Organizers of the Miss Teen USA competition condemned its newly crowned winner for using “unacceptable” language in old tweets but still stood by the 18-year-old amid a social media firestorm.
Karlie Hay, of Texas, took home the top prize Saturday night but quickly found herself under fire after Twitter users surfaced what they said were old tweets apparently from her personal Twitter account, in which she uses the N word.
The teen apologized for sparking outrage, saying she had “a number of personal struggles” several years ago and found herself “in a place that is not representative of who I am now.”
“A few years ago, I used language that is inexcusable, and I sincerely apologize for my actions,” she said in a statement. “Through hard work, education, maturity and thanks in large part to the sisterhood that I have come to know through pageants, I am proud to say that I am today a better person. I am honored to hold this title and I will use the Miss Teen USA platform to promote messages of confidence, inclusion and perseverance.”
The Miss Universe Organization, which oversees Miss Teen USA, in a statement to TIME suggested that Hay would keep her crown amid the controversy despite calls from critics for it to be taken away from her.
“The language Karlie Hay used is unacceptable at any age and in no way reflects the values of The Miss Universe Organization,” the statement said. “As Karlie stated, she was in a different place in her life and made a serious mistake she regrets and for which she sincerely apologizes. Karlie learned many lessons through those personal struggles that reshaped her life and values. We as an organization are committed to supporting her continued growth.”
The Miss Teen USA pageant was also criticized for a lack of diversity after the competition posted a photo of the top five contestants, who all had blonde hair and light skin. It drew remarks from model Chrissy Teigen, who sarcastically tweeted: “Wow how can we choose from such a diverse bunch.”
A spokeswoman for the Miss Universe Organization told TIME that the five finalists were chosen by a panel of judges whose scores were independently calculated by Ernst & Young.