Should Ellie Kemper Be Held Accountable for the Racist History of a Pageant She Won at Age 19?

Why Twitter is up in arms over Kemper's participation in the "Veiled Prophet Ball"

Ellie Kemper
Ellie Kemper attends the 2019 Ad Council Dinner on December 05, 2019 in New York City.
Getty Images

If you happened to catch a glimpse at Twitter on Monday night, you no doubt found yourself scratching your head at plenty of rumors regarding The Office and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actress Ellie Kemper and what many were referring to as a “KKK ball,” with some even going so far as to assert that Kemper was “crowned KKK queen” at age 19 back in 1999.

That is, of course, not true. But photos of a 19-year-old Kemper at a mysterious St. Louis event called the Veiled Prophet Ball did surface, and while the annual gala — which was renamed Fair Saint Louis in 1992 — doesn’t have any direct ties to the Ku Klux Klan (that are known to the public, at least), it does have a racist and classist history.

A 2014 article about the event by The Atlantic explains that it was “founded by white elites in 1878 to protect their position.” Grain executive and former Confederate cavalryman Charles Slayback wanted to create “a secret society that would blend the pomp and ritual of a New Orleans Mardi Gras with the symbolism used by the Irish poet Thomas Moore.” As the Atlantic notes, “From Moore’s poetry, Slayback and the St. Louis elite created the myth of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, a mystic traveller who inexplicably decided to make St. Louis his base of operations.”

Each year, some prominent member of the secret society is selected to anonymously portray the Veiled Prophet. The Veiled Prophet then selects a Queen of Love and Beauty from the local debutantes attending the ball, and they share a dance. (That’s the title Kemper earned at the 1999 event.) Here’s where the confusion about the KKK comes in: according to the Atlantic, “the image of the first Veiled Prophet is armed with a shotgun and pistol and is strikingly similar in appearance to a Klansman.”

Now, again, it’s important to note that there’s no official connection between the Veiled Prophet Ball and the Klan, but admittedly the optics of a hooded figure at a ball hosted by a secret society of ultra-wealthy white people looking to “protect their position” that was founded by a Confederate solider are not great. It’s also worth noting Jewish people and Black people were prohibited from joining the organization for many years, with the latter group not allowed in until 1979. The Veiled Prophet Ball was also a response to labor unrest in St. Louis, with the Order of the Veiled Prophet being founded just one year after the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and designed to “take back the public stage from populist demands for social and economic justice,” according to the Atlantic.

So yes, it’s definitely a weird and bad thing to be affiliated with for a number of reasons, but should we really be jumping to conclusions about Kemper’s involvement with it as a teen? The event was already renamed in an attempt to downplay its history by the time she participated in it. You’d be hard-pressed to find many institutions in America that dont have awful racist or classist histories; is the Order of the Veiled Prophet really any worse than your average country club? Kemper can’t help it if she was born into an insanely wealthy family (she’s the great-great-granddaughter of railroad magnate William Thornton Kemper, Sr.) with problematic ties — but we can’t assume that as an adult, she hasn’t already learned why her family’s history is problematic, accepted it and done the work to distance herself from it? It’s entirely possible that she’s equally disgusted that she participated in the ball; we won’t know for sure until she comments publicly about it.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.