Miss Universe has been praised for including older contestants. A leaked video suggests its inclusive new policy on age may be little more than a PR stunt.

From left: Miss Venezuela Amanda Dudamel, Miss USA R'Bonney Gabriel and Miss Dominican Republic Andreina Martinez hold hands before the final verdict in 2023.
From left: Miss Venezuela Amanda Dudamel, Miss USA R'Bonney Gabriel and Miss Dominican Republic Andreina Martinez hold hands before the final verdict in 2023. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP)

In the last few weeks, the Miss Universe organization has garnered praise for its inclusive new policies, making women of any age and marital status, who are pregnant or already mothers, eligible to compete for the first time since the pageant started in the 1950s.

But a leaked video of an internal Miss Universe meeting from October 2023 raises questions about whether leadership’s decision to remove restrictions for contestants is little more than a strategic ploy for positive press.

Last month, Bailey Anne Kennedy was crowned the new Miss Maryland USA — becoming the first transgender and the first Asian American woman to win the title. The 31-year-old said she decided to compete in the pageant after Miss Universe lifted age restrictions last year on contestants to allow anyone over 28 years old to compete. (The Miss Universe organization changed its rules to allow transgender contestants in 2012). Winners of the state pageants compete in the Miss USA competition and that winner goes on to Miss Universe.

Social media users were quick to praise Kennedy because she, as one X user put it, “broke almost every barrier that existed in the state’s pageant history.”

Kennedy’s win follows a swirl of press coverage from outlets like NBC News and CNN on 71-year-old Marissa Teijo’s history-making debut as the oldest contestant to ever participate in the Miss Texas USA pageant.

“I feel that all women now have a new stage of opportunity, strength and beauty,” Teijo told USA Today.

The positive headlines, along with the language on its website describing the Miss Universe organization as “inclusive” and “a safe space for women,” may suggest that the previously embattled organization is turning over a new leaf after years of controversies. Most recently, it saw the unprecedented resignations of both Miss USA and Miss Teen USA titleholders and allegations from former Miss USA employees about a toxic work environment. Miss USA operates under Miss Universe’s leadership; Miss Universe did not issue any statements about the resignations or allegations against Miss USA leadership.

But while there may be fewer restrictions on who can compete in the Miss Universe and its subsidiary competitions like Miss USA, it is unclear whether the contestants who now qualify for pageants thanks to the organization's new policies actually have a chance of taking home the crown.

According to a leaked internal video obtained by Yahoo News and conversations with former Miss Universe employees, they don’t.

The video, which was originally leaked in February by a former employee covered by Vox in late May, depicts a boardroom meeting in Mexico City, the current main office of the Miss Universe organization, that took place in October 2023. Among those seated at the table are Anne Jakkaphong Jakrajutatip, the co-owner of Miss Universe and the first non-American and transgender woman to own the organization; Raul Rocha, the other co-owner; Salvador Ortiz, a business associate of Rocha’s; and Cynthia de la Vega, a former beauty pageant holder who stepped down as the franchise owner of Miss Mexico in May.

In the video, the group can be heard discussing “Plan Maya,” which Jakrajutatip explains is the plan for Miss Universe to now allow “trans women, women with husbands, divorced women” and the “changed age limit.”

“This is a communication strategy because, you understand, they can compete but they cannot win,” Jakrajutatip tells the room. “We just put the policy out there — ‘social inclusion’ as people would say.”

Rodrigo Goytortua, the former CEO of Miss Mexico who was hired by Rocha and Ortiz to help with Miss Universe's social media strategy, was in the room during the conversation. His crew filmed the meeting and he was the one who leaked the footage earlier this year. Goytortua does not work for the organization anymore.

Goytortua told Yahoo News that, based on conversations he was present for, he believes the Miss Universe leadership was only making progressive decisions for publicity purposes and had no intention of allowing any contestant who fell within the new categories to win the Miss Universe title. In addition to Goytortua, Yahoo News spoke to two other former employees of the Miss Universe Organization, one of whom was in the room during the filmed October meeting, who corroborated Goytortua’s claims. Both former employees, who declined to speak on the record, said the conversation heard in the video was not an isolated incident, but one that took place multiple times among leadership.

“The organization was telling to the press and everything, ‘We are very inclusive and we are going to accept trans women and married women because we believe in human rights, we believe in women's rights,’” Goytortua said. “But internally, we know they cannot win.”

The Miss Universe Organization directed Yahoo News to a press release from February that called the video leak “malicious” and, while they did not name Goytortua explicitly, said they were aware of “certain individuals” trying to “tarnish the reputation of the organization by spreading false accusations.”

“The Miss Universe Organization stands as a beacon of empowerment and diversity,” the statement said. “Our steadfast dedication to inclusion is exemplified by the leadership of our CEO, Anne Jakrajutatip, whose unwavering dedication has fostered a climate of freedom and equality through her actions.”

Neither Miss Maryland nor Miss Texas’ public relations teams responded to Yahoo News’s multiple requests for comment.

Goytortua said he leaked the footage after a financial dispute with Rocha, who Goytortua alleged never paid him for his work.

After the footage leaked in February, Jakrajutatip shared a Facebook post in which she specifically addressed Goytortua and the video, writing, “The malicious[ly] edited video was out of context and used to manipulate other people which led to the public confusion, misunderstanding, misinterpretation and wrong conclusion.”

Goytortua denied the allegation that the video was edited and shared hours of raw footage with Yahoo News. Yahoo News has reviewed the footage and it does not appear to be edited.

Jakrajutatip also claimed in the Facebook post she was talking about a potential reality show, not the Miss Universe competition, although she said, “They can compete but they cannot win” before the group moves on to the reality show discussion in the footage.

Witnesses at the October meeting confirmed to Yahoo News that the comment was specifically about the pageant, not the reality show. Jakrajutatip allegedly made similar comments about contestants being allowed to compete but not win in multiple conversations.

“They will think, ‘I’m a part of the organization!’” Jakrajutatip says in the video about the new contestants. “Yeah, respect and inclusion.”