Miss Universe 2010

There CHI is... Miss Universe?

By Armin Amari for Critical Beauty

XIMENA NAVARRETE, a 22 year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, edged out 82 other hopefuls to capture the title of Miss Universe 2010. Her victory marks the second time in history that Mexico has won the crown, the first being in 1991 when Lupita Jones led her country to victory. Coincidentally, both women were crowned in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

Did anyone else feel that they were watching the Miss America Pageant instead of Miss Universe this year? The stage looked like something one could find at a "So You Think You Can Dance" audition in San Antonio, Texas - cheap, neon and flavourless. There was nothing remotely "Las Vegas" about the décor and the generic visuals during the telecast could have been used for any live American television broadcast. In addition, those stairs were complete eyesores when they were not in use, which was 90% of the time. Compare this year's stage to the opulent ones used in Thailand (2005) and Panama (2003) or the simple yet tasteful design executed in Puerto Rico (2002). It is clear that there was no distinct artistic vision for this year's edition of Miss Universe and while we often hear that MUO wants to make the delegates the star of the show, it would help to grant them more airtime if this were the case. The only parts of the show that made me realize I was watching an international pageant was the parade of nations at the very beginning and when the Mexican fans started to unanimously boo Miss Philippines, Venus Raj for butchering her final question. 

The musical selections also reminded me of something Miss America's production team would have come up with. I was mortified during the swimsuit competition to see flamboyant Elvis impersonators dressed in fluorescent unitards and plastic hair molds break dancing on stage. My guess is these men were rejected from Chippendales for being too effeminate. But I digress. Perhaps my disappointment stemmed from over-expectation but when I heard Cirque du Soleil would be highlighting this year's swimsuit segment, I naturally assumed that I would see aerial dancers, performers on stilts and anything but what was shown on my television screen. The lame music and dancing almost made me forget about the non-existent choreography and ill-fitting Dar be Dar swimsuits. Perhaps this is why Miss France, Malika Menard, sprinted across the stage in what looked to be a tinge of humiliation. John Legend's serenade during the evening gown competition was not memorable either. But this could have been because he was sitting down and did not let cameras capture how aroused he gets around the ladies.

However, the most bowel churning aspect of this year's telecast had to have been the shameless promotion of Farouk Shami's CHI hair care line. Never has so much pageant airtime been reserved for a sponsor's homemade commercials and amateurish how-to segments. It was impossible to watch the pageant without hearing or seeing the name CHI every 3 minutes and it was absolutely sickening! These promotional attempts seemed desperate at best and the fact that more than half of this year's delegates were coiffed like Chia Pets during the presentation show makes me want to pull a Sinead O?Connor and shave my head. 

WHERE DID CHI GO WRONG? - The most disappointed contestant this year has got to be Miss USA, Rima Fakih. She now joins a very special sisterhood with Barbara Peterson (Miss USA 1976), Kimberley Pressler (Miss USA 1999), and Shauntay Hinton (Miss USA 2002) as the only American representatives failing to place in the semi-finals at Miss Universe. But Rima is definitely the most shafted of this group because her own boss, Donald Trump, did not even select her as 1 of his personal 6 choices. To add insult to injury Rima was quite vocal about how she thought she was going to be victorious on the Miss Universe stage due to her ethnicity right after she bagged the Miss USA crown. So what went wrong? Was it weak styling in her red Reem Acra gown? Was it her incoherent interview skills? Was it because she posed topless as a Muslim woman in her Fadil Berisha glamour shot? Was it that pointless letter she wrote to President Barack Obama regarding her tin foil national costume? It will remain a mystery, but what is evident is the fact that MUO does not seem to be taken by Fakih as they have been with previous Miss USA winners. I remember watching Rima's on-stage interview segment at Miss Teen USA 2010. When the camera panned out into the audience, one could see Paula Shugart, President of the Miss Universe Organization, giving Rima a look as if she were a complete bozo. You either love her or hate her and unfortunately for Rima, Trump fell into the latter category. Happy Ramadan, habibi! 

WHERE DID CHI COME FROM? - Every year, there is at least one delegate at Miss Universe who surprises us all with her charm, refreshing personality and poise and this year that woman is definitely Miss Australia, Jesinta Campbell. Overlooked by most pageant pundits, Jesinta, with her beachy keen looks and aura, remained cool as a cucumber all night and ultimately found herself in the Top 5. Her answer to judge Nikki Taylor's question was the best all around in content and delivery. In fact, her answer was so good compared to her competitors that I expected her to walk away with the title or at least finish as 1st runner-up to the stunning Yendi Phillips, Miss Jamaica. Jesinta ended the evening as 2nd runner-up much to the delight of her supporters. Perhaps Jesinta would have won had she promoted Farouk Shami's new jheri curl serum for the modern afro instead of mentioning Tala Raassi in her final answer. Oh well! 

WHAT DID CHI SAY? - Every year, there is at least one awkward moment at Miss Universe. This year the torch has been carried on by Miss Philippines, Venus Raj. When asked by judge William Baldwin what one major mistake she had made in her life and what she did to correct it, Raj responded, "Thank you so much sir, for that wonderful question. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening, Las Vegas! [laughs nervously]. You know what, sir, in my 22 years of existence, I can say there is nothing major, major - I mean, problems - that I have done in my life, because I am very confident with my family with the love that they are given to me. So... Thank you so much that I am here! Thank you, thank so much!" I have not heard so many "thank yous" at Miss Universe since Lu Parker mouthed out a hail of them like bullets back in 1994! Supporters of Raj were quick to defend her by saying that at age 22 Venus had not made the biggest mistake of her life BUT the question asked about a major mistake, not the biggest. Furthermore, her supporters have also tried to suggest that the question posed to her was the most difficult. I beg to differ. This question is one of the most over-practiced questions in the beauty pageant industry and one that any queen who reaches the Miss Universe pageant should have and most likely would have rehearsed prior to being asked it. The important thing is that Venus did not have a complete meltdown like Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2007, Caitlin Upton. However, I do not blame anything except for Raj's interview coaching by the infamous Miss Philippines Universe franchise holder, Stella Marquez de Araneta.

