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Paula Shugart on Miss Universe 2009

MUO President Paula Shugart wants the whole universe to know...

                                          ... that the results of the 2009 pageant were not rigged!

by Rafa Delfin 

      An online petition is going around the world protesting the official results of this year's Miss Universe pageant. Many pageant fans are not happy that Venezuela won the crown two years in a row, and that the winner, Stefania Fernandez, should have been the fourth runner-up. Many object to MUO owner Donald Trump's practice of picking six of the fifteen semifinalists. And some are outraged by the notion that Shugart influences the judges. Shugart is fed up and hurt by these accusations, and she chats with Critical Beauty to set the record straight.

      Earlier last week, I contacted the Miss Universe Organization to request a phone interview with President Shugart. MUO Executive Coordinator Lauren Paradise called my cellphone on Wednesday (Sept. 2) at 6:44 P.M. saying that I could still catch President Shugart in her office where she would remain until 7 P.M. I said to myself that I would need more than 15 minutes to talk with her, so I didn't call the office and waited the next day to reschedule. Meanwhile, I took my dog Bosco out for a walk. At 7:04 P.M., President Shugart called my cellphone and said that she was available to talk to me; however, I replied that I couldn't at the moment because I was walking the dog. I asked her to wait twenty minutes and that I would call her back. She said fine, since she had some more stuff to do at the office.

     After walking the dog, I rushed to my desk and set up my tape recorder and my speaker phone. I called back President Shugart at around 7:33 P.M. and she said hello. Our chat lasted about 40 minutes. Below is the transcript of our conversation. (Note: PMS is President Shugart's initials! Honestly! LOL)

RAFA: You know pageant fans, they're crazy! It's part of the whole thing... the ritual. Miss Universe is the most popular and the biggest pageant in the world, and during Miss Universe fever, everybody gets excited!

PMS: The night of the pageant, I turned to somebody and said that I don't get vested in who's going to win because A- I'm usually wrong, and B - because I've learned a long time ago that it's somebody's fate. I've never understood how Tara Conner won. I couldn't believe it. And then six months later I realized that it was her fate to win Miss USA. That was what had to happen in her life.

RAFA: So in other words, you did not approach the judges? You did not have any influence on them whatsoever?

PMS: No, I did not have any influence on the judges. Though I will tell you what happened. A judge asked me something that did not have anything to do with the pageant; it was more like something to do with the pattern, you know, the technical stuff early in the evening. Then later in the night, after the final look voting, one of the judges had voted on his paper ballot, but he got up and had to run to the bathroom. He wasn't at his desk and somebody pointed it out to me and I ran over to make sure everything was okay, so I definitely approached the judges. And this particular judge was being escorted out. And so at that point...

RAFA: Was it André Leon Talley? (photo)

PMS: No, it was not André. But yes, definitely, I looked irritated especially when someone tells you that one of your judges is not seated! That was quite a bit of a freaky moment! (laughs)

RAFA: I guess you will never invite this judge again!

PMS: Well, he said that he really had to use the bathroom and said, "I'm done. May I go?" without even asking me or anything, but it sounded pretty urgent, so...

RAFA: So why did they switch to paper instead of the electronic voting?

PMS: They use electronic, but if they take notes - I mean they don't have to use paper but they have their notes there. So this talent (judge) was led out and quickly went to the bathroom but a guard would not let this talent back in: "No, no, we're about to be back on the air. We can't let anyone in." Eventually, he did get in and he was able to vote. But it was just one of those crazy moments. It was absolutely crazy for our computer guys, it was crazy for Ernst & Young, but everything was definitely verified to the extent that they wanted me to double check, that everyone had put in their numbers. The computer was so far away - that's when I ran over, but everything was already done. Everything was already locked in. Then I went down to André's side and just said, "Is everything okay? " And André said, "Yeah, everything's fine. Why is everybody running around?" And he was asking me what was going on. And I said that I just wanted to make sure that everyone's okay, so I went down the line as the accountant was walking down the stage. Obviously, the judges were wondering, "What's all the chaos?"

RAFA: Why wasn't André included in the group picture?

PMS: André doesn't like to pose for photos. He said he only does candid photos.

RAFA: Oh, please! Whatever! 

