The Story of How the First-Ever Miss Universe Became an Adopted Filipino

IMAGE FACEBOOK/MISS UNIVERSE, IMDB

As a pageant-obsessed nation, unsurprisingly, there a lot more Filipino connections to the Miss Universe contest than we realize. And some stories are just more interesting than others, like that of the love affair between inaugural Miss Universe Armi Kuusela and Filipino businessman Virgilio Hilario.

When Kuusela took a Pan Am flight from Helsinki, Finland to Long Beach, California back in 1952, the 17 year old was on her way to make history. This was the first year of the Miss Universe pageant, where she would become its first-ever winner. But as it turned out, she didn't finish her reign because of a brewing romance with a certain Filipino gentleman. The Finnish girl would soon find herself relinquishing her title and the Romanov Imperial Nuptial Crown (she was the only winner to be crowned with the Russian monarchial relic) because of him.

Kuusela would embark on a world tour on February 22, 1953. She arrived in the Philippines upon the invitation of the Philippine International Fair Committee to attend the Philippines Exposition. Here, she was asked to crown then-Miss Philippines Cristina Pacheco in Manila. The trip, however, would have some pretty big consequences down the line when she met a local hotelier at a dance in Baguio City. 

The 25-year-old Hilario, who studied at Columbia University and worked with the Philippine National Bank in New York, seemed to be quite the dancing partner, according to Kuusela's friends. This was what primarily drew her to him, they said. He was apparently great in samba, rumba, and various other ballroom dances, and, apparently, that was a big thing in dating back then.

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Soon enough, Hilario started pursuing Kuusela, following her all the way to Tokyo, Japan, arriving on separate planes sometime in April of that same year. After courting her some more, the two agreed to get married (it must have been a hell of a spark). Hilario was said to have given her a three-carat diamond engagement ring.

They had originally scheduled the ceremony on Kuusela's 19th birthday, which would be on August 20. But a scuffle with a drunken American journalist at a nightclub would lead to the couple getting hitched much sooner.  The newsman was said to be out of line with his questions and Hilario had to intervene. They wedded on May 4, 1953 instead, in Tokyo. The groom was said to have even been sporting a black eye during the ceremony, too, according to an account by Celso Caparas in a column written by Ricky Lo.

The honeymoon took the couple them to Hawai‘i and parts of both the United States and Europe. The couple then eventually settled in Manila.

The poster for Now and Forever, which featured their love story

Photo by imdb.
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The marriage effectively meant that Kuusela would give up her Miss Universe title to then-runner-up Elza Edsman of Hawai‘i. But Hilario and Kuusela's union received a warm reception and their love affair would be come the subject of the film Now and Forever that same year. The couple played themselves in their true-to-life story. 

The film premiered at the Center and Palace theaters on December 30, 1953. The couple would work on another film together later on. In 1955, that project would be the Finnish documentary Pohjolan Tähtitaivaan Alla (Under The Northern Stars).

Kuusela and Hilario built a life for themselves back home. They owned Makati-based real estate development company Gilarmi Corporation at the time. One of the most notable properties in their portfolio was the namesake Gilarmi Hotel in Makati, which was the first residential hotel in the country. The couple also had five children: Arne, Anna-Lisa, José (Jussi), Eva-Maria and Miguel (Mikko). Of all their daughters, it was Anna-Lisa who would wind up becoming a beauty queen, too. She represented the Philippines during the Queen of the Pacific 1974 (but later dropped out due to conflicts). The two had six grandchildren, as well.

Hilario passed away due to a heart attack in 1975. His widow continued to oversee the Gilarmi Corporation as its chief executive officer in his absence. Until 1979, Kuusela did just that, along with her role as Honorary Counsel of Finland in Manila.

The couple with their children

Photo by FACEBOOK/Filipino American Council of Greater Chicago.
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Kuusela would eventually marry American diplomat Albert N. Williams from the United States Department of State. The two went on to live in Spain and then Turkey not too long after. They settled in San Diego in 1989, and in 1996, Kuusela became a naturalized United States citizen.

Since then, Kuusela has been busy with her work as a philanthropist. She has receivied numerous accolades throughout her life, like the Deming Award from the Burnham Cancer Research Institute, the Paul Harris Award for Philanthropy from the International Rotary Foundation, and the Fishman Foundation Award, among others. In San Diego, the city even declared August 10, 2011 as Armi Kuusela-Williams Day. The President of Finland also gave her the Order of the White Rose of Finland, with the rank of knight, in 2012.

The 88-year-old Kuusela lives in San Diego, California to this day. And yes, in case we were wondering, she still knows how to speak Tagalog, too.

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Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is the assistant section editor of Esquire Philippines.
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