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Once a Queen, Always a Queen

International beauty pageants are where the world’s most beautiful women compete for the coveted crown. But they’re really about newfound sisters with the same goals in mind.

The tension is palpable. Thirty-seven beautiful women from different parts of the globe have gathered on stage at a fancy hotel and casino in Pampanga, facing a panel of judges, a decent sized crowd, and thousands upon thousands of people watching online. Beneath the veneer of composure lies the weight of a country’s hopes, proud parents’ dreams, and the yearning for a crown that only a select few will receive. After all, what was once a unified sisterhood is to be divided for the remainder of the pageant, with 20 of the ladies advancing to the final round.

The warmth that defined the group’s relationship over the course of eight days has somewhat dissipated, reduced to nervous smiles towards each other and heartfelt applause for those who have received special awards. I can only imagine the pressure that each woman is facing at the moment, but at the end of the day, a competition is what they signed up for. That competition is for the Face of Beauty International (FOBI)  and Teen Face of Beauty crowns, being held for the first time in the Philippines. 

This is probably the first time that many of the ladies ever felt any sort of contentiousness toward their fellow delegates. Remarkable, considering the stories from other pageants that an acquaintance had shared. There were no cases of gowns being ripped, shoes stolen, fights, or bitter arguments. Neither were there any tearful episodes, save for when the airline crew misplaced the luggage of a couple of candidates at the beginning of the competition.

Just the day before, I was under the impression that some of the ladies would be just as pleased to share the crown with their newfound sisters, rather than simply taking the crown for themselves. But the collective mood has apparently changed.

The host is handed the list of 20 finalists. He composes himself in front of the mic, and the crowd falls dead silent. The torrents of comments on social media die down to a dozen or so from the most avid supporters. As for the candidates, they stare into the void, even though they seem to be smiling at the camera, not thinking ill of their newfound sisters, but at the same time, wishing the gods of fate swing the odds toward their favor over the others.

As the pageant’s social media manager, among the other hats that I wear, I adjust my phone to make sure that Instagram’s live audience have a clear view of the spectacle at hand.  

We are about to enter the stage that could possibly separate these girls forever.

Finalists and family

Right before announcing the first of the finalists, the host asks the global audience who they think will win the crown. There are varied responses from the crowd. 

The early favorite was Miss Thailand, Peerachada Khunrak. I’d thought she was the most pageant-ready among the candidates, as she had nearly won the grand prize in a bigger pageant. In fact, she seemed ready to compete on the biggest stages, like Miss Universe or Miss World. Maybe even secure one of the top spots. She had also snagged most of the special awards, including People’s Choice and Best in Swimsuit.

But it seemed the other candidates had somehow closed the gap prior to the coronation night. And there was the possibility of the judges writing a newsworthy underdog story by declaring someone else as the winner.  

The judging process, I’ve been told, begins not on coronation night, but on the day that the candidates arrive. Those who act within the confines of beauty queen etiquette—no smoking, drinking, rowdy behavior, angry reactions, tardiness, or sneaking out of the event venues—get merits. Those who fail to do so are expected to hear at least a few severe remarks from the pageant CEO as well as the heads of the organizing committee, on top of possibly losing their chance for the title. The rules are strict but fair, given that the winners will be the faces of the pageant for a year.

The host breaks the silence and announces the first finalist. Miss Fiji—Ashreen Nand—is a financial analyst who works for a large bank in New Zealand. She is a breadwinner and has devoted a good portion of her life to charity. Certainly a good pick.

Next up was Miss Switzerland Lea Jeambrun, a model, gymnast, and dancer. She was my pick to win the talent competition, with her powerful dance interpretation of the domestic violence suffered by women. Her performance brought tears to my eyes. She was also the winner of the evening gown competition; another great pick.

The third to be called is Miss Taiwan Man Jung Kao, a celebrity in her home country. She lost one of her parents at a young age. She won the talent competition with a dance that incorporated a lot of gymnastics with the expert handling of an umbrella. Definitely a shoo-in for the top 20.

I could go on, but to be honest, any of the girls could have made it up the ranks and it would have made perfect sense, with the early favorite locking in one slot. Apart from appearing like goddesses, every single one was a most compelling tale of triumphs, downfalls, varied competencies, and supreme perseverance, which got them to where they currently are and will likely spell their success in the foreseeable future. Any notion that beauty queens exist solely to look pretty disappeared long before the coronation night began.

Take the case of Miss Kenya Idah Knowles, who failed to qualify for the finals. She is a staunch defender of women’s rights in her country, a respected member of the legal community, and donates a portion of her income to charity.

Miss Malaysia Ashlyn Ooi Tze Yin, on the other hand, was known for her slender figure and expertise on facial care—until her personality made its way to the forefront. She had to learn an entirely new skill—tossing and catching a top-like object with a string—right before the competition began, which made her one of the favorites in the talent competition. More than that, she used her knowledge of Mandarin to lend Miss China Ru Ji a voice, as the latter had trouble speaking and understanding English.

Another candidate who didn’t make it through the preliminary round is Miss Zambia Dorcas Nyirongo. She has all the physical qualities to stand out in any crowd, but what made her memorable was her willingness to help someone who could possibly take her slot in the finals.