PMS: He was wonderful. He said he had a great experience with us. We got a great e-mail from him. He said that a lot of the contestants are fashion-forward and it was great group. He judged in 2000 as well.

RAFA: Well, you know, Donald Trump gets to select five or six?

PMS: Just to be clear... it's the Miss Universe group that gets to work with the contestants for three weeks. Trump meets the contestants and he takes it extremely seriously... and we do go to a room, there are people in the room and we do screen the contestants during the preliminaries. We talk about it. It's not like Donald comes in and says, "I'm picking these six." He definitely gives his opinion having watched rehearsals.

RAFA: So he never mentioned that the winner should be Australia or Puerto Rico.

PMS: Oh, gosh. No! But I will tell you that the person he thought was going to win was not even in the top 5. He'll tell me, "That girl did really well." And I would say, "I thought so, too." But the judges may disagree. And the reason I really wanted to do this interview is to get the record straight. I, I, did not... I mean, I have gotten to know Stefania the last few days and I think she is absolutely gorgeous, more of a natural beauty when the red lipstick is off and everything. She's a beautiful girl, and more importantly she has a great heart and I know she's going to be a great Miss Universe. Even in my own head, I think I was probably guilty of thinking, 'Too bad! Venezuela won't win two years in a row." But then I went "WOW" when it happened!

RAFA: There's always a first time in history so this is the first time that the same country won back-to-back.

PMS: Right. And I didn't even think that it would be possible. What bothers me is what people are saying on the message boards. Every year, people are going to be disappointed and I tell the contestants that only one of you will truly be happy when you leave here, and you have to make the most of your experience. People, when they can be anonymous, can be so catty and so nasty. I mean, for a full year, Jennifer Hawkins was ripped to shreds on the message boards and a lot of people were saying that they couldn't believe that she won. She was so shy, yet she has become such a good Miss Universe. But she saw the message boards and people said stuff about her all the time. People said horrendous things about her. Now, on the message boards, people are saying that she's the best Miss Universe ever , that she was the greatest. Oh, come on! You people were trashing her right and left! (laughs)

RAFA: That was the same thing with Riyo Mori when she won. Even with Zuleyka Rivera.

PMS: The funny thing about Zuleyka is that, when Puerto Rico won it was such a close vote. And you have to understand that this year it was a pretty even split with the judges; it's not like everybody said, "Oh, yes. Everyone's voting for Venezuela." That's why we have a different panel of judges because we want to get different viewpoints. In 2006, it was a close vote between Zuly and Kurara. and there were people saying that Kurara had been robbed. I didn't get a demand for a recount or anything. Every year, there will always be people who will never be happy.

RAFA: Many Asian fans are irate because no Asian delegate made the top fifteen this year. Care to explain?

PMS: You know what? The year that Riyo won, and Honey Lee made the finals, I got accused of favoring Asians. It just so happens that this year, we had more European contestants.

RAFA: There were nine!

PMS: Yeah, it was really amazing! I was blown away by them because they really stepped it up.

RAFA: Okay, so the preliminary judges were not hinted that Donald Trump was looking for Europeans this year?

PMS: Oh, no, not at all! Donald is absolutely thrilled with Stefania and he is the first to say that the Latinas are the strong competitors. And he'll be the first to say that there's a reason why.

RAFA: What about Miss Japan not entering? Are you sad? I know Ines Ligron is very disappointed.

PMS: I think this year was the most competitive year I've ever seen. There were so many incredibly beautiful and outstanding women with the whole package. And it's really important to find someone who can handle the job for a whole year.

RAFA: So what's the story with Miss Turks & Caicos, Jewel Selver? The real scoop, please!

PMS: (laughs) I don't even have the real scoop! All I know is that Jewel left the night... I was actually coming back from work one night when I saw an ambulance go by and she was taken to the hospital that night. And I hadn't heard anything else, so unfortunately I don't have any scoop for you. Jewel was a real trooper. She hadn't been feeling well during the last couple of days.

RAFA: That's too bad that she left a day before the finals.

PMS: Well, you always hate to see that.

RAFA: I have a couple of questions from fans. Remember a few years ago, you had that "Be A Judge" contest where you had to pick from a roster of fans who registered? But this time, you should pick from the bloggers and pageant site webmasters because that would really excite the entire online pageant community and boost their support for the pageant even more.

