Ellie Kemper is trending on Twitter because of something she was involved with over two decades ago with a controversial history, the Veiled Prophet Ball. There are a lot of inaccurate reports hitting the web, which is not surprising. Here’s what we know.
Ellie Kemper’s Upbringing
Kemper was born and raised in St. Louis, Misouri. Her family has a lot of history in St. Louis and the state of Missouri in general, with a long line of successful bankers going back generations. Her great-great-grandfather, William Thornton Kemper Sr., founded Commerce Bank in the early 20th century, and many of his descendants have since followed him into the banking business, including with Commerce. Her father, David Kemper, ran the bank as well.
Ellie Kemper grew up with privilege, which she has never tried to hide. She attended private school in St. Louis and went on to study at Princeton, graduating in 2002, after which she attended Oxford University in England. It was part of that upbringing that is under scrutiny today, both on Twitter and in the gossip media, including stories on Page Six and The Sun’s websites, among others.
While Ellie was at Princeton, she participated in an event in St. Louis known as the Veiled Prophet Ball, where she was named “Queen of Love and Beauty” in the debutante ball. It’s that ball that is being called into question. What is it? What is its history? Is it associated with the Ku Klux Klan? Was it when it was founded? These are all complex questions, something the gossip media is not great about answering fully. We’ll do our best to present the full picture here.
What Is The Veiled Prophet Ball?
The Veiled Prophet (or VP) Ball is a debutante ball with its origins in a bygone era. The organization was founded by prominent white members of St. Louis society, some of whom had ties to the Confederacy during the Civil War. This includes founder Alonzo Slayback, who was an officer in the Confederate Army. Slayback and his brother Charles, who was not in the Confederate Army, were among the men that formed the organization.
Charles Slayback got the idea for VP after living in New Orleans and thinking St. Louis needed something akin to a Mardi Gras Krewe, with the same pageantry and service directives of those organizations. In 1878, using his contacts and lofty position in St. Louis society, he gathered the group of white business and civic leaders that founded the group. Not only did they organize the ball, but also an annual Fourth of July parade in and later an annual Fourth of July fair, traditionally held on the grounds of the St. Louis Arch. Both the parade and the fair are open to the public and millions have attended both over the years. The ball remains members only, held every year around Christmas.
Debutante balls, like the VP Ball, have a long history in the United States and Europe, and, frankly, are quite antiquated to say the least. The events see young women, usually in their late teens, “presented” to society, indicating they are eligible to date and marry. Yeah, it’s weird. It’s a true relic of a long time ago when society was different. Today, that’s not how members — or debutantes — think of them anymore. Debutante balls, like VP, now survive purely on tradition as social events and a coming-of-age marker.
What Happens At The Veiled Prophet Ball
The early members created a whole mythos around the ball and its “leader,” know as the Veiled Prophet. The Prophet is dressed in white robes and a white mask that in all honesty look pretty much exactly like a KKK robe. It’s worth noting, however, that the Ku Klux Klan didn’t adopt that look until after the film Birth of a Nation helped revive the Klan with its release in 1915. The costume worn by the VP dates back to almost 50 years before the movie.
The daughters of members, usually in their sophomore year of college, are “presented” as members of the Court of the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan. The masked figure’s identity is kept a secret even from members of the organization, but the position is rotated through the members. It’s not one person for life.
While this seems very odd to most people outside the organization, inside, it is not taken as seriously as some would project, especially today. Yes, it’s a big deal for many of the young women, but it’s not like it was 40, 50, or 100 years ago. Most 19 year olds, the typical age for a debutante at VP, are well aware of how silly it must all look to outsiders. Still, it’s an old tradition, and many of the participants have mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers that all walked in the ball. In addition to the 50 or 60 debutantes that walk, there are four named “Special Maids” and one named “Queen.” Ellie Kemper was the Queen.
How Ellie Kemper Was Involved
In 1999, when Ellie Kemper was 19, she walked in the ball and was named Queen of the Ball by the Veiled Prophet. There are a lot of reasons why a woman is named queen, but it mostly has to do with how active her father is in the organization and how prominent he is around town, civically and socially.
The duties of the queen are pretty insignificant. She is last to walk in the ball and sits next to the Veiled Prophet for the duration and later takes a seat in the parade held the following summer along with her “court” — the Special Maids. And that’s pretty much it. The organization is very akin, as mentioned, to the various Krewes in New Orleans. There is a ball and a parade and that’s that for the queen. That is as far as Ellie Kemper’s participation goes.
