Bea Santina and Jai De Los Santos

It takes more than courage, beauty, and confidence to pass through the hunger games tunnels of Philippine pageantry before the gleaming gowns and crystal crowns.

With four crowns to boast, the country continues its pursuit of this global pedestal much like an annual Presidential election with similar grit and hunger. Presented like Panem, women from all the provinces of regions north to south attempt for the Philippine sash in inches of heels. Ultimately, the Universe’s crown tilts to those beyond just beauty. Like a newborn, it takes a whole village to raise a queen and an entire nation to assure the claim to its throne.

Who volunteers as tribute?

The craze for the Miss Universe (MU) competition leaves the Philippine streets almost desolate as every citizen remains in their homes, holding their breath, awaiting the Philippines to be called. For twelve years since 2010, from Bicol’s Venus Raj to Cebu’s Beatrice Gomez, the country has been brought within the semifinal placements without fail. Within the decade, the crown has been won by Pia Wurtzbach (2015) and Catriona Gray (2018). It was not simply a handful of efforts of their teams but an accumulation of perseverance of all the Filipina queens before them.

Much could be said about last year’s MU results, but it could not be murmured that the opportunities of bringing the country into the global game were mere flukes. They were cultivated: the paths to the competition were opened through the efforts of tributes who chose to be there. District 12? Not quite–an entire country that is.

From famous MU coaches like Carlos Avila Buendia Jr. and Anjo Santos, catwalks were named by queens as an extension of their identities. Venus conquered with the pilapil walk, Shamcey waved with tsunami walk, until Catriona’s slow twirl named the lava walk, the queens were always a step earlier for the crown.

“To represent my country, the Philippines, is my greatest honor,” Celeste Cortesi, MU Philippines 2022 declared after her stint in January 2023.

Standing at 5-feet-8-inches, she is leading an advocacy to emphasize children with cleft palates and helping Filipino children. Unfortunately, she lost the competition after failing to secure a seat in the semifinals. Despite ending the 12-year streak, Celeste had the “burning passion” in pageantry. She wasn’t able to continue further then, but she was a Katniss Everdeen who braved to represent her District through it all.

And since then, the online world has begun questioning, where do we stand now as a pageant stronghold?

How do we reconquer the stage?

The Philippines has been stereotyped for constantly sending candidates of half-Western descent. Many Filipinas who competed in global pageants, not only in the MU, are conformers to Eurocentric standards. This has been an underlying talk of the critics for years and it was only a matter of time before it was highlighted; right after a Filipina-Italian with a high nose, fair skin, and non-Spanish surname lost the competition.

But our MU streak began with Venus, an Indian-American, mixed brown girl raised in a 3rd class Camarines Sur town, why does this matter?

Venus Raj majored the Miss Universe with a striking yellow gown and an equally captivating combination of wit and confidence. It is about time to recognize her pioneering placement in the beauty tilt as a woman of dark-brown skin which was unconventional in the country by then.

By 2010, it was the shift of pop culture to unconventional women in various industries: Kesha reveled in being a party animal, and Lady Gaga skyrocketed the alien fashion. Even worse, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was the most prominent woman in the country because she ended her term with the resurfacing of the Hello, Garci Scandal— changing the PH politics back to the Liberal arm. These women, similarly, to Venus—from politics to pageantry— intentionally and unintentionally inspired change towards the uncertain unconventional choice.

So what?

After Venus, not much has been sent in the MU to be anything but of Eurocentric beauty standards. Literally, almost every Filipina in the past 12 years has been half-Filipino including Venus. It can be said that standards change but the Miss Universe is not ought to follow the change but rather, to begin one. This said the crown is not only swayed towards superficial surface beauty but to the beauty brought by other non-conforming and more human qualities: wit, empathy, compassion, confidence, grace, and even deviance from conservative norms is only a few.

To the [unconventional] Revolution

Apart from beauty standards, there are a handful of other qualities that also strengthen the rally for public’s support to its annual representative.

