The Miss Universe Organization has suspended the head of Miss USA and is opening an investigation after several of this year's contestants alleged the organization gave preferential treatment to the winner of this year's Miss USA pageant, R’Bonney Gabriel of Texas.
When Bonney was announced as the winner on Oct. 3, there were some immediate signs of trouble. Some contestants appeared to leave the stage without congratulating her, as is customary for the competition, Jasmine Bruce, first runner-up in the 2021 Miss Arkansas pageant, told NBC News.
"There's always pageants where maybe some of the girls aren’t happy with the winner — you know, everyone wants to win," Bruce told NBC News. "But I've never seen all 50 contestants walk off stage or react the way that the contestants reacted in the background. To me, that’s very telling. These girls aren't just upset that they didn’t win. There’s more to the story."
More than a dozen contestants have now made allegations that Gabriel, the first Filipino American to win the crown, was heavily favored to win — or that the contest was rigged entirely, Insider reported.
Heather O'Keefe, Miss Montana 2022, said in a TikTok she believed pageant officials and sponsors were more generous to Gabriel than other contestants.
"Nothing against Texas as a person, I truly think she could have won fair and square, but unfortunately all of this drama has tainted her win," O'Keefe said. "But, there's too much evidence of favoritism to let this go unnoticed."
O'Keefe pointed out an instance of what she described as favoritism in an interview with NBC News.
Gabriel "was allowed to do different walking patterns on stage, when we were all told to strictly follow the walking pattern that we were given to by the choreographer," O'Keefe said.
"She broke that rule, and they let her do it. Her coaches were allowed to sit in on the rehearsals, and anyone whose coach was outside of the Miss Academy wasn’t allowed to be there," she continued.
Gabriel addressed the controversy and denied the allegations of favoritism in an interview with E! News, saying "it was not rigged because I would never enter any pageant or any competition that I know I would win. I have a lot of integrity."
"We were all given the same amount of instructions, we were all given the same point to hit, and we all have different variations of what we do," Gabriel said in a separate interview with NBC News. "We all have the same stage time. We just had little variations within the rule."
The Miss Universe Organization ran the Miss USA competition until 2020, when the Miss Brand Corp. took over. Miss Universe said in a statement to TODAY it would be "immediately" suspending Miss Brand Corp.'s leader, Crystle Stewart.
"Miss Universe Organization will be taking over the Miss USA program while a comprehensive, third-party investigation is conducted," the organization said in the statement.
Stewart, a former Miss USA and Miss Texas, said in a statement to NBC News that she, her staff and pageant partners are taking the allegations "very seriously and are cooperating with the Miss Universe Organization as they investigate the allegations."
The Miss USA Organization told NBC News it had no comment at this time.
Ashley Ehrhart, Miss Oklahoma 2022, told NBC News she does not question Gabriel's win itself. "We're questioning the process that led to that decision," Erhart said. "We are out to seek fairness and to seek justice for every single contestant."
O’Keefe, Miss Montana, added the contestants were "not bitter" about Gabriel's victory.
"We just want to make this right for the girls that are coming after us," O’Keefe told NBC News. "Because this is not the Miss USA organization that we all looked up to as little girls. We just want it to be an empowering thing for women to be a part of and not something that they come out of feeling defeated, like how we’re all feeling right now."
Gabriel is set to represent the U.S. at the Miss Universe pageant in January, and told NBC News she's still excited for the opportunity, despite the controversy.
"I’m very grateful to be Miss USA," Gabriel said. "It’s been a dream of mine. Obviously, it’s been kind of a rocky start. But I’m really looking forward to the year ahead and expanding on my platform."
CORRECTION (Oct. 26, 2022 11:50 a.m.): A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that the Miss Universe Organization had suspended its president. The organization suspended the leader of The Miss Brand Corp., the franchisee of the Miss USA pageant.