Problematic History Of The VP
For the first 100 years, non-white people were not allowed to become members of the organization. There is simply no way to sugarcoat that. Even today, the majority are white, though, since 1979, VP has been admitting prominent Black St. Louis citizens. As it was the strict purview of white St. Louis for 100 years, it has often been accused — fairly — of playing a part in the terrible racial history of St. Louis and the country at large, and it continues to be a lightning rod today, as evidenced by the stories trending on Twitter involving Ellie Kemper.
The tweet that seems to have started all this makes the claim “So was no one gonna tell me Ellie kemper aka kimmy Schmidt was crowned KKK queen in 1999” with a photo of Kemper as the queen from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in December 1999.
So is the organization racist and associated with the Klan? Well, that too is complicated, but for starters, it was not part of nor was it ever directly associated with the KKK. Despite the weird traditions and even weirder costumes of the participants, it’s never been a part of the Klan. Is that to say members of the organization were never members of the Klan? No. While there is no direct evidence linking members to both organizations, it would be irresponsible to say there were not members with overlapping interests. This is white America in the early 20th century, after all. In all likelihood, there was some overlap, but never openly.
The fact remains that there were no Black members until 1979, and that only changed after years of criticism leveled at the group by many St. Louis civil rights activists, including Percy Green, who was very active in denouncing the ball and what he thought it represented. Green wasn’t wrong, though his rhetoric was over the top at times. He rightfully and loudly called the group out in the late ’60s and early ’70s as part of the broader civil rights movement. He had quite an effect, too, as soon after, the organization started to get with the times.
The history of the Veiled Prophet Ball, like the prophet himself, is shrouded in mystery, and for obvious reasons, the organization doesn’t like to talk about it. They would rather talk about the present, which is both frustrating and understandable. Today, the VP organization is much different than it was at its founding. It’s still a group for the wealthy members of upper crust St. Louis society, but it includes many Black and other minority members today. The group is far less focused on the ball and its traditions as it is on civic outreach and charitable giving.
VP Still Sparks Controversy
Its long, questionable history is still fair game, and as Black St. Louis activists have pointed out, many in the St. Louis Black community don’t feel welcome at the annual Fourth of July Fair. For generations, Fair St. Louis has been seen as a “white people thing,” which wasn’t an incorrect assessment. In the early 1980s, steps were taken that African-Americans saw as modern segregation, like closing off one of the bridges from East St. Louis to St. Louis during the fair after charges were made that recent violence at the fair was due to criminal elements in the Black community. The charges were, of course, unfounded and unfair, but nonetheless were carried by local media.
Was it racist? Yes, in that they only admitted white members and refused to open their doors to Black members of society, no matter how successful. It was wrong, they were wrong, and they deserve to be called out for it. VP, like thousands of others like it in the late 19th and early 20th century, practiced systemic exclusion of the Black community. It’s something those groups, and this country, continue to deal with in 21st century America. But in 2021, many of these organizations are different. The past is what it is, but the present is the present. Gossip Cop reached out to a member of the organization, who asked not to be identified, but told us,
Whatever the reason the Veiled Prophet was started in the 1870s, it’s not the reason for its existence today. This is reaffirmed by a statement from the Veiled Prophet organization:
The organization has worked hard to be more inclusive, though to some, it will never be enough, and that is completely understandable. The history of race is complicated in America and especially in St. Louis. The city continues to reckon with its past, from redlining neighborhoods in the decades after the civil war to the protests of Michael Brown’s shooting by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson that pushed the Black Lives Matter movement to its current place in the conversation.
Today, the members of VP think of themselves and the organization as a more civic and philanthropic group than anything else. Members of the organization have worked hard to raise money and awareness and do charity work with some of St. Louis’ most vulnerable. The organization also continues to hold the ball, the parade, and the fair, though the fair was renamed “Fair St. Louis” decades ago in an attempt to publicly separate the fair from the organization and make it more inclusive, though many think it’s not done enough to be so. It will never escape its past, and that is something it continues to need to deal with.
Ellie Kemper’s Involvement
Ultimately, it’s unfair to solely judge a person by a singular snapshot of their past. Yes, Kemper grew up wealthy and privileged and that included her time as the “Queen” of VP. She’s never denied any of that. Now, at 41 years old, she is a very different person and has been vocal in her support of the Black Lives Matter movement and other social issues of today. She has not yet commented on the claims, though Gossip Cop has reached out to her team. If she does comment, we will be sure to update this piece.
Ed. Note: Ellie Kemper has responded to these claims in a direct and honest instagram post, noting the VP as having, “an unquestionably racist, sexist, and elitist past.” Kemper went on to also disclose that, “I was not aware of this history at the time, but ignorance is no excuse … 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.”
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