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Pinoys’ passion for beauty pageants explained

By ALEX Y. VERGARA Published Oct 30, 2020 7:04 am Updated Dec 06, 2021 6:04 pm

A lot of people in the Philippines have a very strong obsession with beauty pageants. You might even say they are fanatics!

Whenever there's a pageant, the whole country seemed to breathe and live Miss Universe, Miss Earth, or any other beau cons as we followed our country's bets. No doubt, there is an atmosphere of excitement in the air.

Miss Mexico Andrea Meza is the new Miss Universe, crowned May 17 in Hollywood, Florida.

In 2019, Miss Universe Philippines went down in Philippine beauty pageant history as a reset button of sorts. It marked the first year of a new decade after Philippine beauty queens began a 10-year placement streak in Miss Universe—the 11th this year—arguably the most prestigious and most popular global beauty contest of its kind.

This longest placement streak ever in Philippine beauty pageant history—2010 to 2021—has produced two Misses Universe and several runners-up as well as a number of top-6, top-10 and top-20 finishers.

And we’re not even talking of Filipino beauty queens who did well in the three other so-called alpha pageants: Miss International, Miss World and Miss Earth.

If you’re having trouble recalling how this Miss U placement streak started, go to the YouTube video dubbed “We Love You Maria Venus Raj 22 Philippines.”

Intense passion for their respective bets boils over on social media in the form of cruel, even gutter language, often posted anonymously or through troll accounts to bring down their favorites’ rivals.

Composed of four avid “beau con” watchers—that’s beauty contest to the uninitiated—who lost themselves to the point of nearly pulverizing the mattress they were sitting on soon after Venus was called last in the top 15 in 2010, the video went viral with close to four million views to date.

(Watch video here.)

Understandable reaction

It even spawned a spoof that doubled as a TV and online ad for an American fast-food chain, also starring the four friends led by designer Veejay Floresca. 

To fellow beau con fans, Veejay and company’s spontaneous reaction was quite understandable. Prior to Venus’ achievement, the Philippines hadn’t placed for 10 long years in Miss U. For a nation that once styled itself in the early 1970s as an Asian beauty pageant powerhouse, the decade-long drought was unthinkable.

But you don’t have to be a beau con fan to be amazed and amused at how these Filipino fans—a microcosm, if you will, of the avid Pinoy beau con watcher—conducted themselves. In many ways, their cheers, shrieks, jumps, congratulatory hugs and tears of joy are emblematic of the Pinoy passion for beauty pageants and beautiful women.

Miss Universe Philippines 2020 Rabiya Mateo (center) with Billie Hakenson, Pauline Amelinckx, Michele Gumabao and Ysabella Ysmael.

Composed, for the most part, of gay men, whether openly or not, these fans are also the ones who inspire and propel the country’s beauty queens to exceed themselves and shine on stage on pageant night, be it in neighboring Bangkok or in far-off Las Vegas.

Miss Universe Organization president Paula Shugart certainly wasn’t kidding when she called Filipinos “the best pageant fans in the world.”

Their sheer number alone, which became very much evident when they came out in droves to cheer on Pia Wurtzbach and Catriona Gray during their respective homecoming parades, is unmatched except perhaps in certain Latin American countries whose people also equate winning Miss Universe to clinching the World Cup.

Origins of beau con’s appeal

When did this Pinoy passion for beauty pageants begin? Where did it originate in the first place? What are beau cons’ unique appeal to Filipino fans, who are known to call in sick for work to host or join viewing parties?

We interviewed three beau con watchers whose professions often orbit the galaxies where these beauty queens are born, honed and thrust into primetime for the ultimate beauty showdown of their young lives.

For Jay Patao, a journalist, beauty pageants are an American invention when our then colonizer created Miss America in 1921. In less than five years, the country followed America’s lead by crowning its first Miss Philippines in the person of Anita Noble in the annual Manila Carnival in 1926.

“We assimilated so much of American culture in their five decades here compared to more than three centuries of Spanish rule,” says Jay. “Our love for fiestas and revelry is very Spanish, while our affinity for Hollywood glam traces itself, of course, to America.”

Rooted in Pinoy psyche

Miss Universe Philippines 2019 Gazini Ganados crowns Rabiya Mateo.

Eric Pineda, fashion and costume designer, educator and wardrobe and costume consultant for Miss Earth, agrees. The love for beauty pageants is deeply rooted in the Filipino psyche.

“During the American Commonwealth period, we already had searches for Carnival Queens held at the Luneta as a prelude to the Christmas season,” he says. “But back then, the ladies and their escorts came from elite families. Referred to as las hijas de buena familia, these young women like Pacita Ongsiako de los Reyes represented the ideal Filipina—beautiful, well-bred, educated and usually mestizas of Spanish, American, or Chinese ancestry.”

Miss Universe Organization president Paula Shugart certainly wasn’t kidding when she called Filipinos ‘the best pageant fans in the world.’

It took just a nudge for these beauty pageants to soon morph into beau cons, adds Eric, as Manileños and even Filipinos from nearby provinces trooped to the Luneta to watch the festivities and root for their favorites.

“It was a big thing even then, and the Pinoy fervor for these pageants survived even after the war,” he says. “By then, almost every town fiesta had its queen who was crowned not only because of her beauty, but because of her family and supporters’ ability to sell ballots to fund charity projects. The practice continues to this day in the provinces.”

