Miss Universe 101
- Miguel Pastor () - June 5, 2005 - 12:00am
One night in Bangkok...or one morning or one afternoon, depending on wherever you were on the planet when you watched the live telecast of the Miss Universe 2005 Pageant last week, May 31, in that mystical Land of Smiles newly risen from the ravages of the tsunami. In my case, it was at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. Yeah, live via satellite right where the action was – at the mid-orchestra section of the newly constructed Impact Arena, located some 30 minutes from Central Bangkok – scheduled so by America’s NBC network to reach its target US audience during the primetime 9 p.m. slot.

First off, a backgrounder on this year’s event. Miss Universe is largely considered the real deal, the big kahuna, and the grand dame of all beauty pageants. Some facts and figures: A three-week frenzy in a country that has spent close to $6.5 million to put on the event; a billion worldwide TV viewers from 171 countries; 12 judges with names ranging from Albertsen to Vongerichten; a 5,000-plus strong live audience; 81 beauty delegates; cheering squads and delegations from as many countries represented; several six-footers; a bunch of 36-24-36’ers; 15 semi-finalists; 10 finalists; 4 runners-up; and when the dust settles, just one winner – teary-eyed, throwing kisses, waving, clutching an enormous bouquet while at the same time trying her damnedest to keep that heavy tiara from falling down and the eyeshadow and mascara from running and wreaking havoc all over her pretty face, which for a few minutes is being deluged with lipstick smears from 80 other girls!

Manila has played host to the Miss Universe Pageant twice: The first time in 1974, when the Rose of Tacloban was the reigning queen of the Bagong Lipunan, and the second time in 1994, when the other Rose was the Madame de Pompadour of our then-Tiger Cub of a country. In 1974, the erstwhile Rose of Tacloban and reigning diva of the international jetset, Madame Imelda Romualdez Marcos, had the brilliant idea of having Margarita Roxas Moran, Miss Universe 1973, relinquish her crown, cape and scepter to her successor amidst the splendor of her beloved City of Man – Manila. Madame was then at the height of her building spree as the Patroness of Filipino Arts and Culture, and on a whim built the Folk Arts Theatre just for the occasion and with it the Philippine Village Hotel, the better to provide shelter and amenities to Miss Finland and Miss Senegal. And, of course, there was the Kasaysayan ng Lahi parade with then-hunk Vic Vargas as Lapu-Lapu and Van Cliburn, Christina Ford, and Virna Lisi in the audience ready for their close-ups courtesy of PTV-4. The second, in 1994, was not as memorable…save for Miss India Sushmita Sen’s "of a woman" spiel, Charlene Gonzales’ "low tide or high tide" question to a question, and Miss Mauritius Viveca Babajee’s participation in the infamous Manila Film Festival Awards Night switcheroo.

This year it was Bangkok. Upon our arrival, a tour guide we met at the airport asked us if we were there to watch the pageant. She informed us that she had encountered a lot of Filipinos who were all in Bangkok to watch the big event.

Streamers drumbeating the pageant lined the highway – but not the kind of billboards that have sprouted all over EDSA. Our group, which included Ben Chan, Keren Pascual and Rajo Laurel, were very lucky to have snagged tickets to this most-awaited beauty event.

Before the event, I did some quick surfing on the Internet just to check which of the delegates had the best chances of making it to the finals and also if our homegrown bet had the the goods to win the crown as was being touted by the Manila press and the Filipino beauty aficionados behind missology.com. Miss Philippines Gionna Cabrera – age 22, 5’9" and a student at the University of Asia and the Pacific who loves reading non-fiction books, fashion magazines, shopping, and listening to new age/techno/house music – looked like she had a good chance. Seeing her pictures and reading about her on the Internet and in the Manila and Bangkok press, I thought her strongest assets were her quick wit, effervescent charm, radiant smile, and confident stance. Seemed like she like she had all the makings of a strong contender.

For several years now, Bb. Pilipinas Charities, Inc., the local franchise holder of the Miss Universe Pageant, has been sending our local pageant winners to Colombia for some personality training and development under the tutelage of Alfredo Barraza, the reputed fairy godfather of many a Latina beauty aspirant. Stella Marquez Araneta, the doyenne of Bb. Pilipinas Charities and a former Miss International from Colombia, thought of bringing our Bb. Pilipinas to Colombia to better their chances of winning in international pageants such as the Miss Universe Pageant, which was then being won almost yearly by the incredibly polished and poised Miss Venezuelas. And Araneta’s gambit seemingly paid off well – what with Miriam Quimabao’s first runner-up win despite a slip at the Miss Universe 1999 Pageant and Margaret Ann Bayot’s first runner-up edge over second runner-up Miss Canada’s Natalie Glebova (know her?) at the Miss Maja International Pageant just last year.

I have also viewed "before and after" photographs of our Bb. Pilipinases who have undergone training under Señor Barraza, and I must agree that the girls have indeed achieved a considerable transformation of some kind.