PMS: Actually, NBC and I are talking about different things right now, and my biggest focus this year is to stream the preliminary competition online, which was a huge success because it piqued NBC's interest quite a bit. But we will certainly consider other things that we can do.

RAFA: Uhhh... Miss Thailand is Miss Photogenic. Was that rigged? (laughs) Come on! You know full well that Filipino fans are crazy about their girl!

PMS: Haha, I know! I actually said that this year's Miss Photogenic would either be Philippines or Puerto Rico. William (Prendiz de Jurado) sent me an email beforehand and he said, "if Miss Philippines win, I am quitting pageants!" (laughs) (photo of Miss Thailand Chutima Durongdej)

RAFA: I think I asked you before. Why can't you have two special awards? One, Miss Internet - to be selected by online users, and the other, Miss Photogenic - to be selected by professional photographers. 

PMS: I actually brought that up with NBC. NBC loves the traffic to their site "Vote for Miss Photogenic" and last year I suggested why don't we go for national costumes because so many people put so much time and effort into it and that was really a big success for them, and then this year they asked if we could do Miss Photogenic again. It would be great if the winner is selected by professional photographers, and perhaps the winner could get a modeling contract - something that might be really nice. I don't want to take anything from Miss Thailand, but it would help to have industry professionals selecting the winner.

RAFA: So tell me, do you like Michelle Malcolm's reports? (laughs)

PMS: Yeah! I think, overall, everything seems really good!

RAFA: So do you know where the pageant is going to be held next year?

PMS: I have some ideas but I'm not gonna tell you! (laughs)

RAFA: Oh, come on! Name a few countries!

PMS: Well, you know what? I'm about to leave for a bunch of trips, so I will keep you posted.

RAFA: We have to do lunch! (laughs)

PMS: There you go! You can come down and do your vegetarian lunch in New York!

RAFA: It's my treat! We'll bring Esther and Roston! (laughs)

PMS: Yeah, that would be perfect!

RAFA: Oh, uhhh... last thing. Carrie Prejean. What's up with her? Any comments?

PMS: You know what? Maybe someday I'll be able to comment, but not now.

RAFA: If you don't want to comment, let me comment then! Hahaha. She has become the most hated personality in the pageant industry. It's unbelievable!

PMS: Well, there are probably things on both sides... uhhhh.... someday... someday... we'll be able to talk.

RAFA: Are you going to Venezuela for the Miss Venezuela 2010 pageant?

PMS: Unfortunately, I can't. I'm being honored by my alma mater, Ohio University, during that week. I just found out that I'm going to be in a parade! (laughs)

RAFA: Oh my god, you're gonna be in a float! (laughs)

PMS: I said, "Oh, no! I don't do parades!" Maybe I can get Kristen (Dalton) to be my stunt waver. (laughs) Actually, Allie Laforce goes to school there, so I'm excited to see her. Maybe we can get Allie to sit in the car for me.

RAFA: Do you still live in California or did you move to New York?

PMS: I'm pretty much a New Yorker now. I still have my home in California, which is kinda close to the fires, so we're gonna go there this weekend to check if everything is fine. We've been doing some remodeling for a couple of years - by long distance. When I was in Vietnam, I was checking online, "Oh, those windows look great!" So we're gonna see what we threw together all around the world. The only reason I really want to get across and why it is so important for me to talk to you is that - I don't want in any way to taint Stefania's reign. She's such a sweetheart and such a nice girl, so eager to take English classes every day for two and a half hours. What I love about her is that she just wants to grow. You can tell - she's just a great person. I don't want in any way for people to say things and for people to be mean and to make her feel bad about herself. I've seen the results, I've verified the results and she was the winner.

RAFA: By the way, whatever happened to "Pageant Place?"

PMS: Oh gosh! I don't know if I can handle "Pageant Place!" (laughs) I would really like to follow Miss Universe in an arena. We have a new website this year... I don't know if you got the chance to see the videos...

RAFA: I was actually watching the video "84 Countries - One Crown." That was cool.

PMS: I am really excited about a lot of that because we have a new creative outlet. We had a quarter of a million people who viewed the prelim show, and that's not even counting the group that couldn't see it live, like the people in India who saw it later. So we're starting to get a real following of some of our videos and we 're able to start documenting the adventures of Miss Universe and Miss USA during their reign. That would be really nice. With "Pageant Place," sometimes on that show they want more drama. There are things with Riyo that were cut out, like her trip to Indonesia...

