The Miss USA hopeful sued by Trump: ‘There are ways to stand your ground’

After Sheena Monnin criticized what she said was a rigged contest, the businessman hit her with a $10m lawsuit. The experience taught her to empathize with fellow victims and the dangers of a bully in the White House

Sheena Monnin saw beauty pageants as a way to fulfill her potential she never imagined theyd be the gateway through which Donald Trump would try to destroy her life. Even now, she insists, the debacle has not made her anti-pageant, just anti-Trump.

Monnin got her start as a teenager in 2002, when she was spotted at a mall in Orlando by a woman who worked in the pageant industry. At first she was surprised to be singled out for her looks given her modest height, but when she started watching the contests on television, she was seized by the pageants vision of beauty. I remember walking up and down the living room and copying their poses, she told the Guardian. I always had the image of the ideal woman in my mind, and part of what helped me reach for that was my pageant education and acting like a lady.

Soon she was competing in pageants every year and, with the help of coaches, a careful diet, and a rigorous exercise routine, she could feel herself beginning to resemble the lady she envisioned. In a few years, she would be winning pageant titles, including Miss Pennsylvania, in 2012, at the age of 26. But it was competing in Trumps Miss USA pageant the same year in Las Vegas that would alter the course of her young adult life.

Sheena Monnin competing in the 2012 Miss USA competition. Photograph: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images
During that competition, according to Monnin, another contestant, Karina Brez of Florida, insisted to several women backstage mid-pageant that she already knew who the top five final contestants would be, and specifically, that she had seen the names of the pre-selected women listed in a notebook at the back of the stage.

Though Monnin never saw such a notebook herself, when contestants Brez had predicted were later selected, Monnin came to the conclusion that the pageant was rigged.

The Trump Organization denied allegations of favoritism and Brez later said what she had seen was a rehearsal list and that she was joking. Brez did not return the Guardians requests for comment.

Butthis year, Miss Universe judge Jeff Lee admitted in GQ that Trump who from 1996 to 2015 owned or co-owned both Miss Universe and Miss USA frequently had a say in which women made the final round. According to the storys author, Burt Helm: Lee will tell you that from 2005 until Donald Trump sold the Miss Universe pageant last year, the billionaire quietly handpicked as many as six semifinalists Trump cards, they were called. Helm said that lower-level beauty pageant picks were so often subject to massaging that this was considered an open secret among former contestants.

If so, this open secret had not been shared with Monnin, and she resigned her Miss Pennsylvania crown in protest.

But it wasnt until she wrote a post on Facebook about the situation that things started getting out of hand.

Monnins post was strongly worded and to the point.

She wrote:

I have decided to resign my position as Miss Pennsylvania USA 2012. Effective immediately I have voluntarily, completely, and utterly removed myself from the Miss Universe Organization. In good conscience I can no longer be affiliated in any way with an organization I consider to be fraudulent, lacking in morals, inconsistent, and in many ways trashy.

I do not support this system in any way. In my heart I believe in honesty, fair play, a fair opportunity, and high moral integrity, none of which in my opinion are part of this pageant system any longer.

Thank you all for your support and understanding as I walk a road I never dreamed Id need to walk, as I take a stand I never dreamed Id need to take. After 10 years of competing in a pageant system I once believed in, I now completely and irrevocably separate myself in every way and on every level from the Miss Universe Organization. I remove my support completely and have turned in the title of Miss Pennsylvania USA 2012.

(In a separate letter of resignation to the pageant organizers, Monnin also cited the inclusion of transgender women in the contest that year as a reason for her returning her title. She told the Guardian that she had no problem with the inclusion of transgender contestants in pageants generally, but that she was upset that the rules had been changed in 2012 without notice. The point I was trying to make and I dont think I made it well is that they changed the contract and I dont think thats fair.)

Monnins aim in writing the Facebook post, she told the Guardian, was simply to explain her decision to friends. Back then her page was mostly set to private, she added, and she had just a few hundred Facebook friends.

