A misty-eyed look at Armi Kuusela, the 1st Miss Universe

FUNFARE - Ricky Lo -
Fifty-four years ago today, a beautiful 17-year-old girl from Finland was crowned (by Hollywood actress Piper Laurie) the first Miss Universe at a glittering ceremony at The Municipal Auditorium in Long Beach, California, with a court of honor composed of Hawaii’s Elza Kananionapua Edsman (first runner-up), Greece’s Daisy Mavraki (second runner-up), Hong Kong’s Judy Dan (third runner-up) and Germany’s Renate Hoy (fourth runner-up).

Her name: Armi Helena Kuusela.

Nobody could have imagined that Armi would become an adopted daughter of the Philippines when she married Virgilio Hilario. Their love story was immortalized in a movie entitled Now and Forever.

On March 9, 1953, nine months after she won the Miss U title, Armi was invited by the Philippine International Fair Committee to crown that year’s Miss Philippines. During her stay (until April 11, same year), Armi paid a courtesy call on then President Elpidio Quirino, Supreme Court justices, senators and congressmen; laid a wreath at the Bonifacio Monument; visited Maryknoll College (now Miriam College), UP, Ateneo de Manila, the Balara Filtration Plant and Baguio City where she met Virgilio through a blind date.

’s "other beauty expert" Celso Caparas (now working in the Middle East) recalls the rest of Armi’s memorable stay in the Philippines:

On March 12, the lawmakers discarded their usual "parliamentary sobriety" when Armi called on then Senate President Eulogio Rodriguez and Speaker Eugenio Perez. Smitten by Armi’s beauty, then Rep. Ferdinand E. Marcos (Ilocos Norte) introduced himself as the only eligible bachelor in the House and confessed that his knees gave way after meeting her up close and personal.

Prior to the Miss Philippines coronation night, Armi had a personal appearance in the Show of Shows topbilled by Dolphy, Katy dela Cruz, Bayani Casimiro, Chichay and Tolindoy at the Rizal Memorial Stadium. On March 20, Armi crowned Cristina de Leon Galang (1953 Miss Philippines), with Benigno Aquino Jr. as her escort. Cristina’s court of honor included Violeta Villamor (1953 Miss Visayas and Pearl of the Orient), Gilda Gruet Walstrom (Miss Mindanao), Norma Jimenez (Miss Manila) and Imelda Trinidad Romualdez (Muse of Manila).

Two days before her departure, Armi danced the rigodon de honor with the winners of the Miss Philippines contest and prominent social figures during the Farewell Ball held at the fair’s open auditorium. Shedding tears, Armi left the country on April 11 for Hong Kong and Japan with a heavy heart. She expressed her desire to stay in the Philippines because of the warm hospitality accorded to her.

Indeed, she won the hearts of the Filipinos particularly then 25-year-old Virgilio "Gil" Hilario who studied banking, marketing and foreign trade in Columbia University and at the same time worked with the Philippine National Bank in New York. Friends in the know believe that one of the reasons why Armi was swept off her feet by Gil was because of his dancing skills. Gil was an expert in mambo, samba, rumba and other ballroom steps.

Gil followed Armi on her trip to Tokyo where they arrived on April 26 on separate planes. Their romance blossomed in Tokyo until they mutually agreed to get married on her 19th birthday on Aug. 20. He gave her a three-carat diamond engagement ring. But love couldn’t wait. On the wee hours of May 3, Gil was involved in a scuffle when he defended Armi from a drunken American newspaperman who tried to harass Armi inside the Cosmopolitan Nightclub.

Before the incident, Armi chose to give up her Miss Universe crown and title, her plans to take up physical education and language and make more movies but decided to marry that day instead. Gil was sporting a black right eye when he exchanged marriage vows with Armi (who wore a blue nylon lace gown and carried a small bouquet of roses), officiated by Rev. Fr. Bruno Blitter, at the St. Ignatius Church in Yatsuya, Tokyo, with her sister Irma Kyromies as matron of honor and Roberto Villanueva (then VP of Chronicle Publications) as best man, Gil’s close friend. She received a brand new 1952 Cadillac as a wedding gift.

After their two-month honeymoon in the US and Europe, the couple settled in the Philippines. Their love story was immortalized into a movie, Now and Forever, which was shown on Dec. 29, 1953 at Center and Palace theaters.

Back home, Armi had a film under her name, Maailman Kaunein Tyttö (or The Most Beautiful Girl in the World). In 1955, Armi (with Gil) visited Finland for the first time since 1953, and the couple did a Finnish documentary film, Pohjolan Tähtitaivaan Alla (or Under The Northern Stars).

They had five children and six grandchildren who now live in different parts of the globe, namely: Arne, Anna-Lisa, Jose/Jussi, Eva-Maria and Miguel/Mikko (the only one based in Manila).

Gil and Armi were active in the Barrio Leaders Association of which Gil was the president. Gil was even named the Honorary Consul of Finland which elated Armi no end. From 1954 to 1956, Gil played the role of John in the passion play, Martir sa Golgota, staged at the Manila Grand Opera House, with Gloria Romero as the Virgin Mary. Armi became a Camay Girl and she posed with her family for print and commercial ads.

Gil died on Sept. 7, 1975. Armi remarried, to Albert Williams, a US diplomat, on June 8, 1978. They are now living in La Jolla, San Diego, California, where she is active in various community undertakings and deeply involved in cancer research.
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