Three African-American state pageant winners said they were expecting to have the time of their lives at the 2018 Mrs. America competition in Las Vegas in August.
Instead, they say the pageant’s white CEO and president insulted them in a conversation in which he used the N-word and invoked racist stereotypes that demeaned the African-American community.
The women shared their accusations against David Marmel in a news conference Monday with their lawyer, Gloria Allred. A white contestant who said she overheard the conversation also shared her account.
The contestants have no plans to file a lawsuit against Marmel or the pageant or seek damages, Allred said. They just want an apology and assurances that one else will experience similar treatment.
“They simply want the Mrs. America pageant to be a place where everyone is respected, is treated equally and feels safe,” Allred said. Mrs. America is not related to the Miss America contest. Now in its 42nd year, according to its website, it celebrates married women.
Marmel told CNN he was “blindsided” by the accusations and that none of the contestants shared their grievances with him about the conversation. He said the accusations are “untruthful, self-serving, nonsense bordering on reverse discrimination.”
He said his comments were “taken out of context” and pointed to the pageant’s history of African-American contestants as signs of his support for the community, including former reality star and presidential adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman.
“I will stand on my history,” he told CNN.
’Black women need to stop having babies’
The women said Marmel made the comments in a pre-competition party the night of August 21 in a penthouse of the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino, the host hotel.
Kimberly Phillips, 2018 Delaware state titleholder, said Marmel approached her while she was sitting with another contestant and started making small talk. State pageant winners from New Jersey and Missouri passed by and he invited them to join, she said.
“At that point, Mr. Marmel asked if he could be frank with us,” Phillips said. He launched into a story about a black man he knew who grew up in the projects and chose school over drugs and gangs, and went on to become Marmel’s friend and attorney, Phillips said.
“He (Marmel) then said that it is not the 1960s anymore and black people can’t rely on the government for assistance. He also stated that all black women need to stop having babies – with four baby daddies – and all black men are in jail because they need to stop selling drugs and killing each other,” Phillips said.
Brandy Palacios, the contestant from Missouri, shared the same account. She said Marmel also brought up concerns about athletes kneeling during sporting events and how he considered it disrespectful to the African-Americans he served alongside in the Vietnam War.
As Marmel spoke of his contributions to the African-American community, Palacios said he told them that one of the most racist places he ever worked was Ebony magazine’s newsroom because everyone used the N-word – including him, “because they were ‘brothers,’” she said.
“At this point, he rolled up his sleeve and put his arm next to mine in order to compare skin colors,” she said.
Phillips said that Marmel told them that he was used to using the N-word word because he saw it often in baseball stadiums on signs banning African-Americans and Jewish people from certain facilities.
Marmel told CNN the contestants misconstrued his comments.
He said that he once knew the owners of Johnson Publishing Company, which used to own Ebony and Jet magazines. Marmel said people at the company told him “racially insensitive and prejudicial jokes,” but he said he would not characterize those people as racist.
He acknowledged using the N-word in what he described as a “friendly” conversation with the contestants about growing up in the segregated South as a Jewish person who also experienced discrimination. He said he played baseball for his hometown team in Panama City, Florida, and confirmed the account the women relayed about seeing the signs in baseball stadiums.
He told CNN that he shared the story with the African-American contestants in an attempt to relate to them.
“I was affected at the same level; I, too, was discriminated against.”
’I was weak and a part of the problem’
Crissy Timpson, the 2018 state titleholder for New Jersey, said she tried to keep her distance from the conversation after Marmel called her over. She said she got a preview of Marmel’s attitude before the competition.
She met him in an office and told him that her husband was in the military, she said.
“He went on to tell me how he had served. I thought that was going to be the end of the conversation but then said, and I quote, ‘The asshole who kneels needs to stop disrespecting my flag,’” she said.
Assuming that he was referring to those who kneel in protest during sporting events, she said she responded that the gesture was about police brutality. She said she told him that as someone from a military family, it didn’t offend her.
“David then changed the subject and said, ‘Well, you people need to stop killing each other,’” she said.
When he repeated the comments at the party, she was horrified, she said. But she also felt validated, she said. “I was thankful because I had other women who experienced what happened to me on day one,” she said.
Jeri Ward, the 2018 state titleholder from Ohio, said she overheard the whole exchange across the room but did nothing about it. As a white woman, she said she later regretted her inaction.
“I became overwhelmingly devastated that within that conversation I was weak and a part of the problem. I did not stand up for these brilliant, kind, loving, funny and incredible women when they needed me the most. And I was just as guilty as the man who was saying these horrible things to them,” she said.
“I’m here today because in an environment that is supposed to encourage, uplift and support women, the exact opposite happened,” she said. “And I’m here today because I have a moral and social responsibility.”
Each woman said they feared the consequences of speaking up, despite feeling let down by an organization they had aspired to be a part of.
“I was upset, but more so saddened. after spending two years and thousands of dollars on this organization, I felt as if I did not have a chance simply because of the color of my skin,” Phillips said.
She went through the competition — “I’ve never been a quitter,” she said — and didn’t win. Neither did the other two African-Americans. They worried that no one would believe their allegations because they had lost, Phillips said
“People would think we were just upset about either not winning or placing the way we wanted,” Phillips said.
“I’m hoping that by sharing my story, changes will occur within the Mrs. America pageant system.”
CNN’s Toni Booras contributed to this report.