There were several firsts at the recently concluded Miss Universe pageant held in New Orleans. The winner, R’Bonney Gabriel, is the first Filipino-American Miss USA to win the prestigious …
There were several firsts at the recently concluded Miss Universe pageant held in New Orleans. The winner, R’Bonney Gabriel, is the first Filipino-American Miss USA to win the prestigious title. The Texas-born stunner took home the coveted crown for the first time in 10 years with her advocacy in sustainable fashion as a “force for good.” The Miss Universe organization also has its first female owner in Anne Jakkaphong Jakrajutatip, a Thai billionaire and out trans woman (who, at 43, looked like a contestant herself), who is chief executive of JKN Global Media. Finally, as an avid fan of the show, it was my first time to attend the 71st iteration of this global event.
While it might be easy for some to deride beauty pageants as superfluous or outdated in today’s world, I beg to differ. I believe there is still much to gain in its message of self-confidence in effecting positive change, which resonates not just for women but for all supporters around the world. A win at Miss Universe could bequeath one with great success and a ticket to a better life.
I have been a huge fan of Miss Universe since it was held in the Philippines in 1994. Then a 13-year-old Filipino-Indian boy, I stood outside a seafood restaurant near my home where the contestants were dining and waited to catch a glimpse of the delegates. As a young gay lad, I thought the ladies to be the most glamorous beings to walk the earth. These statuesque and serene goddesses were radiant, with the names of their countries emblazoned on their white satin sashes. Miss India, Sushmita Sen, was the surprise winner that year, and her win was also a win for me. I recall walking to school the next day with my head held high as if I, too, were cradling a crown. For the first time, I was proud of my Indian heritage and the color of my skin. The bullies were silenced, and I was forever grateful for the effect Miss Universe had on me.
Miss Universe taught me the importance of being poised, graceful, and eloquent at all times. I projected these traits during job interviews as an adult. When I moved to New York in 2008, Miss Venezuela, Dayana Mendoza, sashayed her way to the crown with her brilliant catwalk presentation. It was with the same attitude of a winner that I braved the city streets and met my husband in a crowded bar, dazzling him with my own Miss Universe smile and charm.
Miss India Harnaaz Sandhu won the crown most recently in 2021. When the opportunity came to watch the pageant live at the invitation of my friend and Miss Universe aficionado, Ian Parado (who has been to eight contests in the last 15 years), we joined hundreds who descended upon the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in downtown New Orleans—a fitting multicultural venue—to witness Miss India pass the crown to Miss USA.
To be Miss Universe is no easy feat. Contestants have to win in their respective countries first, only to compete once more on a global stage. The competition began in earnest a few days before the finals during the preliminary competition, where the ladies introduced themselves in their casual and swimwear before donning elegant evening gowns, followed by over-the-top national costumes—my favorite segment.
Miss USA paid tribute to NASA’s moon landing by carrying a 30-pound replica of the moon on her back while dressed in a shiny space leotard and matching thigh-high boots. Miss Ukraine acknowledged the ongoing war in her country with a sword and retractable wings in the style of Michael the Archangel. Miss Netherlands came out in a delightful stroopwafel-inspired tutu, while Miss England paid homage to the late Queen Elizabeth II.
I brought several flags of the countries I’ve lived in, including Malaysia and Australia. Miss Malaysia, Cheam Wei Yang, was obviously pleased to see me waving her flag—the only one in the whole auditorium. I wasn’t alone in carrying multiple flags. Many waved both the Philippine and American flags—a nod to Miss USA’s biracial heritage.
At the coronation night, the atmosphere turned Mardi-gras like, with the host city of New Orleans pulling out all the stops with native musical guests. These included the artists Big Freedia, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and Yolanda Adams, who sang “I’m Every Woman.” Former Miss Universe and fan-favorite Catriona Gray was present as a commentator and added star power to the event.
Miss Universe is not without its share of controversies. The deafening roar from the fans was silenced whenever Anna Linnikova, Miss Russia, came on stage—due to her country’s ongoing hostilities in Ukraine. Thus, the Spirit of Carnival Award was given to Victoria Apanasenko, of Ukraine. The organization paid tribute to Cheslie Kryst, Miss USA 2019, who sadly died by suicide in 2022. Her mother, Alice Simpkin, spoke about the effects of high-functioning depression and to promote a charity in her daughter’s honor.
However, the night belonged to Miss USA, who stood out in a custom gown she helped create, with blue sequins to match the blue sapphires and diamonds encrusted in a new Miss Universe crown, valued at $5 million. At the press conference after her win, R’Bonney looked every bit the gracious winner and when prodded, spoke in perfect Tagalog to thank her many Filipino fans. As a fashion designer and CEO of her own label, R’Bonney promised to visit the country during her reign to give sewing classes and promote sustainability.
All the cheering and hollering left me exhausted and in much need of rejuvenation. Thankfully, the newly opened Four Seasons Hotel and Spa provided respite to this weary fan. In my room’s oversized tub, I luxuriated in a warm bath fit for a queen. While the Miss Universe pageant is obviously for women, it has not stopped legions of LGBTQ fans—many of whom came decked with their own sashes and crowns—from being inspired and adopting its values of charity, grace and beauty. Ian echoed this sentiment when I queried why he’s been to so many events. “It’s about the excitement, the camaraderie, and the human connection that TV viewing can’t offer,” he explained.
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