A week ago, 22-year old Maria Venus Raj became the most talked-about fourth runner-up–ever–in the history of the Miss Universe pageant.
Her response during the final question and answer portion of the competition has been second-guessed, analyzed, and criticized by pageant pundits and fans alike. It has generated well over 2 million hits on YouTube. Bloggers have chimed in on the discussion. And former beauty queens quickly have rushed to her defense in the media.
Maybe she should have just used an interpreter, so that she could have articulated a better response in her own language, they said. And who’s to say, had she spoken in Bicolano, how her depth and complexity would have come across in her answer?
Girlfriend is Cum Laude, after all.
Instead, we get to poke fun at her “no ’major, major’ problem in her life.”
Before that moment, she rocked a bikini with a sexy-swag, floated onstage in an elegant evening gown, and represented herself as nothing short of beautiful, in the semifinal round. And if this were a Supermodel of the Universe competition, she would have bagged the title, easy.
But it ain’t.
In an interview with ABS-CBN news, Gloria Diaz raised the issue that Filipinos competing in international beauty pageants should be allowed to speak in Tagalog.
“The problem I think is, like me before, she thinks in Tagalog. So, ‘major major’ is what? Malaking malaki o bonggang bongga? The context is lost or misinterpreted abroad, even among Filipinos,” said Diaz.
When Miss Mexico stepped up to the bowl for her final question, figure-skating gold-medalist Evan Lysacek fed her an opportunity to win the championship when he asked her to comment on the effect of unsupervised Internet use on today’s youth.
Miss Mexico looked over at her interpreter, who repeated the question in Spanish, before she nailed it, pausing three times for the translation, when she said ”the Internet is a necessary and indispensable tool.”
After that, Nikki Taylor asked Miss Australia for her thoughts on the government’s role when it comes to regulating clothing, to which, she replied that “fashion is freedom.” And when forced to give her opinion on the death penalty, Miss Jamaica remarked that “life is a gift, given ultimately by one Creator, and that none of us as humans have the right to take a life.”
One-by-one, each of the finalists, forced themselves to take a stand on a social issue, and each delivered a spot-on-strong answer. When Jane Seymour asked Miss Ukraine her feelings on having to enter full-body scanners at the airport, she replied that it was a “security issue.” So no, she didn’t mind, at all.
And when William Baldwin asked Miss Philippines what one big mistake she has made in her life, and what she did to make it right–surely the easiest question of the night-the title was hers for the taking.
Ever since Venus Raj became Binibining Pilipinas Universe back in March, she has not escaped controversy. Soon after her coronation, the Binibining Pilipinas Charities stripped her of her title due to inconsistencies in her birth certificate. It caused a giant uproar among her Filipino supporters. They spearheaded online petitions, Facebook fan pages, signature campaigns, blogs, and letters. A month later, the organization reversed their decision, and Venus Raj was on her way to Vegas.
Born to an Indian father and a Filipina mother in Doha, Qatar, Venus Raj sported the good looks of a warrior-princess, the attitude of a runway diva, and the enthusiasm of a provincial teen-ager all rolled-into-one. With her Filipino-Indian mixed heritage, Venus carried the long legacy of Miss India and Miss Philippines titleholders on her side:
4 Miss Universe crowns.
10 Top-5 finishes.
7 Miss Photogenic awards.
For weeks, Miss Philippines emerged as the front-runner, earning the highest score in an online poll conducted on the Miss Universe website. And for the first time in 11 years–not since Miriam Quiambao placed as first runner-up in 1999–the Philippines sent a legitimate contender to the Miss Universe pageant.
All night long, Filipinos in the audience shook the walls of the Mandalay Bay auditorium with their raucousness.
So when Miss Philippines choked on her final question with a sort-of girlish naivete, I belted out an “oh, no!” at home, which seemed to silence the Pinoys in the crowd.
She blew it. Enough said. And with that, the current drought for Miss Philippines since its last Miss Universe title remains at 37 years… and counting.
So why do we care so much?
Filipinos love a beauty pageant. It’s in our culture. And if there’s one competition that the Philippines can compete in consistently, it is the sport of beauty, in all its subjectivity, and objectification of women.
Let’s face it. The country has yet to field a team to qualify for the FIFA World Cup Tournament. Floyd Merriweather refuses to fight Manny Pacquiao. And no athlete from the Philippines has ever won the gold medal at the Olympics.
And in the golden age of the Miss Universe pageant, the Philippines boasted two winners in a four-year span. Not bad for a country that’s suffered centuries of colonization, graft and corruption, and natural catastrophies.
In an interview with ABS-CBN News, Miss Philippines had this to say about her now-infamous response to the final question:
“Wala naman talaga akong mistake na ginawa sa buhay ko. I think it’s not a mistake, never ever… I’m a very positive person. Everything na nangyayari sa akin, I take it as a challenge, something na magiging positive in the end kahit na anong masamang nangyari sa’yo.”
Well said, Venus.