From school pageants and those held in remote barrios to national pageants aired live on TV and streamed these days through social media, Filipinos never seem to get tired of seeing beautiful women parade annually in front of them, designer Noel Crisostomo observes.

“Our passion for pageants, I think, was further validated in the ’60s and early ’70s when Gemma Cruz, Gloria Diaz, Aurora Pijuan and Margie Moran won,” says Noel.

Traced to traditions

Eric even attributes our innate love for pageantry to religious traditions, such as Santacruzan and Flores de Mayo, handed down to us by Spain. Both events center on women, usually the town’s fairest maidens.

“It’s no coincidence that one can see a similar fixation for beauty queens and pageantry among people in Latin American countries, most of which were colonies of Spain and Portugal,” says Eric.

Jay adds: “Since the Philippines is basically a Latin country in the middle of Asia, our love for celebrating beauty can be traced to our Spanish colonial heritage.”

As a developing country, we’re not yet in a position to compete with Japan, the US and most European countries in, say, the Olympics and World Cup, adds Jay. The country’s preoccupation with beauty stems from the fact that Filipinos need something to buoy their spirits and national pride.

“Having proven countless times that the level of Philippine pulchritude is world-class, the country’s beauty queens have also learned to parlay their initial success to other arguably bigger and more important arenas once their reigns are over,” says Jay.

Jay goes on to ascribe the Filipino penchant for putting beauty queens on a pedestal to the country’s matriarchal society. “Filipinas are getting more empowered than ever these days in practically every field they specialize in.”

Stepping stones and platforms

Unlike before when well-bred ladies considered joining beauty pageants as some sort of rite of passage before marriage and raising families of their own, most of today’s women see beauty pageants as stepping stones or, as not a few wannabe beauty queens love to say these days, platforms to amplify their voices on certain causes and hopefully raise their stock in whatever careers they choose to embark on soon after passing on their crowns.

Designer and educator Eric Pineda, wardrobe and costume consultant for Miss Earth, with Miss Earth 2015 Angelia Ong.

Margie is probably the last of her kind to come from a de buena background. Over the decades, the beau con scene has opened up, luring its fair share of nameless but ambitious women from the middle and even lower classes.

The democratization, if you will, of beauty pageants has inspired countless pretty girls even from the country’s remotest barangays to travel to Manila and give beau cons a try. As long as you’re tall, shapely, beautiful and with a fairly good education, you’re now welcome to join and try your luck.

“Because TV and the internet have become more accessible with each passing year, most young girls these days grew up watching pageants,” Noel observes. “Many of them dream of the prestige winning a pageant brings as well as the thought of bringing pride and honor to their families and communities. It also opens doors to a future career, particularly in showbiz, media and politics.”

Designer Noel Crisostomo attends to Miss Universe Philippines second runner-up Michele Gumabao at Queen Street West, his shop in San Juan, before the MUP coronation.

Young women’s enthusiasm for joining pageants, in turn, has given birth to an entire sub-industry of impresarios and trainers on beauty, poise, runway or pasarela, styling and Q and A skills.

Whereas aspirants of yesteryears only had to deal mainly with fashion designers and talent scouts, they now find it indispensable to join beauty queen training camps established and run by dedicated beau con fans themselves who have taken their love for pageants to the next level by helping train wide-eyed girls become, as the oft-used phrase goes, the best versions of themselves.

Like rival schools

Like rival universities, these training camps have often found themselves at odds with each other in luring the best girls and producing the most finalists and winners in both national and international beau cons. Such concerted efforts from countless Pygmalion figures and their Fair Ladies have had, for the most part, a lasting positive impact.

“As a whole, I’ve seen how our girls develop into poised, articulate ladies after their pageants,” says Eric. “Majority of them will retain their poise and bearing, the ‘tindig beauty queen.’ In Miss Earth’s case, I’ve seen how our queens continued with their environmental advocacies long after they’ve relinquished their crowns. Karen Ibasco and Catherine Untalan, for example, aren’t only beautiful ladies, but also graduated with honors from their respective universities.”

But it isn’t lost on our respondents that the beau con world, like all forms of entertainment, has its dark side, too. At the end of the day, it’s still up to the woman whether she uses her influence for good after her reign, or squanders it completely on shallow pursuits and head-scratching choices and endeavors.

Journalist and Q&A trainer Jay Patao Jay Patao with then Miss Universe Philippines 2018 Catriona Gray before she flew to Bangkok to compete.

As for not a few beau con watchers, their intense passion for their respective bets has found ways to boil over on social media, often in the form of cruel, even gutter language and below-the-belt commentaries posted anonymously or through troll accounts to bring down their favorites’ rivals.

Pinoys’ uncouth side

“Filipinos’ passion for pageants have no doubt helped boost the confidence and reputation of our beauty queens as they compete abroad,” says Noel. “But because of social media, the Filipino’s cruel side has also been exposed. Our collective egos have also swelled once we became a powerhouse country. And the sad part is, we just don’t clash with other people. We also duel online, exchanging harsh, unprintable words, with fellow Filipinos.”

“Because of social media, everyone nowadays has become an armchair commentator,” adds Eric. “Overnight, every bading (gay) has become a beau con expert.”

Since we’re still living in a supposedly free country, everyone is entitled to his opinion. Such freedom of expression, no matter how sometimes flawed or unkind, has truly made for a livelier, gayer Philippine beau con scene.