But Trump, having seen the post, did what he often does in the face of petty insults he escalated the conflict exponentially. Specifically, he used his platform as a person in the public eye to cast aspersions on Monnin and impugn her reputation on national TV. Speaking on ABCs Good Morning America the next day, Trump called Monnins claims absolutely ridiculous and her character worse.

She suffers from a thing called losers remorse, he said. She lost, and if you looked at her compared to people who were in the top 15, you would understand why she was not in the top 15.

Trump said his organization would be bringing a lawsuit against her, detailing his intentions in a second appearance on NBCs Today. And when Monnin appeared on the same show days later to defend herself, Trump sued her for $10m for defamation.

Trump has never been one to let an insult go. A decade ago, when a biographer estimated his net worth was much lower than he claimed, for instance, Trump sued the author, a New York Times business reporter, for $5bn. This election cycle, he has made the disproportionate deployment of force a point of pride, maybe even a credo, saying: Anybody who hits me, were going to hit them 10 times harder. There at least, Trump has been as good as his word his sharp tongue typically starts the fights, but it is his lawyers who finish them.

In 2012, Monnin was completely blindsided by the lawsuit. There was no way I could have afforded to pay that off and frankly, he had to have known that, she said of Trumps $10m suit. I was just a normal person. At 27, she had no legal experience or connections, and had never seen anything approaching that kind of money. She was still paying off her degree from the online university she attended, and making strides to grow a small business.

Unlike Trump, she did not come from privilege. Her family had to move every few years for her fathers business, work which took them to Florida, Texas, New York, Kentucky and the Carolinas before she was grown. Sometimes her parents would take in foster kids in the cities where they lived, but they never stayed anywhere long.

The three years she spent battling Trump and his lawyers she recalls as the most traumatic period of her life. Family helped keep her feeling grounded and protected, she said, but there were still mornings when she didnt want to get out of bed. My focus was getting through each day and getting through what was going on around me and understanding my options, she said of that period. Every day seemed to bring a new legal document that I didnt understand, that I had to seek legal counsel on.

As recently as last year, Trumps lawyer Michael Cohen bragged to the Daily Beast about the time he destroy[ed] Monnins life. Attempting to intimidate a Beast reporter, Cohen said: Do you want to destroy your life? Its going to be my privilege to serve it to you on a silver platter like I did that idiot from Pennsylvania in Miss USA. Monnin rebuffs the notion her life was destroyed, but concedes Trump succeeded in the short term and not just with regard to making her feel small and afraid. There was this message being sent out to all the contestants: you better not say anything bad about us. And thats how the other young ladies felt. It may have worked: not one of the women whom Monnin said sent supportive messages after Trump attacked her came forward to defend her in public, though one did anonymously defend her story to Fox News.

Its no secret that Trump is incredibly litigious. A recent investigation by USA Today tallied 3,500 lawsuits involving Trump. He gets sued quite a bit, but mostly he does the suing, filing 1,900 suits, including many like the one against Monnin for defamation. He has sued biographers, journalists, business partners, even an ex-wife and a Native American tribe, but he has threatened to sue even more.

Trump is a former schoolyard bully who was sent away to military school to learn proper behavior, says biographer Harry Hurt III, author of Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J Trump. That schooling obviously failed. Trump has matured, if one can use that term, into a courthouse bully.

Another biographer, Michael DAntonio, Pulitzer-winning author of Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, chose the same metaphor in describing the difficulty in getting sources even people with every reason to hate Trump to go on the record speaking against him: Its a strange bullying kind of process. Like how in the schoolyard, a lot of kids will go to the bullys side of the conflict because theyre afraid of what might happen to them if theyre not in his favor.

Thats an all too familiar narrative to Monnin. That is not a sign of a good leader if thats how youre going to treat someone who you dont like, she said.

