After seven years of competing in state-level pageants, Marisa Butler had finally done it. All the velcroed sashes, hours of interview prepping, long waltzes across well-lit stages in uncomfortable heels, and waiting and waiting and waiting for them to call her name had finally paid off. In 2018, they did: Miss World America is Marisa Butler.
Butler had dreamed about the possibilities of her year-long reign as queen: She would set an example. She would give young women a voice. She would spend time in her community. And, unbeknownst to her, she would find herself at the Japanese restaurant Zuma in Las Vegas, wearing her sash and crown in public, while a male sponsor removed her utensils and forcibly hand-fed her sushi rolls in the most humiliating moment of her life.
Jacob Arabo (formerly Arabov), the owner of luxury jeweler Jacob & Co which had sponsored the 2019 Miss World America pageant, was seated at a table with Butler on the evening of October 11, 2019, at the Cosmopolitan hotel, as she attempted to eat her meal. But Butler says Arabo—or “Jacob the Jeweler” as he’s called by clients 50 Cent, Kanye West, Jay-Z, and now, the Kardashians—confiscated her chopsticks and proceeded to feed her sushi by hand, as national director Michael Blakey stood by.
“Michael was sitting right next to me and he was laughing along with Jacob,” Butler told Jezebel. “He wasn’t sticking up for me or saying how inappropriate this was, even though it was very clear that I was in distress and I was uncomfortable. I remember I just wanted to disappear.”
Butler says to this day, she has never felt more disrespected as a titleholder or as a woman than she did that night. “Being Miss World America was horrible, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Butler said. (A PR representative from Jacob & Co denied the chopsticks incident via email, and Blakey ignored a request for comment.)
Pageants have evolved drastically over the last few decades, mostly eliminating swimsuit competitions, slowly making way for plus size contestants and the first transgender contestant, and rebranding themselves as positive arenas for female empowerment, where socially accepted standards of beauty are no longer a requisite.
But, as evidenced by the incident with Jacob the Jeweler, the misogynistic and profit-fueled culture of Donald Trump’s involvement with Miss Universe still permeates the industry, most notably in Miss World America, the subsidiary of the globally renowned pageant organization, Miss World, whose annual competition takes place on December 16.
Butler, now 27, says she felt “silenced and belittled” by the organization’s national leaders during her year-long reign. She claims she was pressured to sign a predatory contract for Blakey’s personal talent management company, and he asked her to pose in front of a Ferrari in a bikini in honor of Hump Day. She declined, and posed in a dress instead, as shown in an Instagram screenshot provided by Butler.
Being repeatedly denigrated “severely negatively impacted not only my mental health during that year, but it almost completely altered my relationship with pageants,” Butler said. “I felt so defeated.”
Butler is just one in a long line of women who were made to feel like “props” within the confines of the Miss World America pageant system. Miss World America 2020 Alissa Anderegg—who says she was “spoken down to, degraded, and gaslighted to the point where [she] cried” throughout her reign—says she, too, felt “violated and used.” Interviews conducted with 15 individuals, including former titleholders, former contestants, family members of contestants, former state directors, and fellow national pageant directors paint a picture of an organization tainted by misogyny, emotional and physical abuse, denigration and empty promises, all motivated by profit.
Contestants in 2019 had been promised three meal tickets each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but several of them told Jezebel they only received one voucher a day, forcing them to repeatedly text and call chaperones in an attempt to track down enough food to get them through the competition. With no scheduled meal times, contestants were hungry throughout the grueling days of the pageant.
Gianna Puopolo, now 19, competed in the teen category that year. When she arrived at the hotel room the MWA organization had provided for her, she was shocked to find mysterious substances splattered on the walls, stains on the bed, and “someone’s old flip flop on the floor.” She described the fitness portion of the pageant—which was early in the morning before many women had had a chance to eat—as particularly horrific. contestants were instructed to perform as many reps of a fitness exercise (like burpees) in an allotted amount of time. She said some teens were hyperventilating, throwing up, and at least one contestant fainted. Puopolo said that many of the contestants developed coughs afterwards from all the cigarette smoke in the casino.
