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Miss Universe 2011

Angola wins its first crown
Lowest rated show in pageant history despite media-grabbing controversies

LEILA LOPES, a 25-year-old student from Benguela who was crowned September 12 during a live telecast from the Credicard Hall in São Paulo, Brazil. Lopes's victory marks the first Miss Universe crown for Angola which started competing in 1998. She's also the fourth woman from Africa and the fourth black woman to win the title (1). Her court includes 1st runner-up Olesia Stefanko, 23, of the Ukraine; 2nd runner-up Priscila Machado, 25, of Brazil; 3rd runner-up Shamcey Supsup, 25, of the Philippines; and 4th runner-up Luo Zilin, 24, of China. Eighty-nine beauties competed in this year's pageant which was held for the first time in Brazil, the largest country in South America and home of the capoeira, the feijoada, the bossa nova and the samba!

In the top 10 were the contestants from Australia (Scherri-Lee Biggs), France (Laury Thilleman), Costa Rica (Johanna Solano), Panama (Sheldry Saez), and Portugal (Laura Goncalves). Completing the group of 15 quarter-finalists were Viviana Ortiz of Puerto Rico Alyssa Campanella of USA, Aferdita Dreshaj of Kosovo, Kelly Weekers of the Netherlands, Catalina Robayo of Colombia and Vanessa Goncalves of Venezuela. A sixteenth semifinal spot went to Portugal who was selected by fans via online voting. This is the first time that Portugal has ever placed in the pageant's 60-year history. Earlier during the show, special awards were given to Panama (winner of Best National Costume Award), Montenegro's Nikolina Loncar who was voted Miss Congeniality by her peers; and Sweden's Ronnia Fornstedt was elected Miss Photogenic by professional photographers.

SAY IT TO MY FACEBOOK : Last year, I attended the Miss Universe pageant for the first time in Las Vegas, Nevada. This year, I watched the live telecast from the comfort of my living room, alone. Well, actually, not quite alone as I was chatting with CB fans online via the CB Facebook page; I have never watched a live telecast of the pageant and chatted online at the same time, so this was quite monumental to me! When Angola was proclaimed the winner, I immediately posted the following Facebook status which generated positive reactions (profiles and names have been blurred out for privacy):

Though not quite Audrey Hebpurn - the quintessential personification of feminine grace, style and elegance - Leila nevertheless emits Hepburnesque radiance in her bearing and in her manner of speaking. I certainly underestimated her, and like many pageant fans who hadn't included her on their trite list of front runners, Leila came out of mediocrity (as evidenced by her unimpressive performance in the preliminaries) to shoot to the top of the finals. It's like revisiting Dayanara Torres's situation in 1993. Remember Dayanara from Puerto Rico? She slipped past the heavy favorites from Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela to win the coveted crown, much to the surprise of mostly everyone. Critics harangued Dayanara with every uncongenial word under the sun, only to absolve themselves later when Dayanara proved them all wrong. Leila's critics are few, and they're bound to evaporate into thin air when they get to know more of her.

On the other hand, the Brazilian delegate Priscila Machado had been lambasted continuously ever since she won Miss Brazil last July 23rd. A photo, released a few days before the national pageant, showed a topless Priscila. Another photo surfaced on the Internet showing a topless Priscila hugging another topless woman (this photo is allegedly from a soft-core porn movie in which Priscila appeared under the name "Sara.") Angry Brazilians protested Priscila's election, claiming that Priscila is not a good representative of their country based on the controversial photos and inconsistencies in her story. They also criticized the Miss Brazil organization for bending the rules on modesty. Pageant officials defended Priscila by saying that the topless photo had been released without Priscila's permission. The Priscila hate-fest carried on during the preliminaries (Sept. 8) when she was booed by the locals. In her Twitter account, a defiant Priscila posted the following status a few hours after the prelims: "Respect is something good, and we all appreciate it. I work hard, seriously, and I have high morals. Nobody in this world has the right to judge me".(2)