WHAT DID CHI DO? - During her final walk as Miss Universe 2009, Venezuela?s Stefania Fernandez pulled out what I had initially thought was a multi-coloured bra from the top of her dress and started to flash it around on stage. It was only after a few moments that I realized the piece of textile was actually the Venezuelan flag and she was paying homage to her country. Like everything else in the pageant world, this act was met with mixed reviews. While some found it patriotic, others thought it was far too pretentious, since Miss Universe is supposed to represent all people, not just a single nation. Furthermore, observers noted that Stefania used the democratic version of Venezuela's flag, not the new design enforced by dictator Hugo Chavez. Will she be punished by having to wear Dar Be Dar swimsuits for a lifetime? We will have to wait and see. But I found the flag idea compensated for the fact that this year's Venezuelan representative to Miss Universe, Marelisa Gibson, was shut out of the semi-finals and was consequently unable to showcase her blue evening gown, which was to complete the third and last installment of the Venezuelan flag colours by designer Gionni Straccia (Dayana Mendoza wore yellow in 2008, Stefania Fernandez wore red in 2009).

A TAD TEPID FOR MARIACHI? - Mexican culture is full of life and flair. From their food to their music, Mexicans have a zest for fiestas anywhere they go. However, I honestly found Navarrete far from zesty during the telecast. She decided to sport nude make-up, which completely washed her out on stage and while I do think she is facially attractive, I found her no match for Miss South Africa, Nicole Flint, or Miss Ireland, Rozanna Purcell, who are both facially more stunning and memorable. In swimsuit, Navarrete looked on the shorter side and her evening gown looked like something one could find in the clearance section of Sherri Hill's website. However, the most disheartening moment was Navarette's reaction to winning. Although she initially held her hands up to her face in disbelief, she did not look overwhelmingly excited or elated. This was one point in the show where I wish we had seen an element of Miss America, since no one can beat their winning reactions. As a matter of fact, Ximena's national director and former Miss Universe 1991, Lupita Jones, reacted much more emotionally to the final results, which I enjoyed watching more than the happenings on stage: 

Overall, I would rate this year's Miss Universe telecast a 3/10 and that is generous considering I will be having nightmares of break dancing Elvis muppets styling their plastic hair with CHI products for months!

Till next year! 

The Judges
  • CHAZZ PALMINTERI, American actor
  • CHYNNA PHILLIPS, American singer and actress
  • CRISS ANGEL, American performance artist and musician
  • EVAN LYSACEK, American 2010 Olympic Gold Medalist and 2009 World Figure Skating Champion
  • JANE SEYMOUR, British-born actress
  • NIKI TAYLOR, American top model
  • SHEILA E., American musician
  • TAMRON HALL, American anchorperson, "MSNBC Live"
  • WILLIAM BALDWIN, American actor, writer and producer 

Photo credit: The Miss Universe Organization 

Miss Universe 2009

Venezuela wins sixth crown
and becomes the first country to win in consecutive years

STEFANIA FERNANDEZ, an 18-year old brunette was crowned as the new Miss Universe at the Atlantis Resort, Paradise Island, in the Bahamas on Sunday night, August 23rd. Fernandez's victory marks the first time in the 58-year history of the pageant that a country has won its second consecutive crown and its sixth title in the beauty pageant. Only the United States has won more Miss Universe titles with seven. Fernandez was crowned by her compatriot Dayana Mendoza. The first runner-up was Miss Dominican Republic, Ada Aimee de la Cruz, the second runner-up was Miss Kosovo Gona Dragusha, the third runner-up was Miss Australia Rachael Finch, and the fourth runner-up is Miss Puerto Rico Mayra Matos Perez. The remaining top fifteen included the representatives from Iceland, Albania, Czech Republic, Belgium, Sweden, France, Switzerland, South Africa, USA and Croatia. Special awards were given to Chutima Durongdej of Thailand as Miss Photogenic and to Jingyao Wang of China as Miss Congeniality. Miss Turks & Caicos Jewel Selver withdrew from the competition the day before the finals, bringing down the total number of contestants to 83. 

     From a scale of 1 - 10, I give the production a solid 6. All this behind-the-scene talk about how great the production was going to be - proved to be exaggerated because what I saw was essentially similar in script and scenario of the productions of the last eight years. I understand the writers' objective to make the pageant relevant to modern times, but continuous attempts to glamourize the pageant - this time, by featuring talentless born-again-Christian-Britney-Spears-wannabe-reality-show-bimbette Heidi Montag and take-away-all-the-attention-for-a-few-minutes-from-Beyoncé ex-BFF Kelly Rowland who did her so-so spiel with I've-never-heard-of-this-nerdy-French-DJ David Guetta. It didn't help either to invite a rap artist like Flo Rida right-rounding the belles in their swimsuit. Rap music - which is one of the reasons for the dumbing down of American youth - has no place in a beauty pageant that seeks to promote excellence and sophistication. I miss those yesteryears when the girls performed in grand song and dance numbers and where the semifinalists were serenaded by world-class entertainers who could harmonize and enunciate clearly. Now, entertainment is provided by mediocre artists who can't tell the difference between a noun and an adjective. 

     Unlike her predecessor Dayana Mendoza whose victory was expected, Stefania's victory came as a big shock to many pageant fans, including myself. Virtually all my pageant friends expressed the same sentiment when Venezuela's name was called as the winner. The scores for the evening competition reveal that Venezuela was in fifth place with an 8.869 with the Dominican Republic as the leader with a 9.428. In the swimsuit round, Australia placed first with a 9.264, followed by the Dominican Republic with a 9.189, whereas Venezuela ranked fourth with an 8.760. The consensus among pageant fans - based on their comments on various message boards - is that Venezuela should have placed fifth; some claim that her finalist spot should have been given to France's Chloé Mortaud who was dazzling in her metalic silver gown. 

