Pageant-mad Philippines ecstatic over Catriona Gray's Miss Universe win

Since 2010, contestants from the Philippines have never been out of the Miss Universe top ten. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (WASHINGTON POST) - In a red dress inspired by the volcano near her home, Ms Catriona Gray of the Philippines talked about working with children in the slums of Manila and advocated for the legalisation of medical marijuana - and became the fourth Filipina woman to clinch the crown of Miss Universe on Monday (Dec 17).

For a pageant-mad country roiled by poverty, a devastating war on drugs and pervasive violence, it was a triumphant moment and viewing parties all over the world - where millions of Filipinos work abroad - erupted into glorious celebrations.

The 24-year-old Philippine-Australian model's gown at the Bangkok contest was inspired by the Mount Mayon volcano, but there was more to the dress than a homage to topography - her mother had dreamed of it.

"When I was 13 years-old, my mother told me, 'I had a dream that you were in Miss Universe, and you won in a red dress'," Ms Gray shared with the press after her coronation.

The narrative that her win was almost preordained is one that resonates with many in the Philippines, a country that is one of the most pageant-obsessed in the world. Since 2010, contestants from the country have never been out of the Miss Universe top ten.

A legacy of American influence, pageants are organised everywhere in the archipelago - from poor communities to upscale subdivisions, in schools, town fiestas, and even overseas. In cities like Hong Kong, where thousands of Filipinas are domestic workers, pageants are organised on their only day off on Sunday.

Prof J. Pilapil Jacobo, an assistant professor of literature and gender studies at Ateneo de Manila University and longtime pageant enthusiast, credits this obsession with competitive beauty to the country's history under colonial rule - first under Spain, then under the United States.

"Imperialism (deprived) us of our own indigenous standards of loveliness, a beautiful body, good character, art and aesthetic," she explained. "I do feel beauty pageants help us retrieve such notions . . . we get to reclaim certain local standards of beauty."

She added that for a country like the Philippines, with about a fifth of the population below the poverty line, pageants allowed for "victories that cannot be claimed in the everyday, like (in the) political economy".

"These projections of beauty, intellectual beauty, cultural awareness, speed up national pride," she said.

Ms Gray, who bested 93 contestants will come home to a warm welcome. Words of congratulations have begun pouring in, including from Malacanang Palace.

"Ms Gray's triumph sets the bar high in empowering more Filipino women to believe in themselves and to fight for their own place in the universe," presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a statement.

Even opposition leader, Vice President Leni Robredo, joined in. "With the eyes of the world on you, you chose to highlight your work with the poor, and to send a much needed message of hope to all," she wrote on Twitter, referencing Ms Gray's work with children in the slum community of Tondo in Manila.

Congratulations also came from Ms Pia Wurtzbach, the last Miss Philippines to win the contest in 2015. In an Instagram post, she wrote that Ms Gray was "on fire" and had made the Philippines proud.

But perhaps the largest and the loudest of pageant followers are those from the queer community. Miss Philippines candidates have also established themselves as their allies in a country that lacks laws protecting the gay community, typically championing causes like HIV awareness.

Prof Jacobo, herself a trans woman, said that she grew up watching Miss Universe.

"It was important for LGBTQ to see possibilities of beauty and participating with beauty on that stage," she said.

"Just think of a trans girl, anywhere in the world, not being confident about her beauty - then you are presented with these empowered women. Not every face is the same. Not every body is the same. You get to identify."

She expressed disappointment in how some queer fans from the Philippines were quick to put down Spain's Angela Ponce, this pageant's first trans woman contestant.

"I don't need to win Miss Universe," Ms Ponce said as she bowed out of the top 20. "I only need to be here."

"You cannot underestimate how that statement made me and many other trans people identify with (her)," said Prof Jacobo.

With deeply rooted cultural affinity for beauty queens, criticism for the pageant format is often frowned upon. But Ms Joms Salvador, secretary general of the grassroots-based Gabriela Alliance of Women, hopes pageants will not set back how women are perceived.

"While we congratulate Catriona Gray and all of the Philippines . . . we are also critical of the fact that it's already 2018 . . . and we still have long strides to take in terms of women's rights," she said.

Divorce, for example, is still not legal in the Catholic-majority country, nor are same sex unions.

Just this year, at least four Miss Earth contestants accused a Philippine organiser of sexual harassment after the pageant ended in November.

Ms Salvador noted that the structure of pageants could discourage contestants from coming forward, and feed into notions that women must look a certain way.

"It's not easy to be a beauty queen. You need to have nice makeup, a nice body," Ms Salvador continued.

"To achieve that, it's a whole industry of moneymaking and business. At the end of the day, someone wins . . . but the biggest winner is the business interest of those forever profiteering from the beauty industry."

But for fans like Prof Jacobo, modern women are trying to "revise their participation" in pageants. Ms Gray, for example, actively researched her national costume by interviewing weavers in the southern island of Mindanao.

"I'm looking at it from the perspective of human agency," said Prof Jacobo. "I do feel that of all our contestants, Catriona is the most intellectual - the most post-colonial."

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