Meet the New Miss Universe Organization

It’s 100% female-owned and run — and it’s about damn time.

<p>Courtesy/ Amanda Lauro</p>

Courtesy/ Amanda Lauro

If you ask the average person what comes to mind when they think of beauty pageants like Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Universe, sadly, it isn’t the inspiring women who compete for the crown, their impressive academic pursuits, or charitable work. Instead, it is likely two cultural linchpins: When Miss Teen South Carolina Lauren Caitlin Upton stumbled through her response to a question and left us with soundbytes like, “U.S. Americans” and “the Iraq” during the 2007 Miss Teen USA pageant (for the record, the online reaction to her flub was so hateful she contemplated suicide) and when Miss Universe host Steve Harvey called the wrong name at the 2015 pageant, first saying Miss Columbia had been crowned Miss Universe, before coming back on stage a few minutes later to correctly state that Miss Philippines was actually the winner. But new female leadership at the Miss Universe Organization wants to revamp those trite perceptions. Globally.

First, you should know that the Miss Universe pageant is part of the Miss USA family: When a woman is crowned Miss USA, she can then go on to compete at Miss Universe. And while the leadership of both Miss America and Miss USA have been working for years to flip the antiquated narrative surrounding these pageants, Miss Universe is now poised to do so on a global level.

After being owned by men for its entire 71 years (most notably Donald Trump for almost 20 of those years), this past October, the MUO (Miss Universe Organization) was purchased by JKN Global Group, a Thailand-based media company owned by Anne Jakapong Jakrajutatip — who is now the first female to own the organization.

While Jakrajutatip’s name is new to Americans, the billionaire is a beloved public figure in Thailand, where she’s appeared on Thai versions of Project Runway and Shark Tank and has nearly 7 million followers on Instagram. She is also a transwoman, a passionate advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights, and the founder of a Thai-based transgender rights organization called Life Inspired for Transsexual Foundation (LIFT). Her goal for her newly acquired pageant? To be the number one global women’s empowerment platform.



“In school, I was bullied a lot and sexually harassed by my own teachers, and why I had to be different has always been my question mark,” Jakrajutatip shares. “Why did I have to struggle this much? Now, I know. Everything I’ve gone through brought me here where I can help raise the voices of women around the world.”

Jakrajutatip’s purchase marks an exciting shift for the MUO, as it is now run entirely by women for the first time. In January of 2022, Amy Emmerich — formally the president and chief content officer of Refinery29 after years in TV production — was hired as the CEO of the Miss Universe Organization, joining longtime president Paula Shugart.

“I was very unsure at first,” Emmerich says of when she was first approached about the job. “The brand is really misunderstood in the U.S. still, but it is the Super Bowl for many countries, and experiencing the pageant and meeting the women really touched me in a big way.”

They know me as a feminist and everyone thinks pageants are the opposite, but why are we still looking at this system through the male gaze? - Amy Emmerich, CEO of the Miss Universe Organization


Emmerich says that once she accepted the position, her friends were shocked. “They know me as a feminist and everyone thinks pageants are the opposite, but why are we still looking at this system through the male gaze?” she says. “These women have a choice in everything they do, and they have a confidence that I still don’t have at 47. Plus, with a fan base of 23 million and counting on social, this is a global platform like none other that allows for conversations about the rights of women across the world.”

Shugart has been the MUO’s president for 24 years. Emmerich calls her the brand’s “guiding star” and praises her for holding together the organization through multiple owners and for knowing all the intricacies of the politics involved in running an institution fueled by so many different countries and governments. She also says she thrust Shugart through “feminist bootcamp” when she came on as CEO, and then the pair went to work.

“Paula loves to say these women are the next generation of leaders, and it’s incredible for them to come together and meet each other, understand their differences, yet find their common ground. All this has a stronger meaning and purpose, and the brand’s mission is to create a future forged by women, so I think it makes more sense to do that with women at the helm,” says Emmerich.

For the past year, Emmerich, Shugart, and their “small but mighty” team have propelled the brand toward a more modern and equitable future. Some of the most immediate changes are that all women between the ages of 18-28 are now allowed to compete in the Miss Universe pageant system, including those who have previously been excluded: women who are trans, mothers, pregnant, married, and divorced. They are also working to turn the televised competition into a platform to learn about the contestants versus a pageant to simply look at them.



“There are close to 90 women this year, so they don’t get much time on stage, but we’re trying to maximize that time,” says Emmerich. “This is a job interview for a global ambassador who is ready to work and many of these women will go from under 10,000 social media followers to more than 2 million overnight. What story do they want to tell with that power?”

Audiences will hear more from the contestants — who are called delegates — throughout the three-hour televised event and will learn more about their stories and backgrounds in various ways. One particularly creative storytelling method is that each delegate will be wearing a personalized cape during the swimwear portion of the program. The capes were delivered to each woman as a blank canvas, and they were asked to design the capes to share a message or cause close to their heart or something that represents them and their country. After the competition, the customized capes will be auctioned off for charity. Viewers will also notice more diversity in the judges this year and moving forward. Gone are the days of the panel simply being filled with A-Listers. Now, we’ll see everyone from politicians to CEOs and artists — all powerful women in their own fields.

That means no more Steve Harvey hosting, either. This year’s pageant will be co-hosted by Olivia Culpo (who was Miss Universe 2012) and Jeannie Mai Jenkins, while Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray and American Ninja Warrior co-host and Access Hollywood correspondent Zuri Hall will serve as backstage commentators.

“From now on, you will feel the feminine energy coming off the screen when you watch,” says Emmerich. “This isn’t a competition, but a celebration of femininity and female power, and you’re going to feel it!”

As the leadership works to have the organization support women at every touchpoint, the delegates will feel a difference on their end, as well. Each woman receives a gift bag upon arrival at the pageant. This year, they found the contents were carefully selected from small, women-owned businesses (Emmerich estimates the brands represented are 95% women-owned this year).

Emmerich and Jakrajutatip also have plans to build a leadership training course, have worldwide speaker tours (think MUO meets TED Talk) and build a delegate database to help form a sense of community between each years’ contestants. “We want to help these women build a long-term sisterhood to share their successes and their endeavors on a larger level,” says Emmerich.




It's also clear that having Jakrajutatip at the helm will systemically shape the MUO. From a business standpoint, she’ll be applying the same business savvy and tenacity that propelled her to becoming the third-richest person in Asia and Asia’s richest trans woman and applying it to the business side of the MUO.

From now on, you will feel the feminine energy coming off the screen when you watch. This isn’t a competition, but a celebration of femininity and female power, and you’re going to feel it! - Amy Emmerich, CEO of the Miss Universe Organization

“It has been a sleeping giant for a long time,” she says of the organization. “Now it’s my job to leverage the legacy of the brand and take it further.” First up is a Miss Universe branded mineral water that will be manufactured in Jakrajutatip’s factory in Thailand, and the consumer products side will continue to grow with skincare, cosmetics, swimwear, and lingerie lines in the future.

As for progressively moving the needle of an organization that only a few years ago finally allowed trans women to join its ranks and just this year adjusted the definition of what a “Miss Universe” looks like enough to include mothers or married women, Jakrajutatip is all over that, as well.

“I became a woman at age 39 and a mother at age 40, and today I am seen as ‘every woman,’ but I never changed my voice, because I want people to know that being different is normal,” she says. “We need to embrace our differences, and now I have a platform to help raise the voices of all women around the world.”

The Miss Universe pageant takes place in New Orleans on Jan. 14 and will stream exclusively on Roku at 7 p.m. ET.

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