     In the swimsuit competition, the judges were not too kind to four Europeans who scored the lowest: Belgium (7.870), Sweden (7.830), Croatia (7.811) and Iceland (7.730). If my eyes don't deceive me, I swear that these four women look voluptuous, big-boned and healthy, compared to Dominican Republic (9.189), Kosovo (8.790), France (8.640) and Puerto Rico (8.533) who are runway slender. The preliminary judges must have preferred the Europeans' body type to advance them to the semifinal round, but that a different panel of judges (during the telecast) seem to have preferred the skinnier ones. In 2000, André Leon Talley judged the pageant and he gave Miss Spain and Miss Venezuela each a 7.00 in swimwear, even though the two women had incredibly fit bodies. Since the judges' names are no longer flashed on the TV screen, it's impossible to tell which judges this year gave low scores to the Europeans. The Europeans were out of the game, except for one still standing. 

     To me, Miss Kosovo Gona Dragusha (photo) was the most beautiful, the most elegant, and the most radiant of all the finalists, and as soon as she sashayed on stage in her gorgeous shimmering purple dress and with her hair in a bun, I was in total awe. In the many years that I have been watching the pageant, I have never seen a contestant so exquisite, so polished, so perfect as Gona Dragusha. Observers noticed her Audrey Hepburnesque styling - and like Audrey - Gona projected serenity, elegance and sweetness - as if Audrey had been reincarnated in this stunning Kosovar model. Gona's critics may not appreciate her Audreyness, but Gona is exactly the type of beauty queen that many of us - who are sick to death of silicone-stuffed Latin glamazons - crave for. And critics who bash Gona's updo coiffure are just plain ignorant; the bun is the preferred hairstyle of women of royalty (i.e. Thai monarchy, European princesses, Queen Victoria), and has been worn by several titleholders (mostly from the 1960s) and even by Lara Dutta in 2000. This year's Miss France contestants all sported an updo during the evening gown segment. And during the prelims, even Stefania wore her hair in a bun, both in her evening gown and national costume - which resembles the costume that Audrey Hepburn wore during the horse races in the Lerner & Lowe musical, "My Fair Lady." So yeah, Audrey's influence was très remarquée.

     Now as far as Gona's response to her final question asked by judge Dean Cain ("Pop superstar Justin Timberlake once said, 'The worst thing about famous is invasion of your privacy. What is it about fame that makes many people, including you, want to be famous?'") - Gona's response - through an interpreter - was: "All the experiences I've had so far have given me fame, and I feel famous. There are, though, other ways to feel famous and to be famous and those are intelligence and also beauty. Thank you." If there's one thing that bothers me the most about the Q & A segment is not so much the contestant's response as much as the interpreter's mediocre attempt to translate the answer. It appears that Gona's woman interpreter did not fully understand Dean Cain's question herself. Some may dislike Gona's seemingly humdrum delivery, but her delivery is typical of finalists from several decades. Review your Miss Universe tapes between 1964 and 1990 and you'll notice that nearly most of the finalists spoke in a ponderous, uninspiring tone. Generally speaking, Europeans are not as expressive, suggestive or gregarious as the Latins, and this could be a reason European girls do not advance far enough in the competition. It's a cultural "thang." We have become so conditioned to believe that the Latin "thang" is a prerequisite to winning, thus we are quick to punish a non-Latin contestant for not having enough chispa (spark), such as Miss Albania Hasna Xhukici who barely smiled in her bikini. 

     But who really cares how Gona and the other finalists answered their questions, as long as they answered them? No one choked, no one got nervous, and no one walked away with a half-complete answer, except Venezuela's Stefania Fernandez. Through an interpreter, Stefania's response to judge André Leon Talley's question - "In many parts of the world, obstacles still exist that impede women from achieving their goals in some corporations. What can women do to overcome this?" - seemed like an abstract cliché: "I believe that nowadays, we women have overcome many obstacles and I do believe that we have reached the same level as men have. We must realize that there are no longer any barriers amongst us." I've heard this response a million times, and it's a common one made by contestants who are not worldly or enlightened enough to elaborate on the still existing - and serious - issues that face women in developing countries. In theory, the Q & A segment is not always the determining factor in selecting the winner, especially if none of the five finalists this year gave an outstanding answer - which begs the question, "How did Venezuela win?" 

     The howls of protest from aggrieved fans - be it via online petitions, forums or sound bites - will not change the fact that Venezuela was declared as the winner. But these howls of protest could potentially be beneficial in influencing MUO to review its selection process and to remind them once and for all that even though Trump is the pageant owner, he doesn't own the Miss Universe culture. 

The Judges

  • KEISHA WHITAKER, former model and wife of actor/director/producer Forest Whitaker
  • TAMARA TUNIE, U.S. actress who appears on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
  • GEORGE MALOOF, JR., U.S. hotelier
  • FAROUK SHAMI, Egyptian-born founder and chairman of Farouk Systems, Inc.,
  • RICHARD LeFRAK, president of LeFrak Foundation
  • HEATHER KERZNER, ambassador for Kerzner International and their resorts
  • MATTHEW ROLSTON, U.S. photographer
  • DEAN CAIN, U.S. actor famous for playing Superman
  • COLIN COWIE, U.S. interior designer
  • VALERIA MAZZA, Argentine model
  • ANDRE LEON TALLEY, U.S. writer and editor-at-large for Vogue magazine
  • GERRY DEVEAUX, U.S. songwriter, producer & stylist

Text by Rafa Delfin   8/27/2009

Photo credits: The Miss Universe Organization 


Zohra Daoud

Interview with the first and only Miss Afghanistan

EARLIER this year when I was cruising the Internet searching for sites related to Afghanistan, I stumbled upon a link that features an interview of Zohra Daoud with ABC News. I was so fascinated by Zohra's life story that I decided to write to her. I don't even remember how I got her e-mail, but somehow I did. After a few correspondences, she decided to be interviewed. During my recent trip to California, I had wanted to visit with Zohra who lives in Los Angeles, but unfortunately my limited schedule did not allow me to see her. Then I remembered that she had planned to return to Afghanistan on July 15th, so I also assumed that she probably would not have time to entertain a visitor as she prepared for her trip. 

