouth,” Hale says in the doc.
Hale emailed Miss Universe president Paula Shugart about the incident, and says she did not receive a response. (Miss USA falls under the Miss Universe umbrella.)
Sebrechts is alleged to have sent sexually-explicit messages to multiple Miss USA contestants. He allegedly shared a shirtless photo with a contestant and a message that read, “Those tights you were wearing looked awfully sexy on your tight body.” He is also alleged to have messaged contestants asking for a “no strings attached” relationship and sent one a video of him pleasuring himself, reported The New York Post. One contestant in the doc claims that Stewart was well aware of her husband’s actions.
After the allegations were made public, the Miss USA organization emailed 2021 contestants to inform them that the company was undergoing structural changes.
“Max Sebrechts will no longer serve as the Miss USA Organization’s Vice President and will be focusing his efforts on other business ventures,” wrote Stewart in an email.
The Miss USA pageant professes to not only reward beauty and intelligence but also aims to empower and inspire young women. So, Nicole Rittenmeyer, co-producer and director of the documentary, found the allegations disappointing but unsurprising.
“[I’m] grateful that Taylor was willing to go on camera [and] really bummed out that there were at least three other people we talked to who told us similar things happened and did not want to go on camera,” Rittenmeyer says.
While filming How to Fix a Pageant, Rittenmeyer maintains that the Miss Universe organization agreed to cooperate with them and allow them to film a pageant, but later changed their mind.
“I think what they said was, ‘The pageant world is a small world, and we know that you’re running a hit piece,’” Rittenmeyer recalls.
They did, however, manage to speak to Sebrechts, current coaches and directors for the doc, but were not permitted to publicly report their statements. How to Fix a Pageant concludes with an on-camera interview with Stewart, who is no longer serving as president. (Sebrechts and Stewart have also separated.)
Stewart, a former Miss Texas and Miss USA, became president of the organization in November 2020, becoming the first Black woman to hold the title. (Former president Donald Trump sold the organization in 2015 after making racist comments about Mexican people.) Following the crowning of Miss Texas R’Bonney Gabriel in October 2022, multiple contestants levied allegations that the competition was rigged and that they “never stood a chance.” Gabriel was the first Miss Texas to best the competition since Stewart’s Miss Texas win in 1998, and later went on to win Miss Universe in January. In addition, Stewart’s training program, Miss Academy, was the official sponsor for Miss USA, and both the 2023 runner-up and winner hailed from Miss Academy.
As Herstik reflects on the documentary and the pageant’s decades-long history, she acknowledges that internalized misogyny permeates the organization, which makes it easy for the women to blame each other. When Stewart began running the all-female operation, she lacked the experience and support to run a nationwide company, Herstik says. There was immediate pressure to excel.
“This was the first time that we really understood how informally this organization was run,” Herstik offers. “And how much rope there was to hang yourself by if you were put in charge of running it.”