The last time that organizers held a Miss Universe pageant in El Salvador, in 1975, rioting students staged demonstrations that ultimately ended in a massacre and plunged the country into a brutal civil war.
On Saturday, when the beauty contest returns to the Central American country for its 72nd annual competition, it’s the future of the pageant itself that may be in danger — after the Thai conglomerate that owns the spectacle announced that it has filed for bankruptcy.
And it’s hardly the only scandal swirling around Miss Universe, which will include two trans competitors this year.
The title will be handed over by reigning beauty queen R’Bonney Gabriel, who was previously Miss USA and Miss Texas USA.
Last year, accusations of rigging hit the Miss USA pageant, which is owned by the Miss Universe organization, as some contestants suggested the contest may have been staged in Gabriel’s favor.
“Most of the Miss USA contestants feel very strongly that there was favoritism towards Miss Texas USA and we have the receipts to prove it,” Miss Montana Heather Lee O’Keefe claimed in a TikTok video in October 2022.
Miss New York Heather Nunez wrote on Instagram: “We were humiliated, thinking we entered something with a fair chance.”
Both the Miss Universe Organization and Gabriel denied any claims of rigging.
Meanwhile, San Salvador locals are protesting the national government having spent a reported $12 million in public funds to host the event in a country with rising levels of extreme poverty.
The protests recall the July 1975 demonstration by a group of impoverished students who blasted the then military government of strongman Arturo Armando Molina for spending $1 million on the pageant. Less than two weeks after Miss Finland, Anne Marie Pohtamo, was crowned Miss Universe, the country’s armed forces occupied a local university and massacred more than 100 students.
On top of it all, the group behind Miss Universe seems to now be broke.
JKN Global Group, owned by transgender activist and entrepreneur Anne Jakrajutatip, bought the Miss Universe pageant in 2022 for $20 million from talent agency WME-IMG, which had taken it over from Donald Trump. The former US president sold the brand in 2015, during the early days of his first presidential campaign, after his remarks calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and drug dealers resulted in the loss of the pageant’s sponsors and some participants.
Jakrajutatip founded JKN Global Group in 2013 as a video and content distribution company. It has since grown into a multinational conglomerate worth nearly $260 million, with two TV networks and products ranging from cosmetics to energy drinks.
But it is facing difficult economic times. In the past year, JKN’s share price fell by more than 80%, according to reports.
The company missed a payment on a $12 million loan due September 1, according to a letter principals sent to the president of the Thailand Stock Exchange.
In addition, many longtime supporters of Miss Universe around the world are balking at new rules that require them to bid for the rights to host pageants in their own countries in order to select contestants for the global competition. Earlier this year, Unicorp in Vietnam severed ties with the Miss Universe Organization. Companies in Ghana, Belize and the Seychelles, among others, followed suit.
Despite the most recent challenge to the troubled event, “Our universe must go on,” said Jakrajutatip in an Instagram post earlier this week.
“Miss Universe Organization, which is only one of our many business lines, is completely clean and will continue to operate as planned,” said Jakrajutatip. “No matter what … I always put the Miss Universe Organization as my first priority in life. No matter how joyful or painful it’s gonna be.”
Jakrajutatip is making history by allowing married women — from Guatemala, Colombia and Switzerland — to compete.
Portugal’s Marina Machete and Rikkie Kolle from the Netherlands — who are both transgender — are also among this year’s 85 contestants. In 2018, Angela Maria Ponce Camacho, Miss Spain, became the first trans woman to compete and ended up winning the Miss Universe Title.
“Ángela wept when it was over, telling the crowd she didn’t need to win — she just wanted the world to know that a trans woman could make it,” Jakrajutatip told Cosmopolitan last month. “I wept too.”
For Jakrajutatip, 44, Ponce Camacho’s participation was a personal victory. Growing up as a boy in a conservative Thai family in Bangkok, she has said, she watched the pageant on TV every year with her mother and sister.
“I knew from the age of 5 that I was born in the wrong body,” she told the magazine.
“At home, my family was adamant that I suppress any hint of femininity I felt inside,” she said. “I felt so much shame, I was afraid to be myself.”
In addition to opening up the competition for women between the ages of 18 and 28, and allowing married, divorced and pregnant women to compete, the millionaire entrepreneur said she is also including mothers among the contestants. Guatemalan mother-of-two Michelle Cohn will compete, as will Colombia’s Camila Avella, who has one child.
Organizers are planning to allot more air time for candidates to speak “as people instead of just focusing on their looks,” Jakrajutatip said.
Furthermore, she added, “There will no longer be male leaders eyeing down delegates in the dressing room.” The leadership team is made up of women, as are this year’s judges and hosts, she said.
“I wanted to create something that was run by women for women — not something for men to ogle over,” she said.
Trump, who also owned Miss Universe affiliate pageants Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, boasted to Howard Stern of walking in on young women in their dressing rooms when he controlled the pageants in 2006.
“I’ll tell you the funniest [thing] is that I’ll go backstage before a show and everyone’s getting dressed,” Trump said. “No men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in, because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it … You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody OK?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so I sort of get away with things like that.”
Jakrajutatip vowed to revolutionize Miss Universe when she bought the franchise last year.
“Why was an organization that claimed to be about female empowerment owned exclusively by men?”she told Cosmopolitan.