When I asked Zohra if she could contribute photos of her for this interview, she replied that I could use the same photos that appeared on her ABC News interview from two years ago. In one of her e-mails, she replied, "I didn't change much. I've just gotten a bit older." Little does Zohra know that she is a celebrity in her own right; after all, she is the first and so far the only Miss Afghanistan. Zohra's celebrity status is not strictly defined by her pageant experience as much as it is by her humanitarian deeds. Zohra is Afghanistan: she has been oppressed, liberated, and is now helping her people to achieve freedom.

Rafa: What prompted you to join the Miss Afghanistan pageant?

     I was a very good student. I thought it was an opportunity for me and for the rest of the young Afghan girls to participate in the contest to promote high education and academic achievement.

Rafa: How were the candidates judged?

     The contestants were judged based on their academic knowledge and how they carried themselves in the society. They were judged by a panel of Afghan scholars. Hundreds of girls from different parts of the country participated, and only five of us were chosen. There wasn't any swimsuit contest involved, because back then Afghanistan was a very conservative society and a woman's character and brains were more important than her face or body.

Rafa: You came to the U.S. as a political refugee. Why did you flee Afghanistan? How long did it take for you to finally arrive to America?

     I did not like communism and it took my husband and me six months to come to the U.S.

Rafa: You are very cultured and highly educated. You have a degree in French from Kabul University. Why did you not go to France?

     I was married to a young Afghan pilot who was educated in the U.S. and we made a decision to come to America.

Rafa: Describe your first impression about the United States. Did you get culture shock? 

     I never got a culture shock because I was familiar with the American lifestyle. My father was the first Afghan who was educated in the U.S. and he taught me about the American way of life, but to become a political refugee and to lose all my status was not an easy thing to do. It took me forever to cope with it.

Rafa: How long did it take for you to adjust to the American way of life?

     I learned English very fast because my second language was French and that helped me out a lot.

Rafa: Describe your experience working in a French bakery in Virginia? How long did you work there?

     I worked for six months in a French bakery. It was a totally new experience. I came from a very different background, but I accepted my new harsh reality.

Rafa: Since you moved to America, have you experienced any type of discrimination whatsoever? If you have, how did you react and handle it?

     So far, I haven't experienced any discrimination, especially since I live in Los Angeles which is a very diverse city. I don't feel like a foreigner, but after September 11th I felt that I didn't belong to America. Slowly, when the picture changed, I decided to fight ignorance by educating people about my heritage.

Rafa: As an immigrant myself, I understand the hardship that a new immigrant has to go through to make a better life in America. Would you say that America is the best country in the world in terms of providing many opportunities for immigrants to improve their lives?

     I still think that the U.S. is the best country in the world. If someone works hard, he or she will make the American dream come true. I know so many Afghans who came to this country without anything but they still made it.

Rafa: Have you returned to Afghanistan since you left? If not, do you have any intention of visiting?

     Since I left Afghanistan, I never returned. I have made plans to go back this summer for a few weeks.

Rafa: Do you think that it was right for American troops to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban? Why or why not?

     There's no doubt that Americans liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban, because they felt the pain themselves. However, if the September 11th attacks had never occurred, would the Americans have still wanted to liberate the Afghans from the Taliban?

Rafa: What do you think of the current government in Afghanistan?

     The current government in Afghanistan is not exactly perfect, but the officials are doing their best. The most important thing is that the Afghan people need to feel secure first before they can choose. Unfortunately the war lords are still in power and the world failed to keep its promises to rebuild Afghanistan's infrastructures.

Rafa: How do Afghans perceive liberty or freedom? Is it different or similar to the Western concept?

     We all want democracy to flourish in Afghanistan, but at what price? Afghanistan has been ruled by the gun for the past 23 years. Instead of introducing democracy right away, it is better to restore law and order first and then implement freedom and economic opportunity later.

Rafa: As you know, since 9/11, many Muslims in America have experienced a tremendous backlash. To many Americans, Islam and the Muslim way of life is not compatible with the U.S. Constitution which separates church and state. The truth is, many people from both sides are ignorant of the other's belief system, thus, you will always find disagreement and perhaps total suspicion of each other. Since one of Islam's goal is world domination, do you think that it will succeed in converting the entire world?

     Islam's goal is not to dominate the world. On the contrary others want to dominate the world including Islamic countries. Islam is a way of life for Muslims. During the height of Islam, Islamic fundamentals were based on election and democracy; what we see today in the Islamic countries is a result of European colonialism, poverty and hopelessness and that is why mosques became a place for political gatherings of hopeless Muslim youth. Also, Islam is very diverse; it becomes even more complicated in societies with mixed cultures and religions. If one wants to know more of Islam, one must read the Qu'ran.

Rafa: Let's talk about beauty pageants. As you know, beauty contests have helped many young women fulfill their dreams; some have went on to become doctors, lawyers, educators, celebrities and politicians. Give us your honest opinion of beauty pageants and the women who participate in them. Would you allow your daughter(s), if you have any, to participate in beauty pageants? Why or why not?

     I still strongly believe in beauty pageants. I am sure the criteria is different in each part of the world. In the West and America the focus is on physical beauty, because the television has a very strong impact on people's lives and on their sense of judgment. Personally, I am not for swimsuit, I think we should focus more on inner beauty than body but if this society wants to go for it, in my opinion, is another way of exploiting women. I leave it up to my daughter to make the decision and choose what she wants, but I would love to see her follow my footsteps.



