Actor Ellie Kemper came under scrutiny this week after Twitter users homed in on a 20-year-old story about her participation at a debutante ball for the St. Louis elite.
Kemper, who starred in “The Office” and Netflix’s “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” first drew fire after social media users noted she was crowned 1999’s Queen of Love and Beauty at the secretive Veiled Prophet Ball, an exclusive city event that began more than 140 years ago. The annual high-society gala (bar last year, due to the pandemic) has long drawn accusations of being racist and elitist.
Hundreds of college sophomores have been crowned at the ball, including Kemper, who was a 19-year-old student at Princeton in 1999. There is no known link between the Veiled Prophet Organization and white supremacist groups, but the event began to draw protests in the late 1960s when Black activists criticized the group for being exclusionary and elitist.
The St. Louis Cultural Resources Office says the group was founded in 1878 by “white male community leaders” who hoped to create an event that mimicked Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. The ball is presided over by an anonymous Veiled Prophet who wears a lace face covering and a white robe. (A local social justice group called ACTION regularly picketed the ball for excluding members of color, culminating in an unmasking of 1972′s prophet, which turned out to be the then-vice president of Monsanto.)
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes that the society began admitting Black members in 1979, 20 years before Kemper participated. Kemper’s representatives did not reply to HuffPost’s request for comment.
In a statement, the Veiled Prophet Organization rejected claims that it was racist, pointing to its support for various events that “reflect the diversity of the St. Louis community.”
“The VP organization is dedicated to civic progress, economic contributions and charitable causes in St. Louis,” the group said. “Our organization believes in and promotes inclusion, diversity and equality for this region. We absolutely reject racism and have never partnered or associated with any organization that harbors these beliefs.”
Kemper also drew scrutiny for her place in St. Louis society at the time of the event. Her great-great-grandfather was a banking tycoon, and her father is the executive chairman of Commerce Bancshares. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis is named for her grandmother.