MANILA: When Pia Wurtzbach brought back the Miss Universe crown in 2015 she received a hero’s welcome. Ayala Avenue, the main road of Manila’s central business district was closed off midday, during a weekday and people gathered in their thousands carrying signs, waving flags and tearing up as they greeted the newly crowned beauty queen.
It was a day of national pride for Filipinos. For the first time in 42 years, a Filipina brought home the most coveted crown in the beauty pageant industry. And in a country where pageants are followed and cheered on as much as the Superbowl, the turnout was not surprising.
WHY DO FILIPINOS LOVE BEAUTY PAGEANTS?
Makoy Manlapaz fell in love with beauty pageants at the age of 11. He said it was the outfits that first drew him in. As he grew older, he began to love the process of a beauty pageant; the months of intensive training which turns young girls into graceful, charming women.
“I’m really fascinated with history culture with language so it translates,” he said. “I can’t afford to go to other countries to experience the culture, language and history but through beauty pageants like Miss Universe, even if you are sitting on your sofa watching TV, you are already travelling by listening to them tell their story about their countries and their experiences."
As an avid fan, he has spent years collecting memorabilia on the different beauty pageants in the Philippines and worldwide. He has spent hours putting together albums with clippings of previous beauty pageant winners and said this is only a fraction of his collection.
In 2013, he was able to turn his passion into a job. He was invited to do a training session for a beauty queen on communication skills because he worked as a communications trainer for a call-centre company. His candidate went on to win Miss Philippines.
Now he provides beauty pageant training programmes for beauty queen hopefuls from the Philippines and across Asia and Eastern Europe.
Makoy is not alone. Beauty pageants are known to have a huge following in the Philippines.
“Overall, Filipinos are crazy when it comes to pageants,” he said. “We love beauty queens here. Actually we’re proud to say the most trusted and the most visited website for beauty pageants in the world – Missosology - was founded by Filipinos.
BEAUTY PAGEANT HISTORY
Beauty pageants are very much embedded in Philippines society. They fill the calendar all year round from small time local competitions to more colourful carnival competitions. There are pageants for straight and gay men and women, for transgenders, for housewives and grandmothers.
The national love for these pageants can be traced back to the American colonial days.
“The Americans introduced the popularity of beauty pageants during the early American colonial period,” said Professor Wendell Capili. “In 1908 we had the Philippine carnivals which was supposed to promote products from different regions in the Philippines.”
“To help promote the regions they got women from different provinces to go Manila and represent their respective regions and provinces and competed for the first ever carnival queen which had an occidental queen, an American who came from the American colonial community and they had the oriental queen who came from the local community,”
POLITICS AND MISS UNIVERSE
When Margie Moran brought home the Miss Universe crown to the Philippines in 1973, it was at a time when the Philippines was starting to lose international favour due to an ongoing dictatorship and accusations of systematic human rights abuses.
Moran’s win was seen as a chance to put the country on the international map again and this time for a good reason.
The first lady, Imelda Marcos, herself a former beauty queen, wasted no expense in preparing the country for Moran’s homecoming and to host the international contest.
She immediately ordered a 10,000-seat amphitheatre to be built in less than three months, using millions of dollars when much of the nation's population needed aid. Mrs Marcos also had some of the shabbier homes on the parade route bulldozed, hidden by fences or otherwise concealed so the contestants from other countries would only see the best side of Manila.
And for a moment it worked. It was a dazzling show of beauty and colour said former Miss Universe winner Margie Moran. “It distracted them during those times even today it’s a distraction from the everyday negative news and it is part of entertainment,” she said.
Since then it has grown tremendously in popularity. To date, the Philippines has snagged one Miss World title, six Miss International crowns, three Miss Earth titles and three Miss Universe wins.
And, according to Makoy, Philippine contestants consistently rank in the top 5 or 10 in international competitions.
BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS TO GET TO THE CROWN
While thousands of hopefuls clamber for the chance to wear the crown, it is not an undertaking for the light hearted and the path to becoming a beauty queen is not easy. These girls go through intensive training schedules that cover everything from learning how to do the catwalk, style and answer the question and answer.
