PRESIDENT, MISS UNIVERSE ORGANIZATION
by Rafa Delfin
I WAS STILL in San Francisco last July 26th when Carlos Fernandez, President Shugart's executive assistant, informed me via e-mail that I could meet with the President within two weeks. I called Carlos and arranged for an interview at the Miss Universe Organization headquarters in New York City. I returned to Boston on August 5th, with only a few days to recuperate from a long and tiring train ride. Then early Friday morning, August 9th, I got up at 6 a.m., took a shower, had a quick breakfast, dressed up, grabbed my backpack and had my partner drive me to the bus depot. I made sure I had all the essentials with me - a notebook, a pen, my digital camera, my cellphone, my wallet, and a new SONY mini-tape recorder.
MY BUS arrived in New York's Chinatown at around 1:15 p.m. From the depot, I walked several blocks until I could hail a cab that took me to a reputable vegetarian restaurant where I had the most delicious curry-flavored seitan with brown rice and spring rolls served with iced green tea. I thought since I had at least an hour to kill, I might as well enjoy a healthy, vegan meal. From my table, I could see speeding motorists and passers-by rushing to go places. This is New York City. Everyone rushes. And so did I. I was savoring my meal too sluggishly that I almost lost track of the time. I quickly gulped down my last morsel, drank my tea to its very last drop, paid the bill, and hailed a cab 1370 Avenue of the Americas. While in the cab, I checked my cellphone for messages, and surely enough, Carlos had called around twenty minutes earlier to confim the interview and to advise me that the President's schedule was running very tight.
Rafa: Who is the real Paula Shugart?
PS: (Laughs) That's a good question! The one that just brought water in? It's funny. I can be very serious. Obviously, with this job… I've been in this job for a year and a half, so I've had a whole different way of looking at things. I was the vice-president of production, and I had twenty years of production experience. As far as who I really am is the person who would go from this show to that show, being responsible, having a good time, but I think that show business is a profession where you don't necessarily have to grow up, a hundred per cent, you can have a good time… A few years ago, I started really living by the motto.
Rafa: Carpe diem. Seize the day!
PS: Yeah. "Just be" is my own little personal thing when my husband and I first got together. It has become sort of a joke with us now. He says, "I know, I know. Don't worry about tomorrow. Just be!" I actually joined Miss Universe in 1998 when I was hired by Hawaii to represent their interests. I was there, went out by myself, had the best time because I became my own best friend at that point and really just enjoyed every single day. It was great.
Rafa: So you take things one at a time and not worry about your future or not allow yourself to be stressed out by something that does not exist?
PS: I try! Having your company purchased by a network sometimes gets me stressed out! Right now, it's insane with our NBC purchase. There are three of us here in the office that are primarily involved with that, and we've been going and going and working late nights. We have to keep each other's spirits up since we've been working so hard.
Rafa: So you have an excellent teamwork? Everybody gets along well with each other?
PS: Yes. We're not without our problems, but we all try to get along. Sometimes we're like a family; sometimes dysfunctional. But most of the time we work together well.
Rafa: Wonderful! Now how would a good friend describe you?
PS: Loyal. I think once I'm a friend with somebody and you need anything, I think I'm a pretty loyal person.
Rafa: So you think loyalty is important to you?
PS: Uhuh… loyalty is very important.
Rafa: So your friends could be totally insincere about their comments regarding your clothes or whatever so long as they remain loyal to you.
PS: (Laughs) Exactly!!!
Rafa: At least they're honest!
PS: My father was an admiral, so we had that military code, I think, somewhere in there.
Rafa: Do you have any weaknesses?
PS: Of course!
Rafa: Name a few!
PS: (Laughs) See, now if I told you, you could use them against me! Sometimes…uhhh… sometimes maybe I'm a little too trusting. One thing, going back to your first question about who I really am… I am an extremely positive person. I operate very spiritually although I don't practice a particular religion now but I was raised a Catholic. But ever since I was a little kid I've operated on "faith". It was kind of a joke in the family. Even when things looked bad, I would say, "I know it's gonna happen! We're gonna have a miracle! It's gonna happen! I have faith it's gonna work out!"
