Gloria Diaz won the Miss Universe pageant on July 19, 1969 on the same day United States astronaut Neil Armstrong, landed on the moon. This prompted then-President Richard Nixon to declare, “The United States conquered the moon but the Philippines has conquered the Universe."
Now 72, the first Filipina Miss Universe still keeps up with pageantry and says this year’s Miss Universe Philippines candidate Michelle Dee has a solid chance of landing in the top 5. “She carries herself well, and she is pretty. She is also very smart. She has the training, and she has the experience because of her mother. She knows what she wants. She is purposeful and that really makes a difference.”
She adds that she first noticed Michelle five or six years ago, at a fashion show. “I remember congratulating Mimi (Melanie Marquez, Michelle’s mother) when I first saw her. Michelle was statuesque even at that time, and now with her training, she is more polished. She almost looks like Melanie except that she is chinita.”
Having a beauty queen for a mom also helps, Gloria says, especially if the mother is as beautiful and memorable as Melanie Marquez. “When Melanie walked onstage, it was like she was floating. Wala pa ang mga lava walk noon. For me, she really was one of the most beautiful pageant candidates.”
There is a negative side to it too, she points out. “I suppose if my daughter would come out as Miss Something, the first thing they would talk about is that she is the daughter of a former Miss U. Some would say ‘just because ganito dapat ba manalo?’ while others would say ‘dapat manalo iyan’. You really cannot please everyone.”
Bashing is unfair, she says, as the fans don’t know what is going on behind the scenes. Pageantry is also very hard work, as candidates are in swimwear, being asked difficult questions, and in very high heels on a slippery stage. “I think naka-abang din ang mga tao kung sino ang madudulas.”
A transformed pageant industry
Things were different when she had her own journey to the crown, she shares. “At 18, I was the youngest candidate then, and the oldest candidate was around 23 or 24. Now they are allowing 27 or 28-year-olds to join, which is okay, but also, when you are that age you are already supposed to be a career woman. During our time, part of the prizes would be scholarships.” She also said that one can only join the pageant once, unlike now as candidates can try their luck again. “In fact, the only other pageant we can join if we did not win was Miss World.”
She also recalls that the organizers were also very strict. “We needed to have a chaperone to make sure that we didn’t have boyfriends sleeping in our rooms, and we can’t have wine. For some of the girls, it was their first time to wear high heels.”
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One of her controversial takes is on allowing transwomen to join the pageant as a way to promote inclusion. “I am not an authority on this, but I believe the pageant should be for naturally born women. The trans women can have a pageant of their own.” The change that she wants to see is to allow Filipina candidates to use an interpreter as it gives the candidate a little extra time to compose their answers. “Our language is beautiful, almost musical, and it will come out as cute,” she describes.
Since winning the crown, she has made 175 movies. One of her latest films is Mallari, based on the story of the country’s first serial killer with actor Piolo Pascual in the lead role as Fr. Severino Mallari. She has good words for the director and the crew, and she enjoyed playing the role despite her hesitation in doing some of her stunts. In it, she plays a local mythological creature, and she is puzzled by the lack of literature on our local culture. “The bookstores have been overtaken by folklore of other countries. Wala tayong mahanap na books on our engkantos.”
Her other film, Lola Magdalena, in which she plays a faith healer with a salacious night time job, failed to enter this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. “I feel na napakaswerte ko naman na out of 30 movies, dalawa sa akin ang makakapasok. Di naman ako ganyan ka-swerte, but Magdalena is a beautiful film and I love Direk Joel (Lamangan).
One of the things that keeps her busy is family. On the day of her media interview for PLDT Home, she had just arrived from a trip to Hong Kong to visit her daughter Isabelle Daza, who was based there with her husband and children.
She loves to dote on her grandchildren, and it is evident in the gleam in her eyes when talking about them. “My granddaughter Esmeralda Gloria looks like a siopao with a very deep dimple. Isabella’s children are very kind—not because of Belle but because of her husband who is gentle and soft-spoken,” she jokes. “Ava naman has a Chinese baby. I would be gushing over them. Sometimes instead of buying makeup or my special brush, I buy them grapes or blueberries instead.”
Her children look out for her as well. As she is known for her authenticity on social media, they help ‘curate’ her content. “I would be talking about this restaurant and saying that their food is cold. Mamaya wala na yung post ko. I don’t know how, but Ava can access my account,” she laughs.
She also reveals that Belle won an acting award as Best Comedian in Singapore. "I don’t know what movie it is, siyempre I did not watch," she laughs, referring to the film K Love, which won at the Asian Academy Creative Awards 2023.
Gloria is very supportive of her daughters’ sexual wellness brand, Jellytime, though, even coyly saying that she tried it. “They brought me to a convention and I was so shocked, (the industry) is really so amazing, I am an open person, lahat pwede.”
Talk through tech
Gloria is blown away by the technological advancement that has happened through the years, especially from the time she won the crown. She laughingly shared that her mother called her in the US, upon learning that she won Miss Universe. Her parents congratulated her and told her to put the phone down because the call was expensive. “Now, with the internet and the cell phone, you can call anytime and connect with your family. Technology has really gone forward for miles and miles.”