How a country hosts a Miss Universe pageant

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Unlike the monarchs of old, beauty queens are made, not born. But who makes them?

When the Americans first came to Philippine shores, they thought they brought with them a model for democracy. Little did they know that they also brought a monarchy in the guise of pageantry.

Since the inception of Miss Universe in the early 1950s, the Philippines actively nursed not only queens to be, but the fierce fanbase that crowns them. The country inched closer and closer to the title, becoming a constant presence in the international pageant’s top ten since 2010, in part due to the overflow of support from online voting.

It was her highness Pia Wurtzbach who broke the dry spell of over 40 years when she finally took the crown after a confusing, controversial mishap on coronation night in 2015.

That year, the pageant took a hard hit: sponsors and broadcasters dropped out after now-U.S. President Donald Trump, who owned the pageant, called Mexicans criminals. NBC terminated its contract with him, leaving the pageant with no telecast.

By the time Wurtzbach won, the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) had been sold, and was no longer under Trump’s many business endeavours. It also began asking daring questions: gun control for Miss U.S.A., drug abuse with Miss Colombia, and American bases in the Philippines for Wurtzbach. (Perhaps the pivot toward social awareness was to reverse Trump’s direction for the pageant; the Rolling Stone recalls how he had told Howard Stern in 2005 that the organizing team “had a person that was extremely proud that a number of the women had become doctors,” and he simply was “not interested.”)

Wurtzbach at once stuck with and broke the beauty queen mold: She modelled and endorsed, but also spoke out about LGBTQ rights and HIV/AIDS awareness. She was all about making beauty queens “relatable,” she told CNN Philippines’ Mitzi Borromeo. And part of her agenda was to push for her home country to become a host.

After much back-and-forth and whether or not it would push through amid the cost it required and the controversial war on drugs, it was decided: The 65th edition of Miss Universe would be held in the Philippines, the third time since 1994 and 1974, the year after Margie Moran last took home the crown.

But what does it take to mount the biggest and the oldest of the four international pageants? In the wildly pageant-popular Philippines, it is not the suited dealers of Las Vegas and the rich, famous, controversial presidents who propel Miss Universe.

It is the regular folks — all the queen’s men — and those behind the scenes who make love and livelihood of the industry. The crown is constant, yes, but it takes a village to raise a queen.

The Governor’s Ball held at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City served as a charity fundraiser, in line with the Miss Universe Organization's encouragement for host countries to support their chosen advocacies. Photo by JL JAVIER

                                                                      The organizer

The president to the queen is Paula Shugart, a blonde businesswoman who has been a constant across many reigns. In the industry for over a decade now, Shugart maintains that MUO is inclusive, and constantly evolving.

“I know there are sometimes arguments about that, but it has succeeded in changing over time,” says Shugart. “And as times changed and women found their place, Miss Universe changed right along with it.”

“Anytime you can get young people from around the world, from different cultures and all these walks of life, and you get them in the same room and have them have an experience together, it can’t help but do good things for the future,” she adds.

Despite being appointed by Trump, who had in 2005 complained about organizers bragging about contestants’ intelligence, Shugart does the same: she speaks of women who had become a dentist, and at least five contestants who had gone into health care; of women who stayed friends despite coming from enemy states; of women who defied racial segregation when, in 2015, Miss Universe Japan Ariana Miyamoto was hit for “not being Japanese enough.”

While pageants take a beating from feminist movements abroad, they enjoy less criticism in the Philippines. In fact, the industry seems to project a peculiar brand of women empowerment, which at once embraces and resists the pageant mold and its stereotypes.

When a television anchor asked Miss International 2016 Kylie Verzosa if she had a boyfriend, she said, “Wala po. Korona lang.” When the anchor replied, “Ang lungkot naman,” she graciously, almost smugly answered, “No, of course not! The crown is only once in a lifetime.”

Wurtzbach once characterized pageants as a way to get people’s attention but later shift it to more important matters; she would pair her swimsuit photos on social media with captions about her advocacies.

Shugart throws herself behind this, calling Wurtzbach “consistent with our brand” and a “hard act to follow.” So she is thrilled, she says, that a country with such a large fanbase will be hosting the pageant.

“I’m very excited about the show being here in the Philippines, and I think it’s gonna be beautiful,” she tells CNN Philippines. “I feel that I’m here with a country of family.”

In the past ten years, nine Miss Universe candidates were found by Jonas Gaffud, head of Aces & Queens. He says of his training style, “I just don’t believe in mediocrity.”

