The search for the paradigm of beauty is as old as the hills and is as much a part of the human being’s DNA as wanting to look good. In ancient Greek mythology there was Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, whose gift to love-struck Paris was the beauty that launched a thousand ships. The Grimms had Snow White’s insecure, wicked stepmother consulting her mirrored i-tablet on who was the fairest—on certain days—with mixed results. And back in the Philippines, we have the Malakas and Maganda (the Strong and the Beautiful—as separate entities, of course) legends.
What is it about beauty pageants, despite all the derision heaped upon them, that attracts people the world over? Is it the national costumes, which do provide a lot of the color and the nationalism engendered in these pageants? (Some of those national costumes are so bountiful, they would require two 747s to transport.)
Certain quarters will say that this whole issue of beauty pageants is irrelevant, that it is only skin-deep—that it is the inner beauty that matters, etc. Or that preoccupation with beauty pageants is a symptom of having a “3rd world, banana republic” mentality. Don’t tell any of that to the aspiring thousands of young women around the world who line up to walk the ramp, and a few score beauty product companies that sponsor these seemingly superficial flesh-fests; not to mention hundreds of fashion designers and plastic surgeons around the world who act as auxiliary industries to these global, billion-dollar beauty meets.
It used to be all so easy. There were just Misses Universe, International and World. Filipinos (or at least my generation) grew up on Universe and International because those are where the Philippines scored its first victories. More on that later.
But Filipinos have been honoring and celebrating their fairest since 1908 to be exact—the year of the first London Olympics, the election contest between William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan, when Pius X sat in Rome and the Romanovs still ruled Russia. It was four years before the Titanic sailed from Liverpool—when Manila crowned its first Carnival queen or queens to be exact.
Pura Garcia Villanueva (no relation to author) of Iloilo was crowned as the first Miss Manila Carnival in 1908. But wait—what beauty pageant would be without a little controversy? There was a pretender. In keeping with the sometime dual nature of the Philippine soul, two Manila Carnival queens were actually crowned over a century ago. While Villanueva held the Queen of the Orient title, American Marjorie Colton was named Queen of the Occident, and each one had her own corresponding consort and court to boot.
The Carnival Queen title continued until the 1930s when the Manila Carnival Association took on the added task of filling a new title—Miss Philippines—to send to the first International Pageant of Pulchritude (IPP), organized in Galveston, Texas in 1926.
The very first Miss Philippines title went to Anita Agoncillo Noble, in 1926. In keeping with the carnival tradition, she also had her own consort in Leopoldo Villarosa Kahn. But due to lack of funds and timing, Agoncillo-Noble never made it to Texas that year.
A whole series of Miss Philippines winners ensued until 1939, even after the IPP in Galveston quickly became the Miss Universe contest. Rival Miss World likes to claim that it is older than Univers, but that isn’t so. As a matter of fact, Catherine Moylan of Dallas was crowned the first Beauty Queen of the Universe or unofficially Miss Universe (of 1926), for short. Miss Canada (or Winnipeg), Patricia O’Shea came in third, and Maria Martha Perres of Mexico came in fourth.
Again, what is a beauty pageant without some sort of a catfight and some undisguised dagger-eyed rivalry? Because Miss Brazil did not place in the 1928 Miss Universe in Texas, the Brazilians decided to stage their own Miss Universe contest in Rio de Janeiro. (The “Miss Universe” title was not yet a fully registered trademark then.) Of course, Miss Brazil won and Miss USA was shut out; and keep this bit of trivia in mind when we get to the Miss 2015 Amazonas contest later in this article.
And then the Big War intervened.
It All Started with the Bathing Suits
In chilly London in 1951, the U.K. was preparing a Festival of Britain to showcase its products-- agricultural machinery and produce--and its recovery from the war. The organizers wanted to spice up the show. They called on London impresario Eric Morley. He obliged by mounting an international contest with a twist—he wanted to promote a new product, the two-piece bikini. So he came up with the Festival Bikini Contest for 1951, which attracted 26 contestants.
