'Cattle show' or passport to fame?

'Cattle show' or passport to fame?
Miss Universe contestants on a float during their arrival and parade in Baguio City in the Philippines on Wednesday. The contestants have been mobbed like rock stars in the Phillipines.
PHOTO: Reuters

Much of the world sees the Miss Universe beauty pageant as an archaic remnant, with interest in it fading with the past in many countries.

In the Philippines, however, it still stirs as much frenzy as the World Cup does among Europeans or the Super Bowl in the US.

About a week from now, this national obsession will be manifested in all its glory as the Philippines hosts the Miss Universe pageant on Jan 30.

All 86 candidates are already here, and they have been everywhere.

They make the news every day as they frolic on the white beaches of Boracay, put on a fashion show on the cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial villas of Vigan city's historic Calle Crisologo, and sashay in swimsuits in Cebu.

Everywhere they go, they are mobbed like rock stars.

They are cheered on and photographed, and their presence documented and spread far and wide on social media.

They are appraised, debated on, and ranked. Bets are placed.

Everything around them is being talked about.

There was, for instance, the commotion over Miss Malaysia Kiran Jassal's diamond-encrusted, metallic jumpsuit, with laser-cut, foot-high replicas of the iconic Petronas Towers jutting out of her shoulders.

These women are now floating into the national consciousness, like once ethereal beings now made flesh, within reach and gamely exposing themselves for everyone's entertainment, and this nation of over 100 million cannot get enough of them.

But they are also caught in the middle of a debate over whether something like the Miss Universe pageant can really rise above the superficiality of what feminists have derided as a "cattle show" and be relevant in a world racked by terrorism, economic uncertainties and conflicts over everything from race, inequality, gender, religion and birth control to food supplements.

Gabriela, a women's rights group, has weighed in, calling the pageant a "manipulative and deceptive tool that projects an image of peace and stability to cover up the creeping influence of fascist repression of poor women's rising protests".

Ms Arlene Brosas, the group's representative in Congress, calls it "yet another attempt to package the Philippines as a lurid tourist destination for cheap, easily exploitable women".

But perhaps the most scathing indictment comes from someone who has been herself on stage, picked apart, in her own words, "like pigs being sold in the market".

Ms Imelda Schweighart, who represented the Philippines in last year's Miss Earth pageant, recalled having an epiphany as she wore a bikini backstage, with dozens of other women.

"We were like meat waiting for our turn to strut our stuff," she wrote in a Facebook post.

Others lament that the pageant is being held as thousands are being killed in President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on crime.

UNFAIR, SWEEPING, MYOPIC

For tourism officials here, these criticisms are unfair, sweeping and myopic.

Tourism Undersecretary Katherine de Castro said the Miss Universe pageant, though still essentially a beauty contest, has also given women a powerful platform to push various causes.

She pointed out that the reigning title holder, for instance, the Philippines' own Ms Pia Wurtzbach, has made her mark raising HIV awareness.

Ms Wurtzbach herself regards the beauty aspect as "bait" to get people to listen to more serious advocacy of issues such as gender equality and human rights.

There are beauty contests run like lurid sex shows, said Professor Jose Wendell Capili, an anthropologist at the University of the Philippines. But generally, pageants, especially marquee ones like Miss Universe, Miss World and Miss International, have provided Filipino women a doorway to instant fame and, with it, opportunities for a better life.

"Many pageant winners become successful celebrities after winning. Many see pageants as a stepping stone towards becoming a celebrity and an advocate for worthwhile causes," said Prof Capili.

Many past winners have moved on to become actors, doctors, lawyers, businesswomen and politicians.

One, Ms Jeanne Therese Hilario, a second runner-up at the 1989 Maja International pageant, even earned a doctorate in environmental engineering from Cambridge.

The lesson has always been that there is a way out for everyone, said Prof Capili.

This is why a beauty queen in the Philippines is revered as exactly that: a queen.

The late banker Tomas Aguirre paid tribute to the nation's beauty queens by naming streets of a gated community he built in a suburb south of Manila in 1968 after them.

NATIONAL OBSESSION

"Once you're a beauty queen, you will always be remembered as a beauty queen, even when you're already old, here in the Philippines.

You keep the title for life, the prestige for life," said Mr Rodgil Flores, who runs a "boot camp" for those aspiring to put on a sash and tiara.

That is enough to motivate thousands of women to join pageants, despite the condescension heaped on by liberals and the lustful looks of onlookers.

In each of the Philippines' 40,000 grassroots districts known as "barangays", a beauty contest is held each year, mostly on some hastily built stage in a crowded street or alley, to mark the high point of a fiesta celebrating some obscure saint.

There are pageants for everyone: straight and gay men and women; transgenders, transsexuals and cross-dressers; little girls and boys; and housewives and grandmothers.

They compete for a bevy of titles: That's My Boy, Little Miss Philippines, Mr Handsome, Little Miss Handsome, Miss Gay Philippines, Miss Supranational, Manhunt International, Mr Marketplace, Super Mermaid.

Marketing consultant Denise Sangalang was only 16 when she joined her school's beauty pageant.

Now 21, she remembers being onstage, ogled by hundreds of pubescent boys.

She recalls feeling uncomfortable.

"I did feel that. They had their eyes on me whenever I was the one walking on stage," she said.

What got her through being looked at as an object was to imagine the audience as objects as well.

"I pictured everyone as a cheeseburger," she said, "as (it is) something that makes me smile."

rdancel@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on January 21, 2017.
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