Miss Guatemala 2009 Scandal - May 27, 2009

Dethroned Miss Guatemala 2008 Jennifer Chiong crashes the Miss Guatemala 2009 pageant and disses the organizers; judge removes her from stage by force 



Sylvia Lee - Couturier for Miss Universe Australia 2011

Miss Universe Australia Scherri-Lee Biggs dressed to take on the Universe

Introducing Sylvia Lee – couturier for Miss Universe Australia 2011

by Peter Sereno for Critical Beauty

It’s not every day that you meet a person like Sylvia Lee. A walking paradox, it’s hard for me to come to terms that this talented young designer came from a background of software engineering. Looking at her whimsical, romantic and strangely twisted silhouettes and fabric combinations you would think that this young woman filled her waking hours with fairytales and cotton candy – not books on formulas and codes.

I have known Sylvia for quite some time now. We first made contact in early May 2010 at the launch of the Miss Universe Australia competition. She kindly offered her creations for those girls that needed a hand with their dresses, directing me to her Facebook site (how very generation Y!) www.facebook.com/sylvialeedesigns.

I was blown away by the intricacy of the designs and her understanding of lines, silhouettes and fabric. The hand of the designer is felt and seen in every piece and THAT is what makes high fashion.

Beyond the whimsical look flows an under current of strength and structure, with a boldness and bravado in mixing fabrics and colors that is both unconventional but inspired. In her I found a kindred spirit when it came to matters of fashion and glamour. Imagine my joy when Sylvia was selected to be the designer of choice for Miss Universe Australia’s evening gown in 2011.

Five laborious weeks of sweat, blood and tears Sylvia has come up with what appears to be in my humble opinion, the sexiest and most glamorous evening gown a Miss Universe Australia has worn since Jennifer Hawkins in 2004. Strangely enough, this gown shares some similarities to the Bora Couture gown Jennifer wore in Ecuador.

Born in South Korea but raised in Australia, Sylvia did not receive much familial support for her fashion obsession.

”Having my parents strongly disapprove of me undertaking fashion studies after high school, I studied software engineering at the University of NSW and managed to finish my degree and work in the industry. I felt eternally unfulfilled”.

So she played the role of dutiful daughter until a friend convinced her to enroll in a course at the prestigious Fashion Design Studio (formerly known as East Sydney TAFE).

Under the guidance and tutelage of the great Nicholas Huxley, Sylvia stretched the limits of her creativity while getting practical experience with masters such as Giorgio Armani, Akira Isogawa and Fleur Wood.

“I worked for Mr. Armani for two years. I have had the honour of meeting him and listening to him talk to and advise me in Italian, with his translator beside him translating his very words. It was truly an experience”.

She has since won numerous industry awards – notably the 2009 Flair Awards Designer of the Year and 2010 Styled Awards Designer of the Year. Such accolades confirmed that it was time for Sylvia to launch her own label.

Currently a bridal couture designer, Sylvia’s collections are inspired by period costume, art and music with juxtapositioning and stark constant feature.

“Couture is about custom design. Custom made and lots of hand work. I love it because it gives me the freedom to be more creative, break boundaries, be more unique and special and more extravagant.”

Her creation for Miss Universe Australia in my humble opinion must be the best evening gown a Miss Australia Universe has worn in the decades I have been watching the pageant (and I have about two and a half decades worth under my belt).

The gold bustier with a nude beige tulle is encrusted with Swarovski crystals and and silver lace is sexy, elegant and gasp worthy. Fitted perfectly to show off Scherri-Lee’s curves in a mermaid silhouette it cascades into a cloud of tulle. The translucent fabric gives a peek-a-boo effect to her legs, but subtle enough not to make it vulgar.

My prediction is that debutantes and brides all around Australia will soon be emulating this style.

Expect our representative to make waves in Brazil with this gown.

According to Scherri-Lee, who couldn’t be happier, “If I saw this on the rack (and you wouldn’t) this is the kind I would go for. Maybe I will wear this for my wedding!”

Strength in self reinforced by knowing one’s own identity is Sylvia Lee. A dedicated and proud couturier, her passion drives her to go harder and to prove that you can only turn your back on your passions and dreams for so long – it eventually catches up! With plans to open an online boutique soon, remember the name – you saw it here first!


Remembering the Little Sisters

"You are my star, you light my way, you brighten all my nights and make my day..."

THE LITTLE SISTERS (1983-1995) define an era that I deem the Golden Age of Miss Universe. Admittedly, I confess that I accidentally stumbled upon the Miss Universe broadcast on CBS only the year previous to the Little Sisters' debut at the St. Louis, Missouri pageant. Ever since that hot and humid night in July 1983, the evening gown segment of the annual telecast would rank as my absolutely most favorite part of the entire production. The Parade of Nations and the culminating crowning moment came in a somewhat distant second and third place, respectively.

Some neophyte may ask what the big deal was when a bunch of kids gave flowers to the Top Ten as they modeled evening wear. To me, the Little Sisters ritual transformed the Miss Universe telecast into a magical and seemingly royal event. The evening gown competition back then was far from the catwalk show of today in which bare legs and hanging cleavage have replaced the signature sashes bearing the names of sovereign nations. The Little Sisters endowed the pageant with more than a healthy dose of elegance, class, and downright puppy-dog-and-lollipop warmth and fuzziness. It was all rolled into the ten minutes for which I waited a whole calendar year. So let me go on about it: year by year.


1983 There was nothing exotic about the venue, St. Louis, Missouri. No catch-phrases to learn in a foreign language, no colorful folkloric dances. Bob Barker announced that every beauty delegate was assigned a little sister: a local youngster (age 3-9) who would wear the banner of her "big sister" and accompany, look up to, and root for every contestant. The eighty-or-so little girls sported identical knee-length frilly white party dresses and white Mary Janes with white stockings. All wore white ribbons in their hair and belted out the very first Little Sisters musical medley known as "You Are My Universe." This early melody (pre-dating "You Are My Star") simply sounded too corny for the grand occasion, but for the first four years, the sisters would smoothly switch to "You Are So Beautiful [To Me]" during the second half of the evening gown presentation. The Little Sisters presented a small bridesmaid-style bouquet (streamers and all) of white flowers to each of the twelve (sic)semi-finalists.

