Ellie Kemper apologizes for participating in debutante ball with 'racist, sexist' past

EL SEGUNDO, CA., MAY 29, 2019—Ellie Kemper played the receptionist Erin Hannon in the NBC comedy series The Office (2009–2013) and later the starring role in the Netflix comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015–2019), for which she has received two nominations for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Ellie Kemper has addressed her participation in an old event that landed her in hot water. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

A week after resurfaced photos resulted in an online uproar accusing "The Office" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" star Ellie Kemper of being a "KKK princess," the actor has issued a detailed Instagram apology.

"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," she wrote in a five-slide post Monday.

"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," she continued.

"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," Kemper added.

"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."

The brouhaha began when newspaper photos from 1999 emerged of Kemper being named Queen of Love and Beauty at the former Veiled Prophet Ball in her native St. Louis (the entire celebration was renamed Fair Saint Louis in 1992).

Because of longstanding charges of the Veiled Prophet group's racism and elitism, and because of a notorious image celebrating a "Veiled Prophet" figure extremely reminiscent of a Ku Klux Klansman, Twitter users were quick to brand Kemper a "KKK princess."

Thomas Spencer, a historian who wrote the book “The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995,” described the Veiled Prophet organization as a society of white St. Louis elites formed in the 1870s with an eye toward maintaining the social order they desired.

“The first parade has some pretty overt racial symbolism and intimidation,” Spencer told The Times last week, specifying the first Veiled Prophet's strong resemblance to a Klansman, hood and all. “The VP was armed, and there was an executioner’s block on the float, etc.”

However, Spencer said he found no direct links to the Klan in his research and explained the organization, while "lily white" until 1979, had changed from being something like a "shadow government" until the 1950s to something "purely social."

Of the VP event at which Kemper won her crown, Spencer said, "It's a debutante ball that has existed for a long time ... The daughters are doing it because their dad wants them to do so, and it's a way to honor their father."

Whether the Twitterverse would accept Kemper's apology remained to be seen, but celebs such as Mindy Kaling, Wendi McLendon Covey, Rob Delaney and Katie Couric immediately responded with their support, sharing heart emojis on Kemper's Instagram. Within two hours, nearly 115,000 users had liked the post.

"You are understood and loved," commented Alec Baldwin.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.