Rafa: So you keep your strength based on that?
PS: Oh, absolutely! Because I'm never alone. I always know, even through the tough times. "Okay, God… Give me a little extra strength. Sometimes I can be a little too trusting just because I try to be always upbeat and positive.
Rafa: What makes you happy?
PS: My family.
Rafa: (pointing to a picture on her desk) Is that your family?
PS: Actually those are my two brothers - one of them got married - and my husband.
Rafa: Does he work for the company?
PS: He used to. He was the controller, I was the vice-president of Production. We were always arguing about money anyway so it seems like a perfect marriage. (Laughter) Both of my parents have passed away, so that's probably one of the reasons I enjoy every day and appreciate my brothers, because we were very, very close.
Rafa: And you believe that their spirits are guiding you?
PS: Oh, absolutely! I had a couple of friends who took me to a psychic and she said, "Oh, your dad he's here… I don't see your mom… but you're father is absolutely here!" And I know it's true… I feel him here. I talk to my dad all the time, especially when I first took over - that was really stressful because it was a week or two weeks before the Miss USA pageant a year ago. I definitely called on my dad a lot. Sometimes I will pull out his old Navy coffee mug that says "Admiral" on it and have a coffee while I get my thoughts together in the morning. Usually when I'm at home in Los Angeles and usually just before I call Mr. Trump.
Rafa: Now this is one of the questions that was posed actually during this year's pageant. What makes you blush?
PS: (Laughs) Just about everything! I'm a little too Irish looking.
Rafa: The first time I heard that question, I said to myself, "This is really stupid!" I mean - trying to be politically correct - how do you ask that question to a dark-skinned girl?
PS: That question was picked just about when we went on the air. There were so many things about 9/11, about Osama bin Laden, and questions that have been more appropriate. "What makes you blush?" My first reaction was: Wait a minute! But I guess it is something that you have to think about. I actually thought that they got a good reaction out of everybody. But it was not my favorite.
Rafa: I'm sure it boosted the ratings, too.
PS: (Laughs) I actually thought about how I'd answer that question when it was first posed. And I you know, sometimes it's that embarrassing situation when you stick your foot in your mouth. I am the worst. I cannot, uh… I have the hard time recovering 'cause I start to blush and obviously I've stuck my foot in my mouth and I try to make up for it and it just gets worse usually.
Rafa: Okay, good enough. Ten points! (We both laugh). Now what makes you angry?
PS: Uhhh… do you want to talk to the staff? (Laughs)
Rafa: Uhhh… I can probably interview them later!
PS: Well, actually some of the people are on location in South Padre right now could answer that. I'd say inefficiency… not being a team player. Accountability - that was my big thing when I first came here, especially with all my years in production and doing live specials - you're only as good as the weakest member. There are certain things when you go live on the air, like the Academy Awards, you're counting on everybody. I learned at an early age you have to be responsible for it, so that was one of my things that I brought here starting with the production department and now trying it with the company. You've got to take something on - if you have an assignment, you have to embrace it as your own. Sometimes I run into people that will, uh, sort of be responsible but when it fell part, they were the first one to point the finger at somebody else. "Why I assigned it to so and so?" And I finally have to say, "No! I made you responsible, so if it didn't happen, you need to be accountable." And I was in news for years, too, so it's one of those things where you always have to be sure of your facts.
Rafa: In other words, no incompetent people need apply!
PS: (Laughs) I guess so!
Rafa: Uhhh… which person, or persons, has had the most influence on your life and on the way you perceive things in general?
PS: Definitely my father. I thought he was one of the smartest people I've ever known.
Rafa: Were you Daddy's little girl?
PS: Oh, yes! I had two older brothers, I was the baby, and I was the only girl. And he was gone a lot. He was in Vietnam when I was growing up and he was actually shot down in Vietnam. He was picked up by a seaplane, but when he came home, he was a great Dad. He never spanked me; instead, he would always out-logic me. "Now, why did you this? Explain to me why would you think this was a good idea?" By the time he was done with me, I felt like such a fool. I knew that I would I never do whatever it was I had done wrong again. But he was somebody that I could always talk to - no matter what. He was a pillar of strength. He taught me to control my temper. I think when you're growing up, sometimes people mistake getting angry quickly and flying off the handle as a sign of strength. My father showed me that when you loose your cool, you lose your power. Staying calm and objective is much healthier than being at the mercy of your emotions.