RAFA: Well, she didn't really talk too much. It was basically all about Rachel

PMS: Well, Rachel, because they wanted to create drama between Rachel and Tara. Riyo's trip to Indonesia was great... there was some drama. There was some rioting (laughs)... but at that point Katie (Blair) was having some fight with her boyfriend so MTV wanted to put the fight with the boyfriend instead of Riyo. There are definitely other outlets that we're developing right now, and what the best thing is for the brand. (photo of Riyo Mori)

RAFA: Are you happy with the Bahamians?

PMS : Oh my gosh! It was such a pleasure! I know I must have said it a million times in the press. I know the Vice-President of Production was happy, she was all smiling. It was just easy. It was so easy on so many levels that they did such a great job. It was blessed. Even the parade we were in Nassau (my first parade!), clouds had formed and we thought it was going to rain, but then they started disappearing and I just knew that it was one of those things - everything just went so well. I mean everything was great. Did you like any of the contestants?

RAFA: Yeah, actually it's funny you mentioned that because Critical Beauty is the only pageant site that did not include any Asians in the Top 15. 

PMS: Really?

RAFA: Yeah! It was like, "Is this prophetic or what?" I'm getting better every year! (laughs)

PMS: You are! One of the things that I said to Mr. Trump during the show is that there were too many beautiful women! It was amazing!

RAFA: And they were all wearing bikinis, even Miss Indonesia. I was surprised. Even Miss Egypt.

PMS: It was very interesting. Miss Egypt was so sweet. We were excited about the show. I thought Kelly Rowland was wonderful. I know that no one is going to be 100% happy. Oh! One thing that you did ask... the reason why we stopped doing individual scores is because the judges felt pressured and that they had to answer to their home country.

RAFA: And they probably get a lot of hate mail, too!

PMS: Yes. There are people who literally said, "I can't do this." The thing is, you have to give them freedom to vote, how they really feel. We eliminated the individual scores completely because we thought it gives an element of mystery. You know, we never see it out in the house, I'm always waiting who's going to move ahead. So that was one of the things we have for the telecast audience - that they might prefer not to know and then just be surprised. In all fairness, the judges prefer not to have their scores up.

RAFA: That's understandable.

PMS: Yeah, even André Leon Talley - when he judged in 2000 the scores were up there. When we told him it was just composite scores, he said, "Oh, I feel much better."

RAFA: Oh, come on! He gave a 7.00 to Claudia Moreno, Miss Venezuela, during the swimsuit round. A 7.00! Oh my god... Claudia was a goddess! (laughs) ... like, what's up with that?!!!

PMS: (laughs) Boy, you remember! Cyprus was memorable... I was running around in Cyprus during the show... Is there anything else you want to ask me?

RAFA: Yes, but I can't think of it right now. But if I remember, I'll scribble it down and e-mail it to you. I thank you so much for this chat. I know you're a very busy person and I can't thank you enough. And I know that it's hard for you, and I want you to know that we appreciate all the hard work that you do. You and your staff are doing an incredibly excellent job. Keep up the good work!

PMS: Why thank you!!!

RAFA: Any message for our Critical Beauty readers? We're celebrating 5 years in October!

PMS: Is it 5 years?

RAFA: Yeah!

PMS: Well, when did you start the Miss Universe Critic?

RAFA: Back in May 1998, and then I switched to Critical Beauty in October 2004.

PMS: So when did I first interview with you?

RAFA: 2002.

PMS: No, it was 2003, because it was a week before we fired Oxana.

RAFA: 2002! I went to your office in October 2002, remember? Oxana was still the reigning Miss Universe.

PMS: Right! And then you said at the end of my interview, "Is there anything else...?" and I said, "Why? What have you heard?" Since I knew at that point that we were having problems. And I kept asking myself, "Has he heard anything else?" (laughs)

RAFA: (laughs) Well, I do have a lot of sources, you know! And one of them is my good friend Hector Joaquin from Puerto Rico!

PMS: Did Hector start that online petition? (laughs)

RAFA: Hahaha, no! But we both suspected that it was a Puerto Rican who started it. 