1984 In its second year, the Little Sisters' appearance at Miss Universe replicated the "Easter Sunday" uniforms from the year before. The venue was Miami, Florida, but the background scenery was so plain and dull, the pageant could have been held in Anywhere USA. The 1984 sisters represented all races: Black, White, Asian, etc. So did the 1984 semi-finalists.

In sharp contrast to 1983 in which eight of the twelve semi-finalists were of European origin and in which only two token semi-finalists represented all of Asia [Singapore] and Latin America [Venezuela], the 1984 Top Ten turned out to be a complex ethnographic representation of the Universe. The host representative, Miss USA, was half-Chinese and half-Irish. It was no wonder her national costume was appropriately symbolic of Native American culture. Miss Thailand grew up in LA and spoke 'perfect' English. No one in the audience batted an eyelash when Miss Holland (a tall, svelte black model) and Miss South Africa (a green-eyed blonde) were both named as part of the Top Ten.

As for the evening gowns featured, Miss Philippines delighted the audience with a multi-colored sari wrap-around with a flowing scarf. Miss Sweden wore an excruciatingly modest ice-blue lacy dress with matching cape. She looked like she had just finished playing the role of the Blue Fairy in Disney's Pinocchio. Miss Holland modeled an elegant black strapless with black elbow-length gloves. Miss South Africa showcased a 1950's-style ballgown in a striking crimson color and Miss Venezuela concluded the presentation with a princess-like royal blue gown with 'poofy' shoulders trailed by a fluttering train.

1985 Third year of the Little Sisters. Second year of the Little Sisters......in Miami. In my opinion, not much stood out - at least aesthetically - this year. Historically speaking, though, 1985 was a progressive time for the Miss Universe pageant. The crown was won by the second Puerto Rican in fifteen years, the USA was represented by a Mexican-born woman from Texas, and perhaps for the very first time ever, a black African [Miss Zaire] not only became a finalist, but finished as 2nd runner-up. Only the year before, a white Miss South Africa came in as 1st runner-up and only seven years previously, a white South African was crowned Miss Universe by succeeding a black lady from Trinidad and Tobago. Miss Universe fans of the very vintage kind (such as myself) will fondly remember how the whole Universe was rocked when, in her turn in 1977, Janelle Commissiong became the first black woman to sit on the Miss Universe throne. It would be until the near-end of the century, in 1999, that the Miss Universe crown would come to rest on the head of an African-origin queen representing a free and independent African nation [Botswana]. By 1985, it still seemed like Europeans and Americans (from the whole Western Hemisphere) would dominate the contest indefinitely.

I wonder if some of the Little Sisters (who happened to be Black or Asian) would inwardly ask themselves if they would ever get to see one of the Big Sisters who shared their darker skin and features get to wear the big crown and take the victory walk waving to the crowd amidst the thunderous applause. In 1984, the Miami Little Sisters were witnesses to a blonde Miss Universe [New Zealand] crowning another blonde Miss Universe [Sweden]. In 1985, those same Miami sisters saw a green-eyed brunette from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean isle of Puerto Rico ascend the throne without shedding any tears or quaking her chin. Thus began the Latin American streak of Miss Universo.

1986 The Republic of Panama was the host country and this the year the catch-phrase to learn in Spanish was "Mi Nombre es Panam?" [My name is Panama]. I was very impressed with the background scenes and the dance numbers - performed by the Ballet Folklórico de Panamá - which peppered the whole production. The scene for the evening gown presentation was quite elaborate. The audience takes a peek into a lively street scene at night in Panama City. We see the French-influenced architecture of the turn of the last century coupled with a troupe of traditional folk dancers. The lady dancers overwhelmed the stage with their "polleras" - the full-skirted white dress of ladies from Central America and the Caribbean. As the ladies retreated with their ample skirts, we discover a kiosk in the center of the Plaza Mayor.

At the foot of the kiosk, ten little girls holding very simple floral arrangements eagerly awaited the appearance of their Big Sisters. The Top Ten, each in turn, stepped down from the kiosk and greeted the Little Sisters assigned to them. I noticed with not-so-minor disappointment that the other sixty-or-so Little Sisters (those assigned to delegates who did not go into the semi-finals) were relegated to the far right corner of the Panamanian panorama. From this rather isolated vantage point, the 1986 sisters delivered the final rendition of "You Are My Universe." By the end of the night, the Universe belonged to Barbara Palacios Teyde of Venezuela.


1987 Surprising Singapore was the venue. The scene for the evening gown competition was an Oriental moon gate surrounded by the Singaporean Little Sisters. Bob Barker (in his last year as emcee) introduced this year's sisters by proclaiming one of them may grow up to become Miss Universe 2000. A star WAS born that night: the Little Sisters anthem, "You Are My Star", which became such a long-standing tradition until 1994. Years later, almost anyone who has heard this strikingly poignant melody will instantly recognize it as the song lauding the 'celestial' qualities of Miss Universe contestants.

The gowns this year were so 1980's funky/psychedelic. Wearing a glove-fitting "Chinese red" tunic, Miss Italy was the first semi-finalist to pass through the moon gate. The exotic lady who followed in a raven-black strapless with black opera gloves was Miss Philippines. Miss Venezuela and Miss Sweden imitated each other by modeling high-necked pink gowns with overstated pink ruffles at the bottom. Miss Peru 'took the cake' with a strapless which seemed to be molded out of a teal-colored aluminum foil!! Miss USA's selection was a traditional princess gown in violet. The host delegate, Miss Singapore, also wore a princess gown in a scarlet color, and the bust was enveloped by a trellis of black lacework. Miss Chile's white strapless was beautiful with a long, flowing train. The Universal crown, which would soon sit on her head, could have been effortlessly substituted by a bridal veil. To end on a completely bridal note, the flowers at the 1987 contest were bouquets of purple, pink, and fuchsia orchids.