Morley and the London group could not use “Miss Universe” since the Brits soon learned that their Yankee cousins were reviving the Miss Universe brand the following year, 1952, on a larger scale, in Long Beach, California. Thus, it was the press in Britain who christened Morley’s pageant “Miss World” and which title Morley adopted. Miss World initially appealed to the ex-Commonwealth countries. The Philippines did not participate until 1966.
In 1951, the Catalina Swimwear Company of California and the Miss America contest (the one with scholarships and based in Atlantic City, New Jersey) came to a parting of ways. Miss America of 1951, Yolanda Betbeze of Alabama, refused to pose in the official Catalina swimsuit. While she was not stripped of her title or given some other disciplinary action, the Catalina Swimwear Co., broke off and picked up the Miss Universe franchise where Galveston left off in 1935.
So Miss Universe-Catalina launched the joint Miss USA-Universe contest in 1952 (which drew 30 American beauty queens). Among the international entrants, one Armi Helena Kuusela of Finland, bested 29 other gals to become the first postwar Miss Universe. (Coincidentally, Finland also was hosting the 1952 Summer Olympics at the time in Helsinki; and some say that had an influence on the judging.) With the Long Beach, California sun, the idea of parading in swimsuits in daylight seemed more natural and appropriate than having the gals vamp around their skimpy outfits in the chilly settings of London and Atlantic City. So take that, Miss America and Miss World—California was going to flaunt skin in its year-round sunshine! (Today, the Catalina brand is part of the InMocean Group.)
Teresita Sanchez had the honor of representing the Philippines at the 1952 Long Beach contest. But while she did not place, the Philippines gained a new citizen in the eventual winner, Armi Kuusela, who became Mrs. Virgilio Hilario of Manila shortly thereafter. Because Kuusela chose not to complete her Miss Universe commitment for the rest of the year so she could immediately start life as Mrs. Hilario, she also became the first international beauty pageant winner to “give up” her crown. But this was not held against her in later years. She would grace later contests still as Miss Universe 1952—especially when the Philippines hosted in 1974.
In 1959, Miss Universe was lured to Miami Beach, Florida. So, Long Beach businessmen and the city fathers filled the void by creating the third international beauty pageant, Miss International. That completed the top three international beauty pageants, and with Miss International, most of the foreign franchises that held Miss Universe now had another opportunity to pick a second winner.
When Colombian Stella Marquez became the first Miss International in 1960, she kept up the tradition of Europeans or fair-skinned Latinas taking the crown; although in 1954, Miss World crowned Antigone Costanda of Egypt, the first contestant from Africa and an Arab country. (Costanda was actually from the Euro-Greek minority of Egypt). In 1966 Vivian Lee Austria represented the Philippines for the first time in the Miss World pageant in London.
The first Miss Philippines to land in the top five of the Big Three major pageants was Lalaine Bennett, a Fil-American mestiza, in 1963. That victory brought Bennett to the attention of the Hollywood producers of “Lord Jim” who were looking for a leading lady for Peter O’Toole. The femme lead in the film eventually went to an Israeli actress, Daliah Levi, whom Bennett closely resembled in height and in type.
All in the Family
Then in 1964—the year “My Fair Lady” was released internationally, two coups marked the Philippines as some sort of beauty queen-crazy land. Like Virgilio Hilario before him, Cubao developer Jorge Araneta married the first Miss International, Stella Marquez of Colombia, in a sumptuous ceremony in Marquez’s hometown of Cali. Thus, the Philippines absorbed the second beauty queen to have been the first international winner in her contest (although Marquez was actually a Top 15 finalist in Miss Universe 1960).
Then in August that year, the first major international title finally landed on a Filipina’s head. Gemma Guerrero Cruz, daughter of journalist Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, copped the Miss International 1964 title in Long Beach (which Marquez had won four years earlier). Gemma donated her entire US$10,000 winnings from the pageant to the Manila Boys and Girls Town. The generous act prompted the Philippine Congress to exempt Gemma, who would eventually marry Tonypet Araneta, a third or fourth cousin of Jorge, from future income taxes.
