The internet went wild over Memorial Day weekend when someone, somewhere decided to bring up actress Ellie Kemper’s link to a historically racist beauty pageant. An image appeared on Twitter of a then-19-year-old Kemper (born Elizabeth Claire Kemper) being crowned the 1999 Veiled Prophet Queen of Love and Beauty in St. Louis’s annual debutante ball.
The debutante ball’s roots are undeniably awful. It was established in 1878 to “emphasize existing power structure,” according to a seven-year-old article from The Atlantic, which also began to make the rounds the weekend. In the article, the author highlights the ball’s checkered connection with white supremacy. Although the ball has no direct connection to the Ku Klux Klan (that we know of), the ball was created exclusively for wealthy, White elites wanting to protect their position in society against a progressive, racially integrated labor movement. By the 1980s, racial integration had progressed to the point where the ball began to restructure their process. In 1992, the event was re-named Fair St. Louis, a step taken to distance the event from its racist origins. Kemper was crowned queen seven years later.
It’s definitely messy, but her title of Queen of Love and Beauty doesn’t translate to “KKK princess.” It means she won a shiny tiara at the local coming-of-age-ball — a ball she almost certainly would not have attended if not for her wealthy family’s myriad connections. Like many White families in the U.S. — particularly White families of means — the Kemper family fortune is very old and old American money is often tied to some of our nation’s most unforgivable legacies.
However, because the internet is the internet, fans and foes of Kemper had a hard time wrapping their heads around this new information. Kemper played roles on The Office as Erin Hannon and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the lead character who, in an ironic twist, leaves a racist cult to discover the real world. People were upset that an actor, who often portrays characters full of light-hearted fun and genuine kindness, could have ties to a racist organization.
Kemper has yet to respond to the news storm, and it will be interesting to see how she does. The news is not recent, as she was crowned over 20 years ago; even the Atlantic article that circulated with the news is already a few years old. Kemper is not a major celebrity who is constantly dominating headlines. She is, like many Americans, a White person who unintentionally benefits from old, racist institutions. For her, it was a debutante ball with an ugly history. For others, it’s redlining.
As online sleuths continue to look for dark holes in people’s pasts, more and more celebrities will have to answer for their histories. The events and causes they tied themselves to in their youth will come into question. Celebrities can use the excuse that they didn’t know the entire backstory of something they were a part of, but that answer may not be sufficient for an audience with a growing awareness of racial injustice.
Cancel culture has become a hot topic online, as people have realized they have the power to push back against the harmful ideas connected to anyone with a large platform. Kemper’s response could set a tone for how celebrities can move forward with handling their checkered pasts. Stay tuned.