Gunslinger, Scholar, Catwalker
THIS YEAR, the Enchanted Island nation of Puerto Rico hosted the pageant for the second straight year in a row. As soon as the delegates started arriving in San Juan, the Puerto Rican press immediately focused their attention on the strong Latin delegates such as Colombia, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. The hometown delegate, Isis Marie Casalduc, had already been considered as a shoo-in for the semifinals; after all, she underwent the same training as that of her predecessor, Denise Quiñones who won last year. All 73 delegates arrived without any problems, except for one - Oxana Fedorova of Russia. The Russian delegate apparently had to contend with bureaucratic snafu that caused delay in the processing of her visa. And when she finally arrived a few days later, tension and perhaps nervousness increased among the delegates: Oxana was there to win. And so she did.
THE PRELIMINARY judges responsible for selecting the ten semifinalists had the difficult task of screening and scrutinizing each delegate. What exactly were they looking for? Excellent communication skills is a must for every potential beauty queen and it is a given requisite. The countries that have been sending delegates to the contest since 1952 know that dumbness is a losing trait, and that physical beauty does not always guarantee victory. What kind of questions exactly did those preliminary judges ask each contestant? Some observers say that the not-so-strong delegates were asked "dumb" questions such as, "How many pieces of luggage did you bring?" or "What is your favorite drink?", while the heavy favorites were asked challenging questions perhaps like "How do you resolve the war in the Middle East?" or "What would you do prevent world hunger?" It would be so na?ve to assume that the preliminary judges had not been influenced one way or the other by the press or pageant fans. When newspapers are studded with images of Misses Venezuela, South Africa, Panama and Russia, it is hard not to take a second, third look at those pictures. Supposedly, the judges were heavily sequestered and were not allowed to socialize with the candidates at all. This is also another requisite. However, there is no rule - not to my knowledge - that judges are forbidden to buy local newspapers or to watch T.V. interviews of delegates. For all we know, these same judges were present during the fashion show where they had the chance to pre-scrutinize the candidates. Each preliminary judge, therefore, had at least a "preliminary" notion of whom he or she would vote for.
WHEN you read the bios of the preliminary judges posted on the Miss Universe site, you will notice that at least five of these judges, two of which come from South Africa and Russia, are directly involved with the fashion and modeling industries. It is not surprising that the Top Ten delegates all project the qualities of a fashion or runway model. The "model" look was undoubtedly the deciding factor, so you can imagine that anyone else who did not fit the mold had to be automatically excluded. This spelled bad news for the delegates who were either too short, too "exotic" or too bland. The question of hairstyle was probably not an issue; you can wear your hair up or down and still land a spot in the semifinals. Among the semifinalists, five sported an updo hairstyle during the evening gown competition - India, Venezuela, Albania, Cyprus and China. A nagging question haunts me, "What happened to the favorite black delegates?" What happened to Nigeria, Ghana, Colombia and the Dominican Republic? Could it be that none of them looked good with a hair style different from what they are used to wearing? Could it be that the preliminary judges were searching for versatility - the essence of a true fashion model?
JUST a few hours after Oxana's coronation, several angry fans posted cynical remarks on message boards regarding the exclusion of black delegates. "The judges were racists!", "It's fixed! Colombia should've been up there!". Or other remarks which somehow denote charges of racism. A poster wrote a lengthy message about ethnic politics, suggesting that the Miss Universe organization "systematically modified the criteria of the p ageant so that they (the black delegates) could be eliminated in the early phase of competition." Another fan replied by simply saying - referring to the original poster's writing - "stupid and too damn long." The original poster was right in speculating that ethnic politics played a significant role to a certain degree. All aspects of life are political to begin with. So if the semifinalists were selected because the preliminary judges - perhaps with Donald Trump's influence - believed that the former would be better sellers for the sponsors, then many potential sellers got lucked out. Thus, a Lacroix watch or a Mikimoto pearl necklace would probably not sell well in black Africa, even though both products would look stunning on Sudan-born supermodel Alek Wek. The Bluepoint swimwear and fitness competition bore resemblance to a Victoria's Secret commercial in which busty supermodels do the catwalk in bikinis and angel wings. How many conservative Egyptian or Turkish women could identify with such an image? Arpeggio Cosmetics - the official cosmetics sponsor - may sell better given that every delegate had been made up with Arpeggio products. But when you visit the website, you'll see a blond model on the cover page and no reference whatsoever to so-called "ethnic" products. It eventually boils down to taste and economics. But is that all?
