Beauty pageants in the Philippines: Changes, what’s next?

Alexa Villano
Beauty pageants in the Philippines: Changes, what’s next?

Rob Reyes

Asia is the next market for the beauty pageant industry


  • Some international competitions have removed the swimsuit portion to keep up with the  times
  • Asia is the next market of beauty pageant organizations after South America
  • Pageants attach importance to the candidate’s advocacies and back story as part of the contest 


PART 1: Beauty pageants in the Philippines | Empowerment or objectification of women?



MANILA, Philippines – Beauty pageants are part of Philippine culture. From the smallest barangays to the national titles, it’s clear that many ladies dream of representing the Philippines in the international pageant scene.

With the training provided by pageant camps such as Aces and Queens and Kagandahang Flores, ladies aspiring to be the next Pia Wurtzbach or Catriona Gray go through a lot. From hair, makeup, clothes, and posture, these camps lend their services to make the dreams of these women come true.

But where do pageants fit in the current scene? How do they evolve themselves to keep up with the current times – the advent of the #MeToo movement and women criticizing pageants as being outdated and sexist?

The changes in pageantry

Aurora de Dios, executive director of the Women and Gender Institute of Miriam College, and former chairperson of the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, said despite the criticism of beauty contests, they will be around for as long as people continue to watch or support them. She also said that women now joining contests don’t rely on their looks alone.

“They have to be something else. They must be more than just a body. They have to have brains. And they have to have a sense of service. So it’s changing in that way – now it’s no longer just physical…if you’re just very beautiful but you don’t have anything to say about anything, then you’re not within the standards. It is improving but I still have to see a beauty contest that does not exploit the body of women,” she said.

BEAUTY AND BRAINS. Beauty queens are now subjected to tough questions in national pageants. File photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler

Some international contests like Miss America, Miss Teen USA, and Miss World have also removed the swimsuit competition. 

In an interview, Gretchen Carlson, who chairs Miss America, said of their decision to axe the swimsuit portion: “We are no longer a pageant, we are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance. That’s huge.”

Miss Teen USA, for its part, got rid of the swimsuits and replaced them with sportswear back in 2016.

Miss World, which coincidentally started as a bikini contest, announced it was removing the swimsuit competition in 2014. 

While some praised the move, some queens said they hope not all contests will do the same.

Miss World Philippines 2017 Laura Lehmann said she commends the emphasis beyond looks, but admitted it’s not the same if the swimsuit portion is taken out.

“As a beauty queen, you’ll feel people judging you, but what’s important is you know what you want and you know why you’re there. And for me, swimsuits empower women because [for] you [to] look good, you must work for it,” she said.

No national pageant in the Philippines has removed the swimsuit competition. Even Miss World Philippines continues with the tradition.

SWIMSUIT FAN. Miss World Philippines 2017 Laura Lehmann says that swimsuits also show empowerment as women work hard to keep their bodies in shape. File photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler

Jonas Gaffud, one of the 3 people behind Aces and Queens (the others being Arnold Mercado and lawyer Nad Bronce), told Rappler in an interview that while a beautiful face and fit body are still needed, pageants are now looking for an all-around lady who can represent them. As a trainer, he also picks women who can be of good influence.

“At the end of the day, we talk to the [girls] one on one and we tell them that when they win, they should use that crown to do something for humanity. That’s cliché for some people. But it’s real. We do that.”


Beauty pageants are slowly making changes in their setup as they realize that pretty faces aren’t enough. A full package is a must – looks, eloquence, charisma, and more. Advocacies are now emphasized.

Binibining Pilipinas, the organization that chooses representatives to Miss Universe and Miss International, has focused for many years now on outreaches involving children and wounded soldiers.

Titleholders spend time with kids in orphanages and do reading sessions. Others have their own specific passions. Newly-crowned Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray, for example, is a spokesperson for Young Focus, an organization dedicated to providing education opportunities in Tondo, Manila. She’s also supporting Love Yourself, which educates people on HIV and AIDS awareness.

International organizations such as Miss Universe and Miss World have been doing charity work as well. The past years saw these pageants invest in projects such as HIV/AIDS awareness and cleft palate operations, or education for children.