                                                                          The pillars

In an unassuming building along Shaw Boulevard is a dance studio-turned-training ground for future beauty queens. This is where CNN Philippines’ Mitzi Borromeo meets the camp’s founding fathers — or mothers — who are considered “the three pillars” of Aces & Queens, a passion project and beauty training facility dedicating to finding and developing world class Filipinas for pageantry. They have had the studio since 2010, when they made it big when Venus Raj bagged fourth runner-up, making their mark in Miss Universe. They kept it ever since, for luck.

The first two who arrive are Arnold Mercado, team manager and personality development trainer, and Nad Bronce, who trains the girls for the question and answer portion. Last to arrive is the leader of the pack: Jonas Gaffud. Although he advises queens in all aspects of the pageant, he is the master of the pasarela — or the walk, as it is called in Colombia and Venezuela. In the past ten years, nine Miss Universe candidates were found by him.

With him is the Philippine bet Maxine Medina, on one of the last weeks for her training before the pageant. As she takes to the floor on her high heels, Gaffud instructs her: “Always remember you were once a princess,” he says, “but you are now the queen.”

When he sits down for the interview, he says of his training style, “I just don’t believe in mediocrity.”

Seemingly less stern but also reserved is Bronce, nicknamed “Tito Nad.” The most active of his students, he recalls, was Wurtzbach, who filled three notebooks from her studies of questions and answers and who always offered alternative answers in class.

“It’s a class setting, the girls would be sitting in front of me,” says Bronce of his process. “I would ask a question and call somebody. Now, if I’m not happy with the answer, I would ask the other for their opinion.”

Mercado — fondly called “Mama Ru,” by the girls — recalls how Gaffud, or “Mama J,” would train them with an iron fist.

Kasi I’m more of the motherly type of trainer. Ako palagi yung pinupuntahan ng mga girls kapag medyo sad na sila,” said Mercado. “Si Mama J naman on the other hand … siya yung style na very, very strict.”

“When Pia prepared her farewell speech for Binibining Pilipinas, sabi niya, ‘I don’t really understand why beauty queens say this is a journey, it’s the end of the journey, when in fact it’s the beginning of our journey.’” Photos by JL JAVIER

In his interview for CNN Philippines’ Profiles, Gaffud shares how, as a child, he would cut out dresses from magazines and paper dolls in his family’s mini-library.

“My sister kasi has the dolls. Bawal ako doon. Gusto nila, doon ako sa baril-barilan with my brothers. Wala akong choice,” shared Gaffud. “Pero pagkatapos nun, tatakbo na ako magka-cutout na ako ng mga dresses.”

He would label the dolls by country, and ask his siblings to act as judges. He would spend the afternoon calculating their average scores until he picked out a top ten. “Tapos mamaya, dadamitan ko na sila, isa-isa, ng swimsuit. Then magja-judge na sila,” he recalled.

Gaffud’s first stint at beauty pageant training, if it was any indication, was in high school, when his best friend joined the running for prom queen.

“I taught her how to do it. And they were laughing at me because I was not openly gay. ‘Look at him … he’s even better than the women,’” said Gaffud. “I could hear it already but I just ignored it because I wanted her to win. So she won. She’s now a doctor.”

Gaffud, also a talent manager for artists, is now working on a book, and has the goal of setting up a school for etiquette by next year. Who would have known, when he was cutting out his paper dolls, that he would become the creative director of a Philippine-hosted Miss Universe one day?

For Gaffud and company, things are a matter of destiny. He has a natural instinct with the girls, and he says of fate, “I don’t know how the universe conspires to make it happen.”

Gaffud does not get paid to be a beauty queen handler. They do it for free; being part of the crowning of a queen is fulfillment enough for them.

“When Pia prepared her farewell speech for Binibining Pilipinas, sabi niya, ‘I don’t really understand why beauty queens say this is a journey, it’s the end of the journey, when in fact it’s the beginning of our journey,’” Bronce recalled.

When Mercado faces the camera for a message to Wurtzbach, he is also nostalgic. “Imagine in my lifetime, naka-witness ako ng isang crowning ng Miss Universe,” he says. “Thank you Pia, for making my dream come true.”

The police deployment for Miss Universe has both men and women. "We are one of the lucky law enforcement bodies in the world … that has embraced the gender sensitive program,” says Police Chief Inspector Kimberly Molitas. Photo by JL JAVIER

                                                                         The guard

A parking lot in the Mall of Asia complex has become a command post for the Miss Universe Task Force. Police tasked with the background role of securing the most popular pageant in the world — the universe, rather — go in and out of its area. Reports fly in and out too: the whereabouts of the candidates, their safety, data from area sweeps.