During the talent competition, Miss China realized that she had forgotten to pack her outfit and materials for her routine. In tears, she lost all hope as she watched the other candidates ace their respective performances. Dorcas, concerned for her pageant sister, abandoned her original performance and came up with a new routine on the spot, one that gave her and Ru equal billing. Towards the end of it, Ru couldn’t contain her tears. She wept on stage and explained to the audience how Dorcas helped her, both with the performance and throughout the pageant, trying her best to string together the English words she knew. What occurred next was the most powerful and empowering scene I encountered all pageant long.

Photo: Israel Abad Matias

After receiving a tearful acknowledgment, Dorcas suddenly raised Ru’s arm and, in the heat of the moment, both ladies went on to proclaim that true beauty knows no prejudice—it transcends race, gender, or any physical attribute. No scripts, practiced dialogue, or prior run-throughs were involved.

The overwhelmed audience went wild with the loudest cheers heard throughout the pageant, louder than any noise by far at the coronation night. I swear, a couple of queens could have been crowned that day based on that moment alone.

Meanwhile, at the actual coronation night, the host has gone on to call the rest of the finalists. Joining the first three are the delegates from China, Brazil, Estonia, New Zealand, Panama, Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Myanmar, South Africa, Russia, Sweden, Japan, Armenia, Egypt, Kosovo, and Canada to round up the top 20. Unlike in other international pageants, this will be the contestants’ final grouping.

All that separates them from the crown is a handpicked question—to be answered by a short speech in under a minute—and the judges’ decision.

Essays for answers

The crowd once again falls silent as the host reads out the question posed to all the finalists: “What will you tell the world about Face of Beauty International?” One by one, the candidates flesh out their ideas on beauty as a physical and internal trait, a tool to empower women and the less fortunate, and/or the driving force of the organization’s altruistic initiatives.

Some answers quickly stand out. There’s Miss South Africa Meghan Pearl’s narrative on her support for FOBI’s charitable causes, Miss Russia Alina Mikhalchuk’s holistic approach to beauty, and Miss Canada Maria Giorlando pointing out the importance of giving back to the community. But for me, the ones who could win it all if judged solely on their answers are Miss Myanmar Pearl Yadanar and Miss Philippines Samantha Coloso, who not only talked about the various facets of beauty and charity, but they also ended their speeches emphatically with powerfully delivered lines, reminiscent of Pia Wurtzbach’s winning answer in the 2015 Miss Universe competition.   

However, the pageant appears to favor one’s overall performance leading to the coronation night, rather than the strength of a single statement. The answer certainly holds a lot of weight but makes up only a percentage of one’s total score, based on the way the pageant’s powers that be are mulling things over.

A winning formula?

While the results are being tabulated, the 2018 grand winner Myint Mo May from Myanmar is given the stage for her final walk. A figure of utmost grace, she traverses the expanse of the platform as if she’s gliding, waving to the crowd as a recording of her heartwarming message to the pageant and her supporters is being played. She has been an exceptional ambassador for FOBI, much like many of her predecessors. 

Having been with Myint during the promo tour and press conference last July, I have to admit I am quite familiar with this side of her character. Unlike those who aren’t too experienced in the pageant circuit—including some of the girls in this year’s batch—she has the uncanny ability to switch on “queen mode” whenever necessary, say, in front of a mic, on camera, or on stage. She is also adept at keeping her composure at all times, despite the rigorous of the previous days. The same can be said for the 2017 winner, Pai Tanisa from Thailand, who joined Myint on that tour.

Both ladies were queens through and through when the public eye has a steady gaze on their presence. They woke up early, attended multiple interviews and sponsor visits, indulged VIPs, and shared more than a few tales with me at the end of each day. Not a single complaint or untoward remark was ever heard from the two.

However, whenever the coast was clear or I wasn’t recording any content for social media, they were regular young women who loved nothing more than to trade jokes and stories. There were several occasions when I was left with just the two of them in a van, and they goofed off the entire time, doing silly dances and hitting each other with hilarious one-liners. They were like siblings or best friends, despite having their very first substantial interaction only at the start of the promo tour. Their previous meeting was more like a passing of the torch when Pai crowned Myint as the new reigning queen.

As such, I guess there really is a kinship between beauty queens. They bond like actual sisters, as they identify with each other’s struggles even before a single word is uttered. And the same can be said for this year’s batch of candidates.

Only a few days into the competition, their roles in the sisterhood are established. Miss Russia is the nurturing one who tries to provide warmth to her companions at all times. Miss Philippines is the local ambassador who explains how things are done in the host country. Miss Tonga Seta Vaka is the unofficial Filipina who communicates fluently in the Philippine vernacular and is a fan of Jollibee. Miss Bashkortostan Anisa Ramazan and Miss Belgium Indra Parmentier are the biggest animal lovers. 

