MANILA: Janina San Miguel was 17 years old when she won one of the Philippines’ most sought-after beauty crowns and was set to represent her country in the Miss World contest.
But three months short of Miss World 2008, the Binibining Pilipinas contest winner shocked her fans when she returned her crown and turned her back on glamour and fame.
“If I have the chance to go back to the past, I wish I never joined the pageant,” said this former beauty queen.
Back then, she cited personal reasons for giving up her crown, including her grandfather’s death.
But in a recent interview with the programme Undercover Asia, she broke her silence on her experience with sexual propositions, social isolation and the strict controls enforced by contest organisers, all of which resulted in her surrendering her title. (Watch the episode here.)
“I got so many (offers). We were offered a 3 million peso (S$84,000) contract for a one-night stand,” she recalled. “Someone offered me 25 million pesos to be his girlfriend.
“This is how the dark side of pageantry works. There are so many people who want a beauty queen to be their girlfriend or their wife.”
The Philippines is a country obsessed with beauty pageants. In the past decade, it won nine international crowns, which triggered a surge in beauty contests and pageant hopefuls.
But as more women — and men — vie for attention in an increasingly crowded space, these pageants have also become fertile hunting grounds for sexual predators.
‘IN DIRE NEED OF HEROES’
Across the nation, local beauty contests have sprung up; every village, city and province now has its own beauty queen.
But unlike countries where beauty queens are only “winners of a television show”, in the Philippines, they are “treated like the president of a country”, said Jose Wendell Capili from the University of the Philippines-Diliman’s College of Arts and Letters.
The victorious ones in international contests get to meet the Philippine head of state, and are celebrated like heroes because their wins “make people realise that somebody who comes from a far-flung area in the Philippines can probably stand the chance of making it in the rest of the world”.
“That’s the closest we can get to royalty,” added the professor. “In this country, we’re in dire need of heroes.”
Chinese-Filipino model Mercedes Pair knows full well that winning a pageant can launch her as a celebrity in the Philippines, where endorsement deals can run into the millions.
She aspires to be a beauty queen partly because her mother is battling a chronic kidney disease in Hong Kong. The money from winning a crown and the endorsement deals could go towards paying off those medical bills.
So she left her modelling career and family in Hong Kong to take part in the Binibining Pilipinas contest in Manila — a contest that produced all four of the Filipina Miss Universe winners.
“I’m the only breadwinner at home … I was thinking, how do I make the most money in a short period of time?” she said. “If it wasn’t for my mum … I don’t think I’d be this motivated.”
Thousands sign up for this pageant, but only 40 girls are selected for the next stage, where five winners are chosen and each given endorsement contracts worth close to 1.5 million pesos.
They also receive the honour of representing the Philippines in five international contests respectively. The road to the crown, however, can be costly; some of the girls turn up with budgets of 500,000 to 700,000 pesos.
“(Your budget) depends on how much you have or who’s sponsoring you. But joining a pageant is definitely not free,” said Pair. “There’s a misconception … (that) we’re glammed up because we have a lot of sponsors (and) everything’s paid.”
Determined as she is, with no income, she is depleting all her savings just to stay in the game.
Some of these women also face a risk of unwanted advances on the part of predatory sponsors, who are often powerful people.
William, who has worked as a pageant reporter for 15 years, saw an incident in which the pageant organiser asked the contestants to sit with guests who had paid tickets to attend the event and who had been drinking.
Some of these girls begged the journalists for help, but the latter were “told not to interfere”.
“We wanted to help them,” said William, who declined to be identified. “(But) no one wants to come out to talk. No one files cases … They all live in fear.
“These sponsors are rich people … If (contestants) speak out against them, they’d take everything (from them) just to keep them silent.”
WATCH: The hidden side of Philippines' beauty pageants (46:08)
In 2018, the Miss Earth contest in Manila hit the world headlines when three contestants levelled accusations of sexual harassment and indecent proposals against one of the sponsors.
Jaime VandenBerg, who represented Canada, said she was harassed by a sponsor who called her almost every day or showed up to look for her.
