It’s been almost 48 years since I wore the crown, that one amazing year that changed my life’s trajectory. But what I remember most are the “Aha!” moments, and the faux pas that either made me cringe or regret some missed opportunities.
The first on my list was my reply to a question on the Bb. Pilipinas application form: “Who do you consider the greatest man in the world?” I did not want to mention my father because he did not consent to my participation in the pageant. Nor did I want to say President Marcos since, in 1972, he had declared martial law, and I would have received much hate mail from the victims of military rule.
So, wanting to impart a more international savvy, I put down President Richard Nixon. He was then the most experienced politician, and he had just won by a landslide when I entered the Bb. Pilipinas Pageant. Shortly after I won the local pageant, I did not realize that Stella Araneta mailed the same form to the Miss Universe Organization. The Watergate Scandal investigations had begun, and I could not withdraw my “greatest man” reply.
After winning the Miss Universe crown in Athens, I moved to New York, where I was based that year.
My chance encounter with Mr. Dali was in the hotel lobby in October 1973. He approached me and introduced himself. But I was 19, and Google was still in the distant future, so I was not overwhelmingly enthusiastic, especially when the name came with a rather outlandish appearance.
At the press conference shortly after and to my surprise, the function room of the Hilton Hotel was packed with press people. I figured that they only wanted to know why I considered President Nixon as the greatest man. My defense of Nixon was that he opened diplomatic relations with China and ended the American involvement in the horrifying Vietnam War. I was not defending Nixon but defending myself for going against the wave.
Nevertheless, I received a letter of gratitude on White House stationery personally signed by President Nixon. Not many beauty queens get such a souvenir from the President of the United States. But I did, even if I was a cover feature of Esquire’s “lampoon” issue.
Perhaps not understanding why I chose President Nixon, the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour producer invited me onto their top-rated comedy program. Unfortunately, the script sent to me had my role with no speaking parts in it. So all I did was smile. After the show, I spoke to Sonny and Cher and the director and they were surprised that I could speak perfect English. In that era, some Americans were ignorant of the fact that their country had colonized ours for 48 years.
The pinnacle perk for the reigning Miss Universe titleholder was making New York her home for the duration of her term. I had a permanent suite at the St. Regis, a historic luxury hotel situated on 5th Avenue and East 55th Street.
The posh hotel was erected in the beaux-arts style in 1904 by one of America’s wealthiest men, John Jacob Astor IV, who unfortunately perished in the Titanic sinking in 1912. His son and heir Vincent took over the management of the much-revered hotel, further enhancing the prestige of that section of New York City where the Vanderbilt and Rockefeller families had built their mansions. Walking along the avenue and entering these buildings that are now department stores made me feel I was indeed a part of the rich and famous.
The St. Regis was home to several celebrities, among them Alfred Hitchcock and Marlene Dietrich. Another master resident was Salvador Dali, the famous surrealist, and his wife Gala, for 40 seasons of fall and winter.
My chance encounter with Mr. Dali was in the hotel lobby in October 1973. He approached me and introduced himself. But I was 19, and Google was still in the distant future, so I was not overwhelmingly enthusiastic, especially when the name came with a rather outlandish appearance. Wearing a black fox coat and holding a bejeweled walking stick, the artist looked comically eccentric with his sharp mustache turned up to face heaven.
We immediately became friends, though, until the end of winter in 1974. On several occasions, we had lunch and dinner at well-known restaurants. One of his favorites was Le Cote Basque. Most of the time, we would hold court at the famous Cocktail Lounge of the hotel.
One evening, with his friends who were primarily French, we listened to Tony Bennett perform. The King Cole Bar, where the Bloody Mary was invented, was another place where we hung out. He took photos of me; he said it was for ¡Hola! magazine, but I did not even think to take one of us together.
What evidence do I now have so I could brag that this master was my companion for a season? I even kept postponing buying his book in the hotel store, much less request him for an autograph. I am confident he would have written a beautiful dedication.
One day, he proposed that he paint me dressed all in white, coming out from a white wall. I ignored him because the only good portrait in my young mind is of a realist. Little did I know that I would have been the only other woman he would have ever painted. He only made portraits of his wife. For sure, having befriended the great master of the visually absurd is a chapter that I will always feel sorry I did not nurture more.
My security was tight when I visited Colombia for a series of fundraising fashion shows in the cities of Bogota, Cartagena, Cali and Medellin. It was a time when Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug lord, began smuggling cocaine into the United States.
Three short years later, the Medellin and Cali cartels caused destructive violence in this part of the world. And when Escobar himself died in a shootout at his Medellin estate, his entire family was holed up in the same hotel where I had stayed, the Hotel Tequendama Bogotá.
Isabel Preysler led the Philippine Embassy’s welcome committee at the airport in Madrid. I was so pleased to meet the wife of Julio Iglesias, an up-and-coming international singer. A few years after their divorce, Julio became a successful singer and songwriter with the most records sold in history by a European, and Isabel became ¡Hola!’s “most talked about.” But that year was mine to celebrate: I was on the cover of ¡Hola!.
Present at the reception for me, hosted by the Ambassador of the Philippines and Mrs. Stilianopolous, were the glitterati of Spanish society. Among them, the Marquesa de Villaverde, Maria del Carmen Franco, the only child of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The richest woman in Spain, the Marquesa de Alba, was present, and the Duke and Duchess of Cadiz. I was ecstatic to be amid such a selection of the royal class, especially as they gathered in my honor.
I consider myself very fortunate to have met and hobnobbed with people of a more lasting pedigree, so to speak, while I was merely 19, and at best, queen for a year. I would otherwise never have reached the heights I was catapulted to had I not first become Miss Universe.
I have other roles now, but that one, the golden year of 1973, surely carved the path for the subsequent years that were to come, in various capacities, in service to my country and society in general.
Banner photo from Miss Universe Instagram account.