When the call came, it was unexpected. Donald Trump had appointed me to be a judge. Not on the federal bench but at the Miss USA pageant. This was back in 2001, and Trump owned the competition underneath the umbrella of his Miss Universe Organization. My qualifications at the time included having been previously crowned Miss Guinness and Miss Coney Island Mermaid Queen. I’m not sure Trump knew much about my prior reigns, but then again, I doubt he knows much about Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s legal career, either.
Flapping His Gums
Trump’s name was well known by the early 90s, when I was a V.J. at MTV. My segments were often shot at his properties, such as the Plaza hotel and the Trump Taj Mahal casino. Great politicians have the magnetism and charm to make you feel like you are the only person in a crowded room, but whenever I interviewed Trump, it felt like he was the only person in the room.
Our MTV production crew had a motto: “Where is the worst place to stand if you have a fear of being trampled to death? Between Trump and a TV camera.” Our blazing Kino Flo lights called to him like the Bat-Signal. He was always eager to point his face at our camera and flap his gums. He spoke like refrigerator magnets jumbled together, and had an abundant lack of wit. I learned from him that his casinos were the greatest in the world, that the boxing match he was promoting was the greatest fight in the world, that Tom Jones in concert was the greatest show in the world. It was quite an education.
Trump reminded me of a gasbag uncle, the kind who pulls a quarter out of your ear and then keeps the quarter. My experiences on camera with him were nontoxic. Perhaps, at age 29, way past my prime, my liver-spotted, wizened visage made me not his type.
“Where is the worst place to stand if you have a fear of being trampled to death? Between Trump and a TV camera.”
Trump is known for sending magazine clips, with handwritten notes scrawled in black Sharpie, to prominent people. I was a member of that illustrious circle. Donald scissored out articles from People and Us Weekly that featured me, noting, “Hey Duff—looking good!” I’ve read reports that he sent the exact same sentiment to Justin Trudeau. Perhaps this is the one area where Trump and I agree.
An Orange-Tufted King Leer
When he selected me as a judge for the Miss USA pageant, I was eager to take the case. Surely the pageant would be in some beautiful location like Miami or Puerto Rico or San Diego. I was dreaming of piña coladas by the pool. Instead, I flew to Gary, Indiana, in winter.
I didn’t get a chance to sit on the high court with titans like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but I did share my judging duties with an illustrious panel that included Ernie Hudson and Martha Stewart. Just as a future Justice Barrett will have to work closely with her colleagues to reach decisions of momentous importance, so too did I “reach across the aisle” to find common ground with Daniel Baldwin to crown Miss USA 2001. Funny—today, I can’t even remember her name.
During the pageant, my fellow judges and I never saw Trump. I think I know why. He later bragged on tape that he created the “Trump Rule” to pre-judge the competition. He picked out the women he thought were hottest and guaranteed them spots in the final competition. While I froze my keister off in the auditorium, Trump was, according to two former contestants from that year, walking in on these young women in their dressing room like an orange-tufted King Leer. They recalled that some were en déshabillé. I wasn’t aware of any of this as the judges were strictly forbidden to interact with the contestants.
Many presidents leave behind signature policies as part of their enduring legacy, like the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European powers not to interfere in the Americas, or Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Our current leader, the only president to own a beauty pageant, will be remembered for the Trump Rule, which gave him the power to perv on young women. If I had the authority, this is an accord I’d like to overturn. I hope Amy Coney Barrett would agree with me. In Indiana, where Judge Barrett resides, voyeurism is a crime punishable by up to two and a half years in prison. As she stated in her confirmation hearings, “No one is above the law.”
Duff Lambros is the author of Backbone: Living with Chronic Pain Without Turning into One