Every year, Filipinos huddle around their television sets to watch the Miss Universe coronation night. Holding hands and sweating in anticipation, fans shriek in pure joy when the country’s representative struts down the runway, with “Philippines” written in bold font on the sash across her chest.
However, this love and appreciation do not come for free. The same way pageant participants long for the support of their kababayans, Filipinos also come armed with hopes and expectations for their queen.
As the country brought home several crowns from different international beauty pageants in recent years, expectations for contestants are at an all-time high. She must be perfect from her walk to her smile to even her posture. Balancing all these qualities can be a daunting task, but it’s the paramount price for a queen to pay to wear the bejeweled, coveted crown atop her head.
All eyes on you
As glamorous as the pageant life may appear, for Vennette Lailani Seprado, better known as Tita Lavinia from Titas of Pageantry, it is most certainly “not for the faint of heart.” The higher your heels, the more it hurts to fall. A queen will undeniably be met with hurtful comments from fans if she does not meet their expectations. “They’re going to look for reasons to pull you up, and they’re going to look for reasons to pull you down,” she explains.
The pressure that fans put onto their candidates is far from light. “For me, being a beauty queen means that you are a role model to this generation,” says Miss Earth 2017 Karen Ibasco. “People see you physically, so you have to be physically fit,” she argues, “and at the same time, you have to help yourself mentally.”
Karen admits that Filipinos’ interest in the pageant scene can also become quite aggressive. Most recently, the country’s bet for Miss Universe’s 2020 iteration, Rabiya Mateo, teared up in her Instagram live. She apologized for having disappointed Filipinos with her performance in the National Costume competition after netizens expressed their concerns online.
“The training in the Philippines is just so cutthroat,” says Tita Lavinia. True enough, before Karen could bring home the Miss Earth crown, she had to spend late nights walking in high heels during her time in Kagandahang Flores, one of the country’s biggest pageant camps.
Karen’s story, however, is not that of a typical Toddlers & Tiaras episode. “Honestly, I was not really much of a person who joined a lot of beauty pageants…[when] I considered joining a national pageant, I was already working,” she shares. She lacked the experience and training others already had so she couldn’t help but feel like the underdog. “I didn’t know how to pose, I didn’t know how to walk, I [didn’t] know how to talk like a beauty queen. So I literally started from the bottom,” she recounts.
Meanwhile, Colleen Marion Raz started her journey when she was proclaimed the first runner-up in her school’s Miss Intramurals pageant. “It was [a really] long process for beauty queens to learn every single detail,” as expectations were set in properly walking in six-inch heels or quickly conjuring up answers for the Q&A portion. On top of that, she needed to travel about 14 kilometers away from her home to attend sponsorship calls and train for any upcoming pageants.
But beyond the exhaustion, Colleen gladly reminisces about the bond she and her fellow contestants had that pushed her to blossom into a well-rounded queen. “It just feels so good when you learn from your co-candidates about their experiences [while] they also learn from you,” she says, before quickly joking, “after our long walk [in] high heels.”
Another Cinderella story
But look past the fabulous walks and glorious crowning moments, and much could still be said about how beauty pageants must continue to expound conversation on how we view beauty. There’s still a tendency, after all, to qualify contestants who stick to conventions of attractiveness. Underlying issues regarding skin tone, sexuality, and even having surgery are some of the points raised when considering the exclusive nature of pageants.
For one, rising admiration for kayumanggi beauties like Venus Raj and Gazini Ganados proves that Filipinos are slowly veering from the colonial notions that mestizas or fair-skinned individuals as the standard of beauty and appreciating how Filipinas of diverse skin tones can represent the Philippines on the beauty pageant stage.
Plastic surgery is another hotly-debated issue, as contestants are scrutinized and questioned on whether or not they have gone under the knife. But Karen emphasizes that incorporating changes that empower you is a matter of choice. “It’s your body. It’s not your trainers who’re going to be on stage,” she explains.
Similarly, Tita Lavinia wishes to normalize plastic surgery among pageant contestants. “Kung babatuhin sila, mas malakas ang loob [nilang] sabihin na ‘Eh, ano ngayon? Kinaganda ko naman.’”
(If people throw criticism at them, they’ll have the courage to say, ‘So what? It made me beautiful anyway.’)
Filipinas continue to become worthy contenders of the crown, moving the country with pride and inspiration. “Filipinos are so invested with beauty pageants because we are eager to be known in the whole world,” Colleen affirms, commenting how representatives from the Philippines rank among the highest with other international seasoned queens. However, it amplifies the many fixed expectations of women that need to be challenged.
More breakthroughs are also happening in the pageant scene as more women step up to redefine what it means to be a queen. Angela Ponce’s groundbreaking turn as the first trans woman to compete in a Miss Universe competition in 2018 served as a warm welcome for the LGBTQ+. Many are also advocating to see more plus-sized women take the stage soon. After all, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes and for pageants to stay as notoriously exclusive spaces would be a disservice to the realities of womanhood.
Pageantry may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the elegance and eloquence it celebrates will continue to be a spectacle for starry-eyed fans. “If pageantry is not for you because it becomes toxic, step back. But for the people who are interested in pageantry, this is a fiesta,” reminds Tita Lavinia. At the end of the day, beauty and intelligence come in many ways—pageantry is just one of its manifestations.