Whenever I’m asked about my pageant obsession, I tend to answer the “when” and not the “why”. I always found the thought of rationalizing a passion quite daunting, if not futile. That certainly applies to me here. But if I were to indulge, I’d always backtrack to the summer of ’94. It was a peculiar time in my childhood, highlighted by weeklong sleepovers, biking around the village, and a severe pining for Miss Minchin’s comeuppance. I had a curious mix of interests. I was into X-Men, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat, while still bearing attachment to fairy tales and Mother Goose.
And then, Miss Universe happened.
Hello, Philippines, Mabuhay
It was our country’s second hosting stint; that much I’d learn later. I really wasn’t into the contest at first. I just enjoyed learning about countries. And the opening sure felt like Geography 101, but with added spectacle. I learned about Greece being “The Home of the Ancient Gods”, Namibia being “The Smile of Africa“, and Australia being “The Largest Island and Smallest Continent”. All that, while production promulgated the concept of “Mabuhay” being our “Hello” (It isn’t).
The competition finally sank in when the ladies were whittled down to 10, then to 6, and then, finally, 3. Eventually, Charlene Gonzalez got the boot and the dark horse from India blew the panel away with her profound rhetoric. So much depth from an 18-year-old, they said. True enough, that led to a breakthrough for the second most populous country in the world and the first crowning moment I ever witnessed. It was the moment that had people discoursing the “essence of being a woman” and the reason many girls born that year were named Sushmita.
As for my nine-year-old self, who’d yet to grasp the concept of travel, it was how I discovered the world (the Universe, rather) in my own unorthodox, stationary way. Moreover, it marked the beginning of a personal tradition that would span ¾ of my life so far.
Hobby and Lifeline
People didn’t really keep tabs after that year. It was likely because our country wasn’t host anymore. Worse, we missed the first cut for the most part. Save for Miriam Quiambao’s stumble-then-rise storyline and the occasional Miss Photogenic trophy, there wasn’t much to celebrate locally.
As for me, the tradition was only picking up. In 1995, I learned that Miss Universe was only but a speck in the entire pageant, well, universe. I started watching Miss World and Miss International, which was comparatively more generous to our country in the 90s. In 1996, I started following the national tilts, like Bb. Pilipinas and Mutya ng Pilipinas, and, granted ABC5 or RPN9 aired them, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss America. In 1998 came my decade-long practice of recording them to VHS.
By the turn of the millennium, things leveled up for me as an enthusiast. The internet enabled me to see the action leading to coronation night. In 2001, I started doing pre-pageant wishlists. Sometimes, my pick would win. Sometimes, she’d miss the cut altogether. It didn’t matter. The fun was in the guessing. And as the fan community mourned our lack of Miss Universe placements that decade, I relished our achievements in other tilts: Our four-year Miss World placement streak, our 2005 Miss International victory, thanks to Precious Lara Quigaman, and the inception of the locally staged Miss Earth.
By college, my guilty pleasure had become a sanctuary known only to a trusted few. Much like in high school, whenever classmates made me miserable and quantitative subjects proved to be my academic undoing, I simply turned to my pageant recordings, and those problems were instantly buried.
There was no other way to put it. It simply made me happy. And if there’s one viewpoint I indirectly acquired through this hobby-turned-lifeline, it’s to be unapologetically and unequivocally yourself, because it’s a title you will carry not just for one year, but for the rest of your life.
As I entered the workforce, everyone around me just knew (and understood). Suddenly, there was no longer guilt in the pleasure. I grew comfortable with it being my identifier. They’d call me the Walking Pageant Encyclopedia, who could name a titleholder at mere mention of a year and enumerate recent representatives of any given country. One time, a boss even called me on pageant morning, not to ask why I wasn’t at work yet, but to know how my favorites were faring. That’s how I affirmed that, while I have a slew of other dreams and interests, there was something in pageantry that gave me a certain life and energy. Apparently, it was that obvious.
With the support, came the pockets of encouragement. “Maybe you should be a pageant blogger” or “Maybe you should start a podcast”, they’d tell me. I was close to shipping the idea.
Highs and Lows
The previous decade was our Golden era in the pageant circuit, bar none. With the nation riding on the coattails of Pia Wurtzbach’s win, Miss Universe was bound to return. I was ecstatic when a former employer acquired official broadcasting rights for the pageant, more so when they tapped me for the project.
What transpired was a whirlwind of a two-month stint that came with a broad job description and promises of a huge break. I contributed what I could, from articles, trivia, down to creative directions for the network’s promotional material. Over initial briefings, I was told to anticipate the most stringent parameters, despite being required to be always at the center of the action. So, the weeks that followed were an exercise of patience and workarounds for me and the field team. Naturally, challenges came with the territory and power imbalance would always be at play. But compliant as we were, we couldn’t fathom why our official broadcaster status still earned us the short end of the stick. We were barred from covering certain key events, while media bigwigs entered with ease.
There were several unmentionable pocket incidents, but the euphoria generally prevailed, especially during the National Gift Auction. To my surprise, notable alumnae were in attendance. Turns out, a local sponsor flew some of them in.