Rafa: When was the last time you went grocery shopping and what did you buy?
Rafa: Knowing that you're so busy, maybe you have neglected your household chores?
PS: I did neglect them! Actually, it's funny because I was home last weekend. I was home for a few days and my husband said, "There's nothing in the house!" The worst feeling in the world is that when you get up to that cup of coffee and there's no coffee and no milk!
I should explain that since I became President a year and a half ago, I still live in Los Angeles and I commute to New York. The production office is still in LA and I travel back and forth between the two. Unfortunately this year I've spent most of my time here and I don't get to see my husband that much.
Rafa: It's interesting because that reminds me of Julia Child. When the press went to her house in Cambridge, Massachusetts and asked her what she had in her fridge, she opened it and showed them an old sandwich and a bottle of beer, half-empty!
PS: Oh, really?
Rafa: She turns 90 this week. That's all she had in her fridge!
PS: I'm sure Martha Stewart has a lot more in her fridge! (Laughs)
Rafa: That's another topic!
PS: So anyway, I basically start getting my coffee and milk. After that, I stock up on frozen foods for my husband while I'm gone.
Rafa: You know what you should try? Online shopping! It's wonderful!
PS: I did it once. But they couldn't get the truck to my house which is on a little street by itself and nobody can ever find it. By the time it gets there, everything has thawed. (Laughs) But I like to grocery shop. It's kind of cathartic. So when I'm home, I probably do it every other day.
Rafa: Describe a romantic evening with your significant other.
PS: Let's see. You know, I've been married a year, and because I see my husband so infrequently, it's really quiet time at home on the deck. He has his nice Belgian beer collection and I have my glass of wine. Probably watching the sunset off the deck.
Rafa: That's romantic? Just the two of you?
PS: It's more romantic with just the two of us.
Rafa: If a movie were ever to be made about your life, which actress would you like to play you?
PS: (Laughs) Good question! Gosh! Uh, I'd love to be able to say Julia Roberts but we don't have anything in common. She's tall and very beautiful. (Laughs. Then pensive.) After much thought… I'd have to say Vivien Leigh, just because I've seen "Gone With the Wind" a million times. Or maybe Bette Davis. "All About Eve" is one of my favorite movies.
Rafa: If you were to host an intimate dinner party, name three people that you would invite and why?
PS: Do they have to be living?
Rafa: No. They can be dead.
PS: Well, I'm a history buff. I finished reading the life of John Adams last year and I was fascinated. I'd love to talk to him and see what he did. I don't know whether you've read him, but well, being in Boston…
Rafa: Uhh… John Quincy Adams! The house where he was born is just a mile away from where I live. It's now a museum.
Rafa: So you'll invite John Adams…
PS: John Adams and two more! Probably Eleanor Roosevelt. Does that… does that sound like a good pageant answer?
Rafa: Good choice! Good choice! Very strong, brave woman. I admire her a lot.
PS: And uh… if I could squeeze two and I probably…
Rafa: Sure! Okay, four! Make it even. (Laughter)
PS: I'd like to invite my parents just to see how they're doing. But probably more history characters…
Rafa: Napoleon, maybe?
PS: Nah, not Napoleon.
Rafa: Queen Elizabeth the First?
PS: Yeah! Actually, Tudor England is a big thing for me, so that's an excellent choice, actually.
Rafa: I'm sure that the conversation would be interminable. Everybody would be, like, battling with each other!
PS: Yeah, yeah… just like in the old Steve Allen Show, where they had characters from history on a panel together!
Rafa: If you had the chance to travel in space, name three things that you would NOT bring and why?
PS: Hairspray? (Laughs)
Rafa: You probably wouldn't need it.
PS: Hmmm… I thought I would able to answer quickly! Hmmm… Luxury items? Actually, I just had this conversation because of Lance Bass going to space.