These training sessions take place in “beauty queen boot camps” where for nearly 10 hours a day women train their bodies and minds to meet the increasingly high standards needed to enter a pageant.
Since training takes around six months, many start young. The oldest you can be to enter a pageant is 26.
Because of the booming industry the Philippines has developed, beauty queens from different countries fly into Philippines just to get trained. Eighteen-year-old Shwe Eain Si is competing for Miss Grand Myanmar and will be going to Vietnam in October to compete. She is enjoying the packed schedule she that has been set up for her in Manila.
“Obviously as pageant lovers we tend to follow the Philippine all the time and I love it," she said. “I love the way they are trained and the way they make their weakness into strong points and the way they cover their weaknesses with their strengths.”
WINNING A PAGEANT
For many participants and fans, beauty pageants are more than just entertainment and being a pretty face. A beauty queen's victory can symbolise another woman's hopes and dreams.
According to Professor Capili who wrote a book about beauty queens titled Mabuhay to Beauty, many women compete not only because of the fame that awaits them if they win, but the opportunities that will come to them. Many have gone on to become successful businesswomen, politicians and movie stars.
“We do have a number of pageant winners who came from lower middle class families and very poor families and as a result of the pageant were able to provide for their families and were able to be in a position where they can influence a larger society as a whole,” he said.
According to former Miss Universe Moran, she only signed up to the competition for fun but when she ended up winning the crown, it changed her life drastically.
“Winning the pageant just became a stepping stone of what I wanted to do,” she said. “It really opened doors for me. I went into advertising and marketing and that experience of exposing myself to people and making myself more comfortable with people brought me to the career path I had.”
Afterwards winning the crown, Moran went on to finish her studies at Universities in the US and UK, became an advocate for peace in Mindanao, launched several businesses, became a host, produced a multi award winning movie and is now CEO of Ballet Philippines.
MISS UNIVERSE A BOOM FOR TOURISM
As well as being an opportunity of a lifetime for the contestants, it is also a golden chance for the hosting country - this time the Philippines - to show its best face. Eighty-six bikini-clad beauty queens travelling around the islands and gushing about how beautiful it is definitely one way to promote a country.
Their two week visit sees them gallivanting across the islands, engaging in local activities like weaving, posing on beautiful beaches and riding traditional kalesas or horse drawn carts.
These visits are then broadcast across the world almost acting as a free promotion video and raising awareness of the country. Each of the 86 beauty queens bring with them roughly 100,000 followers on social media and provide them with a steady stream of photos and video from the place.
The last time the Philippines hosted the pageant, tourist arrivals jumped 15.7 per cent in 1994, which slowed to 11.8 percent in the following year.
“I remember that the Miss Universe happened in 1994 and in 1995, it was the first time we hit two million tourist arrivals,” said Mina Gabor, a former tourism tzar who oversaw the hosting of Miss Universe in 1994.
“Since the establishment of the Department of Tourism, our tourist numbers were always in the 900,000 to 1.2 million range – so when I became the secretary I said one of my goals was to get out of the 1-million bracket.”
She added: “In 1995 we hit the 2-million mark and I would like the think the Miss Universe had something to do with that as well.”
The six-decade-old Miss Universe claims its global telecast is viewed by one billion people and its reach is not lost on international businessmen. Funding this multi-million dollar hosting is a collection of big ticket investors hoping to ride in on one of the world most recognised brands.
The biggest private sponsor is former Ilocos Sur Governor Luis "Chavit" Singson, who is spending US$14-million dollars to bankroll the project.
As well a brand awareness and promoting the country as a tourist destination, the hosting of Miss Universe could also offset the country's negative image abroad, brought about by Duterte's controversial drug war.
“We cannot change the negative views and news but positive news will help and people can see the Philippines from another angle – its beautiful sights and its beautiful people,” said Margie Moran.
While the relevance of the Miss Universe brand has been floundering in many Western countries, it is only growing in popularity in countries like the Philippines. And for every pageant winner, there are scores of others who work every bit as hard but fail to make the grade.
But they all know it is par for the course, and that one day, it could be their turn to have the lion's share of the glitter and glory.