You know it is summer in these islands when a parade of ladies, strutting in six-inch heels and donning nothing but uniform bathing suits, are fielded out beside a hotel swimming pool in order to meet the press. After the meteor shower of flashing bulbs, all these nymphs of various complexions and sizes, gaze at the Great Beyond with newly whitened teeth in very rehearsed smiles, breasts held upright in seemingly eternal inhalation and legs positioned just enough to suggest commendable height to match a body that has been toned and dieted for months for the Big Event.
Every year a substantial number of the local population cheer and jeer at these young ladies. Like virginal sacrifices to the Altar of the Great Filipina Beauty, the girls are dolled up, garbed not only in swimwear but also gowns that can leave the beholder either speechless because of awe or incapable of grasping the imagination of whoever made a monstrosity in cloth. But whether they strut with elan or bring a new level to kabaduyan, the Filipina beauty queen has become an icon.
After all, from the time that Lalaine Bennett became the first Filipina to place as a runner-up in the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant to the years when Meagan Young finally bagged our first Miss World Crown while Pia Wurtzbach became our third Miss Universe after a little over forty years, Filipinos have become addicted to beauty pageants and give more importance to what has become a national sport more than anything else.
If all the machos and sports enthusiasts free time and reality whenever the Pambansang Kamao has a fight aired via satellite in whatever corner of the globe, then there is an equally viable counterpart. When the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant is aired, it is rumored (if not assumed) that every beauty salon and atelier from the most posh enclaves of fashion down to the eskinitas of the upstart designers have closed shop. Why? Because for certain sectors of our society, indulgence in beauty pageants has also become more than a hobby but a national sport as well.
Binibinis Who Made It
That is why there are the so-called Missologists. That is a term coined to certain individuals (regardless of level of education or professional expertise) who have a mastery of the history, goings-on and even trivia about beauty contests. Missologists can sputter off all the Binibining Pilipinas Universe contestants and give you exact data about who dressed up Perfida Limpin (1988 / Inno Sotto) or how many first runners-up we have had since Stella Marquez-Araneta gained the local franchise (actually two ladies have succeeded to almost get the crown: Miriam Quiambao in 1999 and Janine Tugonon in 2012).
These experts do not only limit themselves to the Miss Universe Pageant as their source of casual scholarship. In a country so engrossed with heralding the beauty of its women, there is the equally elusive Miss World crown that was finally captured by Ms. Young two years ago. Then there is the Miss International stint that actually gave us our very first international beauty queen in Gemma Cruz as early as 1964 and has provided an even longer line of Filipina winners that include Aurora Pijuan (1970), Melanie Marquez (1979), Precious Lara Quigaman (2005) and Bea Rose Santiago (2015).
With all the fascination given to these ladies deemed to be worthy of wearing a crown, what does this say about us as a people? We cannot make exclusive claims of being the only nation on the face of the earth to be so preoccupied with beauty pageants. South American countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia make a big deal about their beauty queens.
Some of these have even set up sub-industries that precisely cater to the training and even the re-invention of ordinary girls into ravishing paragons of beauty. Whether these involve training on how to walk the walk or talk the talk, or simply how to do a three hundred sixty degree turns with a flowing evening gown – or reconstruct a face or the nose, chisel the jaw or create cheekbones -all these are part of the practice that has now become a tradition.
Smashing the Pedigree Template
Yet the concept of beauty changes. A look through the snippets and documentaries in YouTube would easily reveal that the standards of what makes a beautiful woman in the 1960’s is so different from the aesthetics of five decades later. This is because the definition of beauty changes through the years as standards respond and react to other more important factors in society.
How we perceive a beautiful woman deserving to be crowned a beauty queen is how we respond to the changes happening in the world. For instance, the acclaimed beauties of the past who have been awarded titles underline the importance of progeny and pedigree.
We all remember that Gemma Cruz is the daughter of Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil and a descendant of Dr. Jose Rizal. Both Gloria Diaz and Margarita Moran came from prominent families of Manila – not to mention Aurora Pijuan when she won Miss international. Even other beauty queens heralded during the 1960’s and early 1970’s were kolehiyalas who spoke good English, manifested sophistication and finesse – and were there because they were asked to do so and not because they had to be there to raise the financial status of their families. The earliest beauty queens were regal because of their breeding which almost came naturally and spontaneously considering the ancestral houses they call their homes.
Popular culture may have produced a Nora Aunor to completely smash the template of the adored idol of Philippine Showbiz but Filipinos (even to this day) have not learned to accept the brown color of their skin as that which makes them unique, distinct and beautiful. One would think that after relatively brown-skinned girl like Misses Pijuan and Diaz bagged the first international beauty crowns that we would be more bent on sending the kayumanggis to compete against their blonde and blue eyed or the sizzle-a-minute Latina counterparts.
But then again, no! Pedigree meant the mestiza with her fair skin and doe eyes were still given more premium. Margarita Moran’s victory confirmed that but nobody seemed to think that it was more her grace and bearing that made her win rather than the color of her skin.
There were even more talks and comments (as well as snickering) when Melanie Marquez became Miss International on the stage in Tokyo wearing her gown named Rene Salud and proud of her long legged-ness. That was beside the point. This was a beauty contest and not the search for Miss Menza. That year, Melanie literally wiped out everybody on that stage because she could — and did. All she had to do was walk down the ramp and the entire queerdom of the seven thousand islands back home found their goddess.
Shift to Exotic and Sexy
In more ways than one, Marquez’ victory broke the template of what makes a Filipino beauty queen. It was the work of Pygmalions like Rene Salud who brought in more unique if not exotic options as to who we considered as beautiful. Aesthetics cannot exist in a vacuum: it was about the same time in the 1970’s and 80’s that there was also a shift in what was considered beautiful as well as sellable for leading ladies who drew in the box office crowd. The likes of Alma Moreno, Rio Locsin and Lorna Tolentino reshaped the fair-skinned beauty by accentuating this with sexuality.
