How To Fix A Pageant is a New York Times Presents documentary that takes a look at allegations that the Miss USA Pageant’s 2022 winner, Texas’ R’Bonney Gabriel, was predetermined before the pageant took place. There are also allegations that Max Sebrechts, a vice president of the pageant and the husband of then-owner Crystle Stewart, sexually harassed multiple contestants.
The Gist: Through interviews with multiple contestants, reporters from the New York Times and Insider, pageant experts and Stewart, director Nicole Rittenmeyer gives a quick history of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, which were created by a swimsuit sponsor of the Miss America pageant when the 1950 winner refused to do appearances in swimsuits. The documentary also goes over how the pageant has lost relevancy over the past number of years, with television audiences falling to under a million viewers.
There is also some explanation of the structure of the Miss Universe/Miss USA organization, which explains how Stewart, a former winner who never owned a state pageant franchise before, became the first person to be awarded the MUSA franchise after it was spun off of the Miss Universe organization. Her goal was to reform the pageant for the 2020s and affirm it as an organization that puts women first.
But contestants like Grace Lange, Faith Porter and Taylor Hill, as well as the others that posted objections on TikTok and other social media platforms, claim that the organization was rife with conflicts of interest, including Stewart’s pageant prep organization being a main sponsor of the pageant. A video featuring Gabriel, shot before the contest but posted after she won, promoting one of the sponsor resorts, raised suspicion that the results were fixed. Another suspicious factor was that the accounting firm, EY, that usually tabulated the votes was not mentioned on the 2022 broadcast. No one thought that Gabriel herself was in on the fix, but the optics in general weren’t good.
Then there was the harassment charges against Sebrechts, punctuated with an incident Hill describes where he invited himself into her hotel room during the 2021 contest’s weekend in Tulsa. Sebrechts resigned from his position and Stewart, who gave up her directorship of MUSA this past August, called those incidents “unfortunate.”
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The tenor of How To Fix A Pageant reminded us of the A&E docuseries Secrets of Miss America.
Performance Worth Watching: We give Stewart all the credit in the world for sitting for an interview and facing all of Rittenmeyer’s tough questions. Her responses, however, left a lot to be desired, with explanations for all of the allegations that sounded a bit, as our daughter might say, “sus”.
Memorable Dialogue: Hill’s suspicion of Sebrechts when he invites her up to his suite — his first attempt to get her alone — is pretty funny. He says the suite has spectacular views, and she says incredulously, “Of the Tulsa River? Which was dried up at the time?”
Sex and Skin: None, aside from Hill’s description of Sebrechts’ clumsy harassment.
Our Take: It seems that How To Fix A Pageant is more about one definition of “fix” than the other. During its 48-minute runtime, it concentrates on the allegations that the 2022 contest was rigged, though much of what that part of the episode consists of is an exercise in “she said/she-said”, with the contestants and the journalists that are interviewed putting together the evidence they saw, and what happened when they brought up their concerns to Stewart and then to the Miss Universe organization. As suggested by the segment where Stewart is interviewed, there is no acknowledgement that a fix could even be construed from what the contestants brought up.
The allegations against Sebrechts also get a lot of time, and that seemed to be a more concrete response from Stewart. And while Hill’s description of how he insinuated himself into her hotel room was pretty creepy, and it spurred her to find out about other incidents where he did something similar, hearing from more former contestants would have made this aspect of the episode even more solid.
It’s the other definition of “fix” that we wish we heard more about. There is some talk in the beginning of the episode about the relevance of the pageant, but besides spinning MUSA off to Stewart, there didn’t seem to be a lot of information about how the organization is trying to “fix” the pageant to make it more relevant. There is some information about the new owner of Miss Universe, Anne Jakkapong Jakrajutatip, and what her goals are for remaking the entire structure of the organization, but any information on reforms and fixes to Miss Universe and MUSA takes a distant back seat to the allegations, both of which didn’t have particularly satisfying resolutions.
Our Call: STREAM IT. There’s enough information in How To Fix A Pageant to make the episode worth your while to watch. It’s just one of those cases where just a little bit more time would yield a much more satisfying documentary.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.