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With Alicia Machado, Trump found his first pageant media circus; many others followed

🕐 6 min read

It’s fair to say that beauty pageants had lost a lot of their buzz by the time Donald Trump got into the business. But the mogul had no trouble making headlines when – just months after his 1996 purchase of the Miss Universe organization – he publicly fretted that the reigning queen was putting on too much weight.

“This is someone who likes to eat,” he declared as he beckoned a fleet of journalists to come watch Alicia Machado work out at a gym – an event she later said she went along with only under threat of losing her crown.

The episode, which Hillary Clinton cited to scathing effect in Monday night’s debate, marked the first of many scandals, small and large, to blow up in the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants during the 19 years Trump owned them.

Trump’s reactions varied dramatically, but he rarely hesitated to put himself at the center of the action, seeming to relish a role as a moral arbiter, issuing emphatic public statements and, sometimes, final judgments.

He sent one Miss USA to rehab in the middle of her reign. He fired a Miss Universe for missing too many events. A handful of lower-level contestants drew public scoldings from him; others received his benevolent public defense.

None of their perceived crimes or misdemeanors had ever really posed much a threat to the reputation of these pageants, which have always thrived on a racy, va-va-voom image far apart from earnest, baton-twirling Miss America. But their sagas invariably drew ample media attention, bringing a dusty old format into the reality TV age – and offering an unusually tabloid-friendly venue for Trump to cement his tough-talking businessman image even before his reality show “The Apprentice” debuted.

“We thought she was very beautiful and very nice,” he told the New York Daily News after firing Miss Universe 2002, Russia’s Oxana Fedorova, who was said to have skipped too many appearances. “But she just wasn’t able to fulfill her duties. So we had no choice but to terminate her.” Miss Panama Justine Pasek was tapped to fill out the rest of her term, and Trump himself crowned her at a news conference.

He also fired Katie Rees, Miss Nevada 2007, who had risque photos surface soon after she was crowned. He went on TV and threatened to sue Sheena Monnin, Miss Pennsylvania 2012, after she resigned her crown and went public with claims that the Miss USA contest was fixed. He admonished Jenna Talackova, a transgender contestant in the Miss Universe Canada 2012 competition, who advocated for new contest rules that would allow trans contestants around the world to participate; Trump declared she should stop stirring up controversy and concentrate on competing: “That should be her focus.”

On one occasion, Trump managed a mini-crisis with a striking level of restraint. When Rima Fakih, the first Arab-American and Muslim Miss USA, was crowned in 2009, Trump notably ignored an instant uproar from critics outraged by her ethnic heritage and proudly posed for photos with her in his office. Later, he shrugged off an outcry over photos showing Fakih pole-dancing, saying he was too busy to answer questions.

Matt Rich, a public relations executive and former consultant with the Miss Universe organization, said Trump showed great concern whenever trouble arose over the years.

“He had a bundle of other companies that he’s running, but he is a good enough administrator that he understood when it was time for him to get involved, and when it wasn’t time,” Rich said in an interview.

Which is one way to look at it. In a recent interview with CNN, Miss USA 2002 Shauntay Hinton explained that she barely knew Trump at all: “He would only come around if there was scandal involved.”

In 2006 and 2007, Trump played ringmaster in two separate media circuses that gave Miss USA perhaps its greatest visibility ever.

Tara Conner, a blond beauty queen from Kentucky who was crowned Miss USA 2006, only made it a few months into her reign before rumors and reports about her drug and alcohol use, as well as ‘indiscretions’ with men, began to make the rounds.

She was summoned to Trump’s office, and she asked him for a second chance. But he didn’t give her an answer then. With Conner – and the public – waiting in suspense, he called a news conference.

Conner, who sat beside the lectern with her head bowed, said she was certain she was about to be publicly fired. But Trump had a different plan.

“I’ve always been a believer in second chances,” he announced. “Tara has tried hard. Tara is going to be given a second chance.”

Conner wept. She agreed to go to rehab. She thanked him for his compassion. And the spectacle, of course, made headlines. “I think the public liked it,” Trump later told Oprah Winfrey.

He showcased his capacity for forgiveness again the following year, when Miss California 2007 Carrie Prejean sparked a firestorm during the Q&A portion of the Miss USA competition by declaring that she was opposed to same-sex marriage. Soon after those remarks went viral, suggestive photos – showing Prejean posed topless, her arms over her chest – started to circulate.

Another news conference was called. Trump commended Prejean for her honesty and declared that the photos were perfectly fine. “We’re very proud of her,” he said, according to the New York Times. (Even after Prejean was abruptly fired by state pageant officials for “breach of contract” issues weeks later, Trump still had kind words for the young woman: “Carrie is a beautiful young woman and I wish her well as she pursues her other interests,” he said in a statement.)

Rich says Trump’s involvement in the competitions came from a genuine investment in the contestants. “He cared about these women, about these people, and their potential,” he said.

Trump certainly cared about the way the pageant’s various dramas played out before the cameras, beginning with Machado, the first Miss Universe crowned after Trump took over the pageant in 1996. Her weight gain was in violation of her contract, Rich says, and she would have been fired if Trump hadn’t given her the chance to lose the extra pounds. So he told her to hit the gym – and invited a flock of reporters to watch. (In various interviews, Trump claimed she had gained as much as 50 pounds; Machado said she had only added about 19 pounds to a frame that was “skeletal” at her crowning.)

As Rich sees it, “Mr. Trump came to her aid.” He says he encouraged Trump to make a “fun news day” out of the situation: ” ‘Let’s show how much we care,’ and we did, and she laughed and we had jokes and we had fun.”

Machado has since described that moment as a humiliation, along with the nicknames she says Trump called her behind the scenes: “Miss Piggy” and “Miss Housekeeping.” Now an actress-turned-political activist, she shared her account in a campaign web video that the Clinton campaign released just after the debate.

Trump responded Tuesday morning by doubling down on his criticisms of Machado. “She was the worst we ever had, the worst, the absolute worst,” Trump said of Machado in an interview with “Fox and Friends.”

But his words aren’t the ones that matter to Machado anymore, she said in a conference call Tuesday. Thanks to Clinton, more than 80 million viewers heard Machado’s side of the story Monday night.

“It was a big surprise for me because I have been sharing this story, my story, with all of my fans and all of the communities from the beginning,” she said. “I started crying, because I never imagined that such an important person like her would care about my story.”

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