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THRILLMAKER: A tell-all behind-the-scenes tale about the MUP 2021 selection process

I have never attached any pageant-related title to my name like missosologist or pageantologist (like some other fans do) but people who know me well are aware that I have a great fascination for beauty pageants.  And why not? The year I was born marked the Philippines’ winning its first Miss Universe title.  My childhood years saw many Filipinas bagging placements in various international pageant competitions.  Not only did watching pageants bring out my competitive spirit in everything I do, it also taught me how one can actually serve the country—in a very beautiful way. 

I have watched every edition of the Binibining Pilipinas, Mutya ng Pilipinas, Miss World, Miss Asia Quest (eventually, Asia-Pacific and then further on Asia-Pacific International), Miss Philippines-Earth (and its international version Miss Earth), and, of course, the Miss Universe pageant since the early 1970s until today.  I have witnessed how trends in the production and conduct of these pageants have started and ended through the years and have seen the changing prototypes each pageant has had in its choices of winners.  Miss Universe, for instance, has changed its preference from the original swimsuit model types in its early years to the classic beauty and brains type in the 70s and 80s to the brief “regional domination” years (sometimes favoring Asians, most of the time, Latin Americans) to the Supermodel type in the Trump era and to the “empowered” Spokesperson mold of the IMG era. Given the still prevailing pandemic, I’d say the Miss Universe pageant is now slowly transitioning to a survival mode and is on the lookout for ladies who can potentially give it the most business—a commercial type of beauty who can easily cut endorsement, advertising or even modeling deals for the organization.   This humble background of being a pageant aficionado is probably what prompted Miss Universe Creative Director Jonas Gaffud to invite me to be involved in this year’s Miss Universe Philippines search.

While our elbows would rub once in a while in the peripheries of pageantry, Jonas and I never really got to work closely together in the past.  He was, of course, the high-profile head of Aces and Queens, while I gladly led a quiet pageant life, supporting the House of JDV (of the late John dela Vega).  I could only admire people like him, John and, of course, Tito Rodgil Flores, for totally dedicating most of their waking hours to pageantry, while I could only sneak it into my own balancing act of living in my dual worlds of the corporate setting and the broadcast media.

But, hey! This is an invitation to be part of the search for the country’s delegate to the world’s most prestigious pageant, so who am I to refuse!  Besides, my inquisitive broadcast journalist’s mind would really like to find out the veracity of all the “conspiracy theories” I have been reading mostly on online pageant pages, saying that these searches are never fair.  The MUPH, especially after all the issues that came out of its introductory edition, had been accused of being a venue where influence peddling, favoritism, and bias are all commonplace.

My first stint with the Miss Universe Philippines Organization started when the board asked me to join them in pruning down this year’s top 50 candidates to the 30 official candidates.  It was an interview challenge and all we had to do was vote yes or no to the girls who were presented to us.  Of course, those who got the highest yes votes made it.   After that was done, we were asked to pick seven who we thought did very well that afternoon.  While most of the favorites did not make it to our lists (a matter of personal preferences among the judges), I’d say we ended up with a really good “best speakers” list.  It was a list of mostly pageant fan non-favorites who, surprisingly, have the gifts of the gab.  While the fans could generally not argue with the capabilities of those who made the lucky 7, many still insisted that their favorites were deliberately excluded from the interview winners’ roster.  Honestly, I already started wondering how a simple yes and no decision could actually lead fans into making some totally baseless and even out-of-this-world conclusions! Aside from that, isn’t it that, as a judge, it is my privilege to have my own opinion on who’s good and who’s not?

Fast-forward to more than a week ago.  Jonas sent me a message asking if I would be interested to come to Bohol to watch the pageant.  I said, I’d love to but my work as Resorts World Manila’s Corporate Communications Head and as PTV news anchor might not allow me to take a trip outside of the Mega City (I can’t possibly skip doing the nightly news).  That’s when he asked me if I could sit not as a judge but as this year’s Special Panelist.  Special…what?! A Special Panelist, whose role is to serve as a deliberator if the board of judges will not have a singular delegate as a winner.  Any division among the judges’ final choices would lead to a deliberation which I will have to moderate and which should lead them to a rightful winner.  Now that role is tough–for many reasons.  One, it will require me to get to know all the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate (how can I say that one is better than the other if I don’t); and, two, if I eventually lead the judges to a candidate who turns out to be the wrong choice for the crown, then, I will really be the one to take the blame!  No wonder, the organization really opted to have an outsider for the role because none of them could possibly lead such a deliberation.  Any word they will say about any candidate can be colored and can be misconstrued either as favoring or being against the participant.  The offer, no matter how tempting, has put a huge burden on my shoulders.  However, in this life, I’ve never really shied away from taking on the big challenges.  I’m just not the type.  The next thing I know, I was already on a flight to Bohol.