“(He’d ask) ‘Where do you want to meet up? I could (go) to your hotel, or you could come to my hotel. I can show you how to win,’” she recalled.
“It was very clear that he was looking for sexual favours in exchange for advancement in the pageant … I felt like I couldn’t get away.”
She wanted to leave the Philippines, but the organisers were holding on to her passport. They returned it to her after she threatened to contact her embassy for help.
“That was my first opportunity to leave,” said VandenBerg, who wrote on Instagram after the pageant that she had left because she “didn’t feel safe under their care”.
When beauty queen San Miguel was training for the Miss World contest, she was unprepared for the enforced isolation and the organisers’ strict controls.
She was cooped up in a theatre and not allowed to have a phone, computer or any devices with her, nor any contact with the outside world, including her relatives, for three months.
The organisers did not even want to tell her about her grandfather. “They were planning not to tell me that he was dying because I was in the middle of training. They didn’t want me to get distracted,” she said.
It is not only the women who are harassed at beauty contests; this happens in the world of male pageants too.
While established female pageants in the Philippines are usually run by reputable organisations and even local governments, it is not the same for male pageants, many of which are held at nightclubs in red-light districts.
Winning these competitions comes at a price. One contestant who has amassed many titles during his eight years in pageants admitted that he scored most of these wins by having sex with the judges.
“For me, there’s no such thing as a ‘clean’ pageant ... Your body is for hire,” said the 25-year-old, who wanted to be known as “Gerald”. “Out of 10 pageants, only two or three are clean.”
He described it as being “booked” to win a pageant. “You just need to bear with that one moment so you can win,” he added.
You don’t want all your preparation and all your expenses to go down the drain when you lose. So you choose to sleep with them.
As with female pageants, competing in male pageants is an expensive affair; costs can rise to 100,000 pesos a month even in smaller contests.
Contestants like “Mike”, who declined to give his real name, cannot afford these costs, so it becomes essential to attract sponsors. But they all want something in return.
In exchange for photos and online companionship, Mike receives 10,000 pesos a day from his sponsors — 10 times what he would usually earn as a blue-collar worker.
“I usually send them half-body pictures or photos when I’m competing in pageants. But they prefer topless photos,” he said. “It’s like having a boyfriend. They want someone to talk to.”
Male contestants also need to have the perfect body, and some of them inject themselves with illegal performance-enhancing steroids, which cost thousands of dollars a month.
“When you’re trying to bulk up, it’s really expensive,” said Gerald. “You could buy a car or a house if you add up the expenses you incur in pageantry for a year.
“Going to the gym or dieting won’t get you the body you need for pageants.”
Rehabilitation medicine specialist Iris Carpio, from the South City Hospital and Medical Centre, has growing concerns over this. He warned of the dangers of steroids abuse, including liver and kidney failure.
AVOIDING THE SEEDINESS
Notwithstanding the complicated relationship between sponsors and contestants, pageants need not be seedy, said Mark Dela Cruz, who organises contests for both men and women.
He acknowledged that there are individuals “who have a hidden agenda” when they sponsor pageants or contestants, that is, to secure a date.
So he screens every sponsor to ensure his contestants’ safety, he said, and also instructs them that they need not go out with any sponsor.
“If we want pageants to remain clean, that responsibility lies with the organiser,” he said. “By reducing what the candidates have to spend ... the less inclined they’ll be to entertain sponsors.”
Ultimately, for all that contestants go through on their journey to pageant glory, many beauty queens “are only popular for two to three years and then they’re forgotten”, said Capili.
“There has to be a kind of reinvention because there’s no benefit of having too many pageants.”
To San Miguel, the crown “meant nothing”. She acknowledged the experience she gained from joining and winning a beauty contest, but “the world of show business was too messy”, she said, with “too many indecent proposals”.
“When I tried to find a conventional job, I tried putting my experience as a title-holder,” she added. “But my aunt told me, ‘Delete that from your resume. That’s not going to help. People might think differently of you.’”
Watch this episode of Undercover Asia here.