QUEEN'S VISIT. Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray drops by the Gentle hands orphanage during her short Manila visit last December 20. Photo from Facebook/Gentle Hands

In a speech during a program for Love Yourself early this year, Catriona, who has been involved in charity work prior to joining pageants, shared why she got involved in HIV/AIDS education. (WATCH: Catriona Gray, JC Santos share journey as HIV/AIDS awareness spokespersons)

“It took losing a good friend of mine at the age of 26. It didn’t just seem fair that at that age, that you haven’t been given that chance to go about your life, to pursue your dream, to pursue your career, that your life is just snatched away from you from something that can be easily prevented,” she said.

Her answer during the final Q&A also showed her passion for the children of Tondo. (WATCH: Catriona Gray inspires in ‘We’re In This Together’ music video)

“I work a lot in the slums of Tondo, Manila, and the life there is very poor and very sad. I’ve always taught myself to look for the beauty in it, to look for the beauty in the faces of the children, and to be grateful. I would bring this aspect as a Miss Universe to see situations with a silver lining, and to assess where I could give something, where I could provide something as a spokesperson. If I could teach also people to be grateful, we could have an amazing world where negativity could not grow and foster, and children would have a smile on their face,” she said.

TIME WITH KIDS. Catriona and the kids of Young Focus in a scene from her music video "We're In This Together.' Screenshot from YouTube/Cat'elle

On the subject of advocacies, Peter Sereno, former beauty pageant coach and commentator, said that while charity work and walking on stage are opposites, there’s some advantage.

If you think about it, strutting around in a swimsuit on stage has nothing to do with feeding starving children. But if it makes rich men [and women] take notice and put their hands in their very deep pockets to fund a chosen charity, then I say go for it.”

Back stories of the candidates have also played a major role in the competitions in the past years. In the Miss Universe 2018 pageant, for example, many were touched by the story of Vietnam’s H’hen Nie, who worked her way to the top by taking a job as a domestic helper just to go to school and study economics.

She went on to become a model and win Miss Vietnam to represent the country in the Miss Universe pageant. She placed in the Top 5, the highest placement the country has ever gotten.

And if that was not enough, she donated the prize money she got from winning Miss Vietnam to build a library in the countryside where she comes from. The Miss Universe Vietnam organization also said in a post that H’hen will be donating the money she got from her Miss Universe earnings to support causes close to her heart.

BACK STORY. Vietnam's H’Hen Nie has touched so many people with her story. She has donated her prize money from her win as Miss Vietnam Universe. Photo from Miss Universe Organization

 Asia is the market for pageants

Clearly pageants will be around for a while. Proof is the mushrooming of pageants every year, particularly in Asia – there are now female, male, gay, or even transwomen competitions.

The continent, without a doubt, is the next place for pageants. In 2017, 3 out of the top 4 pageants – Miss Earth (Philippines), Miss World (India), and Miss International (Indonesia) were won by Asian countries.

In 2018, two out of 4 pageants were won by women from Asian countries – Vietnam (Miss Earth) and the Philippines (Miss Universe).

MISS EARTH 2017. Miss Earth 2017 Karen Ibasco of the Philippines makes an appearance on stage during the Miss Earth pageant in Manila last November. File photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler

It’s also interesting that the year 2018 saw Asian countries hosting the big 4 pageants – Miss Earth, which has been held in the Philippines for many years, Miss International, which counts Japan as its home base, Miss World, which returned to Sanya, China, and Miss Universe in Bangkok, Thailand.

Aside from the Philippines, Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the likes of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Nepal are also getting into the pageant scene. Indonesia has already won Miss International in 2017 courtesy of Kevin Lilliana, the first big crown for the country.

Some of them have even hired Filipino trainers, fashion designers, and makeup artists to prepare their respective candidates. (READ: Miss Vietnam’s Pinoy trainer talks about teaching the fan favorite)

VIETNAM'S RISE. Phuong Khanh Nguyen wins the first Miss Earth title and first Big 4 pageant for her country. File photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler

Beauty pageants are admittedly a business, too. While organizers have not disclosed the earnings they get or spend, one of the ways they are able to mount pageants is through sponsorships.

