On May 22, 2010, fifteen-year-old Olivia O’Neil won the Miss Teen Wanganui beauty pageant in Wanganui, New Zealand, only to lose the title three months later when a Facebook profile picture of a brunette O’Neil, who dyed her blond hair brown following her victory, incensed pageant officials. They asked her to surrender her crown on the grounds that she wasn’t fulfilling her role; pageant spokesman Jevan Goulter explained to the New Zealand Herald, “The expectation in holding the crown [was] that she maintain the image she had when she won it.” O’Neil, on the other hand, maintained to the Herald that the pageant staff bullied her; the event’s organizer allegedly told the teen that she would “not go far in this world.”
That same month, Lebanon-born Miss Michigan, Rima Fakih, became Miss USA 2010, but shortly after the pageant, online media outlets leaked photos of Fakih competing in a 2007 pole-dancing contest sponsored by Detroit-based radio station WKQI. Despite the fact that Fakih was fully clothed in the pictures, they kicked up a storm of negative publicity around her, especially among Miss USA pageant administrators, who questioned her fitness to represent their organization. Fakih kept her crown, but not without a fight.
Whether O’Neil, Fakih, or their respective pageant committees were in the right in these scenarios is a subjective matter; what’s indisputable is that these incidents were hardly the first of their kind, since beauty-pageant contestants and overseers have been butting heads for years. In fact, O’Neil’s choice to color her hair and Fakih’s dirty-dancing antics are about as tame as it gets in that world—get a load of the scandalous stunts some of their predecessors pulled.
Vanessa Williams, Miss America
In 1983, Williams made headlines for becoming the first-ever African American Miss America. In 1984, she was in the news again, but this time it was because Penthouse magazine had released nude photos of Williams shot during the previous year. Once a national treasure, Williams fell from grace and was forced to step down from her role as Miss America—but that didn’t mean she shied away from the public eye. On the contrary, she went on to become a well-known pop singer and actress on the sitcom Ugly Betty, proving that some beauty queens’ star power endures far beyond a one-year stint as a do-gooder with Vaseline on her teeth.
Tara Conner, Miss USA
Young, blond, and beautiful, Tara Connor seemed like a shoo-in when she won the Miss USA title in 2006, as a twenty-year-old. But when the Kentucky native moved to New York City to begin her reign, she bit off more of the Big Apple than she could chew and was soon embroiled in controversy, rumored to be drinking underage, using drugs, and making out with Miss Teen USA Katie Blair. When pageant co-owner Donald Trump caught wind of her shenanigans, he threatened to dethrone her, but ultimately (and much to the surprise of followers of the scandal) decided to give her a second chance, claiming she had a “beautiful heart.” Conner admitted to having abused alcohol and cocaine and entered a rehab facility, then resumed her duties.
Laura Zúñiga, Nuestra Belleza Mexico
Zúñiga’s tenure as Nuestra Belleza Mexico was bright but brief: the twenty-three-year-old model won the national pageant in September 2008 but by that December was arrested in Jalisco, Mexico, along with seven men carrying guns and $53,000 in cash, on charges of drug trafficking, money laundering, and racketeering. Zúñiga’s story—that her boyfriend, who she hadn’t realized was a member of Mexico’s famed Juárez Cartel, had kidnapped her—didn’t fly with the state police or the press, which gave her the nickname Miss Narco. Although a judge ordered Zúñiga’s release from the detention center where she’d been held for a month after he found no hard evidence that she’d committed a crime herself, the Nuestra Belleza Mexico organization took Zúñiga’s crown away and awarded it to her runner-up.
Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA
During the Miss USA 2009 pageant, contestant Carrie Prejean caused quite a stir when she admitted, in response to a question about same-sex marriage from judge/gossip blogger Perez Hilton, that she supported only heterosexual unions. Then, after photos of a partially nude Prejean appeared on a celebrity blog, the Miss California USA organization launched an official investigation of her contract. Initially, co-owner Donald Trump defended Prejean for both her answer to Hilton’s question and her decision to pose for the photographs, but a month later, citing “continued breach of contract issues,” he rescinded her Miss California title. Prejean fired back with a civil lawsuit against the pageant but ultimately settled out of court when, according to CNN, an “extremely graphic” solo sex tape of her surfaced. Prejean couldn’t stay quiet for long, though—she released a memoir entitled Still Standing: The Untold Story of My Fight Against Gossip, Hate, and Political Attacks, in November 2009, and then, while promoting the book on Larry King Live, called King “inappropriate” when he asked her to discuss her lawsuit with the Miss California USA pageant.
To Err Is Human
Considering the huge number of beauty pageants that take place all over the world each year, it seems inevitable that contestants will slip up once in a while. In some cases, as in Williams’s, Fakih’s, and Prejean’s, exhibitionist displays from the past come back to haunt people. Other times, contestants make seemingly innocent decisions that get blown out of proportion, as happened with O’Neil. And some pageant winners, like Conner and Zúñiga, seem to forget altogether that they’re under the microscope and get caught up in truly illicit activities that will dog them forever. We all make mistakes, but when it comes to these tainted beauty queens, forgiveness doesn’t come easily.