With Gemma Cruz’s victory, and before Stella Araneta threw herself full-time into the Binibining Pilipinas charities, the Philippines tended to send mestiza beauties to the two contests in order to at least be on the same footing as the European and Latina girls. However, that yielded thin results. But with Lalaine Bennett and Gemma Cruz, and eventually Gloria Diaz in 1969, mestiza was out and kayumanggi (Malay complexion) was in.
Other firsts to remember from the international scene (Notice the gradual breaking down of racial barriers, although as of 2015, Miss International had yet to give its crown to a true woman of color):
1959, first Asian woman to win a big 3 title – Akiko Kojima of Japan to win Miss Universe
1964, first Asian Miss International - Gemma Cruz
1966, first Asian Miss World – Reita Feria of India
1968, first Miss Black America was staged
1970, first black woman to win a Big 3 title — Jennifer Hosten of Grenada won Miss World
1976, year of the Montreal 1976 Summer Olympics. At the height of apartheid, South Africa was represented at the Miss World pageant, by two contestants, a black one and a white one. There was almost a major boycott that year.
1977, first black Miss Universe named – Janelle Commissiong of Trinidad & Tobago
1984, first black Miss America – Vanessa Williams
1990, first black Miss USA — Carole Gist, who went on to win 1st runner-up in the Miss Universe contest that year.
Global Coverage and Foreign Ports
With the advent and spread of satellite telecasting in the late ‘60s, and in living color no less, the Big Three pageants joined the Oscars and the Olympic Games, as the only staged events shown globally, turning most of the civilized world into one village. The first Oscars telecast in color was in 1966; in 1969 it went international via satellite. The Olympics started partially in color in Tokyo 1964 but beamed black-and-white images to the US. By 1968, all three major pageants plus Miss USA, were all broadcasting in color. How could they not? With the explosion of color and pageantry, how could that go to waste? And naturally, as jet travel reached more and more places around the planet, women from the little kn0wn, hardest-to-reach parts of the globe started joining in as well.
The first of the Big 3 to hold the pageant outside of their usual home countries was Miss Universe 1973, in Athens, Greece. Miss World split between Hong Kong and Taipeh in 1989; and Miss International, which had since been bought by Japanese interests and made Tokyo its home, finally broadcast outside of Long Beach/Japan, in Beijing, China, in 2004. Miss Earth (which we shall get to a little later) hosted outside the Philippines, in Vienna in 2015. (Never mind that you had a pageant starting at 5:00 a.m. in Manila, where everyone was bleary-eyed and still waking up, so that the show played in the evening primetime in the East Coasts of the USA and the Atlantic South American countries—the show’s primary markets.)
And then, as mentioned, Gloria Diaz brought home the big one in 1969. Other titles quickly followed: Aurora Pijuan won Miss International 1970 in Osaka. Margie Moran followed with another Miss Universe in 1973, winning it at the Acropolis in Greece no less.
The Three Latest Filipina Miss Internationals
But through the 1980s and 1990s, the Philippines only grabbed an international title once—Miss International 1979, with Melanie Marquez (also the youngest Miss International, at age 15), while Venezuela was sweeping all the other titles. And the Miss Universe and Miss World titles were elusive ones.
As the 20th century ended, Miss World still continued to elude the Philippines, although in two instances, the country almost came close to winning it. First was Evangeline Pascual, who was named first runner-up in 1973. When Marjorie Wallace (Miss USA) was “dethroned” by the pageant, the crown and title were offered to Pascual, but for some reason, she declined them. It has never been revealed why she declined the honors.
In 1980, Filipina ancestry finally made it when winner Gabriella Brum of Germany resigned and first runner-up, Kimberly Santos, Miss Guam, inherited the Miss World 1980 title and completed the reign of Brum. Like Ariadne Gutierrez, the recent Miss Colombia, whom Steve Harvey mistakenly named at the 2015 Miss Universe pageant, and who had a brief, two-minute reign, Brum, resigned/was asked to resign the next day after her victory due to the discovery that she had posed nude in a magazine before the pageant. Kimberly Santos hadn’t left London yet when the title was transferred to her.