In an article by pageant blogger Jesson Capuchino, he said that Bb Pilipinas, which is under former beauty queen Stella Araneta, has been earning from the sponsors to sustain the pageant itself. The money is also used for the training of the queens, their wardrobes, and various preparations for their competition.

Bessie Besana, fashion designer and one of those behind Miss World Philippines said: “It has always been a business…the reason why there’s a Miss Universe pageant is because it was a swimwear competition. And the reason it became Miss Universe is because it needed to show women in swimsuits.

“At the forefront, it was a business that started a beauty pageant. So it’s still that and it is a business. And I don’t think it will ever be a different way.”

Besana was referring to Catalina swimsuits, the company that used to sponsor Miss America. It later left the pageant and founded Miss Universe and its sister pageant Miss USA.

A 2013 article by Asian Fortune enumerated some of the causes candidates spend for in their dream to be a beauty queen in the US. Evening gowns at that time would run up to US$2,000 while pageant coaching and interviews would cost from $450-$1,000.

While the Miss Universe 2019 edition is still a year away, former Ilocos Sur governor Chavit Singson, in an interview said that he will be helping stage the pageant in South Korea. Singson was the one who brought the pageant to Manila for the 2016 edition, which happened in January 2017.

Although pageants have brought a lot of benefits to some women, there have also been horror stories associated with them – accusations of pimping women and stories of sexual harassment are rampant.

Recently, the Miss Earth pageant got embroiled in controversy after candidates came forward and accused a sponsor of harassing them during the contest.

Nathalie Verceles, director for the Center of Women’s and Gender Studies of the University of the Philippines said of the issue: “I would be interested in protecting the safety, the dignity, the security of all the pageant contestants, given that these pageants are going to be around and multiply.”

CJ Hirro, Miss Global 2016 1st runner-up, posted on Instagram in November, that pageant organizers should get yearly reviews to earn the right to conduct competitions.

“I really hope someday, that there will be a body that will govern all national male and female pageants – from payment of promises of winnings, conduct of pre- and post-pageant activities, and contracts, among many others,” she said.

“Pageant directors and organizers should be subjected to yearly reviews for clearance to conduct another pageant and should be penalized for wrongdoings.”

Hirro, a rape survivor, also encouraged candidates to speak up if they find themselves in uncomfortable situations.

“In all my Q and A training sessions with beauty queens, I warn them about this and tell them not to be scared to call people out and speak up if it happens to them.”

Keeping up with the changes

Pageantry in the Philippines is evolving, as seen in the changes recently adopted by the organizers. International pageants are also adapting to the times, with Miss Universe always reminding the ladies to be “Confidently Beautiful” and Miss World emphasizing its “Beauty with a Purpose” project.

Questions in the Q and A have also gotten tough to test the candidate’s knowledge of current events. In Binibining Pilipinas this year, topics on the rehabilitation of Marawi and “Build, Build, Build” program were asked, while issues pertaining to the #MeToo movement, press freedom, and legalization of marijuana were asked in Miss Universe. (READ: TRANSCRIPT: Miss Universe 2018 opening statements, Q&A, final word)

One cannot simply say that beauty contests empower or objectify women – they do both in different situations. Looks are still scrutinized in competitions, and with the addition of social media, candidates are subjected to more criticism and bashing – from head to toe, and even for their acts. 

But contests have also given them a voice to push for the causes they believe in. Many of them make use of moments to attend talks, reach out to big business companies, and share their experiences in various activities.

MARAWI VISIT. Miss World Philippines Katarina Rodriguez has used her title to shed light on educating kids in Marawi with Project Become. Screenshot from Katarina Rodriguez's Instagram

Whatever side one takes on the issue of beauty pageants, it’s probably safe to say that with the Philippines enjoying its position as a powerhouse in the pageant industry, Filipino fans will continue to show support for the candidates in any way they can – from power-voting to cheering for them live.

In beauty pageants, the reality is that, looks will always matter. After all, pageants are fundamentally still beauty contests.

But given the accomplishments of the Filipino queens of late, their act and performance will be tough to follow for the next batch of ladies. –

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Alexa Villano

Alexa is one of Rappler's Lifestyle and Entertainment reporters, covering local entertainment news to a wide range of topics from beauty pageants to reality shows.