Former Miss USA employees describe 'living in fear' dealing with leadership's 'bullying and harassment'

Text messages and a resignation letter reviewed by Yahoo News paint a picture of a toxic work environment at Miss USA.

Noelia Voigt on the red carpet at a New York Fashion Week event.
Noelia Voigt, Miss USA 2023, at a NYFW event on Feb. 10. (Chance Yeh/Getty Images)

Former members of the Miss USA Organization blasted its leadership this week, claiming president and CEO Laylah Rose created a toxic work environment that is responsible for the high-profile exodus at the organization behind one of the country’s longest-running pageants.

Noelia Voigt, who resigned as Miss USA on Monday, wrote in a scathing, eight-page resignation letter obtained by Yahoo News that the “stress, instability and lack of support” she received from Rose “greatly impacted my physical health.” Excerpts of the letter were first published by NBC News on Thursday.

“I am experiencing heart palpitations, full body shakes, loss of appetite, unintentional weight loss, loss of sleep, loss of hair and more,” she wrote.

Voigt cited Rose’s leadership style and a pattern of abusive behavior as the reasons she stepped down. A number of the accusations against Rose were corroborated to Yahoo News by former Miss USA social media director Claudia Engelhardt. (In previous reports, Engelhardt was identified by her Instagram name Claudia Michelle.)

“So-called leaders who seem to have too big of an ego, lack humility, lack self-awareness, and seem willing to lie, gaslight, manipulate, throw people under the bus to serve their narrative, and only care about their self-image alone are dangerous and cowardly and should never be allowed to be in charge of a women’s empowerment organization,” Voigt said in the letter.

The accusations about Rose come on the heels of the sudden resignations of Voigt and Miss Teen USA UmaSofia Srivastava, who stepped down two days after Voigt. Voigt did not detail these allegations in the initial social media post announcing her resignation, in which she said she values “the importance of making decisions that feel best for you and your mental health.” Internet sleuths speculated something was up after discovering the first letter of the first 11 sentences in her post spelled out “I AM SILENCED,” sparking theories it was an encoded message. Srivastava’s social post announcing her resignation said that her “personal values no longer fully align with the direction of the organization.”

Rose and the Miss USA Organization did not respond to Yahoo News’ repeated requests for comment for this story. In comments to media Wednesday, a day prior to the first reports of Voigt’s resignation letter, Rose said, “Please be assured that the well-being of all individuals associated with Miss USA is my top priority.”

Responding to a critical post by Engelhardt, the former social media director, the Miss USA Organization said in a statement Wednesday to USA Today: “We are troubled to hear the false accusations made by a former Miss USA employee. Miss USA is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive, and supportive environment, and we take these allegations seriously. Indeed, we have and will continue to prioritize the well-being of all individuals involved with Miss USA.”

At least six people serving in various roles at the organization have left or have alleged they were dismissed in recent weeks. In the latest departure, Miss Colorado Arianna Lemus on Friday announced she was stepping down in solidarity with Voigt and Srivastava.

In addition, there has been a groundswell of support from current state titleholders calling for Voigt to be released from an NDA she allegedly signed with the organization.

Voigt alleged in her resignation letter that the toxic work environment was “at best, poor management and, at worst, [was] bullying and harassment.” She claimed Rose was “inaccessible for communication,” which led Voigt to miss public events and feel unsafe at some of the events she was able to attend. In one example, Voigt said that because of insufficient support provided by her designated handler, she was sexually harassed at a parade in 2023.

“[I was] left alone in a car with the man who drove the car through the parade and he made several inappropriate statements to me about his desire to enter into a relationship with me,” Voigt wrote. “When I informed [Rose] of the harassment, [she said] ‘We cannot prevent people saying things to you at public appearances, it is, unfortunately, part of the role you’re in as a public figure.’”

In text messages reviewed by Yahoo News, Voigt also raises concerns about someone using the Miss USA Instagram account without her knowledge and “commenting on my behalf.” Voigt states she is “not comfortable” with the posts and asks to “further discuss safe and appropriate social media usage.”

According to Engelhardt, “internally, we all knew” it was Rose micromanaging the accounts herself, rather than consulting or working with Engelhardt as the brand’s social media director. This was not the usual practice for someone in Rose’s position, according to Engelhardt.

Engelhardt, who started as the organization’s social media director in January, also told Yahoo News that Rose would quote contract excerpts back to Voigt and Srivastava if they posted something she personally didn’t like on social media.

“They would be met with screenshots, they would be met with copy-and-paste sections of their contracts saying, ‘You’re not doing this right. You’re in breach of contract. Correct this or we’re going to withhold your salary,’” Engelhardt alleged. “You’re living in fear. It’s like, alright, if I breathe are they going to say something? Are they going to email me?”

In Voigt’s letter, she mentioned threats of her salary being withheld, saying, “It’s incredibly jarring to be trying to do my job and constantly be threatened with disciplinary action, including taking away my salary, for things that were never discussed with me and ... were causing no issue other than not meeting her personal preference.”

Voigt also alleged that Rose “attempted to slander me and defame and disparage my character” to members of the national Miss USA team. In one instance, she claimed Rose commented to someone about how she hoped Voigt would get hit in the face by a baseball when throwing out the first pitch at a game.

Rose took over from the pageant’s former national director, Crystle Stewart, in August 2023 at a time of turmoil within the organization. Stewart stepped down following accusations that the Miss USA 2022 pageant had been rigged. (Subsequently, the Miss Universe Organization conducted an investigation and said it had determined the accusations of a rigged pageant were false.) In 2022, former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst died by suicide.

Before becoming Miss USA president, Rose owned an eponymous fashion line and was the CEO of the VIP Pageantry network, a mobile app Forbes described as being “focused on the beauty, fashion, and pageant industries.” (It is not affiliated with Miss USA.)

On Thursday, Miss Hawaii Savannah Gankiewicz — runner-up at the 2023 pageant — was announced as the new Miss USA. She'll be crowned in a ceremony on May 15. Gankiewicz said in a statement that deciding to replace Voigt "was not one that was made lightly."

"I stand with Noelia and admire her strength to step down and prioritize her mental health," she said.

The Miss USA pageant has a history stretching back more than 70 years, with the first winner, Jackie Loughery, crowned in 1952. The winner of Miss USA typically represents the country in the Miss Universe competition, one of the "big four" beauty pageants around the world.

Both Engelhardt and Voigt, in her resignation letter, said they hoped their exits would help lead to necessary change at the organization.

“This needs to be a wake-up call to the Miss Universe Organization and the Miss USA Organization,” Engelhardt said. “Better management needs to be in place. ... Especially in a women’s empowerment organization, you have to practice what you preach. And this is the furthest thing from it.”