“Could you imagine?” Miss USA, Sarah Rose Summers, asks a camera at this year’s Miss Universe competition in Thailand. “Miss Cambodia is here and doesn’t speak any English, and not a single other person speaks her language… Poor Cambodia.”
The video posted on Instagram shows the 24-year-old Summers flanked by two of her fellow competitors, Colombia’s Valeria Morales and Australia’s Francesca Hung, who shake their heads sympathetically. No, it seems. They could not imagine.
The video is gathering outrage online and the backlash has been covered by several publications after the fashion industry watchdog Instagram account Diet Prada posted it, noting that the exchange is “basically what normalized xenophobia looks like.” (It was originally posted on Morales’s account and then deleted.) Diet Prada juxtaposed the video of Summers’ remarks with one of her thanking the Cambodian people for their support:
Summers does express sympathy for Miss Cambodia, saying that the situation must be “isolating.” But then she goes on to imitate another competitor, Miss Vietnam, H’Hen Niê: “She’s so cute and she pretends to know so much English,” Summers says, “You ask her a question and after having a whole English conversation with her, she goes”—Summers adopts a placid smile and starts nodding in an impression of Niê. “She’s adorable,” Summers adds, repeating the impression of Niê and laughing.
Summers issued an apology for the comments via Instagram today. “In a moment where I intended to admire the courage of a few of my sisters, I said something that I now realize can be perceived as not respectful, and I apologize,” she writes in the post, adding that she spoke directly with the competitors she was discussing, whom she is pictured hugging in a photo in the post. The other competitors have not yet made statements, and the Miss Universe organization responded to a request for comment by pointing to Summers’ Instagram post.
Diet Prada played a major part in another recent flap over Western cultural insensitivity in Asia: The Italian fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana was recently embroiled in a racism row following the label’s tone-deaf marketing campaign for a major fashion show it had planned in China (which was subsequently canceled amid a wave of backlash). This was compounded by derogatory comments about China that appeared to have been made by Stefano Gabbana and leaked on Instagram (he claimed he was hacked)—also by Diet Prada. The ads were widely seen as condescending and sexist, and the leaked Instagram exchange as overtly racist.
Both Miss USA and D&G displayed a stale brand of patronizing condescension toward Asians that white people have mostly been forgiven for in the past—perhaps due to a post-colonial Asian idealization of the West. However, as with the D&G mess, it seems that people are tired of this kind of soft xenophobia, and are calling it what it is, racism.
The Miss Universe competition is increasingly culturally irrelevant. Its ratings have been unsteady for years thanks to a dated pageant formula that has rendered it out of touch with the social climate in 2018, although it remains in the top four major international beauty pageants. The pageant’s winner is granted considerable professional and monetary perks, including a year-long salary, room and board in a luxury New York apartment, representation by prestigious modeling agencies, and philanthropic opportunities and speaking engagements across the globe.
An earlier version of this article noted that the competition was to be held in the Philippines. It will take place in Thailand.