Five Lessons from the 2015 Miss Universe Mix-up

If you were looking for an awkward television moment to close out 2015, Steve Harvey has handed it to you on a silver plate.

At the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant, it came down to the final three contestants: Miss Colombia, Miss Philippines and Miss USA. Harvey, who was hosting the show, announced that the final votes had been tallied. A representative of the accounting firm, Ernst & Young came on stage and handed him the envelope with the results. Harvey then announced the 2nd Runner-Up, Miss USA. So far, so good.

Harvey then called the remaining two contestants to the front of the stage to announce the winner: “Miss Universe 2015 is … Colombia!” The audience erupted in applause; Miss Philippines was escorted to the side; Miss Colombia was given a big bouquet of flowers, a sash with “Miss Universe” on it and a beautiful crown. She was all smiles and tears. Someone handed her a Colombian flag which she waved with pride.

There was just one problem: Miss Colombia was not the winner; Miss Philippines was. Steve Harvey had announced the wrong person as the winner in front of a worldwide audience of millions. Like I said, awkward.

You can see how it all unfolded below:

Now, it was not a life-and-death situation, but it was still pretty painful to watch. Miss Colombia had the crown taken away; Miss Philippines did not get to enjoy the moment; and Steve Harvey was visibly crushed by the mistake. The story has gone viral on social media.

So what are the lessons that we can learn from this fiasco?

1. Mistakes will happen but there are some things that you cannot get wrong.

Like announcing the winner of the Miss Universe Pageant! This incident reminded me of Rick Perry’s famous “Oops” moment when he could not remember one of the federal government agencies that he was planning to shut down. I would be amazed if the organizers did not go over a sample card with Harvey several times before the event to make sure that he knew how to read it. There are some things that you have to know cold.

2. Make sure your written documentation is clear.

Speaking of the card with the winners’ names on it, here is a photo of the card that was handed to Steve Harvey.

The fateful card.

The fateful card.

This card is terrible for several reasons.

  • The title is too long and contains unnecessary information: “Elminination Card” [sic]? “Show”? “3 to 1”? How about “Miss Universe 2015 – Final Results”?
  • The names of the winners should be in bigger font or bolded. It looks like they were labels that were stuck on. Make better labels.
  • It contains three typos! The word “runner-up” is hyphenated. And “Elimination” is misspelled. Come on people, it’s the bloody Miss Universe Pageant. Don’t be sloppy. Be a yardstick of quality.
  • Most significantly, why are the names of the three finalists on different sides of the card? They should be in a single column, one below the other. I can understand how, in the excitement of the moment, someone might overlook the name on the right side of the card.

3. Simplicity is almost always the better option.

Notice the wording on the card above: “1st Runner Up”. I have already pointed out the missing hyphen, but the bigger concern is “1st”. I have never been a fan of “1st runner-up” because it can easily be confused with “1st place”. Did you notice the repetition of “1st”? There is a very simple solution: 3rd place; 2nd place; 1st place. Or, if you prefer: 3rd place; 2nd place; Winner.

4. Writing the same information in different ways increases the chance that a mistake will be made.

There is a story circulating on the Internet that Steve Harvey announced Miss Colombia as the winner by reading from a teleprompter, and that the information on the teleprompter was wrong. If true, this was an epic failure on the part of the production crew. And it begs the question: If you are handed a card with the information on it, why not just read from the card?

Having multiple copies of something is fine for back-up purposes. But for something like the announcement of the winner of the Miss Universe Pageant, there should be one card only. By the way, if the information is so secret and thus in a sealed envelope, how did it get on the teleprompter?

5. If you make a mistake, accept responsibility.

Regardless of how the mistake happened, I cannot begin to imagine how humiliated Steve Harvey must feel. As mentioned above, social media is having a field day with what happened. My favourite has been this Tweet from Canadian comedian, Mark Critch. Simple, funny but also tasteful.

At the same time, I have to tip my hat to Harvey. After the error was announced, he said, “I will take responsibility for this. It was my mistake. It was on the card.” He seems like a decent guy and he owned the moment, painful as it must have been.

But even there, it could have been done better. At first, he just announced the mistake and then named Miss Philippines as the winner. As a stunned Miss Philippines walked on stage to stand beside an equally stunned Miss Colombia, Harvey then invited Miss Philippines to take her first walk as Miss Universe. While Miss Colombia was still wearing the Crown! Were they supposed to walk together? Was Miss Colombia supposed to hand over the Crown and the sash and the flowers?

It was a bad idea and it just wasn’t the time. What happened next proved it: All three of them stood there for 35 seconds, not knowing what to do; meanwhile, the audience was losing its collective mind. It was only when last year’s Miss Universe came on stage that the spell was broken and Harvey attempted to regain some semblance of control.

And, after taking responsibility (which could have been done more elegantly), it would have been better for Harvey to remain on stage and even say a few private words to the two women instead of walking off. Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines continued to twist in the wind and an awkward moment became even more awkward.