Miss Universe-Philippines 2021 Beatrice Luigi Gomez peaked at Top 5 but she was not spotlighted enough by the Philippine pageant community and the general public unlike the others. Them being Venus Raj who placed 4th Runner Up which was cardinally 5th as well. Gomez was just behind Shamcey Supsup (2011) and Ariella Arida (2013) who both placed 3rd Runner Ups, 4th in overall rankings. The 2010 to 2014 Miss Universe competitions were pivotal to 2015’s Pia Wurtzbach as it was an investment of nationalism—Filipino Pride as we call it— even in pageantry.

Followed by Maxine Medina in 2016 placing in Top 6 and Rachel Peters in the Top 10, Catriona Gray ultimately won in 2018. Through the same road, the Mockingjay title was continued by Gazini Ganados in 2019 reaching the Top 20 and Rabiya Mateo the following year through the Top 21.

Simply put, Miss Universe 2022 could have ended better if there was enough public support for Cortesi by then. Where did it end? Gomez’s Top 5 peak was the best paving moment for 2022 to achieve the crown but Luigi was gay. Her advocacy was children’s rights and welfare while also being openly bisexual with a girlfriend throughout the competition.

Gomez faced online backlash marked with homophobia as the first openly queer Miss Universe-Philippines contestant. Connected to this, she also received misogynistic remarks of being conventionally beautiful and being gay: ‘sayang’ was what she headlined online. Like a conventionally handsome binata who’s gay, Gomez has also been dubbed a waste because she couldn’t be seen to marry a man and bear a child who’ll inherit her beauty. But Beatrice was not only queer; she is an athlete, a community worker, and a Navy reserve with a degree in Mass Communication and graduated under an athletic scholarship. She was as beautiful and smart as the others.

The deviation from the norm is only valid when it is mere beauty standards until it uproots the fundamental beliefs that go beyond kagandahan. In this case, the failing support transcended through the following year until the doubt about the selecting committees arrived. On the universal level, many Filipinos flocked to the MU Organization after its major holdings were bought by the JKN Global Group led by Anne Jakrajutatip, a transwoman.

Much like Katniss Everdeen, Coriolanus Snow wasn’t her only nemesis. The Philippine pageant community has its own Alma Coin in a non-personified entity of unreasonable hate dressed in different gowns of queerphobia and misogyny.

Fire is catching

In all its heat, the competition does not simply end because there was lack of support nor a Filipino woman’s flame could perish from mild winds. It is only a matter of time before the new Mockingjay finds her way in the front row of revolution against unequal beauty standards.

Miss Universe Philippines 2021 Top 16 Finalist Rousanne Marie Bernos more commonly known on TikTok as Ayn Bernos has been praised online for ‘redefining’ the conventional eurocentric beauty norms. She was noted to have brought the MU-PH challenge up-close and personal to those who matter. As an online persona, netizens who constantly watch her since TikTok know she stands for the pride in being a modern morena.

Ayn joined immediately in 2021 after the height standard was scrapped.

Standing at 5-foot-3-inches, Ayn competed with 99 other Filipinas who also had their own advocacies to fight for. Despite the odds against other competitors of prominence like Asia’s Next Top Model Season 5 Winner Maureen Wroblewitz and Miss Supranational 2018 First Runner-Up Katrina Dimaranan, Ayn continued. Multiple online personalities like Inka Magnaye emphasized Bernos’ vision for brown-beauties. As a University of Sto. Tomas alumna of English Language studies, her alma mater also showed her online support on Twitter back in 2021. She was celebrated for being a morena, a 5 '3'’ with a button nose and a charming smile.

Inclusivity cannot only come from the roots of beauty, it is also sought among the community. This year’s recent Miss Universe came about also because of its own people. One like Celeste Cortesi could not represent the Philippines if Filipinos do not know who they are. We boast four Miss Universe crowns, hospitality, and pride but when it matters, we forget. Anyone can be a beauty queen as Ayn proposed as long as we are also there to hold the sash bearing our country’s name with them.

Now, with budding pioneers like Ayn Bernos, more Filipinas are following the footsteps of not conforming to the regular and embodying their own definitions of being a Filipina with a heart. In the end, it is not only the crown to be vied for but the ability to inspire women and the entire universe to see the beauty beyond standards.