Missed Universe: Confessions of a former beau con junkie

(The Philippines is again wrapped in Miss Universe fever as Miss Philippines Janine Tugonon consistently lands in every beauty pageant aficionado’s Top 15 list. Of course, the situation was far different when the article I wrote below first came out in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2010, a few days before then Miss Philippines Venus Raj made a major, major splash in Las Vegas.

(From a former beauty pageant powerhouse, the Philippines was then suffering from a decade-old drought that saw its beauty queens shut out completely [not even making it to the semifinals] from Miss Universe, the world’s most watched beauty pageant.

(After having produced two Misses Universe in 1969 and 1973, it was unthinkable for Filipino beauty contest fans to see their bets looking hapless beside Latinas, Eastern Europeans and even Indians. Well, the tide has changed. Two days from now in Las Vegas, we will see if Janine finally bags for the Philippines its third Miss Universe crown after a long 39-year wait.

(As for this blogger, I can say with a straight face that I’m not in the habit of watching beauty pageants anymore. I tried watching Miss World last year, and ended up yawning every 20 seconds. I dare not watch Miss International again for fear of further losing what’s left of my brain cells.

(But Miss Universe is different. It has again become a hard habit to break, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m again hooked on it since that “fateful” day in 2010. And it’s one guilty pleasure I’d like to share with you. Let the parade of gorgeous women begin! – AYV)

MISS Philippines Janine Tugonon is among this year's favorites to bag the Miss Universe crown. After losing badly in boxing and suffering a cataclysmic storm in Mindanao, Filipinos need a much-needed psychological boost as we begin to celebrate the holidays. Will this be it? (Miss Philippines' Road to Miss Universe crown)

MISS Philippines Janine Tugonon is among this year’s favorites to bag the Miss Universe crown. After losing badly in boxing and suffering a cataclysmic storm in Mindanao, Filipinos need a much-needed psychological boost as we begin to celebrate the holidays. Will this be it? (Miss Philippines’ Road to Miss Universe crown)

WITH Miss Universe 1973, the still lovely and gracious Margie Moran Floirendo

WITH Miss Universe 1973, the still lovely and gracious Margie Moran Floirendo

LIFE, indeed, is fraught with ironies for a former beau con (beauty contest) junkie like me.

Now that I can freely watch beau cons without my Dad breathing down my neck admonishing me to seek more “manly” pursuits and not to waste precious time on such “wholesale” exploitation of women—how could anything this fabulous be exploitative, I was almost, always tempted to answer back—I’ve all but completely lost my wide-eyed enthusiasm for Miss Universe.

It seems like only yesterday I felt sorry for myself when our B&W TV conked out days before the 1976 Miss U. Since buying one wasn’t an option, I did what amounted to a Scarlett O’Hara and looked up to the heavens and asked, voice trembling: “Why, oh, why weren’t we born rich?”

We were poor, yes, but we were also too proud to bother our next-door neighbor. Still, it was a dark Sunday morning in my young life as I made do with a chorus of faint sound bites coming from neighborhood TV sets simultaneously tuned in to the pageant that was being beamed, as then Miss U host Bob Barker so distinctly put it, “live via satellite from Hong Kong!”

It was a good thing Lizbeth de Padua, Miss Philippines that year, never made it even pass the semi-finals. Otherwise, I would have probably killed myself. I could just imagine martial law-era tabloids having a field day the next morning: “Onse anyos, nagbigti! Miss U, may sala!”

Well, would I still entertain such violent thoughts if the entire country again experiences a Stone Age moment with a nationwide “brownout” come Tuesday morning (as Gloria Diaz said during the 1994 Miss U opening: “It’s evening in the USA and 8 o’clock in the morning here in Manila…”) while Venus Raj tries to end our Miss U title drought in Las Vegas? Never again, Scarlett!

After all these years of our “delegates” not even making it to the top 12, which was later expanded to the top 15, I’ve now become clean of any traces of Miss U addiction. Like a DOM deprived of his nightly dose of Viagra, I have neither the appetite nor the energy these days to sit through another edition of the American-produced beau con.

I haven’t the slightest clue why. Sorry, my lack of enthusiasm has nothing to do with the supposed exploitation of PYTs. Today’s generation of beau con junkies would want me to believe that Stella Marquez-Araneta and American business mogul Donald Trump have plenty to do with it.

