A Star is Reborn

To read more about the disqualified beauty queens and see their pics click here

The selection, dethronement and ultimate reinstatement of Maria Venus Raj as the reigning Filipina Miss Universe finalist is a story that seems perfect for the Philippines, with its overtones of glamour, outrage, pathos, belief in the intervention of God, final redemption and tacky quotes – although none by Venus, who appears to be formidably articulate and intelligent.

By and large, Filipinas are usually characterized as short, cute and brown although that is admittedly a stereotype. Miss Universe candidates are tall, exotic and statuesque. That has led to a contortion of reality in the Philippines, which is mad for beauty contests and for the Miss Universe contest most of all. If one were to judge from the universe of Miss Universe aspirants, the Philippines would lie not in Southeast Asia but in some alternate world of willowy wonders.

The problem of locating this contestant/ideal woman has been solved partly -- although there are many Filipina beauties -- by a rising tide of mixed-blood beauties who now largely dominate beauty contests, magazine advertisements, fashion shows and catwalks, not only in Manila but Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and other cities. It can be dicey. Since 1998, four of the winners of Miss Philippines-Universe contests in Manila have been disqualified. Anjanette Palencia Abayari and Janelle Delfin Bautista were dethroned because they were American citizens. In 1998, Olivia Tisha Carlos Silang was dethroned because she is Canadian.

The fourth is Venus Raj, a 5-foot 9-inch, 21-year-old beauty with a life story to match her looks. She grew up in a nipa hut made of wood, bamboo and palm thatch, raised by her single mother, a dressmaker and tenant farmer, after she had been born out of wedlock. The hut, in the middle of a rice field in the Bicol region of Luzon Island 400-odd kilometres south of Manila, had no electricity.

But Venus persevered, learning to walk like a model, she said, by treading narrow rice paddy dikes. Ultimately she graduated cum laude with a degree in journalism from Bicol University. The youngest of five children, she started entering beauty contests when she was 17 years old and used the money from her prizes to buy land on an installment basis for her mother. She now works as an information assistant for the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources when she isn't modelling.

Venus has no intention to become a journalist. She was the overwhelming choice of the judges in the 2010 Binibining Pilipinas (Miss Philippines) contest held on March 6, which chooses the young woman destined to compete for the international title, and was named Miss Friendship by her fellow contestants as well. But she was disqualified on March 29 because it transpired that although her birth certificate said she was born in the town of Bato, that her father was a Filipino Catholic and that her parents were married, she had been born in Qatar to an Indian father and her Filipina mother – a sign that overseas workers can bring back more desirable goods than just money. Her aunt, Josephine Ramos, had filed the document three years after she was born, she said, to protect the family from embarrassment. She has never met her father, she told Asia Sentinel.

The pageant organizers dethroned her because her birth certificate contained false information. She was replaced by Helen Nicolette Henson, also nearly 5 feet nine inches tall and also 21.

The dethronement kicked off a huge furor in the Philippines, with the Internet coming alive with demands for Venus's reinstatement. The beauty queen hired lawyers to demand that the pageant organizer reinstate her unconditionally and to clear her name of wrongdoing, saying the dethronement tarnished her reputation and cast doubt on her right to the title. She had been too poor to go to court to correct the inconsistencies in her records, which she says weren't her idea anyway. She says she had told the organizers she had been born in Qatar.

"It really was quite difficult for me," she said. "Lots of people criticize you and your family, but as long as I am telling the truth, and doing the right thing, it is all right. I come from a poor family, but my mother taught me the value of integrity and credibility."

Along with lawyers, politicians got into the act with Sen. Francis "Chiz" Escudero, a fellow Bicoleno, and Joey Salceda, the governor of her home area of Albay demanding explanations and saying the pageant should reinstate her. Vice presidential candidate Loren Legarda, left-wing party-list representative and senatorial candidate Liza Maza, Commission on Human Rights Chair Leila de Lima and Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption Chair Dante Jimenez all jumped into the fray.

An army of Internet users installed a Petition for Venus Raj to Remain as Bb. Pilipinas Universe 2010 on Facebook. "Spare Venus from that black propaganda. Make peace, [pageant]. Venus may have nothing in life but we are the angels helping her. She has her family and us. Take note of that," said one post.

It was amazing, she says. "Thousands of people protested."

The pageant held out for 11 days. Then, in a public statement sent to Manila newspapers, the organization caved in. "The Executive Committee of Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) announces today that after due deliberation, it has reassessed the situation pertaining to Ms. Maria Venus Raj and has decided, for humanitarian reasons, that if she is able to obtain a valid Philippine passport, they will give her crown back reinstate her as the reigning Bb. Pilipinas-Universe," said the statement.

"I honestly think it's the grace of God working through all the bloggers, forums, Facebook community, and TV and newspaper coverage," said Joyce Burton-Titular, a former beauty queen, on her blog. "They were all moved because they felt the humility and honesty of Venus. Her story of being raised on a farm, in a hut with no electricity, graduating cum laude and winning pageants is powerful. And she still goes home to that same hut today."

"God sees the truth and hears our prayers. Cheer up Venus, smile and show the world how beautiful you are inside and out," one of Raj's supporters posted. "Petitions were heard, our prayers were answered," another fan wrote.

Venus has until June to get a Philippine passport. She is confident it will be taken care of. "My lawyers are taking care of the technicalities," she said. Then she has to find a place to go. They haven't found a venue for the final event yet. Las Vegas is a possibility, Bali another.

And after that? "I will seek out whatever opportunities there are," she said firmly. Newspapers need not apply to see if she would like to be an intern. She has other plans.