OBVIOUSLY not. The Miss Universe organizers stated that they wanted to get "beyond an image of a pageant queen as focused on looks alone." This may sound trite, but nevertheless proves encouraging. Just take a look at Oxana's remarkable background - she has a law degree, she is completing a doctoral thesis on civil law, she is a trained shooter, she is a champion volleyball player, she is a senior police lieutenant (she is due for a promotion to captain in August), and she is licensed to kill! Sounds like a James Bond girl to you? Plus, she is also a bookworm. How many beauty queens do you know claim to like reading books? You have to go back to Miss Chile 1989 who devoured the works of Chilean writer Gabriela Mistral. Oxana may speak minimal English, but she expressed her desire to speak it fluently. The photos taken of her one day after her coronation reveal a versatile photography subject. Could it be those hypnotic green eyes that mesmerized the judges? One look at her and they were all awestruck. And who wouldn't be? Now rumours are flying that she is President Putin's love interest. Oh, man! I hope it's not true, because I would hate to think that she used her feminine charm to get a job in the police department!
PRODUCTION-WISE, this year's show is fifty-four times better than last year's. The MU organizers finally listened to the whims and complaints of the fans. You just cannot have a show if you can't even devote ample airtime to the girls, which was the case last year. The "Parade of Nations" in the beginning of the show - or better yet the "Dance of Nations" since the girls introduced themselves in a carnival setting - was simply fun to look at. Once again, Scott Grossman proved that he is the ultimate choreographer for the pageant, and I hope they keep him as long as they can. The costumes were dazzling and the girls knew how to seduce the viewers.
CURIOUSLY, the electronic voting method was scrapped in favor of the traditional voting via paper ballots which had been used from 1952 until 1977. This latter method is more advantageous since it offers the judges more time to convene and to carefully select the deserving Top Ten delegates - a factor that is impossible with the electronic way. Nevertheless, the electronic voting method was used during the telecast only because of time constraint. This year's final judges were a combination of beauty, brawn and business. Let's take a look:
- NICOLE MILLER, U.S. fashion designer
- MARSHALL FAULK, U.S. football player
- AMIR, fashion designer of South Asian descent, U.S. resident
- TATJANA PATITZ, supermodel, U.S. resident
- TYRESE, U.S. entertainer
- YUE-SAI KAN, Chinese T.V. personality
- CHRISTOPHER McDONALD, U.S. actor
- MARISOL MALARET, Miss Universe 1970 from Puerto Rico
- ETHAN ZOHN, "Survivor II" winner
- OSWALD MENDEZ, "The Amazing Race 2" participant
Apart from Yue-Sai Kan and Marisol Malaret, all the other judges have permanent residency in the United States. I believe that geography was the last thing on the judges' mind when they selected the Top Ten. I am utterly convinced that they looked into beauty without boundary - the kind that surpasses all hindrance to appreciating beauty at its best. This means that Oxana possessed qualities with which each judge could identify: Amir probably adored Oxana's flowing strapless Gucci gown, Patitz and Malaret loved Oxana's great catwalk, Tyrese and McDonald appreciated Oxana's earthiness, Kan cherished Oxana's money-making potential, and Zohn and Mendez identified with Oxana's "amazing survival skills". Gone are the on-screen displays of the individual judges' scores; instead, the delegate's score for each category was gradually flashed on a long, rectangular colored section on stage that also served as the catwalk area. We will never know which judges voted for which candidate - unless they speak out in public. We do know, however, that there were several surprises from the evening, such as Cyprus and Albania (a first-timer) and the tragic exclusion of earlier favorites Colombia and the Dominican Republic. Below is a chart showing the judges' collective scores for each semifinalist in two categories:
JUST LOOKING at the average scores above will tell us how the semifinalists fared after the evening gown competition: Russia came first with Venezuela trailing behind, whereas Germany and Cyprus were running neck and neck. The judges were either too conservative or too stingy with their scores, but they were quite generous with Oxana who received high 9s - clearly the mostly favored to win.