Miss Kenya and Miss Bangladesh Fatiha Miami are inseparable as everything is a shared experience for them. The same goes for Miss Egypt Habiba Omar and Miss Armenia Preni Davtyan. Miss Myanmar, the one I’m closest to, is the resident storyteller and another self-confessed Jollibee fan. Miss Kosovo Melisa Dakaj is the rather pleasant piano-playing rebel. Miss Belarus Veronika Tarasevich is the batch’s biggest jokester and the silliest among everyone.

Meanwhile, Miss New Zealand Leia Edmonds, Miss Congo Yasmine Kiela, Miss Taiwan, Miss Canada, and Miss Malaysia are friendship personified. They’re friends with all the little cliques within the batch. In essence, they are the ties that bind the sisterhood. 

And then there are the few who seem to be in competition from the get-go. Miss Thailand immediately comes to mind. From day one, she isn’t too interactive with the others, except with Miss Malaysia and Miss China, whom she treats like sisters. Like a trained assassin, her moves are always calculated, choosing when to bring out her best self and whom to truly interact with in relation to winning the crown. It seems to be a carbon copy of the tactic used by last year’s winner Myint Mo May.

The sweet girl who I had fun with at the promo tour in July, it turns out, concealed her true nature for a good portion of last year’s pageant. She was out to compete the whole time and didn’t mingle much with the others, whom she considers sisters. When she captured the crown, everyone was pleasantly surprised at how endearing she truly was. Countless times, I saw her trading silly barbs with her batchmate—last year’s Teen Face of Beauty winner, Amandine Bonehill—who herself is a bit of a troll and a whiz at dishing out hilarious comments. The same can be said for Myint’s interactions with last year’s I am Me winner Arshin Masjoudi. 

“Will we see the same thing this year?” I think to myself. 

In any case, the host is set to reveal the winners shortly. 

The new queens

With Miss Thailand and Miss Myanmar having the biggest pull on social media, the Thai and Burmese fans are caught up in a frenzy on social media. Even though both ladies don’t really have any animosity towards the other, or any of the girls for that matter, there is a lot of mudslinging between both groups, which is quite amusing to watch to be honest. Sure, some of the invectives hurled are downright offensive, but there are also others that are done purely for laughs, amid a few who promoted diplomacy and nationalism. This dies down at the sight of the host going up on stage.

A list is given and the excitement escalates. In his hands are the results of the teen competition, and he prepares to announce the winners. Before long, he delivers the news. Spunky Miss Panama is second runner-up. The musical whiz Miss Estonia is first runner-up, and bubbly Miss New Zealand takes the Teen Face of Beauty 2019 crown. 

Next up is the I am Me award, which represents the candidate who did the most for charity. Charitable Miss Fiji wins, as expected.

Finally, the much awaited portion of the pageant begins, the main competition. The host eagerly declares sporty Miss Brazil as fourth runner-up, the always-smiling Miss Taiwan as third, the highly educated Miss South Africa as second, and the big-hearted Miss Russia as first runner-up.

A pause ensues, which only lends to a rise in tension that partially suffocates everyone in the hall, myself included. All the noise does down, while only the most avid supporters can muster the zeal to post comments online, in the form of the flags of their candidates’ home countries. Even the wait-staff drop their duties temporarily, only to be absorbed by a moment of such scale.  

For the ladies, this is the culmination of all their hard work of the past eight days, on top of their years of training and joining local pageants. For those watching at home, the one crowned queen will be a symbol of their nation’s superior beauty standards, a source of national pride, and an aspirational figure that young girls will emulate. For the proud parents, the world will recognize what they have always known, that their daughter is a queen worthy of global adulation, and that this could lead to a fruitful modeling or acting career. For the pageant, the right face could bring them closer the ranks of the world’s most celebrated beauty contests.   

At last, the host grabs the microphone one final time and takes a deep breath.

“It’s my absolute pleasure to introduce to you our Face of Beauty International 2019 grand winner. She is…Miss Thailand, Peerachada Khunrak!”

The enormity of her triumph and the support of the crowd are almost too much, and Peerachada breaks into tears as Myint gently places the crown on her head. Myint may not know that her successor applied the same winning formula, but they share the stage for a few moments, and there is a silent understanding between them; they both did whatever it took to win the crown. Sometimes the sisterhood has to take a back seat, but in the end, not even the most glorious of titles nor the biggest of praises can stand in the way of family, the ones who have gone through the same journey as them, the only ones who fully understand.

Perhaps I’m giving them way too much credit, or maybe I’m just letting things get to me. After all, I’m just a guy holding a smartphone, with no prior experience with beauty pageants.

A couple of days pass. Many of the ladies fly back to their home countries, while others opt to stay on and go to Boracay and Palawan. They are as warm towards each other online as they were on the buses that ferried us from one pageant site to another. In fact, some have sworn to visit the home countries of their sisters.

Meanwhile, Peerachada has posted a lot of her winning moments online, to which many of her fellow candidates responded with likes, heart reacts, and loving comments. Curious about the reigning queen, I message her using the Face of Beauty International Instagram account.

“Congratulations, Queen Ploy,” I say, addressing Peerachada by her nickname.

“Thank you so much. I feel lonely today. [I] didn’t have breakfast with friends. [I] didn’t get on the bus. [I’m] not going to do activities [anymore],” she responds.

Because she sorely misses her sisters.