Things got ugly so quickly.
That’s quite a thing to say about the glittering, glamorous, gorgeous world of beauty pageants.
Yet, ugly, says our reigning Miss New Mexico, is how it was and ugly is how it still is, ugly enough that some of her allegations against the pageant’s executive director – which include the mismanagement of scholarship money and other pageant finances – are now under investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Which is to say, things could get uglier.
“I worked six years to win Miss New Mexico and to compete for Miss America. It’s been my dream,” Stephanie Chavez, 24, said. “But I will sacrifice my title and my crown to warn other girls.”
(Note: Miss America is the pageant with no former Trump ties – that’s Miss USA.)
At the center of her claims is Greg Smith, a curious combo of cattle rancher and pageant aficionado from Elida, who has served in a variety of roles in local pageants for more than 30 years.
In 2015, he was named executive director of the Miss New Mexico organization. Chavez is the first Miss New Mexico under his directorship.
It has not been an easy reign.
Almost from the start, she said, she felt uncomfortable around Smith.
She contends that she has heard him use racial and sexual slurs and that he controlled her every move in a way she did not see other directors clamping down on their contestants at the Miss America pageant last September in Atlantic City.
Smith, responding to written questions by email, denied her allegations, calling them deeply offensive and absolutely untrue.
More troubling – and likely of more interest to investigators – are Chavez’s claims that she and others have not received scholarships or funding for official trips, videos, advertisements and other items, as promised in their agreements as pageant winners.
Chavez, a University of New Mexico junior studying communications and psychology, said she has not received a dime of the $6,500 in scholarships from Miss New Mexico and is not allowed to access the $3,000 in scholarships from Miss America until she uses up the state funding.
Other contestants have also complained that they have been shorted money and goods promised by the Miss New Mexico organization.
An attorney for the family of Madison Belcher, the reigning Miss New Mexico Outstanding Teen, the junior version of Miss New Mexico, said Belcher never received a promised prize package, including expense-paid trips to Chicago and Orlando, Fla., the site of the national pageant.
Portales attorney Randy Knudson said his office sent a formal demand letter to Smith and Jana Roberts, secretary/treasurer of the Miss New Mexico board, concerning the items about 10 days ago but has not received a response.
The family is considering filing a lawsuit, he said.
Smith said he suspects that both contestants simply failed to correctly file their paperwork for the funds.
“A contestant who qualifies for scholarship money but does not make the required application and provide the necessary documentation is no more entitled to the disbursement of funds than a contestant who does not qualify for scholarship money in the first instance,” he said.
Chavez and her parents insist they filed the scholarship paperwork correctly months ago.
And voilà, on Friday, they received an email from Smith announcing that the scholarship request forms were received along with the proper documentation and that checks will be forthcoming in June.
“He was just stalling,” said Diana Chavez, Stephanie’s mother.
Smith’s personal financial background has come into question as a result of the pageant-related allegations.
In 2002, he was arrested on a felony theft charge in Lubbock County, Texas – a charge, Smith said stems from a merchant who lost a check Smith said he asked him to hold.
A Lubbock County court clerk confirmed that the charge was dismissed then reindicted in 2004 then dismissed again, though she could not explain why.
Court documents also show that Smith filed for bankruptcy at least twice, including in 2002 and 2010; was sued for fraud for giving a stock trailer as payment to a woman he owed money to for bounced checks without telling her that the trailer had a lien on it, which has been resolved; and is on the hook as of May 5 for $76,941.18 to his lawyer.
Smith explained that all his financial issues – except the lawyer’s claim, which he disputes – have been taken care of.
“These matters are irrelevant to the manner in which the organization conducts its business,” Smith said. “Rather than focusing on the organization, these questions are illustrative of what appears to be an attack on me personally and not a legitimate complaint about the organization.”
Attempts to reach Miss New Mexico board members were not successful.
A Miss America Organization spokeswoman responded in an email that she believed the matter of Chavez’s scholarship was being addressed but offered no comment on the rest of the allegations or the AG investigation.
“Your email raises new and additional information that we are looking into,” she added.
Chavez said she and her family made attempts to discuss her concerns with Smith and other pageant officials but received little response other than from Smith, who in one email last July reminded Chavez that she had accepted the duties of Miss New Mexico and needed to do what she was told, be coachable and learn to “control” her feelings.
“I am not down to be disrespected,” Smith wrote in the email. “When you disrespect me you disrespect the entire organization.”
Which is why after months of getting nowhere Chavez went to the Attorney General’s Office.
AG spokesman James Hallinan confirmed that an investigation is ongoing but could not comment further on the details.
Which is why Chavez is now going public.
She is concerned that she is being retaliated against by not being allowed to officially appear as Miss New Mexico, though she continues to do so at charitable and community events. She has not been allowed to represent the organization at fund-raisers for the Children’s Miracle Network, which Miss America partners with, nor has she been allowed to mentor the young women who one day hope to wear the crown.
Chavez’s reign ends June 17, when a new Miss New Mexico is crowned in Portales. But Chavez is not likely to be there to crown her successor or sing her farewell song.
“At this stage in the planning for the 2017 pageant, we do not envision a formal role for Ms. Chavez,” Smith said.
Heavy is the head that wears this crown. But so be it, Chavez said.
“I’m sad, but I’m mentally prepared,” she said. “I support the Miss America program, but I don’t support what Greg is doing to it.”
Sometimes, she said, speaking out is a better legacy than smiling silently, beautifully.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.