But whether the girls have indeed "improved" or not is a sensitive matter which has been the subject of debate among pageant aficionados ad nauseum. Some of them agree that Barraza’s magic brings out the best in the girls. Yeah, just compare how our Bb. Pilipinas-Universe was transformed from Pre-Miss Universe to her Miss Universe look and you be the judge. The question now is, do the Miss Universe judges pattern their idea of beauty based on a particular mold? Certainly, our Bbs. Pilipinas, including Gionna Cabrera, look very Latina, post-Barraza. They seem to exude a more wordly sophistication. The other question is, is the Latina mold the way to go? Pundits will have a million and one answers to this. But judging from the recent roster of beauty pageant winners, delegates from Latin American countries, most particularly Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, have consistently dominated the various international beauty Olympics, producing the most number of queens. So if we can’t beat’em, why not join the trend and simulate the winning "it" look? After all, hasn’t the Philippines languished for years in the beauty wasteland, waiting for a miracle that would give us another Gloria and Margarita? To put it bluntly, we have to do whatever it takes.

One extreme comment from a pageant fanatic suggested that the Philippines adopt a beautiful Latina and pass her off as Miss Philippines. Well, wasn’t Miss Canada Natalie Glebova an ex-Russian? Makes sense, but should we really give up but or on our homegrown beauties?

It is fascinating to discover how serious pageant fanatics take these things. Pageants are a virtual battleground of wit with an acerbic, acidic streak. Barbs, comments, and potshots are so personal, so stinging, so venomous, they could ignite WWIII. When pageant sites fail to post photographs of delegates from countries with die-hard fans, a slew of angry missile loads of gripes are instantaneously directed to these websites. It’s as if the whole world economy was dependent on it.

The Philippines and Puerto Rico probably breed the most number of pageant fanatics. This is the reason why Miss Photogenic awards based on Internet polls almost always go to delegates from these two countries.

And this year’s Miss Photogenic award was won by...Miss Philippines! Gionna Cabrera sure deserved it.

Talk about what was going on before the pageant: It was like World Cup fans from different countries bearing flags, blaring trumphets, beating drums, marching along the arena/lobby and giving out souvenir photos of their candidates with "world peace" messages.

Filipinos were not far behind. They had flags and banners as well; they were dressed in barong tagalog but scattered in clumps like the Philippine archipelago. They did not have one loud voice to root for their Gionna, like the Mexicans who cheered loud and clear for their candidate. Some traveled from as far as the US to lend support. The family of Miss Indonesia approached us and told us our Gionna was most deserving to win among the Asian candidates. They were cheering for Gionna as well, but – surprise, surprise – their Artika made it to the semi-finals – not our Gionna.

During the boring moments of commercial breaks, Gionna won the Miss Photogenic trophy, bringing pride to us Filipinos. But we still felt a little disappointed.

For this year, the dark-haired, green-eyed, 23-year-old Miss Canada, Natalie Glebova, an immigrant from a small Russian resort town in the Black Sea whose family moved to Canada some 11 years ago, bested 80 other girls to win the diamond-and-Mikimoto-pearl-studded tiara, a far classier crown than that knock-off rhinestone confection, copies of which have adorned the heads of many a gay pageant winner and santacruzan sagala.

A look-alike of French actress Carole Bouquet (of For Your Eyes Only fame), she stood out among the five finalists as she was the only contestant who was able to answer the question, "What’s the biggest challenge in life?," before the time rang. Her closest rival, Miss Puerto Rico Cynthia Olavarria, who seemed to be the most prepared and rehearsed, emerged as a most disappointed first runner-up. Second runner-up was Miss Dominican Republic, 22-year-old Renata Sone of Santo Domingo; third runner-up, 21-year-old Miss Mexico Laura Elozondo; and fourth runner-up, a 20-year-old Miss Venezuela Monica Bellucci lookalike who unfortunately flubbed her answer to the "challenge" question. Other contestants who made it to the magic 10 were Misses Switzerland, Israel, USA, Lativa and Peru. Misses Norway (who is half Thai), Indonesia, Trinidad & Tobago, South Africa and Greece made it to the list of 15 semi-finalists. Miss Thailand won Best in National Costume, Miss US Virgin Islands was voted Miss Congeniality, and Miss Philippines was voted Miss Photogenic.

Beauty is big business and for it to be a success, it needs to be run professionally and yield financial gains. Online betting is one of those businesses that thrive during beauty pageant seasons. Front-runners of the English online betting service Paddypower.com, Ladbrokes.com, and Sportsbook.com included Misses Canada, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. One website picked Miss Canada as most likely to win at 7-1.

Globalbeauties.com and missology.com had both chosen Miss Canada, Natalie Glebova, as the likeliest winner. She was also named by globalbeauties.com to win the Miss Photogenic award, the same award Miss Universe 2004 Jennifer Hawkins won last year.

It was uncanny how online betting results have mirrored the actual pageant results. Seems like the Trump gambling empire had moved to Bangkok last May and the Donald is laughing all the way to the bank.

The Bangkok press had other favorites. The Nation published an Internet poll which showed their readers supporting Misses Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Bulgaria, Canada, Kenya, Venezuela, Russia, Peru, and Albania. The press was not as accurate in predicting pageant results as the online betting services were. Hmmm...

What I realized after the pageant was: If we were to take beauty pageants seriously, train our delegates longer and more thoroughly – a year in advance perhaps, just like the so-called Latin hothouses of beauties are doing – then perhaps we would produce another winner. But on second thought, why should I take beauty pageants so seriously? After all, it’s just a business and online betting services are sure to make another killing next year...and the year after...

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