Contestant Tyra Daniel, 22, added they had no security in the hotel, which is uncommon for national pageants, especially when minors are involved. “There were times where we would be walking to our hotel rooms and we had drunk creepy men follow us to our rooms, or follow us to the ballroom where we had the pageant,” she said.
A spokesperson for MWA declined to comment on specific allegations relating to the 2019 pageant, but responded to an incident in which contestant Miss World America 2021 Shree Saini collapsed backstage and was later hospitalized. “The MWA 2019 pageant was a success,” the spokesperson said to Jezebel in a statement. “While one of our contestants became gravely ill and had to be transported to the hospital, we were relieved when we received news she was going to make a full recovery.”
In response to the remainder of the allegations laid out here, a spokesperson for Miss World America said via email, “MWA chooses not to comment on hearsay, rumors, speculations, exaggerations, embellishments, nor any other unsubstantiated matters.”
“A Mini Donald Trump”
It’s typical for American pageant systems to fill a national director opening with a recognizable figure who has participated in pageants for decades—whether as a consultant, dressmaker, state director, or a former contestant. But when the Miss World America announced the franchise had been given to self-proclaimed musician, record producer, artist manager, YouTuber and serial entrepreneur Michael Blakey, most of the sources told Jezebel they were surprised.
For one, Blakey had never worked within the pageant system before. But in an industry that’s still trying to rid itself of an oft-critiqued past, the appointment of an elderly man who was far from an advocate for women was a curious one. Blakey, according to his online persona, appears to live a and lavish lifestyle not unlike The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, complete with Ferraris and Lambos, jaunts down Rodeo Drive, private jets,, photos of women in evening gowns leaning sexily against a car, helicopters, and G-wagons. His YouTube channel features videos titled “$4.5million diamond bracelet!” and “A TOUR OF MY NEW PRIVATE JET!!” And in an Instagram post, he writes, “what could be more valuable than being surrounded by two beautiful ladies … Perhaps the $28 million dollars worth of @jacobandco diamonds they are wearing :)))”
Multiple former Miss World America state directors and former contestants said it seemed as if Blakey wanted to be a “mini Donald Trump,” as former Teen Miss World America contestant Gianna Puopolo puts it. “He wanted to be that Miss Universe type where he just had access to all these beautiful women at all times. He knows nothing about pageants. He cares nothing about pageants,” said Shane SantaCroce, MWA’s former New York state director.
When run in a particular manner, pageants can be “cash cows,” according to former Miss World America auditor and current assistant national director for Miss Earth USA, Ariel Sorensen. “If you have a history of running businesses or you’re business savvy and you take over a national pageant, you can make so much money,” Sorensen says. “There’s no limit to what you can charge a contestant to compete.”
Blakey’s interest in running the pageant appears to be entirely about money and pretty women. Butler, Anderegg, and other former contestants were disgusted and “uncomfortable” to find several instances of Blakey liking or interacting with inappropriate comments on photos or videos he had posted of Miss World America contestants.
In a now deleted Instagram post of Blakey with two titleholders, Blakey liked comments that read “i like your wives ;)” and “michael you promised she would Jump in the pool for 50,000 likes” to which Blakey responded: “stay tuned.” In another post of a video promoting the 2019 Miss World America pageant (the comments have since been turned off), a commenter asked “Did you pork any of them,” and Blakey liked this response. When state directors brought these to the leadership team’s attention, former state director Diane Schmidt says, they were told an intern had done it unintentionally. But the comments remained up until recently. The MWA spokesperson did not address these incidents.
“You might not have any control of what people comment on your social media, but you absolutely, 100% have control over how you respond to them,” Butler said. “Besides, he doesn’t have the authority to make Miss World let alone Miss World America jump in a pool for the entertainment of his followers without their consent.”
“They Had No Respect for Women Like Me”
Butler began to see red flags with the MWA leadership team from “day one.”
After Butler won the national title, she drove up to Los Angeles to meet the team for an official crowning ceremony. The second that crown was placed on her head, Butler says Blakey began pressuring her to sign a predatory contract with Blakey’s personal talent management company, Electra Star Management. Blakey told her it was “standard boilerplate” language and that she should just sign and look it over when she got home. But Butler refused, feeling as though something was off.
