Every few weeks, a celebrity is a called out (or even cancelled) for something that the internet deems especially problematic whether they know the full nuance of the situation or not. Sometimes, the cancelling is wholly deserved (R.Kelly), and other times, it’s a little more complicated than we know (Doja Cat). The recent firestorm around Ellie Kemper seems to fall into the latter category.
The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actress has been trending on Twitter for hours due to an unearthed photo of her participating in a questionable Southern tradition as a teenager. In the throwback photo, Kemper is being crowned the 1999 Veiled Prophet Queen of Love and Beauty in St. Louis, Missouri. Because the event is specific to the St. Louis community (particularly amongst the rich white locals), it wasn’t exactly clear what it means to be a Queen of Love and Beauty or what the Veiled Prophet Ball stands for, but the internet quickly connected it to the Ku Klux Klan.
However, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. While it’s totally possible that a social club established by wealthy white men in the late 1800s is rooted in racism — it was the post-Civil War midwest after all — the Veiled Prophet Organization isn’t clearly connected to the notoriously white supremacist KKK. A 2014 article from The Atlantic breaks down the history of the organisation and its now-controversial celebration, explaining that its origins were fuelled by a need to promote St. Louisan culture amidst a changing socio-economic landscape.
According to Scott Beauchamp, journalist and native St. Louisan, the Veiled Prophet Organization was started by a small group of local upper-class businessmen in 1878 with the intention of building an exclusive secret society for the city’s best and brightest. For pizzaz, the group built its lore from the magic of New Orleans’ colourful history and poet Thomas Moore’s story of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan. This blend of culture and mysticism resulted in a myth about a veiled man (dressed in white from head to toe and armed with a pistol and a shotgun — sound familiar?) who traveled for miles before making St. Louis his home. The lore was said to be a means of boosting the morale of the city in the middle of a massive economic shift which saw St. Louis losing its position as a transportation and manufacturing hub to the bustling city of Chicago.
During the annual Veiled Prophet Ball, members of the elite group choose one man to play the Veiled Prophet, and teenaged girls and young women compete to be selected as his Queen of Love and Beauty while also being formally introduced to society. It’s unclear the exact requirements to become the Queen, but Kemper took home the title (and perhaps also nabbed the expensive diamonds and tiara that were customary for the winner) in 1999, resulting in that now-viral picture of her at the event. It doesn't appear Kemper has ever spoken about winning the title in the years since her career has taken off.
Does the ball have racist roots? Like so much of this country's corrupt history, it's likely; St. Louis has a widely known history of long-standing racial inequality, and people of colour weren’t even allowed to join the Veiled Prophet Organization until the late 1970s. However, more obviously, the Veiled Prophet Ball was a symbol of white privilege and elitism, celebrated solely by the city's wealthy, white one percent to the detriment of its working class. If anything, the biggest scandal in Kemper's participation in the ball is its reveal of the fact that she comes from immense privilege and money — something that a quick Google search of her last name would also reveal in seconds.
Refinery29 has reached out to Kemper for comment, but did not hear back at the time of publishing.