Colombian-born Araneta, who’s married to a Filipino and a former Miss International herself (the first to wear the crown), is current chair of Bb. Pilipinas Charities, Inc., exclusive franchise holder in charge of selecting the country’s representatives to several leading global beau cons, including Miss U.

Trump bought the rights to produce and market Miss U the world over. His takeover took place in the late ’90s, which, with the rare exception of Miriam Quiambao, marked the start of the long, prevailing Miss U shutout—a record 10 years and counting—of Philippine beauty queens.

Such a development also coincided with Araneta’s decision to totally prohibit our girls from wearing gowns, dresses and national costumes made by Filipino designers unless her good friend Pitoy Moreno or fellow Colombian Alfredo Barraza designed them.

MARGIE Moran doesn't seem to know what hit her as Bob Barker announce in Athens that, yes, she's the new Miss Universe.

MARGIE Moran doesn’t seem to know what hit her as Bob Barker announces in Athens, Greece in 1973 that, yes, she’s the new Miss Universe.

Since the early ’90s, every delegate has been reportedly required to wear clothes sourced by Araneta herself from her own store selling bright, frilly gowns and flimsy dresses called Cumbia (formerly known as Bb. Pilipinas Boutique) in Cubao.

Every beau con junkie knows how crucial the evening gown is in boosting our bets’ chances. It was on the strength of their gowns, not their swimsuits and interviews, that the likes of Chat Silayan, Chiqui Brosas and Desiree Verdadero were able to break into the finals.

MARGIE Moran in a more recent cover for Tatler (rottentomatoes.com)

MARGIE Moran in a more recent cover for Tatler (rottentomatoes.com)

I’ll leave you to witness for yourself the vitriol and conspiracy theories the two, particularly Araneta, have generated among the country’s beau con aficionados in several websites, including an open Facebook account dubbed as “Fire Mrs. Stella Araneta.”

For this article, I sought the insights of four beau con junkies of my generation (they requested not to be identified) on why we’re not doing as well as we should in Miss U. A New York-based respondent who’s into advertising even shared his insights on Miss U’s dwindling ad revenues and annual drop in viewership.

Short of having Araneta banished into FARC-controlled territory somewhere in the Colombian hinterlands, here’s what they said:

On recycled gowns, bad outfits and ripped skirts

NC: From the ’60s to the ’80s, our contestants’ packaging was very Filipina and it worked. Today’s girls are weighed down by wrong packaging. Not just their gowns. The entire wardrobe they wear during prelims and special appearances is simply off.

I read somewhere that Japan spends almost a million dollars on their girls and it’s working. We’re stuck with recycled outfits from Cumbia. Even swimsuits, would you believe, are recycled. How unsanitary!

Competition has become tougher through the decades. You need to make your mark as early as the prelims. Filipinas should look fresh, chic and stylish. Not

WHILE American Neil Armstrong captures the moon in 1969, Filipina Gloria Diaz catpures the Universe (video48.blogspot.com)

WHILE American Neil Armstrong conquers the moon in 1969, Filipina Gloria Diaz conquers the Universe (video48.blogspot.com)

cheaper versions of Latinas.

I can’t forget the sight of poor Teresa Licaros (former Miss Philippines) wearing a ripped red gown in a pre-pageant event. The gown must have been more than a decade old and resurrected from the baul collection of some unknown designer. Pathetic!

CS: It’s the series of pre-pageant events that would help our girls make it to the finals. Margie Moran wore a gown during a trip to the Parthenon, and photographers went crazy over her. She eventually won Miss Photogenic (that was back in the days when prestige was attached to Miss Photogenic, as photographers, not online voters, dictated the outcome–AYV). Desiree Verdadero wore a scene-stealing “tangga” during the taped swimsuit event.

Lately, gowns our candidates are being made to wear aren’t flattering and competitive enough. Ruffa Gutierrez, who competed in Miss World, had enough sense to bring her own gowns for eksena purposes, and she almost made it!

MR: We have so many talented Filipino designers who are probably more than willing to lend their time and talents for a song. Perhaps, even for free! Why don’t we experiment with more fashion-forward outfits?