I managed to have a chat with 2014’s Miss Norway Elise Dalby and a quick exchange with former Miss USAs Nia Sanchez and Olivia Jordan. And I gazed in awe as 2014 2nd Runner-Up Diana Garkusha entered the ballroom. She’s even more stunning in person, like a blonde version of Russia’s dethroned 2002 titleholder Oxana Fedorova. To my delight, she was quite the chatterbox and gamely agreed to a quick video interview with the crew.
Our exchanges were then interrupted by an attendee who asked “Miss Venezuela, can we take a picture with you?” “I’m NOT Miss Venezuela!”, Diana replied in disbelief. To dissuade the awkwardness, I whispered, “She’s from Ukraine.” The final interruption came from one of the sponsors. Recognizing her from a previous engagement, I greeted her, “Remember me? We met while I was in <other former employer>!” She responded with a raised eyebrow then turned her back.
By then, it became crystal clear: everybody wanted a slice of the pie. Some would even use their power to horde that whole pie, even if they knew nothing about the flavor. And in more than one instance back then, I was fortunate even to get crumbs.
Still, I closed the chapter with gratitude and the yearning to go through it again. A milestone is a milestone. Going through the unpleasant parts still beats not going through any part of it at all. I earned my role in that narrative and, well, I got paid.
It was never the same after that. I remained a fan, but with an enhanced level of discernment. Suddenly, I became privier to the toxic conduct, like racism from fans and crown entitlement (can’t we just be thankful that we’re no longer perennial clappers like before?). And don’t get me started on the predators masquerading as sponsors.
It’s true. When we peep behind the curtain, the magic disappears. We start noticing the dissonance, the sleaze, the power play. It always takes a close-hand experience to unveil the unsavory side of things and how much of it contradicts our principles. That applies everywhere, really, especially in sectors that claim to serve. But part of passion, really, is measured by how much we can stomach the impurities and how we keep our values intact through it all. Otherwise, there will always be other avenues.
I scored another pageant social media stint one year later. It was for a local tilt celebrating its 50th year. That one was a relative breeze, and it felt refreshingly strange being called “Kuya” by the contestants. True enough, I became a confidant to some of them as far as logistics allowed.
My recent attempt to reignite the passion was flying to Bangkok for the 2018 edition. It was to be my 25th Miss Universe viewing experience. During those four days, I remembered why I was into this in the first place. The icing on the cake was Catriona Gray clinching the crowning moment that once evaded her, launching Pinoys in the audience into jubilant hysterics. For the first time in two years, the passion felt alive again.
Three months later, the same local pageant contacted me again for what was supposed to be a second go-round. Apparently, there had been a change in management and a rebranding was due. The contrast was palpable. While the previous board welcomed me with open arms, the new one was a bit more challenging to warm up to. They shot down my ideas, ignored my reports, and left me out of key communications.
Then it happened. In June 2019, just barely two weeks after marking my 25th anniversary as an enthusiast, they shelved my services – before their pageant even commenced. A few days later, one of the assistants reached out to me to ask for all the photos I took during one of the pre-events. It felt uncomfortable, to say the least. I didn’t sign anything that would part me from my intellectual property.
It sure felt like a final knell. And, in hindsight, perhaps the Catriona High in Thailand was my “graduation”. At that point, I thought that after a quarter-century of following and identifying with this scene, it was finally time to hang the sash.
Hint of Second Wind
Except, I couldn’t completely. Every now and then, people still ask me either about my picks or my opinions on related news items. Responding never felt more taxing and, for a time even, I couldn’t whip up answers. “But we’re just casual viewers compared to you”, an acquaintance once reacted. To which, I responded: “Oh. I’m just a casual viewer too.”
Admittedly though, it’s still hard not to tune in – even with our current state forcing us to pause, re-evaluate our priorities, and alter our direction. The thrill in watching is still there, and again the “why” feels daunting. I was even invited by 1998’s Jewel Lobaton to guest in her web show. That felt full circle, as she was Miss Philippines in the first Miss Universe I taped.
In a much more recent exchange, Henrie, a former work colleague, shared his sentiments on a former candidate’s recent allegations. The conversation went:
HENRIE: “What does she have to gain in all this?”
ME: “See. Stories like that are why I’m on sabbatical.”
HENRIE: “Babalik ka rin. LOL.” (“You’ll be back”)
After a short pause, he continued… “Kahit lola na ako, ikaw pa rin chichikahin ko about pageantry” (“Even when I’m old, I’ll still talk to you about pageantry”), which he punctuated with a smiley. And for the first time in months, the topic made me smile again.
It took that random Messenger exchange to remind me that the things that contribute to our being are often hard, maybe even impossible, to shake off- especially, when they’re already part of our systems. If they are meant to stay, then they will naturally evolve with us as we grow and heal, for as long as they continue to serve us.
So, do I still have anything to contribute to the field? Only time will tell. For now, I just need to redefine the role it will play from here on in.
P.S. Miss Canada looks promising.