The virginal mestizas remained on the fashion ramps donning the exquisite creations of Moreno, Farrales, Alonzo as well as the new breed of that generation: Cordero, Lopez, Sotto, Salazar. But now the models were no longer limited to kolehiyalas who were doing this to wile their time away or as a favor to their mothers’ designers. When luncheon fashion shows blossomed in the late 70’s at the Manila Hilton and Hyatt Hotels, modelling became a semi-profession, a part time job that was more of a hobby.
This new breed of designers sought models who could do gala and luncheon fashion shows and get paid for it. This shift in the search for a new standard of beauty came with mindset of the late Gary Flores. Flores was not only remembered for the endless fashion shows that he mounted in the various ballrooms but also the epic Bagong Anyo of Imelda Marcos at Nayong Pilipino after the declaration of Martial Law.
Stepping Stone to Other Universes
This was the age of perhaps the most memorable ramp and editorial models who eventually became beauty queens themselves: Marilen Ojeda and Margarita Moran were both signature models of Auggie Cordero when they were crowned as our country’s representatives to the Miss International and Miss Universe respectively. Moran and Ojeda may have still carried the right family name but now the scouts were looking beyond the gates of exclusive school for girls to find their beauty queens.
Fashion designers started seeking out their own contestants to field to the beauty contests. This provided a venue for somebody in the rag trade – whether established or an upstart – to display the caliber of his art and craft. The beauty contestant became so much more than just another pretty junior socialite trying out a new adventure. A beauty pageant contestant can be the muse of a designer or that go-for-broke kind of girl who would use this opportunity for the right kind of public exposure to be noticed by some fairy godmother or padrino.
It is not enough to wear the crown ; this should open even better opportunities to be known by all the right people and improve one’s station in life. If a girl has all the right ingredients – beauty, brains and charisma that can last longer than a year, then the beauty title can indeed be a life-changing experience. Offers in show business can come easily – or as in the case of Megan Young and Pia Wurtzbach, winning an international crown has increased their premium straight to the stratosphere.
With this redefinition of the role of a beauty queen and of beauty pageants, the traditional template was completely shattered. The possibilities for a Filipina to win such a competition was democratized. Family lineage and being society were no longer pre-requisites. Instead, the determination and drive to win plus luck on the side were the ingredients to up one’s chances. Yes, there were still the mestizas (as the names Young and Wurtzbach are not necessarily of native origins) but they were not the traditional half-Caucasians. They were brown-skinned, which made them uniquely Filipina. Apparently in the international arena, that counted a lot.
The Filipina beauty queen won because she did not look like anybody else in the line-up of girls in slinky, sparkling gowns. She needed to perky, smart and confident because she had an entire nation rallying behind her for just being herself.
No longer is the contemporary beauty queen that untouchable, unreachable and untenable goddess but one among us, the people who adore her. She was aspirational as she rallied her countrymen behind her for ceaseless and wavering support.
Just like other countries which take beauty pageants seriously, the Filipino’s dedication and determination to make their candidate matter is near-heroic if not fanatic. If every punch of Pacquiao aimed at his opponent get Filipinos up on their feet jumping and screaming, then each time our candidate is singled out as a semi-finalist, finalist … then maybe even the winner, that diehard segment of our audience goes uncontrollably and completely crazy.
Winning by Text Votes
The Worldwide Web has indeed shrunk the world into proportions of miniscule size. Ever since the internet became an active part of both local and international beauty pageants, the Filipino’s sense of participation in choosing as well as rallying behind their candidates multiplied possibilities. One need not look for proof that Filipinos take online voting seriously. Filipinos will log in and cast their votes to help push their candidate’s victory.
For instance, just in the Miss Universe Pageant alone, there was a time when the choice of Miss Photogenic was left to the long-term online voting before the actual competition. So many of our Binibinis took home that trophy by sheer determination and People Power of the Filipino voters. Ariella Arida (2014) slipped into the semi-finals because she was the winner of interactive phase of the contest where the netizens were allowed to choose one contestant to join the next layer of competition. Just this year, the online votes for Pia Wurtzbach had her top both the Swimsuit and Evening Gown Competitions from the online votes.
More Than a Crown
What others consider trivial, useless or even ridiculous reflect something so much more important about who we are as a people. What makes all these opportunities testing the mettle of the Filipino – whether in a boxing ring or in a pageant arena – so sacred to some of our people?
This is tantamount to explaining that hunger for Pinoy Pride. This is but a corollary to Filipinos claiming that Jessica Sanchez is still Filipino when she shone brilliantly in that season of American Idol. Or how our countrymen still insisted that Cyrus Villanueva, an Aussie with Filipino descent, was representative of Pinoy Pride by virtue of his Pinoy father.
There is a need to be proud of being a Filipino.
We are living at a time when heroes come few and scarce: there is an obvious dearth of role model. Thus, Filipinos find every available opportunity to rally behind their own and therefore create their own heroes. Beauty queens provide the same alternatives as athletes, politicians or people in entertainment. But more so, it is the journey of one girl to represent the country and prove herself better if not the best that really matters.
So maybe, just maybe, it isn’t all about being shallow that Filipinos, like the Thais, or the Colombians or the Mexicans and the Venezuelans make much ado about girls parading in outrageous versions of their national costumes or parading in swimsuits or wearing ostentatious gowns while being dolled up like oversized Barbies. A certain need is being fulfilled not just by a single candidate wanting international recognition but by a people affirming who they are and what their countrymen can do.
Text by Jose Javier Reyes
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