1988 The charm and splendor of Cathay (ancient China) provided the setting for the pageant held in Taipei. The Taiwanese dance troupe and the fairy tale scenery divulged sheer delight to the senses. This year's evening gown presentation is so visually stunning that I rank it as my favorite in the history of pageantry. Ten beautiful maidens have been invited to a ceremony to be held in the gardens of the Emperor's palace. The Taiwanese dancers initiate the ceremony by silently marching in with Chinese lanterns. Once the "guards of honor" have taken their posts, the sixty-six Little Sisters of Taiwan (who are attired in traditional Chinese brocade) serenade each of the ten semi-finalists as they glide across the drum bridge straddling an imaginary bubbling brook. The Top Ten are presented with the national flower of the Republic of China [Taiwan] - the plum blossom.


The gowns selected by many of the semi-finalists fit in perfectly with the fairy-tale theme. Miss Hong Kong wore a knee-length "prom frock" in carnation pink with pink roses and black velvet (?) leaves and stems as part of her bodice. Miss USA presented herself in a black strapless with embroidery work in silver depicting delicate branches and leaves. Miss Japan resembled the Empress herself in an imperial red ballgown with a matching train fastened by red rosettes. Miss Korea, who finished 1st runner-up, was truly the Cinderella of the event, looking the part in a mint green ballgown with a delicately flowing train secured by an imposing bow in the back. But the queen of the ball (and the Universe) was a supremely composed Miss Thailand.

1989 The Caribbean region of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula hosted the seventy-six delegates to the 1989 contest. Cancun (in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo) was the venue. The Little Sisters of Mexico sat on the steps of a Mayan pyramid to salute the Top Ten with the "You Are My Star" anthem. There is a fade-out to the tender moment the delegates first meet their Little Sisters prior to the telecast. At the foot of the pyramid and after receiving a pink rose, each Miss executes an unflattering mini-catwalk strut at center stage. Up until that point in MU history, the contestants were required to gracefully stroll around in a small circle instead. This microscopic deviation from protocol was a telling sign of things to come in the late 1990's (when the pageant gets "Trumped").

1989 THE CARIBBEAN REGION of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula hosted the seventy-six delegates to the 1989 contest. Cancun (in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo) was the venue. The Little Sisters of Mexico sat on the steps of a Mayan pyramid to salute the Top Ten with the You Are My Star anthem. There is a fade-out to the tender moment the delegates first meet their Little Sisters prior to the telecast. At the foot of the pyramid and after receiving a pink rose, each Miss executes an unflattering mini-catwalk strut at center stage. Up until that point in MU history, the contestants were required to gracefully stroll around in a small circle instead. This microscopic deviation from protocol was a telling sign of things to come in the late 1990's (when the pageant gets "Trumped").


1990 THE LITTLE SISTERS' getup stole the show this year. Since the venue was Hollywood, what better costumes than the black-and-white polka-dotted Shirley Temple dresses (lollipops not included)? Elegance wed pure kitsch as each of the semi-finalists stepped down from a high pedestal and descended some very steep-looking stairs to receive a rose from a Little Sister. Haute couture made an alliance with ethnic pride. Miss India wore a gold/copper foil gown and she moved as seductively as a king cobra. Miss Turkey showcased her Middle Eastern heritage by modeling a coral harem-style satin pantsuit accessorized by an ivory-colored sheer gauze opera coat. I loved how you could still read Miss Turkey's banner through the transparent material. Miss USA Carole Gist (the first African/American to represent the USA**) had a sparkling red gown especially made to complement her dark skin. The eventual winner, Miss Norway, was the epitome of a cake-top bridesmaid in a white strapless with a white rosette and bow attached at the waist.

**Halle Berry (aka Catwoman) represented the United States at the 1986 Miss World pageant in London. She acquired this distinction upon becoming the 1st runner-up at the 1986 Miss USA pageant.

1991 By 1991 (Las Vegas), it seems like the Little Sisters concept was never going to grow up and get out, just like Peter Pan. In reference to Peter Pan, the sisters wore ankle-length "Wendy" night shifts with black shoes and white stockings. What happened to the white Mary Janes? As much as we adore the Little Sisters, we the fans are noticing that they are beginning to become just a wee bit stale. I'm surprised they managed to cling on for a few more years.

1992 "THE KING AND I" meets Miss Universe in Bangkok, Thailand. Seventy-eight little Thai girls in native costume sit around a Buddhist temple from which the ten semi-finalists emerge. The only three semi-finalists wearing red gowns became the Top Three: Misses Namibia, Colombia, and India. Miss Namibia and Miss Colombia "carried off" their gowns with the most queenly grace, but Miss India executed her runway walk with a hint of urgency. As the only 'Asian' semi-finalist however, we did appreciate how adeptly she greeted her Little Sister in the Thai custom of placing the palms together and bowing. Modeling a Grecian-style aquamarine strapless with a silver bust, a raven-haired Miss Venezuela rendered a Thai 'greeting' which appeared somewhat affected and not as natural or authentic as Miss India's. Miss Australia wore a silver strapless accentuating the ends of her blonde hair cut in a severely straight line. Although her hairline was indeed stern, Miss Australia's expression was continually wide-eyed and innocent. The other semi-finalist from Oceania, Miss New Zealand, wore a gown that resembled something short of a magician's assistant costume. It was a downright 'd?class?' outfit bathed in an emerald green glitter. During the semi-final interviews, Miss New Zealand impressed me as cocky and self-assured without being arrogant. Her confidence alone, though, would not rescue her from her choice of evening gown. Miss Belgium, a blonde Betty Boop, followed Miss New Zealand's example with the exception that Miss Belgium opted to show off much more cleavage. A painfully shy creature in the form of Miss Sweden with classic Scandinavian looks timidly stepped down from the Buddhist temple in an austere, medieval-looking snow-white tunic. She instantly reminded me of the character of Desdemona in my favorite of all Shakespearean plays, "Othello." The most tender moment of this year's presentation occurred when the Little Sister accompanying Miss USA (a California blonde) waved to the audience as if she were Miss Universe and Miss USA was merely her "Big Sister"!!!


