Michigan College Republican loses beauty crown over 'insensitive' tweets

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

A College Republican leader at the University of Michigan is blasting Miss World America beauty pageant officials for stripping her state title and barring her from a national competition because of provocative social media posts that spurred accusations of racism, Islamophobia and insensitivity.

Kathy Zhu, a 20-year-old senior at the University of Michigan, says she was barred from a beauty pageant over "insensitive" tweets.

Kathy Zhu, the 20-year-old vice president of UM College Republicans, said organizers took her 2017 and 2018 tweets about Muslim hijabs and African-American murder rates out of context and did not give her a chance to explain her rationale.

The controversy exploded Thursday on conservative media sites after Zhu posted emails and text messages from a pageant official who told her she could no longer participate because of “offensive, insensitive and inappropriate" social media posts.

“I’m more than happy a light got shined on it,” Zhu said in a Friday interview with The Detroit News. “For me, it wasn’t a big deal I got stripped of the title, it was more of how unfair it was for the whole process to have taken place. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”

The beauty pageant this week announced Zhu as Miss Michigan World America 2019 but revoked the title a day later. Organizers appear to have deleted the original announcement from a regional Facebook page and reposted a list of other winners from Michigan and Indiana.

A senior majoring in political science, Zhu expects to graduate next year. She describes herself as a “right-leading moderate” and supports Republican President Donald Trump.

"This is more than just some beauty pageant, this is about the prejudice views against people with 'different opinions,'" she wrote Friday morning on Twitter.

Zhu transferred to UM in December from the University of Central Florida, where she drew national attention in 2018 for criticizing a Muslim Student Association event that invited students to try on a hijab, a head covering worn in public by some Muslim women.

“So you’re telling me that it’s now just a fashion accessory and not a religious thing?” Zhu had tweeted. “Or are you just trying to get women used to being oppressed under Islam?”

Her comments prompted a Twitter fight and at least one call for expulsion, but officials ultimately concluded that none of the involved students’ actions violated the university’s rules of conduct.

A since-deleted Facebook post announcing Kathy Zhu (center right) as Miss Michigan World America 2019

In a text exchange posted online, a beauty pageant organizer also raised concerns with an October 2017 tweet by Zhu, who wrote: “Did you know the majority of black deaths are caused by other blacks? Fix problems within your own community first before blaming others.”

Zhu told The News she had posted that tweet in response to social media claims that “all cops are bad cops, all cops were killing blacks,” an explanation she was not able to provide pageant organizers.

“It wasn’t anything about blaming blacks specifically for violence,” said Zhu, who was born in China and raised in Florida. “I mean, every community has problems within it. I just shined light on that particular issue because of a subtweet of someone else.”

In an email exchange that Zhu published on Twitter, Miss World America state director Laurie DeJack told her that her social media accounts contain “offensive, insensitive and inappropriate content” in violation of pageant rules and conditions.

Specifically, DeJack pointed to a requirement that contestants be “of good character” with backgrounds “not likely to bring disrepute” to Miss World America or anyone associated with the organization.

“Therefore, and effective immediately, MWA does not recognize you as a participant of any sort in any capacity as it relates to any and all events of MWA,” DeJack continued in an email also sent to national pageant officials.

“I’m sure you will love to find a ‘woman’ who is cookie cutter perfect and says brainless comments like, ‘I love world peace,” Zhu wrote in response.

Zhu said she tweeted about the hijab incident after a Muslim woman “forcibly” tried to put one on her head at the University of Central Florida.

At the time, the Muslim Student Association said no one was forced or pressured to approach their booth on campus.

“The purpose of this booth was to spread awareness of the hijab and those who choose to wear it,” the group said. “The hijab, or headscarf, is worn by many Muslim women to exemplify modesty. It is a decision made of their own accord.”

DeJack and other Miss World America officials listed on the email thread did not respond to requests for comment from The News.

College Republicans at the University of Michigan stood by Zhu, who is vice president of the organization.

“We fully stand behind Kathy in decrying the outrageous behavior of Miss World America,” the student group said in a statement.

“Although they are within their rights to do this as a private organization, we believe that this decision shows incredible bias against unextraordinary right wing opinion, which we expect will come back to hurt the organization.”

Zhu said she personally dropped off her crown and sash at DeJack’s house after their email and text exchanges, officially ending her participation in what had been her first beauty pageant.

Miss World America is separate from the Miss Michigan and Miss America contest, which is more widely known in the United States. But it is the “oldest pageant in the world” and “is very popular in other countries,” Zhu said.

As Miss Michigan World America, she would have gone to Las Vegas for a national competition and the chance to advance to the international event.  

“I just think that they got a one-sided story,” Zhu said of pageant organizers, suggesting a former antagonist in Florida had alerted them to the social media posts “that made it seem as if I was a bad person” without any context.

“The whole point of them not wanting me to represent them is because they didn’t want bad publicity, but this gave them way more bad publicity because they removed someone that really didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.