If you speak often enough, mistakes are going to happen. Some will be small; some will be big; some might even be epic. It happens. When you make a mistake, accept responsibility, try to fix it as best as you can and be professional. And when the event is over, move on.

My contribution to the 2016 Miss Universe Pageant

Taking all of the above into account, I have redesigned the card that should have been handed to Steve Harvey. I offer it, at no cost, to the organizers of the Miss Universe Pageant. Should they adopt it, it would be nice to receive free transportation and tickets to the event next year. I’d even be willing to host it.

Miss Universe 2015 – Final Results

3rd Place: USA

2nd Place: Colombia

WINNER: Philippines


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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46 Responses to Five Lessons from the 2015 Miss Universe Mix-up

  1. Pingback: Huge mistake at the Oscars and the lessons to learn | Manner of Speaking

  2. bdmejia says:

    Hi John, I asked my network on Linkedin. Their ideas range from simplifying the flow information on the card and making it available only when needed, like giving one card at a time. Another idea is use of a second person to feed the winner’s name to the announcer. All of which I found to be simple and inexpensive approach to solving a problem. You may refer to my LinkedIn post to access the complete thread and ideas from my network.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Babby. Thank you for the comment and for sharing the link and your network’s ideas. I still favour the approach of using a clear, simple card as the more people / cards / layers you add, the more potential for another mistake. But it is good that this event has got so many people talking and thinking about the issue. It goes to show that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. Happy New Year.

    • How about organizing it in the order he was supposed to announce it – and write the words he’s supposed to say!

      2nd runner up is: USA

      Miss Universe 2015 is: PHILIPPINES!

      meaning the first runner up is: Columbia

  3. Omija TB says:

    Your new name? John Polite-And-Professional Zimmer…

    • John Zimmer says:

      Ha! That made me laugh. It would have been easy to be mean, but enough people have done that already. But I definitely see the humour in the situation.

  4. J Faust says:

    Surely you realize there is another typo – check out the title of the card. Elminination? Seriously? if we’re examining issues with the card that jumped out at me immediately.

  5. Steve harvey is Humble

  6. Kerstin says:

    Miss universe is in bold letters underneath it Philippines. All he had to do was read it. Sorry but there is no excuse for this. Then it took quite a while to even notice the mistake. I can not even imagine what that girl was feeling after all of her happiness and exitment just to have it taken away. Easy for people to say get over it or it was a honest mistake. To be this humiliated in front of millions this is just aweful. They should have gone to comercial and talk to the girls first. The winner ms Philippines missed out on her moment to shine she was way to confused. She deserved better too. In a situation like this, you need to read and reread to make sure everything is correct before opening the mouth. Then to say it is still a great night, no is not when someone has to go through such humiliation. It’s like you are told you won the lottery and you get all excited just to gind out then it was a printed mistake or something like that. how would you feel then? I feel so sorry for both of the girls.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment. Like I said, there are some things that you cannot get wrong. And yes, it was undoubtedly difficult for the two women.

      I like your suggestion that they should have gone to a commercial, but it might not have been feasible given the timing, the television networks and other logistics, not to mention the confusion over the situation.

    • GQElvie says:

      I know Kerstin the majority seem to side with you, but I just don’t see it that way. I can never be in Columbia’s shoes, but I think humiliated is a strong word, and perhaps incorrect word. Huge disappoint, yeah, but how can you be humiliated for NOT being MIss Universe? 3 billion plus women aren’t either. I still feel most sorry for Harvey. Yeah, he made the mistake, but Miss Columbia likely got over this in a day or two. It will take much longer for Harvey. And, again, I don’t know if anybody researched it, but I do know that last year, they cut STRAIGHT to the chase, and went from 2nd runner up to winner. It is ‘reasonable’ for Harvey to have opened the card, saw the name Columbia, and closed it, wanting to read to the crowd (a good emcee wants to look at the crowd), and figured Columbia was the winner. The spotlight was on him, and he knows he does not have forever to act. Again, I am not absolving him, but the producers/organizers are half to blame.

  7. There should be three envelopes each with the only winning title printed outside and each envelope has a card that states nothing else but the title and the winner…. if it must be possible to give the envelopes to the announcer one at a time, better… If there should only be one card, it must be folded into three that you don’t see all the winners and titles at the same time.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the ideas, Lauro. I still think that a simple, single card with the information along the lines of what I wrote at the end of the post is the best option. Multiple envelopes increase the chance of a mistake somewhere. One simple card with clear instructions to the host on how to read it; that’s the way to go in my opinion.

      • ken says:

        True! as a semiconductor employee, there’s no room for confusion. I’ve learned to carefully read labels to avoid misoperation. if in doubt, stop and escalate. 100% accuracy in checking requirements is strictly implemented.

      • elbonomics says:

        I agree with John on the one cue card, instead of three. Having three cards would add to the confusion and additional administrative work.