Rafa: They're still waiting for his money.
PS: The check is in the mail! Uhhh… I just… I don't know. I'm so claustrophobic and I actually discovered it at a water park a couple of years ago. The idea of even being in a capsule…
Rafa: Or the elevator!
PS: Elevator is as far as I go! I got stuck in an elevator. I don't know what I would bring! I would probably bring some sort of dramomine or something to help me get through it.
Rafa: You probably don't need luxury items because space people are really not that judgmental about looks, so what's the point?
PS: Yeah! And it's not like they really show you on camera anyway?
PS: Well, I love the idea of being weightless, so I would probably bring stuff that you can play with…
Rafa: What about M&Ms that you can toss in your mouth?
PS: (Laughs) Yeah, I'll probably end up starving in space!
Rafa: Okay, another topic - leadership. Now you're the leader of the world's largest and most prestigious pageant organization. What do you think are the attributes of a good leader?
PS: First and foremost, the ability to take in the big picture. This was actually a big transition for me because I was so involved with production. I had to step back and say, "Wait a minute!" There are twenty six people in this organization and they all have different roles. A good leader should also be a good listener - having people feel that they have the ability to come talk to you about anything - what's bothering them, or what would make their lives easier, or how they can improve. Usually, when you feel that you have brought in experts around you, you should be able to listen to what they have to say and not feel threatened.
Rafa: So your leadership is a two-way street?
Rafa: It's funny because I was watching for the umpteenth time, "Working Girl", with Sigourney Weaver. I love Sigourney Weaver! In the movie, she's a bitch - being in total control of herself. You're not a bitch, are you?
PS: Oh, God! I hope not!
Rafa: But even if you were, it would be in a positive sense? Being in control.
PS: I feel like I am in control. Right now, probably it's the craziest time that I've ever experienced because of the sale going on. I am in control, but this is sort of a group effort. I am more of the focal point of a larger group effort.
Rafa: Since becoming the president of MUO, what two or three accomplishments have given you the most satisfaction?
PS: I would say first and foremost returning to Puerto Rico because that's something that we hadn't done before. I was really, really proud of that show and getting the network support since last year. As you know, we've been trying to define our shows and trying to define who we are this year. CBS came on board for the last show and said, "Okay, you don't have to have four musical performances. You can have just two and go back to focusing on the girls." And I think having it swing back to being about the delegates is probably the most important.
Rafa: I tend to agree! I kept watching the show over and over again and uhmmm? This is great! The girls! And the gowns, the swimsuit competition, the selection of music and the performance. It was incredible!
PS: It was a good show! I felt Marc Anthony was wonderful and those two moments with him were great, but I don't think he needed more performances. We were back to it, and it was nice. Plus it was nice that they also agreed to give us Wednesday night, so it really worked well for us in the ratings, too. I was really happy. I thought we had a good relationship with the network this year.
Rafa: There was an ad in Vanity Fair, "Beauty beats the Beast", that boasted about the good ratings.
PS: Oh, yeah! Somebody else put that in there! (Laughter) And that's been seen in a lot of different places. The Vanity Fair ad I saw much later, but it hit the New York papers first. Donald was very happy!
Rafa: Do you think women make better leaders than men?
PS: Not better, no. It's nice that women are finally being given the chance to be in leadership roles. Since the company started fifty years ago, the role of Miss Universe and our titleholders have changed. It's a lot different now where women are in positions that they didn't hold twenty years ago, but I don't think it's necessarily better. Probably some qualities that women have are better, but I think it goes both ways. There are good and bad leaders of both sexes.
Rafa: Fair enough. Do you see yourself running for a political office someday?
PS: Not now at this time of my life. Because I love history so much and government, and being a government baby, I really actually thought I would. I have a cousin that works for a Senator and she has now for years, but I wouldn't now because you really have to put your whole life out there.
Rafa: Topic - pageants. Why are pageants still relevant in today's society?
PS: I think it's kinda twofold. First of all, people love beautiful women and I don't think there's anything wrong with that!
Rafa: I agree!
PS: And I think that has gone on for millenniums, since the beginning of time.