PMS: Yes, that's what I heard. I have never seen the petition, but I was contacted by Telemundo who asked me about it. All I can say is that, you know, everyone should be proud of their contestant, and the fact that somebody is in the top 5 is amazing. Miss Australia was on the cover of the Sunday Times the week before the pageant and they dubbed her as the frontrunner.

RAFA: Well, I fell in love with Kosovo. The moment she walked on that stage... this woman is gorgeous!

PMS: Kosovo is just so... so sweet! And she looks like Audrey Hepburn.

RAFA: Yeah, Audrey Hepburn reincarnated!

PMS: Some of the judges thought she was not the one, other judges thought Venezuela was the one, other judges thought DR (Dominican Republic) was the one, and the others thought Australia... it was all over the place!

RAFA: It's funny because when Zuleyka Rivera won in 2006, I had a hard time warming up to her because my favorite was Kurara, Miss Japan. But a few weeks later, I learned to warm up to Zuleyka and I think eventually everyone will also warm up to Stefania. Even if Stefania's English is horrible, her personality is infectious. 

PMS: Well, I'm really excited for her and the fact that she's eager to learn English, and by the end of her reign she's going to be so fluent. (photo of Zuleyka Rivera)

RAFA: Yeah, like she's going to appear on The Howard Stern Show! (laughs)

PMS: Well, we made Dayana do that show. She's a spitfire and she can handle it.

RAFA: Dayana's English improved tremendously!

PMS: Absolutely. I'm excited. You know, I learn something new every year. The year Kurara was first runner-up, I thought Kurara was going to be the winner that year. I love everybody. And then Zuly ended up rising to the occasion. But it's true... you get so vested in the event. We had so many people down there from NBC this year, and they had never seen the pageant before, and they thought it was amazing! They all were so vested in one contestant or another, and it was funny because they were all arguing with each other. One of the NBC people really loved Kosovo, another one really loved Dominican Republic, and they were all insisting they had the winner. And it was great because they had never experienced that before. And we're talking about people who are lawyers, vice-presidents... they're not all pageant freaks. (laughs)

RAFA: Well, I'm gonna let you go because I know you're tired.

PMS: Thank you. And thank you for your kind words because sometimes it gets a little frustrating, and when you try and you just want to be able to deliver something no matter what, you end up making people angry. So thank you for recognizing our hard work.

RAFA: You're welcome! So I'll go to New York and we'll have lunch or dinner together. It's my treat!

PMS: Great! Do you love Indian food?

RAFA: Oh, I love Indian food! Oh my god, the spicier the better! There's a good vegan place called Angelica Kitchen somewhere in East Village. It's pure vegan and totally organic. It's wonderful! Madonna would love to eat there! Try that one, too! I have their cookbook, because I love to cook! (laughs)

PMS: Ahhhh! Perfect! I will check it out. Well, uh, I will talk with you soon and if there's anything else, go ahead and send me an e-mail.

RAFA: Have a nice vacation, wherever you're going

PMS: Thank you! And you have a good weekend! By the way, what kind of dog do you have?

RAFA: We adopted him from a shelter. He's a mutt. He has the markings of a Doberman Pinscher but he has floppy ears and a long tail. Why? Do you have dogs?

PMS: Not now, but I want to have one, but my husband said, "Absolutely not!"

RAFA: Get a cat!

PMS: Well, I have two cats. And my husband said he would never notice that they're missing. When I'm gone, he says, "Why is it that you're gone all the time and I'm taking care of the cats?" (laughs)

RAFA: Well, get a little lap dog like Paris Hilton!

PMS: Oh, yeah, perfect! No, but we might, but I just uh... I really like dogs a lot. I thought about it while you were walking your dog. And what's your dog's name?

RAFA: His name is Bosco. 

PMS: Bosco? The drink? Like the chocolate syrup?

RAFA: You got it! He's so sweet. I'll send you his picture. (laughs)

PMS: (laughs) Well, have a great weekend and if anything else comes up, send me an e-mail.

RAFA: Thank you, thank you! Take care. Bye-bye!

PMS: Bye!

End of interview.

 PHOTO CREDITS: Latin Media & Entertainment Commission, New York Magazine, Miss Universe Organization 




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