By: John Berthelsen

Seemingly as usual, a five foot-ten Filipina has won the crown of Miss Universe.  It is Catriona Gray (above), who was born in Cairns, Australia to an Australian father and a Filipina mother from Albay, 450 km. south of Manila in the Bicol region.  She attended Trinity Anglican School in Cairns and the Berklee College of Music in Boston.  After finishing high school in Australia, she moved to Manila become a commercial model.

In that, Gray has followed in the footsteps of three previous Filipina Miss Universe winners and a couple who didn’t win: half of her is from somewhere else.  The half that comes from the Philippines would be more than 10 inches shorter at 4’11.8” and considerably darker.

This is a country mad for beauty pageants and it appears that the way to win them is through mixed blood.  Filipinas have finished among the top 10 at the Miss Universe pageant since at least 2010 and almost all of them have been of mixed blood from some country dominated by Caucasians, raising a ruckus among critics who say the entire Philippine nation suffers from an inferiority complex so deep it can’t even nominate its own homemade beauties for the international catwalks.  They compare it to the country’s willing acquiescence to China’s move to seize portions of the South China Sea almost up to the doorstep.  

Since 2010, contestants from the country have never been out of the Miss Universe top 10. But while these tall, willowy women with pale skins get most of the attention, there are plenty of native women as well.  And there are hundreds of beauty pageants, from tiny villages in the middle of Leyte to Manila to vie for the international stage. According to a website called Sashes and Scripts (“Your Ultimate Pageant Blog”), over the past eight years the Philippines has sent 28 young women to the so-called “Alpha pageants,” Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss Earth and Miss International.

Of the 28, 19 have been full-blooded Filipinas. Nine are of mixed ancestry.  Pia Wurtzbach, Megan Young, Jamie Herrell and Gray have Caucasian ancestry. At least three others were disqualified because they carried other passports. Anjanette Abayari (1991) and Janelle Bautista (1999) were Americans, Tisha Silang (1998) was Canadian and Venus Raj (2010) was said to have been born in Qatar, although she appealed and was accepted, finishing as 4th runnerup.  The wonderfully named Shamcey Supsup (4th runner-up 2011), is a full-blooded Filipina from General Santos City.

 Nor is this preoccupation with Caucasian looks unique to the Philippines. In 1998, Porntip Nakhirunkanok, who grew up in Los Angeles and whose Thai was shaky at best, nearly caused a riot in Bangkok when she was named Miss Universe Thailand, with furious Thai native contestants trying to attack her and tear away her tiara.

A rising tide of mixed marriages, not only in the Philippines but across much of Asia, seems to be creating a new super race of men and women with what advertising agencies call the “pan-Asian face,” faces that don’t look too Chinese, too Malay, too Filipino. It appears that the genes are leavened with enough Caucasian face that these faces look Asian but not like anybody.

Over the decades these men and women have taken Asia’s modeling world by storm and changed the definition of international beauty. They largely dominate magazine advertisements, fashion shows and catwalks from Singapore to Manila to Hong Kong. Some modeling agencies have built their business on the faces of mixed-blood models.

It hasn’t always been thus. Not too many decades ago, mixed-blood children in much of Asia were treated as pariahs. In some countries, particularly Japan, Korea and Vietnam, where they were the product of occupying American military forces, they were particularly ostracized. But as soldiers have been replaced by well-to-do western businessmen and women who have taken Asian spouses, their progeny have done considerably better. They are a vast and variegated mix, ranging from American-Filipino, Thai-German, Japanese, Lebanese and Swiss.

The beauty pageants are fertile ground.  The old aphorism that describes the Philippine influences as 400 years in a convent run by the Spanish to 100 years in Hollywood seems to  be giving away more to Hollywood, even as the pageants face growing opposition in the United States, where   in June the Miss America contest, the granddaddy (or grandmammy) of all beauty pageants, discarded the swimsuit contest and said beauty would no longer be a prerequisite to queenliness.  Ratings promptly fell by 36 percent from 2017.

Indeed, with the US now stressing brains over beauty to a vastly smaller audience, and in Miss Universe itself, where a Spanish former male named Angela Ponce became the competition’s first transgender contestant, beating out 22 other contestants to be named Miss Spain, the traditional beauty contest seems be on its way to mutating into something entirely different. 

“Trans women have been persecuted and erased for so long. I’m showing that trans women can be whatever they want,” Ponce told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I am proud to have the opportunity to use this platform for a message of inclusion, tolerance and respect for the LGBT+ community.”

The Philippines, however, seems perfectly happy to stick with tradition,  half-Caucasian and all. J. Pilapil Jacobo, herself a transgender assistant professor of literature and gender studies at Ateneo de Manila University described as a “longtime pageant enthusiast,” told the Associated Press that “Imperialism [deprived] us of our own indigenous standards of loveliness, a beautiful body, good character, art and aesthetic. I do feel beauty pageants help us retrieve such notions . . . we get to reclaim certain local standards of beauty.”