Contestants in the upcoming Miss Universe pageant talk about their aspirations to change intolerance and bias
WHEN ON December 17, the finalists in this year’s Miss Universe pageant take to the stage of Impact, Muang Thong Thani, they will be rewriting the history of the contest. That’s because this year, the line-up of ladies includes Spanish beauty queen Angela Ponce, the first transgender contestant to compete against “naturally born” females. The Miss Universe organisation, ironically then owned by a man who is trying to narrow the definition of gender identity, US President Donald Trump, announced the change in its rules six years ago, bringing an end to decades of discrimination against transgender women.
From left, Miss Universe Thailand 2018, Sopida Kanchanarin, Paula Shugart, president of Miss Universe organisation, and Miss Universe 2017, DemiLeigh Nel-Peters
Paula Shugart, president of Miss Universe organisation, tells The Nation Weekend: “Since 2012, we’ve elected to follow the Olympics model. Some of the national contests saw transgender entries in the first two or three years so we knew that one day we would see one competing on the international stage. And here we are six years later making history and celebrating gender equality. The time has clearly come when every individual is able to stand on their own two feet, is able to feel comfortable on their own skin, with who they are and able to live life to the fullest. There is a lot going on in the world that is not good but what we are seeing here is fantastic and we should celebrate it.”
“Empowering women” is the underlying motto of the beauty pageant business. Indeed, the Women's Empowerment Principles offer practical guidance to business and the private sector on how to empower women in the workplace, marketplace, and community. Developed through a partnership between UN Women and the United Nations Global Compact, the principles are designed to support companies in reviewing existing policies and practices, or establishing new ones, to realise women's empowerment and emphasise the promotion of gender equality.
Last Wednesday, the 26-year-old Spanish beauty showed why she is being tipped to walk away with this year’s crown, turning out for Thai Night Gala in a stunning silk dress. While she is understandably making headlines for being the first transgender to compete in the pageant, Ponce more than merits attention for her beauty and poise. Asked to what extent she is affected by the inevitable criticism and prejudice, Ponce smiles and says she is a woman with different characteristics.
Miss Universe Spain, Angela Ponce
She tells The Nation Weekend that she is very happy to be part of Miss Universe this year. “It’s the beginning of many new things in my life. I’m delighted to get to know many beauty queens and learn about their countries and also exchange my beautiful Spanish culture. It’s a great opportunity to be part of the pageant. If I were lucky enough to be crowned Miss Universe, I would give emphasis to such issues as the lack of education on diversity. I’d be a very different type of Miss Universe because my experience in growing up has been so very different. I’d become a voice for gender equality for every group of women including transgender, LGBT and children as well as highlighted the factors that lead to bullying, prejudice, and violence.”
Ponce is not the only contestant fighting for empowerment. Miss Universe Japan 2018, Yuumi Kato, 22, was born in Japan and raised in Malaysia. Without formal education, she became independent at an early age and fought to overcome the many hardships she faced. To inspire others to fight, Kato has chosen a popular Japanese animation character for her national costume.
“I’m very excited to show my national costume because everybody knows it is very interesting this year – it’s Sailor Moon,” she laughs. “We are presenting the woman warrior as a new culture of Japan. We’ll move from the history of the Ninja to the modern Sailor Moon. Empowering women is important and I have chosen this character, a women warrior with a strong image, to underline this year’s theme of gender equality, I think it is time for women to stand up and be counted and I’m sure this coming year will be very special for women.”
Miss Universe Japan
Miss Universe Nepal 2018 is another lady for whom empowerment is a must. An advocate for girl’s education and public health, Manita Devkota is working to change the stigmas and obstacles that menstruating women and girls face in Nepal. She says that this is the second time Nepal has participated in the Miss Universe pageant. “I come here with all the hopes and dreams of the Nepali people. I come here to make them proud. My name Manita means honour. I want to show the people in the world that Nepalis women are no less strong than others. They are kind, independent, they have their own passions and dreams. They are strong women and I hope to portray that in the Miss Universe pageant.”
From left: Miss Universe Nepal, Miss Universe Namibia, and Miss Universe South Africa
For her part, Miss Universe Thailand 2018, Sopida Kanchanarin, is full of praise for the Miss Universe charity project Smile Train, which repairs deformities in kids born with cleft lip and palate. “Thailand is the land of smiles. They do amazing work to bring smiles to more than two million children all over the world. I am proud to be part of this project and to be able to help raise awareness and improve the wellbeing of those suffering from this problem.”
Thailand, which last hosted the pageant back in 2005, is using the event as a stage to showcase the country’s many talents. Efforts are being led by distinguished designer, Her Royal Highness Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana who has created a collection of fashionable swimsuits for the preliminary competition as well as two elegant Thai silk dresses worn at Wednesday’s gala evening.
From left: Miss Universe Ukraine, Miss Universe Uruguay, Miss Universe United States Virgin Islands, Miss Universe Vietnam, and Miss Universe Zambia
As the creative director of the brand that bears her name, the Princess is underlining her commitment to female empowerment with a design on the concept “Across the Universe”. The palette reflects not only the Thai belief in the auspicious colour of the day ranging from red, yellow, pink, green, orange, blue and purple but also represents the idea of a world united in harmony and peace. The swimsuits themselves are both one and two piece and decorated with whimsical gold metal embellishment studs. A graphic of the Nebula-inspired pattern is displayed on the scarf.
Her custom-made dresses were worn by Miss Universe Thailand 2018, Sopida and Miss Universe 2017, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters. Inspired by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe, they reflected the highly skilled craftsmanship for which the country is known and combined mudmee and praewa silks.
From left: Miss Universe Angola, Miss Universe Argentina, and Miss Universe Armenia
The other ladies at the gala were also attired in exquisite evening gowns made from Thai silk from the Support Foundation under royal patronage and designed by leading local brands Asava, Ek Thongprasert, Emotions Atelier, La Boutique, Hook’s, Kanapot Aunsorn, Kloset, Milin, Narong, Pattarat, Patinya, Present, Surface, Tipayaphong, Tohns, Tube Gallery, Valentier, Vickteerut, and Wisharawish.
As she prepared to hand over her crown, Miss Universe 2017, South African Nel-Peters, thanked the organisation for believing in and supporting her vision and her dreams as she launched her “Unbreakable” mission.
Miss Universe Mexico
“I’m passionate about empowering women with the skill and knowledge on how to prevent and protect themselves and also escape from violent situations. I’ve managed to introduce the ‘Unbreakable’ project in various countries including Mexico, Indonesia, and the United States. My project is growing outside my home country and my dream is to start my own foundation. Becoming Miss Universe 2018 is a once in a lifetime opportunity. You will never walk on the Miss Universe stage again and present your country on such a global stage. It is an honour and for me, it’s also been a life changing experience. My message to each of this year’s contestants is simple: whether you win or not, Miss Universe is a powerful platform. I’d like to encourage each one of you to use that platform and your voice to make some meaningful changes,” she says.
The final round of the Miss Universe pageant takes place on Monday, December 17 at 7am |(local time) at the Impact Arena Convention Centre in Muang Thong Thani so as to coincide with the live screening scheduled for 7pm on December 16 in the US where it shows on the Fox Channel.
It will be live streamed on |channel PPTV HD 36, www.pptvhd36.com and PPTVHD36 application.