This article was originally published on June 1. It has since been updated to add Kemper’s apology.
A two-decade-old article about Ellie Kemper—the actress best known for The Office and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—went viral this week, and for those of us not deeply immersed in the history of Kemper’s native town of St. Louis, Missouri, the story could seem both deeply weird and more than a little confusing. In 1999, it turns out, the then-19-year-old Princeton sophomore was dubbed the Queen of Love and Beauty at the Veiled Prophet Ball. The rediscovery of this fact then led to allegations that Kemper was a “KKK princess.” So … was she? And what is the Veiled Prophet Ball, anyway? And why is it suddenly trending now? Below, let’s break it all down.
What the heck is “the Veiled Prophet Ball”?
It’s an annual debutante ball in St. Louis with some very strange traditions and a history that’s spotty at best. As at most debutante balls, young women are invited to show off to and be honored by their community. Unlike at most debutante balls, the winner is decided by a hosting organization sometimes called the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet of the Enchanted Realm (seriously). The group, which has since rebranded as the Veiled Prophet Organization, was started by St. Louis “community leaders” who sought to bring more parties to the locals. These included pageants like the ball, which first began crowning its teenage queens in 1878. The ball is presided over by the titular Veiled Prophet, whose face and identity are concealed.
These guys sound like supervillains. Is this a KKK thing, like some people are saying?
It’s not a KKK thing, but as with so much in America, that doesn’t mean the Veiled Prophet Organization doesn’t have its own racist history. The order was an exclusive—and exclusionary—bunch that nonetheless found fans in St. Louis for its fancy parties. According to St. Louis’ Cultural Resources Office, the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet was a secretive society specifically created by “white male community leaders,” who then created the gala with the goal of “reinforcing the notion of the benevolent elite.” In the 1970s, they faced protests from civil rights groups like ACTION, which managed to infiltrate the ball in 1972 and unmask that year’s “veiled prophet,” who turned out to be a vice president of Monsanto. The society didn’t admit any Black members until 1979, more than 100 years after it was founded.
Why are people connecting the Veiled Prophet Organization with the KKK?
It seems to be a combination of the group’s actual racist history, its status as a secretive society, and the fact that members have been depicted as, well, wearing white sheets and pointy hats. That last image comes specifically from an illustration that was printed in the Oct. 6, 1878, issue of the Missouri Republican and is reprinted at the top of this article. Still, it’s not quite what it looks like. In 1878, white robes and pointy hats didn’t mean the same thing that they mean in America today; the KKK didn’t actually dress like that until the early 20th century. The Klan and the Veiled Prophet Organization are also not the only groups to wear white pointy hats. In Spain, for example, decidedly not racist celebrations of Holy Week often involve strikingly similar conical caps that read quite differently to Americans.
How was Ellie Kemper involved?
Well, the society was run for decades by the wealthy white elites of Missouri, and that certainly includes families like Kemper’s. Ellie’s great-great-grandfather was a banking tycoon who became the first in a line of wealthy bankers. Her grandfather was president of Commerce Bancshares in Kansas City, and her dad is now the company’s executive chairman. Between this legacy, Ellie’s attendance at Princeton (where her family also has roots—her mother both attended and worked in the office of admissions), and Ellie’s own accomplishments as a track and musical theater star, it’s perhaps not surprising she was chosen in 1999 as the Veiled Prophet Ball’s Queen of Love and Beauty.
Does Kemper’s participation mean she’s racist?
In her defense, by the time Ellie Kemper won the crown, the organization had become slightly more inclusive. While the Queens have continued to be overwhelmingly white, at least some competitors for the crown, called “maids,” have been Black. Still, the ball’s association with prejudice persists. As one headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it in 2019, “Veiled Prophet: Symbol of wealth, power and, to some, racism.”
If this happened decades ago, why is it trending now?
It’s not totally clear! On Monday morning, one user decided to tweet, apparently unprompted, about the existence of the Veiled Prophet Ball:
A couple of hours later, another user responded by noting that beloved sitcom star Kemper was once the ball’s queen:
These tweets went viral and prompted more tweets, as people learned more about the group and Kemper’s family history. By Monday evening, Kemper’s name was trending on Twitter.
Should this damn Ellie Kemper?
Nah. Ellie Kemper was never deemed a “KKK Queen,” as some online have erroneously stated. And the fact of the matter is that the persistence of the Veiled Prophet Ball is an institutional failing—not a personal one on the teenaged Kemper’s part. She benefited from the inherently racist structures that helped shape the city in which she grew up, but that doesn’t mean she’s actively working to perpetuate them. The story’s recirculation might seem random, but it’s both making much more well-known the mottled history of this elitist organization and event, and reminding people of how many American traditions are built on exclusion.
Update, June 7, 2021: One week after she became a trending topic, Kemper responded to the criticism on Instagram.
The post reads:
Hi guys - when I was 19 years old, I decided to participate in a debutante ball in my hometown. The century-old organization that hosted the debutante ball had an unquestionably racist, sexist, and elitist past. I was not aware of this history at the time, but ignorance is no excuse. I was old enough to have educated myself before getting involved.
I unequivocally deplore, denounce, and reject white supremacy. At the same time, I acknowledge that because of my race and my privilege, I am the beneficiary of a system that has dispensed unequal justice and unequal rewards.
There is a very natural temptation, when you become the subject of internet criticism, to tell yourself that your detractors are getting it all wrong. But at some point last week, I realized that a lot of the forces behind the criticism are forces that I’ve spent my life supporting and agreeing with.
I believe strongly in the values of kindness, integrity, and inclusiveness. I try to live my life in accordance with these values. If my experience is an indication that organizations and institutions with pasts that fall short of these beliefs should be held to account, then I have to see this experience in a positive light.
I want to apologize to the people I’ve disappointed, and I promise that moving forward I will listen, continue to educate myself, and use my privilege in support of the better society I think we’re capable of becoming.
Thanks for reading this.