Was the historic 2022 Miss USA pageant rigged? Its parent organization investigates

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In early October, Miss Texas R'Bonney Gabriel made history as the first Filipina American to win the Miss USA pageant. Now the Miss Universe Organization has suspended Miss USA President Crystle Stewart and her company while an independent investigation looks into allegations that the contest was rigged.

"After thorough deliberation, Miss Universe Organization has decided to suspend Miss Brand[s] immediately," the organization said Thursday in a statement to The Times. "Miss Universe Organization will be taking over the Miss USA program while a comprehensive, third-party investigation is conducted."

Law firm Holland & Knight is leading the probe, which MUO said would be followed by "appropriate action." Stewart is cooperating with the probe, the organization said.

"Miss Brands is being investigated for claims that the pageant outcome was fixed and/or that the organization of the contest was favored for a particular contestant to win," MUO said.

MUO owns the Miss USA intellectual property and licenses it around the world, including to Stewart's Miss Brands so that the 2022 Miss USA pageant could be conducted. That license is now suspended.

MUO said it would finalize a plan for Miss USA after the investigation is complete.

The drama began Oct. 4, the night Gabriel was crowned, when a number of her fellow contestants abruptly walked off the stage as Gabriel accepted her roses and donned her tiara and sash. Soon after, spearheaded by Miss Montana Heather Lee O'Keefe on TikTok, allegations that the contest had been rigged went viral on social media.

O'Keefe's videos have gotten hundreds of thousands of views since then, including more than 670,000 views on an Oct. 5 TikTok detailing what she and and other contestants believe indicates that a fix was in.

Miss New York Heather Nunez, another 2022 Miss USA contestant, reportedly said on her personal account's Instagram Stories, "The way I entered this pageant and gave it every last bit of my heart and soul … We were humiliated, thinking we entered something with a fair chance.”

Nunez added that she was stepping up and speaking out only to prevent future contestants from feeling the way she felt.

The Miss Universe Organization was just sold by Endeavor's IMG for $20 million to a Thai company, according to a Wednesday press release. Prior to IMG's purchase in 2015, the organization was co-owned by Donald Trump for 19 years.

Anne Jakkaphong Jarajutatip, a Thai businesswoman, transgender activist and reality TV star in her home country, is chief executive of JKN Global Group, MUO's new owner.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.