Beauty pageants already have a colorism problem — Trump just made it worse

Miss India Manushi Chhillar wins the 67th Miss World contest final in Sanya, on the tropical Chinese island of Hainan on Nov. 18, 2017. (Photo: Getty Images)

Among the many revelations unearthed in the forthcoming book Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump is one that alludes to President Trump’s racism at beauty pageants (he was the previous owner of Miss Universe), where he allegedly eliminated contestants for not being white enough.

“He often thought a woman was too ethnic or too dark-skinned,” a Miss Universe staffer reportedly told the book’s authors, Michael Isikoff, who is the Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo News, and David Corn, who is the Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones. “He had a particular type of woman he thought was a winner. Others were too ethnic. He liked a type. There was Olivia Culpo, Dayanara Torres [the 1993 winner], and, no surprise, East European women.” Culpo, who is an American of Italian descent, and Torres, who is Puerto Rican, are both light-skinned. 

If Trump did favor light-skinned contestants, he wouldn’t be the first pageant official to feel that way. Despite reports that beauty pageants have been evolving to include more diversity, many still heavily favor women with lighter skin. It’s an issue that’s related to racism but is more specifically referred to as colorism. The term was coined in 1983 by writer Alice Walker, who defined it as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”

One of the places where colorism and the beauty pageant industry converge is India, a powerhouse in the global beauty pageant world. The country ranks fourth among those with the most beauty queens, boasting eight crowns and 15 runners-up from the major four pageants combined: Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss International, and Miss Earth.

In India, as in many other parts of the world, women are constantly fed the message that fair skin is considered more beautiful — and are encouraged to strive for it at any cost. It’s an ideal reinforced by the country’s main beauty competition each year, Miss India, whose crown has nearly always gone to a contestant with lighter skin.


America has its own issues when it comes to discrimination based on skin color in beauty pageants. Black women weren’t allowed to compete in Miss America until 1970, at which point there were only a handful of Asian and Native American women who had competed. Thirteen years later, Vanessa Williams became the first black woman to win. Since then, just seven black women and one Asian woman have followed in her footsteps.

In 2013, Nina Davuluri made history as the first American woman of Indian descent to win, but her victory was immediately followed by hateful comments on Twitter from people referring to her dark skin in derogatory ways and wrongly suggesting that she was an “Arab.” Davuluri, who was born in Syracuse, N.Y., also received pushback from women in the country of her ancestry, who said she was “too Indian”-looking to win Miss India. 

A post shared by Unfair + Lovely (@unfairandlovely.intl) on Feb 26, 2016 at 4:03pm PST

Miss Universe, which Trump purchased in 1996, has also tended to heavily favor light-skinned women. Each year, roughly 80 countries participate in the competition, which began in 1952. Of the 65 women who have taken the crown, just five of them have been black. This week’s allegation that Trump has contributed to this whitewashing isn’t the first of its kind.

Back in October 2016, a former Miss Teen USA winner named Kamie Crawford tweeted out a thread revealing that when she won — the first woman of color to do so — she was warned that Trump “doesn’t like black people.” Crawford was reportedly told this ahead of meeting him, in case he wasn’t “welcoming.” He ended up taking a liking to Crawford, but she witnessed him being displeased with others.

“Sure enough after I was warned about him, I saw him in action & witnessed him completely snub a black contestant at Miss Universe rehearsals,” Crawford tweeted




Crawford’s story paints a disturbing picture, one that has new meaning in light of Isikoff and Corn’s book. Given Trump’s history of treatment toward women, it isn’t a difficult scenario to imagine.

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