IT'S A CROTCHY UNIVERSE : While the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) kept mum about the Priscila scandal, they were quick to condemn Miss Colombia Catalina Robayo's alleged lack of modesty during one official appearance in which she was photographed sitting down, wearing a bright orange dress, with legs uncrossed - and thus revealing her "panty-less" crotch. Despite Robayo's claim that she was wearing an underwear, the scandal spawned a Facebook page, "Catalina Robayo - Pantyless Miss Universe" which has already been removed. Earlier, MUO had to return bikini bottoms from sponsor Catalina Brasil Swimwear after they were ruled too risqué for primetime television. How funny that the swimwear sponsor's name - Catalina - is the same as Miss Colombia's. And did you notice that MUO's silence regarding Priscila's topless pics loudly suggests that a woman's naked upper body is less daunting and more universally tolerable than a woman's naked lower part? What would Jesus say? LOL! 

A crotch is a crotch is a crotch. Exposed or not. Consider Miss Australia Scherri-Lee Biggs's dilemma. Less than a week before the prelims, the designer of Scherri's gown, Sylvia Lee (read her write-up by Peter Sereno) wrote to me expressing dismay over MUO's demand that Scherri's gown be altered because it was "too revealing" - to which I replied that it was "pure B.S." as there have been far more revealing gowns worn by contestants in the past and that they were allowed to wear them. Anyway, Sylvia ended up creating a very short nude-colored skirt that she handed to Scherri's boyfriend so he could take it with him to São Paulo, along with Sylvia's instructions for the MUO seamstress. But instead of using the short skirt that Sylvia had created, the seamstress used, according to Sylvia - and without her consent - "a disgusting knee-length skirt to go underneath" (see center photo above). I advised Sylvia to write to MUO president Paula Shugart to verbalize her concerns because as the designer, you wouldn't want anyone tampering with your creation. Finally, MUO acquiesced to Sylvia's request to allow Scherri to wear the gown in its original and non-vulgar peek-a-boo splendor. Now whether or not the original design spoiled Scherri's chances in advancing to top 5, one can only pretend never to know the answer to that question.

IT'S A TRICKY UNIVERSE : In every competition, there's a winner and there are losers. Miss Universe is not only a competition for beautiful women, but also for those involved with their preparations. Whoever prepared or trained Leila and the other finalists certainly deserves utmost recognition. Perhaps the biggest loser is the Miss Indonesia Foundation who allegedly had spent "hundreds of millions of dollars to bring MUO Talent Director Roston Ogata directly to Indonesia to provide training for 11 days."(3) Miss Indonesia Nadine Alexandra failed to make the cut. Ogata was also instrumental in refining the Russian candidate Natalia Gantimurova, and like Nadine, Natalia missed the mark. Ogata left MUO last April to launch his own pageant coaching services which, so far - based on his two pupils' lackluster performance - have been ineffectual. Ines Ligron, who had successfully trained several Japanese queens including Riyo Mori (Miss Universe 2007), also found herself blindsided by the surprising exclusion from the semifinals of her protégé Miss Malaysia, Deborah Henry whom everyone had expected either to win or to reach a decent placement. Even more afflicted was Magali Febles, the national director for Haiti and the Dominican Republic; this is the second consecutive year that both countries were shut out of the competition. In 2007, Febles for the first time had taken over the franchises for Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and neither country placed. Rumor has it that Febles's streak of bad luck is caused by her inability to pay the franchise fees. Or perhaps she's lost her mojo.

IT'S A SHRINKING UNIVERSE : And what about us pageant fans? Aren't we losers ourselves? Many of us feel shortchanged by the marginal display of national costumes of which only ten of the best were shown during the telecast. More importance (and airtime) was placed on the Sherri Hill dresses that the contestants wore during the opening. And considering that the pageant was celebrating its 60th anniversary, we were expecting to see former titleholders to grace the telecast, but alas, it didn't happen. Instead, we were treated to a video montage of the crowning moments of selected past titleholders from six continents. From a business perspective, it would have been too costly to fly out and to accommodate them. That's understandable. MUO could have at least invited the two former winners from Brazil - Ieda Maria Vargas (1963) and Martha Vasconcellos (1968) to help with the coronation. And it would have certainly added a glamorous touch to have two former titleholders in charge of the color commentary instead of former Miss USA Shandi Finnessey and "How Do I Look?" host Jeannie Mai who subjected viewers to some of the most gauche comments in pageant broadcasting.

