The Kansas-born actress started receiving backlash over the weekend after fans found a picture of her as Queen of St Louis’ Veiled Prophet Ball back in 1999.
People immediately went to share their thoughts on the photo, with some calling out Kemper for having “racist links” from being dubbed Queen of Love and Beauty as a teenager.
One user wrote, “People are really trying to make the case that this ‘tradition’ Ellie Kemper participated in wasn’t created by the klan or at least klan adjacent?”
Another agreed, bringing up her role in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, writing, “It really is something that Ellie Kemper was the star of a tv show about a woman who leaves a racist cult and tries to rebrand herself while pretending it never happened. No reason why I’m bringing this up of course.”
Still, others were quick to defend her, with one fan saying, “I spent ten years of my life in St. Louis (including the time she’s talking about) and I’m familiar with the Veiled Prophet Ball — even knew people who attended it. I’m pretty sure as far as we knew it was just a debutante ball for the society folks.”
So, what is the Veiled Prophet Ball?
Every Fourth of July, downtown St. Louis comes alive with music, hot-air balloons, and fireworks, and food for the ‘St Louis Fair’, formerly known as the Veiled Prophet Ball until the early 1990s.
According to reports from The Atlantic, it started in 1878 when grain executive and former Confederate cavalryman Charles Slayback called a meeting of local business and civic leaders. His intention was to form a secret society that would blend the pomp and ritual of a New Orleans Mardi Gras.
It eventually turned into an elaborate ritual where someone from a secret board of local elites would be chosen to anonymously play the role of the Veiled Prophet. The Veiled Prophet would choose a ‘Queen of Love and Beauty, which Ellie Kemper was selected as age 19, from among the elite ball attendees with whom he would dance a ‘Royal Quadrille’ before presenting her with an expensive keepsake such as a tiara or pearls.
The fair has been long associated with its secretive nature and ‘elitism’, as historian Thomas Spencer explained: “The parade and all its pomp was meant to reinforce the values of the elite on the working class of the city.”
While there is no evidence of a direct link from the Veiled Prophet Ball to the KKK, an 1878 edition of the Missouri Republican shows a picture of the Veiled Prophet with a striking resemblance to a Klansman.
In the early seventies, the fair was crashed by protesters–the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes–campaigning to abolish the ball that “flaunted its wealth in front of the city’s poorest residents.” The Veiled Prophet didn’t allow Black members to join until 1979.