Ellie Kemper: What is the Veiled Prophet Ball and why is actress facing controversy?

Actress was named queen of controversial St Louis Veiled Prophet Ball when she was 19

Chelsea Ritschel
New York
Tuesday 01 June 2021 19:13

Actress Ellie Kemper has found herself embroiled in controversy after resurfaced photos showed her named queen of the 1999 Veiled Prophet Ball, a controversial debutante ball.

On Monday, a Twitter user sparked a conversation about Kemper’s past with a tweet showing what was reportedly a photo of the formerThe Office star at the ball when she was 19.

In the photo, Kemper, who is smiling, can be seen dressed in a white ball gown and white gloves as people look on, with the picture’s caption reading: “Elizabeth Claire Kemper, as the 1999 Veiled Prophet Queen of Love and Beauty, is attended by her pages.”

Shortly after the photos resurfaced, people began to question Kemper’s involvement in the annual gala, which has a racially charged history and which takes place every December in St Louis, Missouri.

This is everything you need to know about the Veiled Prophet Ball, from its racist past to Kemper’s involvement.

What is the Veiled Prophet Ball, who created the event and when did it start?

According to a 2014 article by The Atlantic, the annual gala, which first began in 1878 as a parade, was founded by “white elites,” including grain executive and former Confederate cavalryman Charles Slayback, who wanted to form a secret society that blended Mardi Gras with the “symbolism used by the Irish poet Thomas Moore”.

At the time, it was decided by the group that “a person would be chosen by a secret board of local elites to anonymously play the role of the Veiled Prophet,” with the anonymous person then choosing a “Queen of Love and Beauty from among the elite ball attendees”.

The chosen queen, who would then dance with the Veiled Prophet, would also receive an expensive keepsake, which the outlet notes were often “so expensive that they became family heirlooms”.

In addition to a display of pomp, the event was created in response to fears that Chicago would overshadow St Louis, and in response to growing labour unrest and racial issues in the city, especially between Black and white workers.

At its inception, and for many years after, the event, which “emphasised the existing power structure,” barred African and Jewish Americans from participating, according to The Atlantic, which also notes that the “image of the first Veiled Prophet is armed with a shotgun and pistol and is strikingly similar in appearance to a Klansman”.

Although there does not appear to be actual ties between the organisation and the Ku Klux Klan, which reportedly did not begin wearing hoods and robes until 1915, The Atlantic notes that the floats displayed early on during the parade sparked public backlash for depictions of “upsetting racial stereotypes”.

According to the outlet, the VP Fair and Ball organisation eventually loosened restrictions to allow Black members in 1979, and by 1992, “the name of the event was changed to Fair Saint Louis”.

However, a Veiled Prophet Ball is reportedly still held each December, while the accompanying parade is held over the Fourth of July.

How did Kemper become involved in the annual event?

Following evidence of Kemper’s involvement in the gala, interest turned to her relatives, with many pointing out that the actress comes from a family of “old money”.

“People forget that Ellie Kemper is from old money. The Kemper family is still one of the richest families in Missouri,” one person tweeted.

Kemper, who was born and raised in Kansas City before moving to St Louis, is the daughter of David Woods Kemper, the chairman, and CEO of Commerce Bancshares,” according to Popculture, which also notes that her “great-great-grandfather was railroad magnate William Thornton Kemper Sr”.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star’s grandmother, Mildred Lane Kemper, is also notable, with the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St Louis, which is named for her, describing her as a “lifelong advocate of higher education and a patron of the arts”.

In December 1999, Kemper, who was attending Princeton University, became the “105th young woman to be so honoured by the Veiled Prophet organisation,” according to a St Louis Post-Dispatch article.

What has the public response been to the discovery?

Shortly after photos of Kemper at the event went viral, people began criticising the actress over her involvement in the decades-old pageant. 

“Ellie Kemper being a KKK princess is so random that I'm not even sure where to begin with the questions,” one person tweeted, while another said: “It’s obviously f***ed up that Ellie Kemper won prom queen at the St Louis racism convention, it's also extremely funny to me that Twitter airing her dirty laundry was apropos of nothing like someone woke up on this fine memorial day and just went ‘today I come for Kimmy Schmidt.’”

However, others have defended Kemper on the basis that her involvement does not imply that she is racist, despite the event’s racist origins.

“People who think Ellie Kemper is a racist because of participating in racist traditions as a child have never stepped even a toe in the Midwest I guess,” they wrote.

As of now, Kemper has not addressed the backlash. 

The Independent has contacted her representative for comment.

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