  8. GQElvie says:

    Hello John: Really good article. I would add one other thing. I believe that most or all other Miss Universe contests have skipped the 1st runner up. (I know that was true of last years). So Mr. Harvey was probably anticipating to go straight from 2nd runner up to the winner. He probably opened the card, saw the name Miss Columbia, (might have even noticed the bottom right side saying ‘MIss Universe 2015’ believing that was the general title of the card, and never noticing the Philippines was below it). After opening the card, he likely spoke directly to the audience (while closing the card). I am not absolving him, but I think the organizers who wrote the card are as much to blame. They could come out and apologize. They should have Steve Harvey’s back.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, John. I have not watched a beauty contest in a long, long time but I remember them always saying the 1st runner-up and then quickly saying the winner (because it was obvious). Your explanation of what happened is certainly plausible, but as I mentioned in the post, there is some evidence that he read the names from a teleprompter. That too is not an excuse. He should have read the names from the card and the card should have been better designed.

    • Andre says:

      Agree. as i watched the video, it looks like Steve Harvey’s holding the card with his right hand which covers the word philippines with his right thumb.

  9. robert hart says:

    Do one card at a time like the oscars.

  10. Jan says:

    How can Steve Harvey and Miss Universe organizers turn this situation around? One thing Steve could do is have them both on his show. Let them both benefit from the controversy.

    • John Zimmer says:

      That is a great idea, Jan. In fact, as I think about it, it would surprise me if Harvey did not have them on. And I have no doubt that the producers are feverishly working to capitalize on the publicity – which will soon start to fade – as much as possible.

  11. Excellent points. But above it all, thanks for spelling Colombia right!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank you for the comment. I know how to spell Colombia and I know how sensitive Colombians can (rightly) be when people spell it with a “u”. But I will be honest with you: a good friend from Mexico wrote to me earlier today to let me know that I had misspelled “Colombia” once in the post. I corrected it immediately.

  12. bendavid says:

    I dunno. Could be rigged d’you think? It’s certainly drummed up a lot of publicity.

    • John Zimmer says:

      I have seen a lot of people asking the same question, but I don’t buy it. I can’t see why Steve Harvey would agree to such a thing. Money is an obvious answer, but I suspect that he has more than enough to last him. No, I think that it was a genuine mistake and that the publicity is an unintended consequence. But I have no doubt that the producers are already working on ways in which to capitalize on all the attention.

  13. Conor Neill says:

    Poor Miss Colombia… left there hanging… until an assistant comes over and grabs the crown… Steve Harvey’s “taking responsiblity” involved getting off the stage asap… rather than acknowledging Miss Colombia and how she must be feeling.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Yes, it was certainly awkward to have them both standing there. I did not see the show live, but I have read that the producers started rolling the credits soon after the video above stops.

      I’m not so sure that acknowledging Miss Colombia would in any great detail would have been the right thing to do; it would have taken away even more attention from Miss Philippines and let’s not forget that she had a golden moment taken away from her too. But I agree that he should have stayed on the stage with them.

  14. Philip Selby says:


    You make an excellent sales pitch! Good luck in your bid to host the next Miss Universe competition. How can you make sure the organizers will see your generous offer?

    Best wishes,


  15. elbonomics says:

    Hi John, your analysis of the winners’ card is one good example of mistake-proofing (or Pokayoke in Japanese) that we’re doing and learning in the context of lean or kaizen management. Excellent prescription, indeed!

    Incidentally, there are two boxes below that say “Notify me of new comments via email” and “Notify me of new posts via email.” What’s the difference between the two? I can’t decide which to tick.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks very much. I am a fan of kaizen – continuous improvement.

      Regarding the boxes, they are part of the WordPress framework. Ticking the first box will alert you to future comments on this post; ticking the second box will alert you to new posts that I write.

  16. Philippians says:

    I agree. Putting “WINNER-COUNTRY” will reduce the chance of mistake. Or maybe 2 hosts should both look at the card and one of them can correct the other if he/she commits blunder.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Just like the Academy Awards. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, the organizers do for next year’s show to address this issue.

  17. none says:

    Hi Handsome John, Im Filipino deaf guy here. Yes thats true. I enjoyed to watch Miss Universe 2015 Live TV but I was really SHOCKED, I find it painful! I really felt sorry for Miss Colombia she thought she is the real winner. But Both Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines were not fault…Miss Philippines told the reporter that she said “I’m very sorry I didn’t take the crown from her.” I think host is not good,,, John, can you join as Miss Universe 2016 host? 🙂 Always read very careful..

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment. I did not watch the show live; I only learned about it this morning. I think that both Miss Colombia and Miss Philippines acted as professionally as possible given the circumstances. I’ll you know if I get asked to host next year’s event!

  18. Wow. Train wreck.

  19. Poor Steve Harvey! What a screw-up. Hugely embarrassing not only himself but also the contestants and the audience.

    Your redesigned card looks like a winner, John!

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