Last weekend, the New York Times published a compendium of interviews with women who have interacted over the decades with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. The piece, by Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey, chronicled “unwelcome romantic advances, unending commentary on the female form … and unsettling workplace conduct.” Several depressing anecdotes centered around Trump’s co-ownership of—and ardent personal interest in—the Miss Universe Organization. One story in particular was remarkable for its cruelty—not so much Trump’s cruelty, which long ago ceased to be surprising, but for the complicit cruelty of late-1990s-era American mainstream press and broadcast media, which enthusiastically aided and abetted Trump in his staging of a humiliating publicity stunt at the expense of a 20-year-old woman.
As Barbaro and Twohey write in the Times, “After Alicia Machado won the 1996 Miss Universe title, something very human happened: She gained weight. Mr. Trump did not keep his critique of her changing body quiet—he publicly shamed her, she said.” Trump had plenty of help from his friends in the press: When the Miss Universe organization in January 1997 put Machado on a strict diet and exercise regimen, setting her up in a New York City gym with a personal trainer, dozens of news outlets were there to capture her pedaling a stationary bike and lifting light weights. “I was about to cry in that moment with all the cameras there,” Machado told the Times. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do this, Mr. Trump.’ He said, ‘I don’t care.’ ” You can see some of what Machado didn’t want to do in the below video.
What is most heartbreaking about this footage, as well as the photographs from that day, is how Machado’s beauty-queen poise never falters even though you know she’s dying inside. She beams her dazzling smile at the cameras, laughs exuberantly as if she and the paparazzi are sharing a bawdy joke, even gives Trump a girlish kiss on the cheek. Machado has told many news outlets, including the Times, that she battled anorexia and bulimia for years after the gym stunt. But at the time, the press portrayed Trump as a kind of tough-love life coach for Machado. An Associated Press dispatch cast Trump in an encouraging role: “Now, with the support of Donald Trump, who co-owns the Miss Universe pageant with CBS, [Machado is] shedding the pounds for all the world to see.” In a CNN segment that aired on Jan. 29, 1997, Trump explains of the gym spectacle, “We had a choice of termination or do this, and we wanted to do this.” His hands were tied, you see. The only way he could discipline his wayward, gluttonous charge was to force her to skip rope in front of hordes of leering paps.
Let’s linger over that CNN segment for a moment, because in all fairness to Trump, he was only the ringleader; then as now, he needed willing followers. Here is how CNN correspondent Jeanne Moos opened her report on Alicia Machado’s trip to the gym: “No one could accuse Alicia Machado of being the size of the universe. But as her universe expanded, so did she… Since she won the title nine months ago, the former Miss Venezuela went from a 118 pounds to, well the number keeps growing like the size of the fish that got away.”
Other outlets likewise ran with the theme of Big Bang cosmology. The aforementioned Associated Press report began, “Miss Universe hit the gym Tuesday, trying to control her expanding dimensions before the Big Binge turns her career into a black hole.” “Another Case of an Expanding Universe” was the headline in Ontario’s Hamilton Spectator. Tribune News Service went with the straightforward pun “MISS UNIVERSE WON’T STAND THE WEIGHT” while the New York Daily News used “BEAUTY’S BEASTLY DIET KILLS CAMPAIGN” to headline a piece about the Kellogg company removing Machado from the cover of boxes of Special K cereal in Venezuela, due to her weight gain. The Daily News added a quote from Trump corroborating Kellogg’s decision: “She’s eating a lot. You could say she’s an eating machine.” Everyone was on the same page.
That May, Trump and Machado appeared together on CBS This Morning to promote the upcoming 1997 Miss Universe pageant, where Machado would crown the new winner. Host José Diaz-Balart explained that “for the first time in the history of the pageant, viewers can actually participate” by calling in to answer a question. The conundrum at stake: “Should a pageant title holder be required to maintain her physical appearance during her reign?” Diaz-Balart had a question of his own for Trump and Machado: “Why do you think this is an important question the viewers would care about?” It led to the following exchange:
Trump: Well, it’s something that really has come up over the last year. And Alicia has done an incredible job. She really has turned out to be one of the great Miss Universes I will say.
Machado: Thank you.
Trump: And she had a little problem during the middle where she gained a little weight and a lot of …
Machado: I don’t think so.
Trump: Yeah. And she’s probably right.
Machado: I don’t think so.
Trump has been moved to spin cotton-candy word clouds of positive adjectives for many people, and Trump has degraded many others for failing to meet his high standards for the corporeal form. But rare is the person who has inspired both feelings in Trump at once. Alicia Machado, a beautiful woman who ate food, managed the feat. Trump found her disgusting, but in his disgust he also smelled a publicity opportunity—and more to the point, a chance to elevate himself. One suspects he sees that same dichotomy in the American electorate.