Police Chief Inspector Kimberly Molitas checks in here. The first woman spokesperson for the Philippine National Police (PNP), she has also been delegated with the task of speaking on behalf of the Miss Universe security task force.

“I think we are one of the lucky law enforcement bodies in the world … that has embraced the gender sensitive program,” Molitas proudly states.

Molitas is proud to say that the deployment for Miss Universe has both men and women. And though close-in security officers are headed by women for the comfort of the girls, men are on the team too. Over 80 closed-in police security aides, one for each candidate, have been deployed to accompany her throughout her tasks.

“I think there’s another language when a woman is involved. For example, going to the powder room or to the restroom, a woman would understand,” she said. But she quickly adds, “I’m not saying that our policemen are not capable, they are properly trained to do so.”

Molitas speaks with the rare balance of command and care, careful not to come off as generalizing. Her manner is a refreshing tone from the machismo that many note dominate public statements from the administration. For one, she is careful not to disregard criticism of international fear amid the war on drugs.

Maxine Medina, the Philippines' representative for this year's Miss Universe, walks the red carpet at the Governor's Ball. Photo by JL JAVIER

But business-like as she is, she says that they still offer their support to the pageant bets “even if we are in this uniform.”

“Upon our observation, of course, everyone gets excited — every police officer would be like, ‘Who’s your bet?’ ‘Who’s your favorite?’” says Molitas with a smile. “I think it’s humanly impossible not to admire women from across the world.”

She recalls how, during a photoshoot in Intramuros, the candidates thanked the National Capital Region Police Office Director Oscar Albayalde to say that they felt “very safe.”

“We’re all happy and we’re also excited and we’re humbled that we’re given this task to make sure that the world will be comfortable watching the Miss Universe on the 30th,” says Molitas.

When asked why she chose to become a policewoman, she grins. It is a question she gets a lot. “Um, I don’t know, adventure?” she offers, laughing. “I’m a very adventurous person. I love [things] with challenge.”

Molitas gave up life as a registered nurse and a job offer to be a flight attendant to join the Academy, and she “has not looked back since.”

“I love my job in law enforcement. It’s public service ... I look at it as giving back to the community, to the Filipinos,” Molitas says. “I always tell people that we have to give our best to the public especially in the aspect of security. I’ve always looked at my work as something that is crucial to everything ... like economy, and all these things that we do for people — for our country to move forward.”

Outside the eyes of an international telecast which sticks to the stage, even the world’s longest running and most popular pageant begins with security.

It is an experience that not every makeup artist can say they have had: to be there when the beauty queens are barefaced, and to be there when they are made up. Photo courtesy of MAC

                                                                             The artist

MAC’s AIDS fund event at Main Atrium in S Maison, under Conrad Hotel, is flocked with paparazzi.

The special guest is Wurtzbach, who poses for the cameras and facilitates the turnover of a large check for victims of HIV.

Also present is affiliate artist Angel Manhilot, who has been with the beauty industry around ten years. She had met Wurtzbach before, right after she lost in her second Binibining Pilipinas try. Manhilot did her makeup for a shoot. She said Wurtzbach had told them she would not go for a third try on the pageant.

But here she was, a queen. Manhilot was here too, now one of the backstage makeup artists for, possibly, Wurtzbach’s predecessor. There is no doubt that she loves her job.

“[It’s the] same as painting, only live lang ‘yung model, live ‘yung canvas. Ma-express mo talaga,” says Manhilot.

A fine arts graduate, she says painting faces is different — it provides a certain kind of fulfillment. She has done makeup so many times before — fashion editorials and magazine shoots, weddings, events, but nothing quite like this year’s new challenge: Miss Universe.

Manhilot, part of a pool of around 15 makeup artists from MAC, are tasked with the difficult backstage work of makeup for the candidates. Their first task, a natural look for their profile pictures upon registration, was easy enough. The next ones — the makeup for the candidates on the National Costume Competition, the gala on the eve of the finale, and the coronation night — are expected to be a lot more straining, with girls getting more competitive. And it might not get pretty.

Sobrang daming kinuwento sa akin ng head of makeup artists na talagang … darating ‘yung time na pag natalo yan, ikaw sisihin,” she said. “Merong bumabalik na, ‘Kasi, linagyan niya ako ng ganun.’ Medyo pag may mga ganung incidents, sabi sa amin, don’t take it personally.”