PS: Yes - who was born in Cyprus! The fact that there are so many women in leadership roles now. A lot of the women that are involved in pageants - it's pretty amazing how self-assured they are, most especially when we go to the teen pageant next week. My first introduction to pageants was when I was sixteen years old in San Diego. I worked in theater and was asked to run spotlight for the Miss Coronado pageant. I was incredibly shy at the time and I remember watching these girls and thinking, "Wow, she's only seventeen and she can get up in front of all these people and speak and be so self-assured!" It's one of the reasons why we offer a conduit so that somebody can obtain not just their dreams but their goals. So I think it is relevant, and something that we're proud of here.
Rafa: I don't know if you've read the August edition of W magazine.
Rafa: Robert Haskell, the eye editor, wrote a very interesting article about his experience as preliminary judge. In fact, I did comment in my website about what he said - that Miss Universe is pretending to have a cultural significance but it doesn't. Do you agree? In other words, how important is Miss Universe or pageants in general to the world?
PS: Well, define important. In the light of everything else that is going on in the world right now, I think it's important to show delegates from all around the globe celebrating their differences. The fact that there's an article written about us means that we do have some cultural value - that people want to talk about pageants whether it's derogatory or not. I do find it very interesting that in the fashion world, sometimes you can have an elitist attitude. I don't think the article really hurt us. He [Haskell] came to write a particular story and I think that was what he was looking for when he came, although that's not what he said he was looking for.
Rafa: Well, I plan to write to him. (Laughs) and I'll send you a copy of the letter.
PS: Also let him know that Oxana's gown is Gucci! Not a knock-off!
Rafa: You said in the article that beauty queens don't scowl. They never scowl.
PS: That was a little bit of a paraphrase. We had three people from the fashion industry - overall, it was a wonderful experience. I love all the things that didn't get picked up! Like the fact that two of our former Miss Universes are still UN goodwill ambassadors - that kind of thing that I was trying to explain. Once a girl is crowned and moves to New York, her life is changed forever. It's not like a life of a model. Models walk the runway - that is their job - and they're supposed to have more of a vacant expression because they're not selling themselves. So these women [beauty queens] are gonna be smiling, they're gonna be trying to connect with you as a judge - not with a fake smile but trying to get to the eyes, get to the personality.
Rafa: A lot of people prefer to see beautiful, smiling woman.
PS: That's what I was trying to impart to them [the fashion world]: "For those of you in the fashion industry who go to a lot of fashion shows, you're gonna be used to women having that frown." - which is I think what I said. I don't use the word scowl.
Rafa: A cold look.
PS: Their [the models] goal is not to connect - these women are doing exactly the opposite. So I don't want you [the fashion world] to fault them for that because that's their job. They're not out there to sell fashion? they're there to sell themselves?but that was what that quote was about. I never said scowl. You know, they tend to change the words.
Rafa: I know what you mean. Now, is there anything you'd like to say to Miss Universe pageant fans?
PS: I hope people are happy with the direction that we're coming back to. It's going to be very interesting with NBC right now - they're going to be very supportive.
Rafa: So we're looking for bigger numbers next year?
PS: I'm always looking for bigger numbers. (Laughs)
Rafa: I'll tell all my friends to watch next year!
PS: I'm really excited about the Panama show.
Rafa: Are they pretty much ready?
PS: They're very organized. Very, very organized. And the fact that it's their Centennial, I think it's going to be nice. I happened to be reading a book a year ago about Panama and this opportunity came up. And the fact that we're going to Panama doesn't have anything to do with Miss Panama as first runner-up. The results were based on fair voting - and I just want to make sure that everyone's clear on that. Tony Santomauro (VP of Business Planning) and I were sitting next to each other during the show, and when Justine (Miss Panama) made it to the Top 2, we just looked at each other, like "No one's going to believe this!"
Rafa: Who were your favorites by the way?
PS: I never say! I had a lot of favorites, actually. I never boil it down to just one, because if I do even make a guess, I'm always wrong so I don't want to jinx anybody. Again, it's one of those things that happens for a good reason. So I don't try. I leave it up to the experts.