When she later showed the contract to her lawyer, Butler was told she should not sign “under any circumstances.” The contract, which Jezebel reviewed, said Blakey had no obligation to travel to events with her, required that Blakey receive a 20% commission of any entertainment-related gift she received (regardless of its relation to pageantry), and stated that she would remain under his management for three years—well beyond her year-long reign.
Butler says Blakey continually taunted her about not signing the Electra Star contract throughout the following year, telling her that if she had signed that agreement, things would’ve gone a lot smoother for her.
Miss World America 2020 Alissa Anderegg had a similar experience to Butler’s. She also grew up watching Miss USA and Miss America on TV, and dreamt of one day joining the queens’ ranks. “I was always so inspired by the fact that not only were these women beautiful on the outside and looked like my Barbie dolls,” she said. “They also had something to say.”
For the duration of her reign, Anderegg said the MWA team didn’t procure a single appearance opportunity for her (other than five small interviews), and says she was later reprimanded for not doing enough appearances, which she would have had to organize herself in the middle of covid lockdowns in New York. The team recommended she take photos in front of San Francisco landmarks creating the illusion of community appearances, which Anderegg found deceitful and declined. To make the most of her year, Anderegg personally reached out and secured nearly 125 opportunities herself and began recruiting the voices of other women who had felt used under MWA’s care. As though MWA’s grasp wasn’t firm enough, Anderegg’s contract also stipulated that she could not swear, smoke, drink, do drugs, or gamble, nor could she wear “casual clothing” or jeans shorts without prior written consent.
Notably, Miss World America, a for-profit pageant, does not provide scholarship money or salaries for their winners. By comparison, Bustle reported that Miss USA 2018 won a luxury apartment in New York City, a year’s salary plus living expenses, a personal stylist from the Miss Universe Organization, travel accommodations, and representation with WME. Miss America provides at least $50,000 in scholarships and has, in the past, awarded a six-figure salary to its winners. Miss Earth USA, a nonprofit, provides a $5,000 scholarship, wardrobe, modeling opportunities, and more. Anderegg said she received a few sponsored items, while running MWA’s social media and having to work full time for another organization to afford the travel expenses associated with promoting her title.
“I pretty much came into this volunteering my time and my face as the representative of this national brand for free because I wanted to promote my cause and do something meaningful for my life,” Anderegg said. “That turned into them exploiting me to represent a national brand of a for profit pageant for free.”
When Anderegg repeatedly tried to confront the organization regarding their treatment of her, she says they talked to her with hostility and like she was a “five-year-old” and a “dumb bimbo.” And there was no one to field her complaints.“There’s no HR,” she said. “There’s not anyone above that, besides Miss World’s CEO who has 130 other countries that she presides over on top of the Miss World brand. There’s no one to keep them accountable.”
“We Deserve to Be Taken Seriously”
In a post #MeToo era where sexual harassment and casual workplace misogyny are no longer tolerated, one enduring question remains: Why would talented young women willingly put themselves through an industry that has historically been marked by predatory behavior, racism (Black women were excluded from the Miss America pageant through the ‘60s) and mistreatment?
“I think of women who compete in these high stakes international pageants as athletes in the Olympics, we all spend countless time and money for years in hopes of representing our country on an international level,” Anderegg said. “And like with most Olympians, most of us in pageants don’t earn fame, we don’t earn significant financial rewards. Rather, we participate because we love what we do. We like to compete and we want to make an impact. Pageantry is our sport.”
Pageants allowed Puopolo to face the bullies that had taunted her for years at school. Pageants gave Daniel a platform to raise her voice about the criminal justice system that had incarcerated her uncle—an innocent man. And, regardless of all the risks, pageants gave Anderegg and Butler the courage to speak out as they’re doing today.
Despite the stigma surrounding the industry, rumors of cattiness between contestants, and pay-for-play not only being condoned, but encouraged, these women believe they are entitled to a pageant experience free of harassment, manipulation, and gaslighting. They’re begging for pageantry to be a better place...a safer place.
“There needs to be a change,” Anderegg said. “This is not a 1960 beauty pageant. We are in 2021. We all have hopes. We all have dreams. And we deserve to be taken seriously.”