Interestingly and tellingly, Trump himself seems on at least one occasion to have conflated the terms bullying and presidential. When Fox News Greta Van Susteren prompted him to elaborate on what he meant by being more presidential, he began by saying, It means maybe not be so aggressive, maybe not get so personal, but quickly reverted to his favorite formula for leadership: But you know what happens? What happens is they hit me and I hit them back harder, and usually in all cases, they do it first. But they hit me and I hit them back harder and they disappear. Thats what we want to lead the country.

Monnin lost large swaths of her late 20s, from 27 on, doing legal battle with Trump, or more accurately, trying ineffectually to navigate the maze of legalese he threw in her way. The lawyer she hired was so inadequately prepared he failed to appear at the arbitration hearing in November 2012 at which the fate of the case with Trump was decided nor did he even tell her it was happening.

Donald Trump, left, and Erin Brady pose onstage after Brady won the 2013 Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas. Photograph: Jeff Bottari/AP

Monnin only realized she had missed the chance to defend herself against the mogul the following month, when she received correspondence from her lawyer notifying her that the arbitration had gone forward without anyone present on her behalf. But by then it was too late for Monnin to mount her case. In December 2012, arbitrator Theodore Katz ordered Monnin pay the Trump organization $5m for defamation.

Trump issued a self-congratulatory press release: We cannot allow a disgruntled contestant to make false and reckless statements which are damaging to the many people who have devoted their hearts and souls to the Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageant systems, he said. While I feel very badly for Sheena, she did the wrong thing. She was really nasty, and we had no choice. It is an expensive lesson for her.

Monnin resolved to fight the ruling, but she no longer trusted her lawyer to do the job.

In January 2013, her father, Philip Monnin, wrote a letter on her behalf to J Paul Oetken, the Manhattan federal judge whod been asked to sign off on the arbitrators ruling, arguing that the hefty fee for damages was not just. But it did little good. In July 2013, Oetken upheld the arbitration decision. The court does not take lightly that Monnin is compelled to pay what is a devastating monetary award, Oetken wrote in his decision. Moreover, Monnin undeniably is suffering from her poor choice of counsel … [But] sympathy, or apparent inequity, may play no role in a courts legal analysis, and here, the law is clear.

In his ruling, the judge even went so far as to acknowledge that her lawyer did not appear to be acting in her best interests. Blindly, but perhaps understandably, Monnin put her trust in her attorney, believing that he would represent her interests, Oetken wrote, adding, Unfortunately, [he] chose to ignore the responsibilities owed to his client, along with the ethical duties governing his profession.

In fall 2013, Monnin hired a new lawyer and filed a suit against her former lawyer for malpractice. The details of the settlement of this suit are protected, but Monnin has said that the upshot meant she never had to pay Trump a dollar out of her own pocket.

Now, at the age of 31, Monnin says she is able to see some silver linings in the experience. Its not the same set of ideals she had in mind as a teenager when she watched the pageant girls deliver their lines though she cherishes all she learned in that realm. Its not even about the satisfaction of having spoken up about her convictions, despite real legal consequences, and pulled through. The experience taught her to empathize and connect with other victims of bullying, and crucially, to help them feel less alone.

In June she published a self-help book, Hands on the Wheel: Getting Control of Your Life, which draws on her experience being bullied by Trump to help advise readers in dealing with bullies wherever they may find them. I cover almost every topic imaginable, because I want people, no matter what their controlling factor looks like, to know there are ways to stand your ground and not stoop down to the bullys level, she said. The advice I give is its not appropriate to cower down and give in to people who are using their strength in such a negative way.

The book aims to transcend the political election cycle in favor of the universal; Monnin only delves into her experience with Trump in the foreword. But as an outspoken supporter of Hillary Clinton, she is only too happy to help interpret what Trumps shock-and-awe legal tactics could mean in an Oval Office setting: If you have someone who goes after me, a normal person, when all I did was write something on Facebook that he disagreed with, then what would happen if you had a real grievance against him and you started speaking out?

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