Barely a few months ago, model and actress Catriona Gray was a relatively unfamiliar face, perhaps known only in the exclusive circles of the modelling and pageant industry. A mere few weeks later, in December, she would debut her now-unforgettable lava walk on the IMPACT Arena runway in Thailand and win the illustrious Miss Universe crown — and capture the hearts of millions in the process. It is weeks later and still her presence is still felt, and her victory shared by thousands of Filipinos.
Monumental as it may be, she is far from the first to receive such treatment from our countrymen. A few years ago, in 2015, saw another pageant queen win the title, as well as the nation’s admiration: Pia Wurtzbach.
In both times, and many times before, the entire nation watched, captivated, as each Filipina beauty walked runway after runway, reveling in their wins, and sharing in their disappointments. And celebrate we did, on the occasions that they did win — stories of their success are issues of national interest, and winning answers or evening gowns become unifying topics of discussion.
Indeed, it is no secret — or perhaps an open one, if it is — that beauty pageants are a massively prevalent cultural force in Philippine society, that they have become ubiquitous in their very commonness. It is far from unusual to see beauty pageants as part and parcel of any barangay, barrio, or town festival, and even far less common to see hordes of pageant hopefuls trying their luck on the much-coveted stage, whether with experience or not.
And indeed, this is, after all, what we have to trace back to and thank for the prevailing love affair between Filipinos and beauty pageants — town festivals. Perhaps the earliest known records in closest resemblance to beauty pageants date back to Spanish colonial periods, with Santacruzan festivals selecting the most beautiful girl in the barrio as Reina Elena, according to Ric Galvez of Missosology.
The Spanish came and went, and at their heels came the American colonists, whose version of the beauty pageant came in the form of the Carnival Queens — a side event of carnivals meant to promote ties between the US and the Philippines — which eventually grew more popular than the very carnivals themselves.
Soon enough, early Filipina pageant icons the likes of Gloria Diaz and Margie Moran captured international titles, elevating the prestige of the very art of beauty pageants in our collective cultural consciousness. Soon enough, micro-scale pageants became a lucrative and remarkably popular business everywhere in the country.
It is over a hundred years later, however, and its charm is far from lost on us — our complete fascination with all things Catriona Gray, Pia Wurtzbach, Kylie Verzosa, and many others only proves that. Indeed, if anything, it only proves the lasting influence of colonized culture — which is an entirely different discussion in itself.
But unlike any other of the many remnants of cultural influence, there is nothing quite like the Filipinos’ complete fascination and obsession — love affair, even — with the very glitz and glamour of beauty pageants. Whereas for other nations a mere mundane form of age-old entertainment continued, if anything, only for tradition, the Philippines anticipates year after year for each new Filipina beauty queen to carry the hopes of the entire nation on her well-balanced shoulders on the next glitzy international runway.
And the reason of all this, in the end, is altogether quite simple: escapism. Like in many instances before, escapism greets the Filipino psyche like an old friend in its many forms — whether it is in flamboyant, nonsensical box-office films, or in the newest loveteam coupling, the allure of beauty pageants and all their glamour provide, more than anything, a sense of momentary escape from the harsh, ugly reality faced by the Filipino majority.
And in the cases when we do win, there is no mistaking the shared pride felt all throughout the nation, as was the case not too long ago with the reigning Miss Universe Catriona Gray, who, in the span of a few weeks, has been catapulted into a household name. By the end of the year, Gray’s title will no longer hold, and the crown will be passed to the next hope-filled beauty queen to take on the universe — whether or not she hails from the country is yet to be seen. What will be sure, however, is that the entire nation will unite yet again on that momentous occasion, if only to witness Gray take her final walk on the Miss Universe runway. There is also no denying that many young girls will unquestionably be watching, waiting and hoping one day to take her place.