Pageants have long been part of the Filipino culture. Like Americans to the Super Bowl and Koreans to the Golden Disk Awards, Filipinos look to pageants as a national past time, worthy of Olympic-levels of reportage and following. It’s also not just something that we’re mere spectators of—Filipinos dominate the pageant scene consistently every year, too. Gloria Diaz’ 1969 Miss Universe win was just the beginning for Filipino pageant fanatics. The Miss Earth pageants have Filipino queens making it to the top 10 every year. In the Miss Universe pageants, Filipinos have continuously placed high since Venus Raj’s 2010 pageant run and in such a short time has produced two winners, Pia Wurtzbach and Catriona Gray.
Beauty pageant winners are treated like royalty—people flock to their homecoming parades, tune in to their journeys to the crown, and are sometimes even held to a higher regard than the president himself. In an interview with South China Morning Post, Nathalie Africa-Verceles, the director of the University of the Philippines’ Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, says that Filipinos use beauty as capital. “[Beauty] provides entry into the public sphere and provides access to opportunities these women would not have otherwise.”
But ChannelNewsAsia’s (CNA) recent report shone a light on the struggle behind the seemingly fabulous life of pageant queens.
Janina San Miguel, known for her confusing, funny and meme-able performance in the question and answer portion of Binibining Pilipinas 2008, revealed why she gave up the crown after her shocking win.
At that time, her reason for withdrawing from the pageant scene was personal: Her grandfather had just died. But in her interview with CNA’s Undercover Asia, April 2020 episode, “Cost of the Crown,” she says, “If I have the chance to go back to the past, I wish I never joined the pageant.”
For Janina, who was just 17 years old at the time, the strict rules enforced by the pageant organizers were too much to handle. She struggled with social isolation, as pageant training rules prevented her from owning a phone to contact family and friends. Janina was even kept in the dark for a while regarding her grandfather’s death. “They were planning not to tell me that he was dying because I was in the middle of training. They didn’t want me to get distracted,” she said.
This, along with some propositions for sexual favors and even proposals to be someone’s girlfriend, was the end of the line for her. She says, “I got so many (offers). We were offered a P3 million contract for a one-night stand. This is how the dark side of pageantry works. There are so many people who want a beauty queen to be their girlfriend or their wife.”
Janina’s was not an isolated case. In 2018, the Miss Earth pageant topped headlines when three candidates spoke out about sexual proposals and harassment they received from sponsors. Canada’s Jaime VandenBerg was stalked by a sponsor who looked for her every day. What’s worse is that organizers had kept her passport, so she couldn’t flee from the sponsor who was harassing her. It was only when VandenBerg called her embassy that the organizers released her passport to her.
“It was very clear that he was looking for sexual favours in exchange for advancement in the pageant…I felt like I couldn’t get away,” she said.
The burden of keeping the sexually manipulative and abusive side of the pageant world doesn’t just fall on the candidates. Reporters who try to help are silenced by organizers and many continue to be fearful about speaking out on the subject matter, so the abuse continues.
The show also highlighted the hardships that poor pageant hopefuls go through just to bag a crown. They followed a Binibining Pilipinas candidate who wanted to win to help out her mother who had a chronic kidney disease. The show also followed a man who was using illegal methods to keep his body in shape for pageantry. One contestant also admitted that he used sex in order to amass his many titles.
The contestant, who wanted to remain anonymous said, “For me, there’s no such thing as a ‘clean’ pageant. Out of 10 pageants, only two or three are clean. You just need to bear with that one moment so you can win.”
Pageants have been criticized for the longest time as avenues for sexism and misogyny. It’s even sometimes likened to an extremely sexualized “look at the freaks” carnival show. Talking about the future of pageants, BBC says, “If we are to value girls and women more – to give them the same opportunities and pay as their male counterparts – we have to stop representing them as objects.”
While there is merit in celebrating the beauty, personality, talent and advocacies of women who would otherwise not have another opportunity to share these on such a big global stage, it’s up to pageant organizers and fans to call for and secure the proper treatment, safety and the integrity of the candidates and pageants they continue to host.
The Preen team have reached out to Binibining Pilipinas for their comment. As of Jun. 9, they have yet to respond