The 2023 Miss Universe Pageant was held on Saturday, January 14. R’Bonney Gabriel from the United States took home the crown. She is the first Filipino American to be named Miss Universe and the first American to win the competition since 2012.
The victory has generated a considerable amount of controversy. Social media lit up with claims that the new owners of the Miss Universe Organization, the JKN Global Group, “rigged” the competition to ensure Gabriel’s win. The organization has now released a statement to address these accusations.
“This year’s competition was the first time a trans woman addressed viewers as an owner of the Miss Universe pageant.” This pertains to Anne Jakrajutatip, the transgender Thai businesswoman who is CEO of the JKN Global Group.
The statement continued, “It was also the first time a Filipina American took the crown. The false rigging allegations are absurd and distract from the incredible milestones our organization and the delegates achieved this weekend. Instead of focusing on inaccurate statements, we will continue to shine a light on women’s empowerment, inclusiveness, diversity, and transformational leadership across the globe.”
Online critics claim the pageant was rigged due to the JKN Global Group also owning the Miss USA pageant. R’Bonney Gabriel was named Miss Texas in December 2021 and became Miss USA in October 2022, becoming the first Filipino American to hold this title as well. Favoritism toward the American contestant was also suspected due to the Miss Universe competition being held in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Several contestants shared the sentiment that the 28-year-old Houston native was treated with “favoritism.” In the Miss USA pageant, Mikala McGhee, Miss Missouri, told Insider, “Many girls felt like the plan from the beginning was for R’Bonney to win, no matter who else was in the pageant.”
McGhee is one of many contestants who broke tradition by walking off the stage in October without congratulating the new Miss USA. Yet she claims the gesture was not to disrespect Miss Texas but to show the audience, “We all had no idea what was going on.”
More than a dozen contestants feel the event was rigged, pointing out cases where Gabriel seemed to receive “preferential treatment.” Specifically, she was allowed to walk in different patterns than what was assigned by choreographers.
Heather Lee O’Keefe, Miss Montana, disclosed to NBC News that Gabriel’s coaches were allowed to sit in on rehearsals. In contrast, anyone else’s coach outside of the organization was prohibited from doing so.
After these accusations were made, the Miss Universe Organization suspended Crystle Stewart and her company, Miss Brand Corp. At the time, Ms. Stewart was the head of the organization, which is currently under an internal investigation.
R’Bonney Gabriel had said to E! News in October, “I would never enter any pageant or any competition that I know I would win. I have much integrity.”