“I wanted to create something that was run by women for women—not something for men to ogle over,” said Thai entrepreneur Anne Jakrajutatip, whose JKN Global Group acquired the Miss Universe pageant in 2022. Under Jakrajutatip’s leadership, Miss Universe is now run by an all-female executive staff and has only female hosts and in-person judges—all, that is, except for Jakrajutatip, a male who claims to be transgendered.
The new venture has not gone well. On November 8, just ten days before this year’s 72nd annual Miss Universe pageant, JKN Global filed for bankruptcy, following an 80 percent drop in its stock value over the past year and after missing a September 1 deadline for a $12 million bond payment. In addition to Miss Universe and its U.S. subsidiary pageants, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, JKN owns television networks, media distribution companies, and lifestyle consumer brands, among other businesses once valued at a total of $260 million.
Jakrajutatip’s Miss Universe reforms are not altogether new—a male claiming to be transgendered won Spain’s pageant in 2018—but the contest has suffered under JKN’s stewardship. Since acquiring Miss Universe last year, Jakrajutatip has broadened the contestant pool to include not only more transgendered “women,” two of whom—Portugal’s Marina Machete (who finished in the top 20) and the Netherlands’ Rikkie Kolle—competed this year, but also women up to age 28 and women who are married, divorced, or mothers. Another Jakrajutatip initiative has deemphasized looks in favor of a larger spoken element in the contest, so that judges can focus on the contestants, in Jakrajutatip’s words, “as people.”
Last year’s competition was marred by allegations that its Miss USA subsidiary pageant was rigged in favor of R’Bonney Gabriel, an Asian woman, in a case of racial bias designed to produce a nonwhite winner. Another contestant, Miss Bolivia, was dethroned and removed from the pageant after publicly disparaging her competitors’ looks. A year earlier, a Miss USA vice president was removed from the organization after multiple former contestants accused him of sexual harassment. Still more contestants have complained about bullying and body shaming. A JKN requirement that national subsidiaries bid for the right to select their countries’ candidates for Miss Universe has backfired, with several of the national organizations cutting ties with the parent organization. The decision to host this year’s pageant in El Salvador, which spent $12 million for the pageant rights and another $60 million on supporting infrastructure, has been criticized amid that country’s economic woes and political crisis. The last Miss Universe pageant held there, in 1975, sparked deadly protests.
If all this sounds a lot less appealing than a traditional beauty pageant, the world seems to agree. A majority of countries sent no contestant this year, with only 84 participating. Miss Universe’s 2.4 million viewers worldwide in 2022 was its smallest television audience since records began. The pageant is, indeed, a far cry from the Miss Universe owned from 1996 to 2015 by former president Donald J. Trump, who revitalized it. Trump sold it in the early days of his 2016 presidential campaign to the WME-IMG talent agency for $28 million, after NBC and Univision dropped plans to broadcast the pageant because of controversial remarks Trump had made about illegal immigrants. Jakrajutatip’s group picked it up last year for just $20 million, and its value will probably continue to decline as it tries to redefine standards of beauty.
“Our universe must go on,” Jakrajutatip said in an Instagram post last week. Finances suggest otherwise.
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