Is Ellie Kemper Really a KKK Princess? The Racist History of the Veiled Prophet Ball

For many years, fans have known Ellie Kemper as the lovable receptionist Erin Hannon in The Office or the star of Netflix‘s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But before Kemper got her start as an actor in Hollywood, she had a different title: the Queen of Love and Beauty at the Veiled Prophet debutante ball in St. Louis, Missouri.

Ellie Kemper
Ellie Kemper at The UCB Theatre, Los Angeles, CA, May 29, 2019 | Nicole Weingart/Universal Television/NBCU Photo Bank

Ellie Kemper comes from a wealthy, well-connected family in Missouri

Ellie Kemper was born in Kansas City, Missouri and grew up primarily in the city of St. Louis. Her father David was the chairman and CEO of the Commerce Bank holding company, founded by the Kemper family in 1903. She is the granddaughter of Mildred Lane Kemper, namesake of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis and the great-great-granddaughter of Commerce Bank founder and railroad magnate William Thornton Kemper, Sr.

Kemper grew up in the affluent St. Louis suburb of Ladue and went on to study English at Princeton University. While she was a freshman at the Ivy League school, Kemper came back home for the holidays in December to participate in a local debutante ball known as the Veiled Prophet Ball. The Veiled Prophet Organization was founded by “elite” St. Louis residents in 1878 and had both covert and overt ties to the Confederacy — and later, the Ku Klux Klan.

Ellie Kemper
Ellie Kemper attend the 2019 Ad Council Dinner on December 05, 2019 in New York City | Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Ellie Kemper was the Veiled Prophet Organization’s Queen of Love and Beauty

Every year since its founding, the Veiled Prophet Organization chooses one member to serve as the “Veiled Prophet of Khorassan” and preside over the Veiled Prophet Ball and its approximately 2,000 attendees. The event highlights over 50 young debutantes making their debut in St. Louis society, and are often walked down the aisle by notable local businessmen — usually a friend of their father’s — to bow in front of the Veiled Prophet.

Five debutantes are then chosen by the Veiled Prophet to be the Special Maids of Honor of the “Veiled Prophet’s Court of Honor.” Finally, one of the young women is crowned the “Queen of Love and Beauty” and is presented with lavish gifts such as a tiara or pearls, some of which went on to become family heirlooms.

In 1999, Ellie Kemper was crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the 105th Veiled Prophet Ball. A December 1999 piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Kemper being awarded the title. “She wore a white satin square-neck gown designed by Tomasina and purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue,” the article described. “Her interests include running and musical theater.”

Ellie Kemper
Ellie Kemper on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen | Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank

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For many of its early years, the Veiled Prophet Ball was also accompanied by a parade and fair. During the first-ever parade procession, the Missouri Republican newspaper reported that the Veiled Prophet wore a white hood and robe and was armed with a pistol and rifle. The outfit resembled the uniform that was eventually adopted by the Ku Klux Klan in 1915.

The Veiled Prophet organization was founded by former Confederate soldier Charles Slayback together with his brother Alonzo, also a former Confederate soldier. Slayback created a mythology for a secret elite society centered around a mystical veiled figure whose home base is in St. Louis. From its founding, the Veiled Prophet Organization (officially called the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet of the Enchanted Realm) was restricted to “elite” members of St. Louis society, which meant white at the time. Throughout its lengthy history, the organization has excluded Black Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish Americans, and other groups from joining its ranks.

A 2014 article in The Atlantic outlined the problematic history of the Veiled Prophet Ball and the many instances of racial violence that it has spurred throughout its history. In 1995, the annual Veiled Prophet fair was rebranded to Fair St. Louis. According to the city of St. Louis website, the traditional Veiled Prophet celebration “represented for St. Louisans a perceived link between different components of the community in a holiday celebration, while also reinforcing the notion of a benevolent cultural elite.”

Showbiz Cheatsheet has reached out to Ellie Kemper’s representatives for comment.