SELECTION OF THE TOP 16

The judges, performers and I arrived at the beautiful Hennan Beach Resort in Panglao, Bohol late afternoon last Wednesday.  Just a few minutes after we were led to our solo rooms, the judges and I were called to a function room to view the ladies’ national costume, preliminary swimsuit, preliminary evening gown, and preliminary interview videos.  After that was done, each girl was called inside the room for a brief introduction and then was called back by regional groups: Luzon, NCR, Visayas, and Mindanao, so we can see them standing side by side.  By the way, I chose not to sit on the judges’ table, at that time, so I can walk around and see the girls from different angles.  The night ended with the selection of the top 15, as Masbate representative Kisses Delavin, being named as the winner of the popularity vote, would complete the first cut of 16 girls.

I did some brief chit-chats with the judges and I figured that they were already starting to see the standouts: Misses Taguig, Cebu City and Pangasinan were often singled out.  They were also mesmerized by Cebu Province’s beauty but noted that she seemed nervous during the short interview.

The night ended with the judges heading to their respective rooms (all of us were exhausted) while the girls stayed up late for rehearsals.

The following day started with breakfast and then after that, we were advised to go back to our respective rooms again to get some beauty sleep (for the evening’s coronation ceremonies!).

The judges and the Special Panelist

A SOCIAL EXPERIMENT

I am a naturally curious person.  Being in the media, I am innately expository and am always on the lookout for what is covert and unexposed.  Since I was just in my shorts, a simple shirt, a standard face mask, and a cap, I decided to pretend to be an ordinary pageant fan standing by in the lobby for a glimpse of the candidates.  Remember, I was not seated at the judges’ table the previous night, so the candidates would have no way of knowing what my role in the pageant is!  So, when the ladies started coming out of their rooms to head to the coronation night venue for make-up (with their wheeled suitcases in tow), I started approaching them and greeting them “good morning.”  I was so surprised not to have been greeted back by the ladies! One top favorite even gave me an eye roll and then a side-eye as she passed my way.  Of the girls I met up close that morning, only one girl greeted me back with a smile and even said “nood po kayo mamaya!” This girl went far in the competition.

THE JUDGES’ BRIEFING

The judges were called back in by the MUPH Organization to the function room at around 3 o’ clock in the afternoon of day 2.  There, they were once again shown video snippets of the top 16 they chose so they can be reminded of the ladies that they will be scoring later in the evening.  As the Special Panelist, I wanted to have a grasp if I’d really have to lead a deliberation later on, so I asked the judges if they could name their top bets at that moment.  I assured it was just a mock roster that I wanted at that point.  That’s when I got a sense that the judges are now making firmer assessments on their favorites: the only ones mentioned at that time were Cebu City, Taguig and Pangasinan, with strong opinions already thrown in for the first two.  That’s when I ascertained that I really have to come prepared for my role that evening. 

CORONATION NIGHT

Let’s talk about the seating arrangements.  Naturally, there was a judges’ table where the five judges sat.  My seat was right behind judge Jojie Lloren’s, with the Hennan property scion Alfon Chusuey immediately to my right and the members of the MUPH Board further on the right side.  We could hardly interact with each other as we were told to keep our masks and shields on during the whole show, except on the part when we were introduced on camera.  The show started and we all watched how the ladies performed in the various competitive segments of the pageant.  Remember, all the judges have to do at this point is to watch and observe the sixteen they earlier picked so they can decide on their top 10 and then the final five. The tabulators gathered the judges’ scores to determine the top ten.  The same was done again after the top 10 casual interviews.  None of us knew who the final top 5 will be.  We only learned who they were the moment KC Montero read their names straight out of the tabulator’s list.  The final question and answer round followed. 

