Ellie Kemper Controversy: What Is the Veiled Prophet Ball?

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star Ellie Kemper has been the focus of much discussion this week, after it was revealed she had once taken part in a Missouri event with a controversial past.

A photograph was published purporting to show the actress serving as the Queen of Love and Beauty at the Fair St. Louis—previously known as the Veiled Prophet Ball—in 1999, when she was aged 19.

Showing her dressed in an elegant white gown and gloves as a room of smiling onlookers gaze at her in apparent awe, the image could be easily be dismissed as just another throwback snapshot of a future celebrity at her local pageant.

However, Twitter users were quick to point out that the event, which takes place every December in the star's native Missouri, was once exclusively held for the city's elite and—more specifically—for white people only.

According to an article published by The Atlantic in 2014, the event "emphasized the existing power structure" of the city when it debuted as the Veiled Prophet Ball back in 1878.

African Americans and Jewish Americans were barred from joining the Veiled Prophet Organization, founded by prominent St. Louisans.

According to tradition, an anonymous Veiled Prophet, selected by wealthy and well-connected locals, would name the Queen of Love and Beauty at each ball.

A December 1999 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article named Kemper as "the 105th young woman to be so honored by the Veiled Prophet organization."

Describing her attire, the article went on: "She wore a white satin square-neck gown designed by Tomasina and purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue."

Hailing from one of the wealthiest families in Missouri with a long and storied history in the Show-Me State, Kemper was all but a shoo-in for the crown.

The ball and an accompanying VP Parade, styled on the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations, both originally took place in October, before being moved to the Friday before December.

Founded by grain executive Charles Slayback, the events celebrated the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, a mythical traveler created by the group of elites, who made St. Louis the base of his operations.

An image of the first Veiled Prophet showed him brandishing a shotgun and pistol, with the Missouri Republican reporting in October 1878: "It will be readily observed from the accouterments of the Prophet that the procession is not likely to be stopped by street cars or anything else."

While illustrations of the early attire have drawn comparisons to the Ku Klux Klan, the infamous white hood and robes did not become widely adopted by the terrorist hate group until after the release of D.W. Griffith's blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, decades after the St. Louis event was founded.

At the balls, the Veiled Prophet would select five of more than 50 debutantes to be Special Maids of Honor at his Court of Honor, while one would be elevated to the status of Queen and Love and Beauty.

After being crowned, the Queen would be presented with such lavish gifts as a tiara or pearls—some of which, it is said, went on to become family heirlooms.

Following a series of protests about its exclusivity, the organization is said to have eventually diversified, allowing African Americans to join in 1979.

The event's name was changed in 1992, from the Veiled Prophet Ball to the Fair St. Louis.

The ball continues to be held in December each year, while the associated parade now takes place over the Fourth of July weekend.

Far removed from its beginnings, which are said to have included floats featuring racist caricatures of different ethnic groups, the parade now looks like any other celebration of Americana, including fireworks, abundant food and music.

When contacted by Newsweek, a representative for St. Louis' Veiled Prophet Organization said they "absolutely reject" racism and any association with it.

"The VP organization is dedicated to civic progress, economic contributions and charitable causes in St. Louis. Our organization believes in and promotes inclusion, diversity and equality for this region," said the spokesperson.

"We absolutely reject racism and have never partnered or associated with any organization that harbors these beliefs.

"We are proud of our commitment to support civic St. Louis for 143 years, including annually hosting dozens of community service projects and donating tens of thousands of dollars and service hours to support a variety of charity partners to create a stronger, more equitable and prosperous St. Louis."

The spokesperson credited the VP Organization with "making many significant infrastructure and cultural gifts to the city" of St. Louis and "hosting two major free events in St. Louis, including America's Birthday Parade and Fair St. Louis."

"Both events reflect the diversity of the St. Louis community and include a wide variety of partners—such as PrideFest and the Annie Malone Parade," concluded the statement.

Newsweek has contacted a representative of Ellie Kemper for comment.

Actress Ellie Kemper
Ellie Kemper attends Universal Television's FYC "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" panel at UCB Sunset Theater on May 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. It has recently been revealed that the star took part in a Missouri event previously known as the Veiled Prophet Ball. Rachel Luna/Getty Images

Correction 6/2/21: This article originally stated that the Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915. While the Second KKK was founded in 1915, the First KKK was founded in 1865. Newsweek regrets the error.

Update 6/2/21, 9:20 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add a comment from the VP Organization