O kaya like, you put on makeup on a certain candidate tapos pagkita mo, iba. Ibig sabihin nun, ginawa niya sa sarili niya kasi ‘yun ang gusto niya. So … let it go lang,” Manhilot added.

So far though, none of these have happened to her. And if it happens, it’s fine; every country has a different understanding of beauty, she says, and while a makeup artist must try to bridge that gap, they must also not be too hard on themselves.

What many followers of the pageants may be unaware of is the secret life of the makeup artist. Language barriers are tricky, especially when candidates do not speak much English. Flexibility is another demand: Manhilot recalls how MAC affiliates were required to have color correction training. Since they were used to dealing with Asian skin, they were less familiar with makeup procedures for darker complexions.

Pero ang kagandahan doon ... kapag nalapatan ka ng makeup, iba,” she said of makeup on black women. “Very challenging, but very fulfilling ‘pag nagawa.”

Backstage, the affiliate makeup artists have some healthy competition, placing their bets on candidates they pass by and meet. Photo by JL JAVIER

Their rule of thumb: Make sure that the girls are happy. Beauty queens are trained to know their profile; some of them do their own makeup, others just go to artists like Mahilot for a retouch, and others go to the artists barefaced.

Madaling mahirap … as an artist kasi i-hold back mo rin ‘yung artistry mo eh, kasi siyempre, iba ‘yung culture, iba-iba rin ‘yung gauge ng beauty sa kanila,” Mahilot said.

Prior to the National Costume competition, she had worked on Miss Costa Rica, Miss Israel, Miss Mauritius, Miss Finland, Miss Denmark, and Miss South Korea for their profile photographs. Among them, she said, Miss South Korea had the strongest vision for her profile, and clear instructions.

Hindi siya nagpapa-deep set effect. Ayaw niya ng Western type of eyes,” Manhilot explained. “Pino-promote niya ‘yung Korean makeup na puppy eye, medyo thick ‘yung eyeliner, extended dito … Meron siyang sariling identity ... parang promotion of culture na rin.”

This sureness is why, when asked whom among the candidates she would freely choose to give makeup to, Manhilot says she would pick Miss South Korea all over again.

It is an experience, Manhilot says, that not every makeup artist can say they have had: to be there when they are barefaced, and to be there when they are made up.

Pag nakita mo sila isa-isa na talagang pumapasok sa ballroom... at awe kami lahat na parang wow, ang ganda nila. Every candidate is unique, they have unique beauty,” Manhilot said. “Just the experience of meeting them, at lahat kayo nasa isang room lang, sobrang memorable na for me as a makeup artist.

The sparkle and spectacle of Miss Universe is made possible by folks who do the unglamorous, off-camera grunt work that the pageant demands: they fetch gowns, they retouch faces, and they stand by the door to make sure everything is going smoothly.

Backstage, she says, the affiliate artists have some healthy competition, placing their bets on candidates they pass by and meet.

May inside competition din among us, mga makeup artists, kasi siyempre nga ‘pag nanalo ‘yung candidate na me-makeup-an mo, siyempre crowning glory din sa'yo yun,” she said. “Kung manalo yung candidate na min-akeup-an mo, parang ... nanalo ka na rin, diba?”

Manhilot seems ambivalent about the criticism against beauty pageants; she says people are entitled to their opinions. But in her observation — and from her experience as a makeup artist — the appreciation of beauty runs across the board.

Kaya nga siyang Miss Universe, so universal 'yung appreciation,” she said. “Hindi siya naka-cookie cutter na, ganito lang, as in Barbie look lang.”

For her, there are two kinds of beauty: inner beauty and outer beauty. As a makeup artist, her job is to enhance the latter — but she believes that whatever is inside will shine through. “You can (only) do so much for the outer beauty … kahit gaano kaganda yung canvas mo,” she said.

As long as the show will run, Manhilot says, she’ll put her bets and biases aside and do her job. That is, to put on makeup and make the candidate feel two things: confident, and beautiful.

“Always remember you were once a princess,” Gaffud says to Medina, “but you are now the queen.” Photo by JL JAVIER

How is Miss Universe made? Often missing in its long, sometimes controversial, history, the sparkle and spectacle of Miss Universe is made possible by folks who do the unglamorous, off-camera grunt work that the pageant demands: they fetch gowns, they retouch faces, and they stand by the door to make sure everything is going smoothly. And when the coronation is done, they are the ones who sweep up the confetti, clean the makeup brushes, and make sure everyone flies home safely. Then they go home themselves, catch the replay on television, and are just glad to be a part of the kingdom.

In this monarchy, queens are made, not born. They are made not by her crown or by lineage, but by regular people.