In 1981, the year after Kimberly Santos’ reign, Miss World again modified the beauty pageant format by creating an additional five titles and crowns, one per continent, with the highest scoring contestant from each continent awarded her own continental title—which gimmick other pageants would soon imitate. Also, shortly thereafter, to differentiate itself even more from its two rivals, Miss World tweaked its brand as “Beauty with a Purpose”—so, no simple smiling air-head for Miss World.
But it would be another 33 years before a Miss Philippines, Megan Young, would truly win the 2013 title (even though, of course, Young partially grew up in Canada). Young’s victory two years ago, brings up yet another interesting side story.
Not to take anything away from Megan, but her 2013 victory was sort of doubtful because it came close on the heels of what was called the Storm of the Century, Yolanda/Haiyan, hitting the Philippines a few weeks before the pageant in Bali. But to win the crown, which had eluded the Philippines for so long, right after typhoon Yolanda and in nearby Bali no less, raised the question, “Was it consuelo de bobo (a sympathy victory) or an honest, well-earned triumph?”
The 2013 hosting by Indonesia of Miss World, swimsuit and all, was quite notable in that the pageant was originally going to be staged in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. But due to so-called “Muslim sensibilities” and the fact that the country was also committed to hosting the 3rd Islamic Solidarity Games (ISG) at the same time, the beauty pageant was moved to Bali, the least Muslim of Indonesia’s islands.
Finally, the year after Megan’s victory, when she had to travel to chilly London, to crown her successor, Julia Morley decided they were done with the swimsuit category altogether. It didn’t seem to fulfill any purpose. Miss World director Chris Wilmer released the press statement: “The (MW) organization has decided to take itself out of the swimsuit world because it isn't the path they're trying to take. It's not just a beauty contest, it's 'beauty with a purpose.' There didn't seem to be a purpose to have the swimsuit.” So that meant, no swimsuit sponsors for Miss World. It seems the feminists got through to Julia Morley after all.
The issue of bathing suits, i.e., cheesecake, came full circle. But the removal of the swimsuit portion hasn’t spread to the other pageants. It’s still basically a skin show, and the swimsuit, cosmetics and sun block companies pay good money to advertise their wares.
Incurable Beauty Pageant-Junkie
As the 20th century wore on, the Philippines became an incurable beauty-pageant-junkie; it was time to have its own international pageant. Carousel Productions of Manila grabbed the bull by the horns and put together Miss Earth. Even though, Misses World and Universe broadcast from various countries, together with Miss International, they were still based in “developed, first world countries.” Miss Earth would be the first pageant to be based in a developing country. Ramon Monzon is the current president of Carousel Productions.
Taking a page from Miss World, Miss Earth handed out the consolation places based on three other Elements: Misses Air, Fire, Water, instead of the various runners-up. And finally, in 2008, a Filipina-Canadian originally born in Batangas, Karla Henry, won the crown. For both 2007-08, there was a strong Filipino/Canadian slant to the Miss Earth ceremonies. In 2007, the Miss Earth winner was Jessica Trisko, a Canadian of Filipina heritage, but representing Canada. Then it was Henry’s turn for 2008. One of the hosts for 2008 was Riza Santos, who competed as Miss Canada-Earth in 2006 but failed to enter the semifinal round during her time.
Henry survived a random stabbing attack by a drunken man at her condo building in Manila. In 2008, a second Miss Philippines, Jamie Herrell, won the 2014 Miss Earth crown.
By 2015, so it wouldn’t look so “rigged” and to show that Miss Earth had hit the big time, Carousel Productions took the show on the road, to Vienna, Austria, the land of the Hapsburgs, von Trapps, Freud, Hitler and Johann Strauss. But despite all that wienerschnitzel and noodles, the Philippines still won, with Angelia Ong of Iloilo besting 85 other contestants to take Miss Earth 2015.