Here’s how I would call the ladies’ performances on that round: Miss Cebu Province was able to give an answer but it was obvious that she was both nervous and was searching for the right words in her mind as she answered her question.  Miss Cebu City’s answer was direct and on-point. She said what she needed to say and delivered it with conviction.  Clean performance.  Miss Taguig, who is a native English speaker and consistently strong in her previous interviews gave multiple answers to a question that required her to name something that was the “best.” From what I know, when one is asked for anything that is best, then there should only be a “singular” answer.  Katrina Dimaranan seemed to have dilly-dallied between being compassionate and relatable. Miss Cavite gave another brilliant answer.  Miss Pangasinan gave a decent answer but her delivery was a little too cute and sweet.  I personally would have wanted more conviction there.  Again, these are my personal reviews, not the judges.’

THE DELIBERATION

Immediately after that was done, all the judges were advised to head to a small room backstage.  Expectedly, I had to join them as the Special Panelist.  The MUP Board was likewise there to witness the proceedings and to give their final approval to the judges’ choices (after all, this is their pageant!).  The judges were asked to name their MUP winners first.  One by one, all of them revealed their respective choices, who turned out to be one and the same person: Miss Cebu City, Beatrice Luigi Gomez.  I was, naturally, pleasantly surprised.  The house is united, not divided.  I didn’t have to lead a deliberation after all.  Miss Taguig, Katrina Dimaranan’s selection as MUP-Tourism was also unanimous.  Miss Cavite, Victoria Vincent’s strong final answer catapulted her to the third spot, with Miss Pangasinan, Maureen Wroblewitz, and Miss Cebu Province, Steffi Aberasturi grabbing the runner-up honors.  The members of the MUP Board were officially told of such a decision, and MUP National Director Shamcey Supsup-Lee formally accepted. Elated with the quick and conflict-free turn of events, judge Vicki Belo took a video of all of us in the room saying that we’ve reached a decision and that it is unanimous.  The journalist in me made me ask the judges one question before we left that room: “What was the tipping point?” They said almost in chorus, “The question-and-answer round!”

The winners were announced.

This year’s winners with the judges and the special panelist

THE BACKLASH

No pageant is ever complete without the fans making an issue of the results.  Here are some of their allegations which I’d like to shed light on as an outsider looking into the selection process of this year’s Miss Universe Philippines pageant.

1)      The judges didn’t know what they were doing.  That’s a baseless accusation considering that we are talking about people of sterling profiles.  These people are well-respected and are experts in their respective fields.  Each of them, through their achievements, earned their spots on the panel.  Their varying backgrounds give greater credence to their decision as it is representative of supposedly a wide variety of preferences.  Considering who they are and their strong personalities as individuals, there’s simply no way for the pageant organizers to “use them as pawns” to any of the girls they would have wanted to win.

2)      Somebody from the organization orchestrated Miss Cebu City’s win.  I closely watched and observed the organizers’ every word and action.  I even tried to read messages conveyed through their body language. I quietly but actively snooped around.  The MUP board members conducted themselves properly and professionally all throughout the competition.  They tried to be fair and neutral all the time.  In fact, they were quiet and opted not to give any opinions during the discussions.  

3)      Beatrice Luigi Gomez is a relative of judge Joanne Golong Gomez of Hilton Manila.  That’s absurd.  They are in no way related! Bea Gomez is from Cebu.  Gomez is Joanne’s married last name, coming from her husband who is a Cavite resident.

4)      Members of the MUP Board were in the deliberation room to influence the judges.  Again, as I explained earlier, they were there to witness the proceedings and to give a final nod to the judges’ decision.  No influence-peddling happened inside that room!

5)      The winner is not worthy.  She performed well.  She delivered in every aspect of the competition.  As far as her beauty is concerned, now, that is a matter of taste.  The judges saw her up-close, unlike most bashers who are basing their judgments on materials they find from different sources, mostly, online.  The judges who have actually seen her are in agreement that she is beautiful, on stage and off, with or without make-up.  Personally, I see beauty in her, inside and out.  After all, she’s the only one who was gracious enough to greet me back with a “good morning” that morning when I stood there in the resort lobby as a simple pageant fan.    

Best of luck in your continued pageant journey, Bea.  More importantly, congratulations, Miss Universe Philippines Organization for a fair, honest and totally professionally handled pageant.  Keep up the good work! 

 

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