Actress Ellie Kemper is being accused of racism and white supremacy for the crime of being a debutante as a teenager.
“The Office” actress attended The Veiled Prophet ball, a debutante event in St. Louis in 1999, when she was 19 years old. There, Kemper was crowned queen of love and beauty, an award for one of the young debutantes, which earned acclaim in St. Louis society and a picture in the paper.
That very picture is coming back to haunt her, as some are attempting to cancel her due to the ball’s racist past. Unsurprisingly, an organization that has been around since the 1870s has not always maintained 2020s ethics and cultural values.
It’s absolutely absurd that attending a traditional society ball 20 years ago is enough to get Kemper branded “KKK Princess” across Twitter. To start, the Veiled Prophets are not associated with the KKK or present-day racism, leaving the sentiment both factually and morally incorrect.
Moreover, why should every event by an organization be tainted by that organization’s controversial past?
Debutante balls can trace origins back to the 1600s in Europe, where select aristocratic young women were presented to the king and queen as their entrance into high society. It was a coming-of-age ritual that denoted the young woman entering adulthood and marriageability. They remained popular in the United Kingdom until 1958, when Queen Elizabeth abolished the practice just as it was falling out of favor.
However, divorced from the constraints of a monarchy, these balls have maintained surprising popularity in the United States, where they are also known as cotillions. Popularized stateside through Emily Post in 1922, these events became a means to demonstrate that a society girl was well-bred and ready to find a suitable husband. They especially took a foothold in the South and New York City.
Eventually, the marriage aspect faded as the balls became more about tradition, with storied, exclusive social clubs handling the coming out of women across generations.
The Veiled Prophet Ball is such an event. It has been taking place since 1878, when prominent St. Louis businessmen and politicians created a fair, parade, and ball to combat economic hardships in the Civil War’s aftermath. Historian Thomas Spencer, who has studied the Veiled Prophets, noted the organization held a second purpose of maintaining the social position of the city’s elites.
The ball invites around 50 young women from affluent and connected families to be presented to St. Louis society each year. Of these debutantes, one is crowned the queen of love and beauty, selected by the secretly elected veiled prophet.
The attempted canceling of Kemper is not the first controversy about the Veiled Prophets. The ball faced protests in 1969 and 1972 for racism and classism. Many objected to the ball emphasizing class differences by flaunting the wealth of the city’s most affluent families. Further, the organization did have a shameful history of excluding black and Jewish people, one that was righted in 1979, 20 years before the one Kemper attended.
However, the organization has long since attempted to distance itself from the racism of its past, and engage in philanthropic work alongside hosting the debutante balls.