The Last Three Filipina Miss Earths
Bad Beauty Queen things happen in fives
Overall 2015 was a bruised, blackeye for international beauty pageants. If you think Steve Harvey’s faux pas at the 2015 Miss Universe crowning in Las Vegas was bad, things started out badly for
1. Miss Amazonas 2015 in Brazil in February saw the literal snatching of the crown from the winner’s head; it was then hurled to the floor by the runner-up in disgust and pique! Heavens to Betsy, it had never happened before or was just never captured so vividly in glorious color.
2. Mid-year, on the U.S. campaign trail, Donald Trump, owner of the Miss Universe franchise, opened his big mouth and made a mess of things Miss Universe. He trashed Mexicans and Latin migrants, thereby almost making his own business implode. Univision canceled its contract; Mexico and Panama then pulled out; followed by would-be hosts Bob Thomas and Fil-Am Cheryl Burke also bowing out; and finally NBC canceled its exclusive contract with the pageant (and Miss USA) which is why the pageant played so late and returned to its perennial home of Las Vegas just a few days before Christmas.
(Two other Trump-Universe secrets before we leave the subject. First -- how do they pick the Top 15 semi-finalists? It’s not the final Celebrity panel; the Miss Universe Organization staffers do it. In the first two weeks of rehearsals, they get to know all the gals, so that is when they cut the less attractive and photogenic ones from those who will best serve the sponsors of the pageant.
Second, shortly after Trump bought the enterprise in 1996, the rights to host the final pageant were available to anyone who could pay $12 million and provide the logistical needs for the show. Ironically, as long as Trump whose ratings were rising in the Republican Party polls, owned the pageant, no one wanted anything to do with it. At the last minute, WME/IMG, a Hollywood talent agency came to the rescue, stepped in and bought the franchise from Trump for an unspecified amount. Trump claims he made money on the deal.)
3. At the Miss Earth pageant in Vienna, Miss Taiwan refused to wear the “Miss Chinese Taipeh” sash. (That is the same designation PRC imposed on the International Olympic Committee to allow Taiwan to stay in the Olympics.) But Miss Taiwan refused to budge, and so she was dropped pronto from the pageant. Apparently, Carousel Productions is cowed by their Beijing franchise.
4. Meanwhile, at the Miss World in big, bad China, the PRC could control things even more. Anastasia Lin, Miss Canada-World, originally born in China but is an outspoken critic of the human rights situation there, was stopped when she changed planes in Hong Kong. She was denied a visa by the PRC to proceed farther to the pageant in Sanya.
5. Then barely a week after the APEC Summit in Manila was concluded, a new pageant, Miss Pancontinental, in Cagayan de Oro lost a contestant when Miss New Zealand bolted supposedly “out of fear for her personal safety.” If she had her jitters just a few days earlier, she could’ve actually snuck a ride back home on her prime minister’s plane out of Manila.
Of course, the crowning boo-boo moment was Steve Harvey’s now Biggest Blunder in Television History, giving Ariadne Gutierrez of Colombia the shortest international beauty crown reign in history – two minutes. There probably is no bigger supporter of beauty queens and pageants than the LGBT community, and not to take anything away from the new Miss Universe’s moment of glory, but it’s the LGBT members who seem to put the whole issue of beauty queens and pageants into proper perspective Enjoy this rare parody of “Pia Wurtzbach’s unique moment in the sun” (as portrayed by one Froilan Paloso).
Here’s looking at a future Miss Galaxy, Miss Milky Way or Miss Sharia Law.
Myles Garcia is a retired San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. Myles just won a 2015 Plaridel Award (Best Sports Story) for “Before Elorde, Before Pacquiao, There Was Luis Logan,” here on Positively Filipino (November 17, 2014). He is also a member of the ISOH (International Society of Olympic Historians) and has written for the ISOH Journal. There are a book about the mess the Marcoses left behind in "30 Years Later..." and a play, "Murder á la Mode," nearing completion.