It was an inauspicious start to a carefully stage-managed event which claims to “be built on a foundation of inclusion and continues to be a celebration of diversity.”
Miss USA has been forced to apologise ahead of Sunday’s Miss Universe 2018 beauty pageant in Thailand after apparently mocking Miss Cambodia and Miss Vietnam for not being able to speak English.
Organisers have worked hard to redefine this year’s Miss Universe – which will be the 67th and the largest in the competition’s history, with 94 women taking part – for a post-#MeToo era.
This year’s pageant is to be judged by an all-female panel, made up of “entrepreneurs” and “industry experts", and will include the first ever transgender entrant.
Ashley Graham, an American model famous for promoting a “body positive” message, will host the event backstage while the US leg of the competition in September dropped its controversial swimsuit round in a bid to project a more progressive image.
Against this backdrop, the online fury sparked by an Instagram Live video featuring Miss USA will be all the more galling to the event’s organisers.
The video shows Sarah Rose Summers, 24, speaking with Miss Colombia and Miss Australia apparently making light of the fact that H’Hen Nie, Miss Vietnam, cannot speak English.
“She’s so cute and she pretends to know so much English and then you ask her a question after having a whole conversation with her and she goes..”, said Ms Summers, before miming someone smiling and nodding.
In an aside on Nat Rern, Miss Cambodia, Ms Summers said that it must be isolating and confusing not to be able to communicate, before adding “poor Cambodia.”
The online backlash was swift and damning, particularly after influential fashion industry Instagram account, Diet Prada, reported the comments as “normalised xenophobia.”
“If she’s trying to show empathy, the condescending, intolerant tone tells a different story. A reminder that you’re participating in a competition in a country/continent where English is NOT the primary language,” it said.
Ms Summers later revealed that she had spoken about the issue with both Ms Rern and Ms Nie. “I would never intend to hurt another,” she said on her own social media account.
Her comments were certainly out of step with the broader themes of inclusion and transgender rights at this year’s competition with Angela Ponce, Miss Spain, appearing as the first ever transgender contestant.
Ms Ponce indicated she would like to send a strong message to Donald Trump, the US president and former owner of Miss Universe since 2015, and to others who tried to define her by physical traits.
"I always say: having a vagina didn’t transform me into a woman. I am a woman, already before birth, because my identity is here," she told AFP, gesturing to her head.