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Miss Philippines crowned Miss Universe
Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Suwanrumpha

A beauty pageant for 'empowered women'?

December 17, 2018

Miss Philippines Catriona Gray is the new Miss Universe 2018. Contestants, including the pageant's first transgender candidate from Spain, met in Bangkok for the competition under the motto "empowered women."


Catriona Gray, a 24-year-old singer and student of music theory from the Philippines, has been crowned Miss Universe 2018 in a beauty pageant held in Bangkok Monday. Gray is the fourth Miss Universe from the country, finishing ahead of the South African and Venezuelan finalists in a field of 94 contestants.

During the competition, broadcast live, contestants were asked questions about subjects such as press freedom, refugees and the #MeToo movement. Gray was applauded for speaking about her work in the slums of Manila.

"Working in some of the poorest areas of my country, I found that it was a lack of child support, not poverty, that killed their dreams," Gray said in her opening statement. "A child once told me, 'Cat, that's just not my life and those dreams aren't meant for me.' But I stand here today because someone believed in me and we owe it to our children to believe in them."

Tolerance and respect on the agenda

The theme of the 67th incantation of the pageant was "empowered women." Formerly owned by US President Donald Trump, the pageant run by the Miss Universe Organization now claims to be "a company run by women for women, built on a foundation of inclusion and continues to be a celebration of diversity."

That inclusivity showed in 2018, with the pageant drawing a lot of attention as the first transgender candidate took part in the competition this year, six years after the pageant eliminated a ban on transgender candidates.

Angela Ponce of Spain said in a video presentation that her participation was more important to her than a win. Speaking to AFP news agency, Ponce said that she wanted her appearance to be empowering and that she hoped for a "new generation of human beings who are raised a lot better, more tolerant and respectful."

"I always say: having a vagina didn't transform me into a woman. I am a woman, already before birth, because my identity is here," Ponce told AFP on Saturday, gesturing to her head.

Competition organizers likewise received positive feedback for changes it had made in 2018, including using a an all-women panel of seven judges, including former Miss Universe title holders.

Miss Universe 2018 | Angela Ponce, Spanien
Miss Spain, Angela Ponce, was the competition's first transgender contestantImage: Reuters/N. Sangnak

A controversial host for 'empowered women'

Hosting the event on stage alongside supermodel Ashley Graham was comedian Steve Harvey, who returned despite a major blunder in 2015. He had then come under fire after mistakenly announcing the first runner-up, Miss Colombia, as the winner of the contest; he had to retract and issue an apology to her as well as the winner, Miss Philippines.

Read more: Miss Universe 2015 eye of the storm after host announces wrong winner

The host has likewise stirred controversy in recent years, fielding accusations of sexism and misogyny for statements that he's made and off-color jokes, including one in which he ridiculed the idea of women dating Asian men (for which he later apologized).

Married three times himself, the comedian launched the dating website Delightful.com in 2014 in an attempt, he claims, to help women "become more dateable." Speaking to a writer from Forbes magazine, Harvey said the website was based on his massively popular advice books, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, and Straight Talk, No Chaser: How to Find and Keep a Man.

Among the words of wisdom he shared with Forbes magazine when speaking about Delightful, Harvey also said, "Now, you can hit it, just like you can go to Vegas and hit the triple sevens on the Super Lotto, but you're going to have to put a lot of coins in it." 

Scandal-free, with political undercurrents

While the pageant ceremonies themselves were relatively uneventful, an early round of questioning that touched on the issue of drugs might have proven controversial.

Asked what she thought about legalizing marijuana, Gray said that she would support its consumption for medical, but not recreational purposes. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial "war on drugs" has been widely condemned by the international community for leading to thousands of extrajudicial killings. 

"Ms. Gray truly made the entire Philippines proud when she sashayed on the global stage and showcased the genuine qualities defining a Filipina beauty: confidence, grace, intelligence and strength in the face of tough challenges," Duterte said in a statement from the presidential palace. "In her success, Miss Philippines has shown to the world that women in our country have the ability to turn dreams into reality through passion, diligence, determination and hard work."

Read more: Duterte plans anti-communist 'death squad' in Philippines

ct/eg (AP, AFP)

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