1993 PRETTY MUCH a repeat of the 1989 presentation in Cancun. Although I am not very proud of the boisterous manner in which the Mexico City audience booed and heckled the Top Ten (namely Miss USA) simply because Miss Mexico did not advance to the semi-finals. Miss Colombia: I liked her very long hair when it was down for the interview and swimsuit competitions. For the evening gown segment, she simply looked too "ghetto" for my taste. Too much make-up and the poor thing could barely walk in those six-inch heels and heavy, cumbersome train. Miss Colombia possessed striking, dark ethnic features and the black evening gown did not bring them out well, I think. Unbecoming plum-colored lipstick as well.

Miss Australia: The single, curly bang was quite distracting. She wore it all night.

Miss India: The copper-colored gown reminded me of the one worn by Miss India in 1990.

Miss Spain: Her large protruding eyes and the slimming gown with the veil trimmed with feathers made Miss Spain look like a rare, tropical jungle bird. The sky-blue feathers around her neck did it.

Miss Czech Republic: Her simple and stark black dress matched her dark hair and eyes to make this Miss resemble the kinder of Cinderella's step-sisters. Miss Czechoslovakia was the blonde version in 1990.

Miss Puerto Rico: The future Mrs. Marc Anthony made use of her train trailing her white strapless by making it 'float' during her ten-second spot in the limelight. Miss Puerto Rico 1995 was more effective in executing this "flourish."

Miss USA: Others may vehemently disagree, but I loved the mango-yellow gown worn by Miss USA. I appreciate contestants wearing new and exciting colors at pageants plagued by the old stand-by colors of black and white.

Miss Brazil: This contestant was reminiscent of the epoch when beauty delegates actually resembled debutantes. It takes a special lady to work the "butterfly wings" of this ballgown the way Miss Brazil did.

Miss Finland: Another debutante look-alike. The overstated opera gloves and the large medallion gracing her throat were the accessories that made Miss Finland's gown.

Miss Venezuela: Many critics at the time observed that Venezuela's Miss looked "titanic" with the huge bell-shaped skirt. All I noticed was that her Little Sister almost tripped trying to escape the ample mandarin-orange folds of the infamously large skirt.
1994 THIS WAS the Year of the Little Sister (in Manila, Philippines). A glorious sunset glowing through an elaborate gateway was the setting from which the Top Ten emerged to be serenaded with the eighth, and final, version of You Are My Star. The Little Sisters assigned to the ten semi-finalists also acted as standard-bearers since, for the first time ever, the Top Ten appeared without banners during an evening gown competition. At the end of the telecast, the Manila Little Sisters occupied a prominent place of honor in the front part of the stage during the crowning of Miss Universe, Sushmita Sen of India. As the final credits roll, we see the Little Sisters disperse and float across the stage in their swan-white Filipina mestiza costumes.

BY 1995, THE LITTLE SISTERS were unfortunately regarded as an afterthought. In that final year, the pageant was held for the first time in continental Africa. Namibia was the country of choice since MU 1992 hailed from this new nation on the Atlantic coast. The You Are My Star anthem had been dropped in favor of Deep Forest's Forest Hymn. The New Age musical selection was a refreshing (and appropriate) change for many. The scene was the vast Namibian desert under moonlight and the very last Little Sister to accompany a semi-finalist in an evening gown competition was the one assigned to Miss USA (and by the end of the night, Miss Universe) Chelsi Smith.




Rafa's Blog - 9.1.2010

| 09.01.10 | Wednesday

"To translate or not to translate?"

     That's the question that is currently being debated by pageant fans on the Internet - this in the light of Miss Philippines Venus Raj's allegedly skewed response to her question during the finals of Miss Universe 2010. Judge William Baldwin asked her the following question: ""What is one big mistake you made in your life and what did you do to make it right?" Venus's response: "You know what, sir, in my 22 years of existence, I can say there is nothing major, major - I mean, problems - that I have done in my life, because I am very confident with my family with the love that they are given to me. So... Thank you so much that I am here! Thank you, thank so much!"

     Some critics argue that if Venus had asked for an interpreter (Filipino being her native language), then she could've given a "better" response. But as I had suggested in my earlier blog entry, all speculation is purely immaterial because no one else knows Venus but herself and that no one knows what's going on in her mind except herself. In a recent interview on Philippine TV, Venus had been asked by MUO if she would need an interpreter, to which she said no. There was no need for one because she already spoke fluent English. English is the official language of instruction in the Philippines, and even though less than half of the Filipino population speak English fluently, well-educated Filipinos like Venus should be able to carry on a decent conversation in English with foreigners. Setting aside the run-of-the-mill syntax of Venus's statement, her English was passable in the sense that she was understood, at least by those who speak English. Her rather emotional delivery is reflected on her excitement of having reached the finals, compounded by the thunderous cheers and applause she was getting from her compatriots in the audience.

     If Venus had answered in Filipino, and considering the fact that she was emotionally overwhelmed, she still might have generated the same response. Besides, excellent translation is never guaranteed, and the "best" answers do not always guarantee a victory. The following Puerto Rican beauties - whose native language is not English and whose delivery was not always stellar - all won the Miss Universe crown by responding in English: Marisol Malaret (1970), Deborah Carthy Deu (1985), and Denise Quiñones (2001). Add to this roster Miss Universe 1991 from Mexico, Lupita Jones, Miss Universe 2008 Dayana Mendoza from Venezuela and the two Miss Universe winners from the Philippines - Gloria Diaz (1969) and Margarita Moran (1973). And of course, one cannot forget Melanie Marquez who - in her most bizarre and comical English - won the third Miss International crown for the Philippines in 1979. These women did not use translators to convey their responses. They won not because of the content of their answers, but because they were confident enough to answer in English. Apparently, Venus shared the same confidence as these winners.

     So to answer the question, "To translate or not to translate?" - ask for an interpreter if you feel you're not confident enough to answer in English. If you feel that you have enough confidence, then skip the interpreter and answer in your best English - spontaneously, smilingly, and "major major" sincerely. That's all I have to say. Thank you! LOL