Taylor Hamlin dreamed of winning the Maine Lobster Festival’s prestigious Maine Sea Goddess pageant since she was a little girl, but two social media photos deemed “inappropriate” by competition officials would cause the 18 year old to be stripped of the title just 24 hours after she was crowned.
The problematic pictures in question? Hamlin tells PEOPLE one snapshot shows the teenager with a marijuana cigarette, while another depicted her holding a juuling device (or e-cigarette).
Both surfaced on Wednesday, after Hamlin’s coronation ceremony. By Thursday, the executive board of directors and the coronation committee of the Maine Lobster Festival had made the announcement that Hamlin would no longer represent the 71-year-old celebration, saying the images “were not in keeping with the behavior and image of the Maine Sea Goddess.”
“I was really upset,” Hamlin tells PEOPLE of the decision. “It’s been tough. I never thought that this would happen. They told me it was disgusting and they’re disappointed. The whole thing made me feel really terrible about myself.”
Hamlin says the photo of her with the vape pen was taken after she was 18, making her of legal age. However, the picture of her with marijuana — recreational and medical use of which is legal in Maine for people over 18 — was taken last year when she was underage.
At the time, she posted it to a private Instagram account. “I had deleted it a while ago so someone must have had it and saved it,” recalls Hamlin, who tells PEOPLE she isn’t certain how the photographs came to the attention of the festival. “It’s only my exclusive friends on this private account, so it had to be one of my friends or their parents [who shared it]. It’s frustrating. I don’t know who it is and at this point, and I don’t care.”
Instead, Hamlin says she is bothered by how the festival has approached her exit.
Reps for the festival did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment, but in a statement released on Friday, organizers said “Taylor decided to resign her position,” adding that Crown Princess Erin Dugan will assume the Sea Goddess duties.
“We wish all the best to Taylor Hamlin in her future endeavors,” the statement reads in part. “This is a terrible situation for everyone involved. We hope that everyone will enjoy the rest of the festival that over 1,300 volunteers have worked so hard to put on to support our local community and the lobster industry.”
But Hamlin claims she was forced out. “They’re telling everyone that it’s a mutual agreement and that I resigned, and that’s not true,” Hamlin tells PEOPLE. “They didn’t give me an option. They told me, ‘Several of our community members have complained about you.’ I told them, ‘What other choice do I have?’ And the lady shrugged her shoulders and didn’t say anything. She said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Discussing her first meeting with the program’s coordinator on Thursday, Hamlin says she was offered the chance to continue to hold her title through the festival’s opening.
“She said to me, ‘If we keep this quiet, you can be Sea Goddess during the whole week,’ ” Hamlin alleges. “‘You can ride on the float on the parade. You can go to the grounds and be the Sea Goddess. And then after the week, you can say that you can’t fulfill your duties and you need to step down.’ ”
“Why would you make me be a fake Sea Goddess if you don’t want me to represent you in the first place?” Hamlin says. “Why would you do this for politics? It was so ridiculous.”
That option was allegedly off the table in a second meeting, where Hamlin was joined by her parents. She says she was asked to sign a document that implied it was her choice to resign, but when she asked for the text to be changed, festival officials allegedly refused. Frustrated and hurt, Hamlin gave up negotiating and “just signed it,” she explains to PEOPLE.
“[The festival] could have used this situation as a positive thing to make it a learning experience for other people out there. Instead, they wanted it to be negative,” she says. “They were determined to make me the example so I have to be suffering.”
Hamlin says her parents were “supportive” and have been “livid” at the festival, but even they couldn’t get officials to change their mind.
“My parents asked them, ‘What are we supposed to do with our daughter now? She’s devastated. What do we do?’ And [the coordinator] just said, ‘I’m not your counselor,’ ” Hamlin says.
To make amends, Hamlin was allowed to keep the $2,000 scholarship prize money. “They were telling me, stay quiet. We’re giving you the $2,000,’ ” Hamlin says. “And my mom said, ‘No, we’re not staying quiet. We’re going to take the $2,000 and we’re going to be loud about this.’ ”
And that’s what Hamlin’s doing now. On Friday, she wrote an emotional Facebook post about the issue. “Everybody is a teen once and awhile,” she said. “I’m sorry to whoever didn’t receive the goddess they wanted and felt the need to sabotage this amazing thing that has happened to me. You clearly don’t know me well enough or know the real Taylor Hamlin.”
“I am active throughout our community, in sports, church, and school,” she continued. “I have truly never felt more swept under the rug. I will always be this years sea goddess in my heart and hopefully in all of yours.”
She revealed to PEOPLE that she’s hoping others see her story as a lesson.
“Social media does really affect you and it can hurt you a lot,” Hamlin says. “I’m learning a lot from it. I honestly feel better now. I wouldn’t want to represent someone who’s doing this to me anyway.”
Ultimately, Hamlin — who will be starting her freshman year at the University of Maine at the end of the month to study business in hopes of being a fashion stylist — is just sad she couldn’t have had the chance to give back to the community.
“Ever since I was 2, I had been volunteering at the Lobster Festival,” Hamlin says. “My aunt was on the board. She had always been like, ‘You’re going to be up there one day.’ She’d have me practicing my waves as a little kid. She taught me to volunteer and showed me how to be active in the community. So I knew this was going to be a good opportunity to form a closer bond with this community before I left for school. Too bad.”