HAZARD, Ky. — It was an event that once would have barely made news outside the school gymnasium, much less traveled beyond this 4,900-resident Appalachian mountain town.
But within hours of Hazard High School’s homecoming “Man Pageant,” where male students dressed in women’s undergarments appeared to lap-dance and grind on seated school leaders, the photos hit social media.
By the next day, they’d gone viral — sparking outrage that turned a derisive national spotlight on this tiny Kentucky community like never before.
Images that included principal Donald “Happy” Mobelini, who is also Hazard’s mayor, smiling while half-clad students danced suggestively — and young women dressed as Hooters waitresses — drew condemnation from legions of social media users.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear called it “totally unacceptable,” an investigation was launched and the resulting media coverage stretched all the way to a British tabloid.
The scope of reaction shocked many in tight-knit, conservative Hazard, whose red-brick downtown framed by mountains was once a hub of a now-depleted Appalachian coalfield.
And while some locals were appalled by what happened in their school, many parents, students and residents, stung by the onslaught of condemnation, have leaped ferociously to the school’s defense — casting the controversy as overblown and the work of outsiders.
“People who were not even connected to the school went after us,“ said student Gavin Goins, a sophomore who was at the event. “I think it’s an attack on tradition.”
He was among 100 residents and students gathered in a Hazard city park on a rainy Thursday, two days after the controversy broke, near a hand-painted sign strung between two picnic tables reading, “We Love you Happy.”
Some in attendance had changed their social media profile to a photo of the principal in a superhero costume. Others in a county where nearly 90% voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election blamed the media and refused to speak to reporters.
Cars honked as they passed the park, and cheers erupted when Mobelini — who had been avoiding public comment — finally strode toward the crowd, shaking hands with residents.
“Happy! Happy! Happy!” chanted several dozen Hazard High students.
‘Our pride is one more thing under attack’
The viral scandal comes as Perry County has worked hard to reinvent its economy and image in the wake of coal’s decline in a region with some of the nation’s highest poverty rates.
In September, it posted one of the nation’s highest COVID-19 incidence rates.
Even some who found the “Man Pageant” tradition unacceptable said the outcry hit a nerve in a place where some feel “we don’t have a lot anymore, so our pride is one more thing under attack,” said Hazard resident and high school graduate Terry Thies.
Others believe that long-standing Appalachian stereotypes helped stoke the incident’s virality.
“In Eastern Kentucky, very rarely do you hear anything positive about us. We’re constantly being made fun of and called hillbillies, stupid and ignorant,” said Tosha Lindon, a Hazard High graduate whose freshman-year son was at the event. “You never hear anything positive. But when something negative happens, boom. It’s everywhere.”
Still, there is certainly no unanimity on a controversy that has sparked countless debates and discussions in Hazard, from parking lots at dollar stores to fast-food joints and the downtown’s shops and courthouse, residents said.
Online, rancorous arguments and name-calling have erupted between residents on Facebook. Some call it indefensible, saying the principal should have immediately stopped the bawdy performance and stopped allowing “Man Pageant” events.
Brenda Fletcher, 66, who said generations of her family have attended the school, wearing a school T-shirt in her home perched on a steep hillside, said she blames the leadership for letting it happen.
While the “Man Pageant” has been a feature of homecoming week for years, she said, “they crossed a lot of boundaries this year.”
“I was so angry when I first saw it. And it’s unacceptable,” she said. “I don’t think it’s overblown. They needed to crack down and say this will not happen again.”
Others argue that the “Man Pageant” was simply a student-led skit that got too racy, and it was unfair to blame the school leaders who they believe didn’t plan or approve what was meant as a prank on school officials.
“They take their robes off and start twerking or whatever. The teachers laughed, they got up and pushed them off. Somebody took a picture. And yes, it looks bad. Yes, it was in poor taste. You know how social media is. It just exploded,” Lindon said, whose son was at the event.
“Now we’re being made out to be child molesters, a cult, and I’ve heard we’re promoting human trafficking — the most ludicrous stuff on social media by people who aren’t from Hazard, they don’t have children in Hazard schools, they know nothing about Eastern Kentucky,” she said. “But the power of social media: That’s the way it is.”
Goins, a student who was also there, said he’d seen a TV reporter saying that it insulted transgender people. But said it was meant for fun.
“Everybody was having a good time. Nobody was hurt,” he said.
Defending the leader of the Bulldogs
One reason it’s struck such a nerve here in Hazard is the controversy is centered around a revered institution and its leader.
The 340-student Hazard High School, where many graduates have sent their children, wear Bulldog mascot gear and attend football games at a field tucked high in a bucolic forested valley above the school.
Students and parents described it as a family and a force that glues the community together.
And at the head of it is Mobelini. Despite some raised eyebrows about being both mayor and principal, he is widely regarded as having worked hard to help students, particularly those struggling with poverty or other issues.
Participants at Thursday’s rally took turns telling stories in a bullhorn about his help for students, and he’s known for providing rides, money and collecting furniture for needy families.
Former student Brooklyn Dean, who attended Hazard High School in 2016 before transferring, told The Courier Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, in an interview that Mobelini “always helped the community” and had students help him serve local residents with things such as food drives and home building projects for those in need.
Dean was “truly sick” of people “bashing this school and this principal,” she wrote on Facebook.
Aster Sizemore, a Hazard Independent school board member, discounted the idea that Mobelini condoned this year’s version of the event given his strictness about dress codes.
The ‘Teflon coated’ principal of Hazard High
Others in Hazard, however, say Mobelini is “Teflon coated” and allude to past issues they don’t want to mention publicly.
Indeed, he was investigated in 2008 when photos surfaced of his daughter and four of her teenage friends drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes in a car he was driving. Mobelini denied knowing what the teens were doing, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported at the time.
Mobelini also is the defendant along with two Hazard High School teachers and the district in a pending lawsuit filed by a former student who said she was sexually assaulted in a hotel room by a classmate during a junior class trip to New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2017, and students weren’t properly monitored.
Mobelini has not returned requests for comment from The Courier Journal.
Luke Glaser, a high school teacher and city commissioner, declined to comment. Other civic leaders, including Perry County Judge-Executive Scott Alexander, also did not respond to requests for an interview.
Superintendent Sondra Combs said discipline has been handed down for the homecoming “Man Pageant” but declined to share more details.
While the lasting effects of the viral controversy are unclear, Combs, whose office has been inundated with complaints, announced measures intended to provide a review of future events.
Still, some here believe the issue is a tempest in a teapot — bound to be forgotten as quickly as it reared up.
At Thursday’s rally, the students chanted and supported the school and principal, giving it the feel of a pep rally. Just before rain broke up the rally as dusk descended, Mobelini spoke to the students briefly to cheers.
“We got the best kids and the best town,” he said, “and that don’t change.”
Reporter Billy Kobin contributed to this report Chris Kenning is a Kentunterprise writer. Follow him on Twitter @chris_kenning