Like the Japanese girls lately—from their costumes down to their gowns—everything they wear is designed to call attention in a good way. They’ve come up with a totally different packaging that’s all their own, from the walk to the wardrobe, and not wannabe Latinas.

On banning Filipino designers

NC: We’re not as rich as Japan, but we have the talent here. Why are Colombian designers doing what Pinoy designers are supposed to do? Like what Renee Salud did more than a generation ago for the likes of Desiree, Melanie Marquez and Chat Silayan, our local talents know what works.

The worst I’ve seen was the gold, Baclaran-type lamé gown worn by Jennifer Barrientos. It was totally blah! I read somewhere that Ines Lingorn (Araneta’s counterpart in Japan) wanted to lend a proper gown to Jennifer because she saw the girl had a shot. In deference to Stella, Ines reportedly chose not to.

HOMECOMING queens Gloria and Margie manage to make the nation grind to a halt during their respective years.

HOMECOMING queens Gloria and Margie manage to make the nation grind to a halt during their respective years. (Miss Philippines’ road to Miss Universe crown)

alexyvergara and Miss Philippines 2011 Shamcey Supsup weeks after she placed third runner-up in Brazil

alexyvergara and Miss Philippines 2011 Shamcey Supsup weeks after she placed third runner-up in Brazil

On “I love my long-legged” and other “Melanisms”

NC: Let’s face it, our girls will never be as spontaneous as Latinas or as deep as Indians when it comes to Q&A. Our girls tend to freeze during interviews because they’re probably more concerned with speaking in flawless English than in answering the question itself. They need to undergo rigorous training in public speaking right after winning and not a crash course in pageant etiquette and modeling in Colombia.

On sending them to beauty queen school in South America

CS: That’s all very well, but remember these countries, particularly Venezuela and Colombia, also have their own interests to advance. Tell me I’m wrong, but I think the Colombians are even sabotaging our efforts.

MY major, major moment with Venus Raj, Miss Philippines 2010, and fourth runner-up in Miss Universe

MY major, major moment with Venus Raj, Miss Philippines 2010, and fourth runner-up in Miss Universe

Remember Miriam was sent to Venezuela and not to Colombia. But since the Venezuelan beauty queen Miriam competed against didn’t make it, Venezuelan experts became wary and from then on no Filipina ever went again to Venezuela. What Filipinas really need is intensive training in public speaking.

The Trump card

MR: I’ve had the chance to talk to a fairly recent Filipina delegate to Miss U and she confirmed to me that it’s an open secret that around half of the girls who’d eventually advance to the semis are Trump’s choices.

Well, what can we do? It’s his pageant. My point is, the slim chance of our girls making it to the top 15 even got slimmer. Either we throw in the towel, like the former Miss Philippines I talked to who simply enjoyed herself by taking in the sights and freebies, or we overhaul our present approach, which is obviously not working.

Death of Miss U as we know it?

MAS: The bigger question, I think, is how do organizers make Miss U a profitable venture? Word has it that it continues to be in the red and people are predicting that Trump would eventually sell it if it continues to lose money.

Trump’s choices have probably everything to do with propping up declining audience share and changing demographics.  It’s only in a number of Latin American countries where NBC, which owns Univisa (the largest Hispanic channel), makes money. As soon as NBC pulls the plug, Miss U would be downgraded to cable TV, which means the loss of national advertisers in the US.

Sad to say, I believe Miss U’s days are numbered. The podcast generation hardly gives a hoot. I don’t think any major advertiser signed up for this year’s pageant. Only the likes of Las Vegas is supportive of Miss U. Even Cover Girl and other affordable drug store brands would rather sponsor Fashion Week than pageants.

I think it’s high time we document Miss U’s glory days so that beau con aficionados of yesteryears would have something to reminisce and talk about over coffee during their retirement years.

JANINE Tugonon, Miss Philippines 2012, goes for the win in preliminary judging in Las Vegas.

JANINE Tugonon, Miss Philippines 2012, goes for the win in preliminary judging in Las Vegas. (Miss Philippines’ road to Miss Universe crown)

JANINE'S moment of glamor

JANINE’S moment of glamor

DONNING a Muslim-inspired costume for a change

DONNING a Muslim-inspired costume for a change

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