Beyond the Superficial: The Magic of Miss Universe
It may have all begun in 1969 when Gloria Diaz clinched the Philippines’s first Miss Universe title with her luminous answer to the question: If a man from the Moon landed in your hometown, what would you do to entertain him? The pageant was held a day before the first manned moon landing in history. Our quick-thinking Miss Philippines brought the house down with a literally down-to-earth answer. She told the audience that she would treat him as she would any guest. In one sweep, one Miss Universe brought one of humanity’s loftiest lunar dreams within the confines of everyone’s living room.
Those who know their Miss Universe history might even trace it as far back as 1952. Armi Kuusela from Finland won the first Miss Universe pageant, held in California. A year after winning the Miss Universe title, Armi Kuusela married Filipino businessman Virgilio Hilario and lived in Manila to raise a family of five children. From the start, the Philippines has had an undeniable connection to Miss Universe.
After Margie Moran’s Miss Universe 1973 win just four years after Gloria Diaz, there was a long main title drought for the Philippines. The Miss Universe fever was rekindled when the pageant came to the country in 1994 for the second time (the first was in 1974). Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of this year’s Miss Universe. Minorka Mercado (Venezuela), Christelle Roelandts (Belgium), Sushmita Sen (Miss Universe 1994), Michelle Van Eimeren (Australia), and Dayanara Torres (Miss Universe 1993) all became household names. In 1999, the Philippines came again within striking distance with first runner-up Miriam Quiambao who turned an on-stage mishap into a textbook example of graceful recovery. From 2010 to 2013, Venus Raj, Shamcey Supsup, Janine Tugonon, and Ariella Arida all placed consistently in the top five to the delight of Filipino fans. Pia Wurtzbach’s Miss Universe 2015 telenovela twist of a win ultimately brought back the country’s glory days.
For Filipinos, Miss Universe is not just a beauty pageant. Like the candidates who train most of their lives even at the Binibining Pilipinas level, Pinoy Miss U fans are steeped year-round in the pageant’s proceedings. The country’s passion and obsession with all things Miss Universe reaches its perihelion on the airing day of the pageant itself. Since the announcement of the Philippines as the host country and the arrival of the candidates a few weeks before the pageant, it gave old and new fans—who now had unprecedented access because of social media tools at their disposal—the opportunity to pore over every personal minutiae of each contestant.
On January 30, 2017, for three hours, time seemed to stop and every earthly concern was forgotten as millions tuned in.
On the contest day itself, it is when things get a Marquezian magical realist turn. Never mind if the country is deeply mired in seemingly inescapable social, economic, political, and environmental misfortune. On January 30, 2017 for three hours, time seemed to stop and every earthly concern was forgotten as millions tuned in. Cutting across a wide demographic, Miss U fans from all social classes, persuasions, and backgrounds: the hoi polloi, gay, straight, celebrities, politicians, and intellectuals all watched in awe as the spectacle unfolded when a global parade of 86 women strutted their fleshy wares on stage.
Almost a third of the 64 Miss Universe title holders since 1952 come from Latin America with several runners-up coming from beauty pageant super powers such as Venezuela, Brazil, and Colombia. Magical realism is said to have originated in Latin America. It only takes a little nudge of the imagination to suggest that the Miss Universe pageant has magical realist undertones that go beyond the association with winning candidates. Perhaps we Filipinos get it: Miss Universe is not just a mere beauty pageant: it is an intersection of the epic and microscopic, the magical and the mundane, the earthly and the spiritual, the ordinary and the sublime, the Philippines and the universe.