On Miss Australia, Shandi says: “She holds a special interest in holistic health. In fact, health is the first section she reads in the newspaper. First of all, the fact that she’s even picking up a newspaper? Smart and beautiful.” Underlying message: beautiful women rarely read but ordinary ones do. And on Miss Netherlands, Shandi says: "She wants to be a child psychologist. But right now, she’s a male psychologist. I know a lot of men that would want to lay on her couch.” Underlying message: women specializing in male psychology are sluts. I usually don't nitpick on someone's grammar, but it irritates me when an ex-beauty queen like Shandi (who had written a children's book and has strong scholarly background) butchers the English language by misusing relative pronouns and verbs. Shandi, please pay more attention to your grammar. The correct phrase is, "I know a lot of men WHO would want to LIE on her couch."

And speaking of couches, one contestant who needs to become a potato couch is  Miss USA Alyssa Campanella (photo right)  whose sudden weight loss and disturbing stick figure may have diminished her chances in advancing to the Top 10. When I saw her win Miss USA in Las Vegas last June, she was on the top of  her game - physique and all. If I had been one of the preliminary judges in Miss Universe, I would not have given her a second look. She was obviously one of MUO's picks and that's the only reason she made the Top 16, but I would have replaced her with either Miss Greece Iliana Papageorgiou or Miss MalaysiaDeborah Henry. Gee, I would've even considered Miss Tanzania Nelly "Say It To My Face" Kamwelu whose voluptuous swimsuit figure could've given Leila a run for her money!

IT'S AN EXPANDING UNIVERSE : This year's telecast devoted generous amount of time promoting Brazil to billions of televiewers around the world, and rightly so as Brazil is rapidly becoming an economic superpower. It instructed the  geographically illiterate audience that the metal-and-concrete metropolis of São Paulo is not to be confused with the earth-and-water metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian culture was abundantly showcased through the samba dancers and the two Brazilian entertainers, Claudia Leitte who performed the electric "Locomotion Batucada" and Bebel Gilberto who gave a stylishly cool rendition of her bossa nova hit "Close Your Eyes." The show also glorified Portuguese - a most challenging Romance language - by hiring half-Brazilian and Portuguese-speaking Natalie Morales as a co-host and with the inclusion of four Portuguese-speaking candidates in the semifinals (Angola, Brazil, Portugal, Venezuela). The number of contestants likewise increased to 89 this year (up from 83 last year) and the pageant generated even more buzz in pageant-related forums around the world.

Sixty years of Miss Universe have gone by and the pageant has undergone many changes under different ownerships. From simple changes like replacing the iconic chandelier-type crown with a non-descript bejeweled headpiece, to depersonalizing the contestant by slashing the word "Miss" before her country's name. From complex moves like flirting with the media to attract more attention to subjecting the title holder to exhausting schedule and sleepless nights. Changes could either be good or bad, but whether we like them or not, we learn to accept them in the end. It's called loyalty.

The Judges

  • AMELIA VEGA, Miss Universe 2003 from the Dominican Republic
  • CONNIE CHANG, veteran T.V. anchor and reporter from the U.S.
  • FAROUK SHAMI, owner of Farouk Systems
  • HELIO CASTRONEVES, Brazilian car racer
  • ISABELLI FONTANA, Brazilian top model
  • ITALO ZANZI, Deputy Secretary General of CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Carribean Association of Football)
  • LEA SALONGA, Filipino Tony-award winning actress and singer
  • VIVICA FOX, American actress
  • ADRIENNE MALOOF, "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" personality

Text by Rafa Delfin, 9/26/2011


(1) The first African to win Miss Universe was Margaret Gardiner of South Africa in 1978, followed by Michelle McLean of Namibia in 1992 and Mpule Kwelagobe of Botswana in 1999. Janelle Commissiong of Trinidad & Tobago was the first black woman to win the title in 1977, followed by her compatriot Wendy Fitzwilliam in 1998 and Mplue Kwelagobe in 1999. 
(2) From Global Beauties:


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