China's Ling Zhuo (photo right) proved to be the darling of the audience; she deserves credit for not having used an interpreter and still succeeded in charming the audience with her wit and effervescence ("Look meeee...!") Clearly, Ling was the most personable girl of the bunch. Panama's Justine Pasek should also be commended for her remarkable sincerity and diplomacy. When asked which country she would represent if she had to enter another pageant, Justine replied without the least hesitation, "Puerto Rico!" Her reply is reminiscent of Barbara Palacios who thrilled the Panamanian audience with her "Mi nombre es Panamá" rhetoric that helped her win the crown in 1986. Compare Justine's response with that of South Africa's Vanessa Carreira who looked incredible until she opened her mouth (she needs to take an intensive course on enunciation - now I wonder how she passed the preliminary interview!). And even though Venezuela's English was very good, she hardly answered the question, "What is the mo st important thing you've learned about participating in Miss Universe?" Instead, she gave a rather mundane and non-memorable response.
- The selection of soft and serene music during the catwalk, swimsuit and evening gown competition. This gave the impression that nothing was being rushed. The predominance of the colors blue and grey (as in the backdrop) and white (as in most of the evening gowns) underscored the celestial ambiance of the show.
- Balance of personality among the hosts. Phil Simms and Daisy Fuentes proved to be effective hosts; Daisy's bubbly and outgoing spirit was antithesis to Phil's often times reserved and polished demeanor. Neither host attempted to steal the show from the girls.
- The aerial acrobats - muscular, graceful and powerful - added artistry and class to the show.
- More air time devoted to the delegates - at least to those who spoke English.
- Miss Netherlands, during the carnival scene, kissing the bunch of flowers after introducing herself.
- The video segment of selected delegates discussing the role of women in their countries as well as diversity in the pageant.
- Marisol Malaret who still looked lovely as when she was crowned thirty-two years ago.
- Denise Quiñones herself, always in her cheerful dispostion and looking radiant during her final walk. She will be one tough act to follow.WHO SAID that the show was perfect? Certainly not I. The work of a critic is never done until he engages in nit-picking. So here are a few of my cynical comments:
OVERALL, this year's production was far superior to last year's, thanks to an incredible staff that consisted of director Ron de Moraes (who recently directed the Celine Dion television special on CBS last April 7th), writer Eugene Pack, award-winning production designers John Shaffner and Joe Stewart, art director Tina Miller, and of course, Richard Guy and Rex Holt of GuyRex fame who were hired this year to train the girls how to move and walk. The show will forever be remembered for Oxana's presentation; without her, there would not have been a show.
- Besides Brook Lee, Dayanara Torres and Marisol Malaret, there was no other mention or sight of former titleholders.
- What is Scott Grossman's real role in the pageant? During the announcement of the placements, he kissed everyone else except China. They could have at least invited Dayanara and Deborah Carthy Deu to assist with the coronation and distribution of bouquets.
- When all of the contestants were on stage, the cameras barely showed the ones that were positioned on the last row.
- Marc Anthony's second performance: it was not necessary. This segment could have been used to provide more air time for the delegates.
- Right after Marc Anthony's second performance, Daisy Fuentes exclaimed, "Coming up..Top..." only to be interrupted by another segment promoting San Juan.
- The Spanish-speaking translator from so-called Precision Translating Services* who translated the questions to Misses Panama and Venezuela despite the impression that the candidates, who spoke fluent English, did not need an interpreter. (*Wasn't this the same translator from the De la Vega Translation Services, you know, the one who helped Alicia Machado win the crown in 1996 by enhancing her response?)
- A 7.99 score for Miss Canada in the swimsuit competition. What were the judges thinking? Neelam Vera had one of the best bodies and moves!
- Brook Lee faltered while reading the name of the swimsuit label. Oh, well! She's not always articulate after all.
- The omission of "Miss" before the name of the delegate's country. What is MUO trying to say? Do they think that the word "Miss" is now out-dated and irrelevant? If that's the case, perhaps the organizers should erase whatever "miss-conceptions" they have about being a Miss.
Text by Rafa Delfin, 5/30/2002
Miss Universe 2002 in Wikipedia
Photos courtesy of the Miss Universe Organization
Miss Universe 2002 in Wikipedia
Photos courtesy of the Miss Universe Organization
***Four months after her reign, Oxana Fedorova was dethroned and was replaced by her first runner-up, Justine Pasek of Panama (below):