Rafa: Okay, let's play a game called word association?
PS: I thought we already did the words!
Rafa: Nope! This one is very simple. Describe each person, thing, or event just using one adjective - whatever comes to your mind. Oxana Fedorova?
Rafa: Donald Trump?
Rafa: September 11, 2001?
Rafa: New York City?
PS: (Puzzled) How do you use one word for New York?
Rafa: (Laughs) Cat got your tongue?
PS: I'd say - energy.
Rafa: Your in-laws?
PS: They're the best thing? uhhh, one word? understanding! I married their son and I spend all my time three thousand miles away! (Laughs)
Rafa: Carlos Fernandez?
PS: Oh! Oh! Organized? Organizes my life! Carlos? Importante!
Rafa: And lastly, Mr. Shugart?
PS: Actually, he's Mr. Allison. It's a bone of contention. I didn't change my name. Actually he doesn't mind.
Rafa: Mr. Allison! The first husband.
PS: Yes. I think keeping my name is sort of a connection with my parents? and my initials are P-M-S. How do you get rid of that?
Rafa: (Laughs) Oh, my God! That's funny!
PS: Explains a lot, doesn't it? Um, one word for my husband?.wonderful! Soul mate,
Rafa: Would you like to have children?
PS: Uhhh?. We've talked about it, but we really need to be in the same city. (Giggles) If I had a kid now, I'd have a lot of explaining to do! We'd like to, but possibly down the road we'd like to adopt.
Rafa: I'm a big proponent of adoption because there are so many homeless kids.
PS: There are so many. I have a friend who adopted two children from Russia and another who adopted a child from China. And I think that there are so many kids that need love.
Rafa: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
PS: I never answer that question. I remember going to an interview in 1983 - one of my earliest production jobs. And the producer asked me that question, "You know it's really hard to tell. I'll probably see myself doing something in entertainment," which I was. And he said, "You know? You're right. No matter how you answer that question, you'll never be where you think."
Rafa: Are you superstitious, perhaps?
PS: Not superstitious, it's just that I believe great things have presented themselves and I have faith that great things will present themselves and I never said, "Okay, that's where I'm gonna be!" because I think it's part of the adventure. I remember getting a phone call? I had just produced the "Donny and Marie" pilot for their talk show. I had just gotten off the phone with Columbia and it looked like they were gonna probably go with another producer who was working on another show with them? and I said to myself, "Oh, I really thought I was gonna do the show? but that's okay. Another door is opening. Perfect opportunity." Within two hours, I got a phone call from Al Masini who's created "Star Search." I used to do "Star Search. Al asked, "Can you come to Hawaii?" We really want you to come." I said, "Sure." It was three months in the Hilton Hawaiian Village and it was the best job of my life! It was also what led to my being hired at Miss Universe.
Rafa: It's like - there's a reason for everything.
PS: Oh, absolutely! I really live by that. Even when things seem like they are at their worst, you can be happy as long as you realize that you're not alone. That's my philosophy in life. So long as you believe it will be okay, it will.
Rafa: Last question. Is there something else about yourself that you haven't already told the press?
PS: (Pensive) What have you heard? (Laughs) No, not really. I can't, uhhh?
Rafa: So you're just an ordinary girl?
PS: Pretty much.
Rafa: Your life is straight, you're clean, you don't have any sins.
PS: I didn't say that! (Laughter) Uhh? yes, my life straight? No skeletons popping out of my closet. (Laughs)
Rafa: Not yet!
PS: I'm sure the occasional sins in my youth.
Rafa: I have to say that you look very, very young for your age.
PS: Well, I don't think you should publish my age. (Laughs)
Rafa: Well, I can edit the interview if you want. But you do look very young.
PS: Why, thank you.
Rafa: At least fifteen years younger.
PS: Wow! Thank you! I really appreciate that! Wow, that makes me? well, thank you for coming in!
End of interview.
PHOTO CREDIT: CRITICAL BEAUTY
ORIGINAL DATE OF PUBLICATION: OCTOBER 2002
REPUBLISHED ON FEBRUARY 20, 2012