I always thought Pia Wurtzbach more interesting than our recent spate of beauty queens.
She seemed more rakenrol, less bound to the rhetoric of pageants, with more personality than most. Case in point: a dominant narrative about her Bb. Pilipinas-Universe win was how she had joined the pageant three times before taking home a crown; she wouldn’t be the first to do that, but she was the one who didn’t mind discussing this as fact.
It’s a story that is contrary to the usual fairytales that surround our beauty queens, or the now familiar notion that what is needed is a combination of beauty and a university education. For the two Miss Universe beauty queens that the Philippines has churned out, it has meant coming from the alta sociedad – breeding is all.
But Wurtzbach is not any of this. Yet certainly there was more to her than her looks. You get a sense of smarts more than intelligence, wisdom more than arrogance. She seemed to have a good head on her shoulders and enough personality to dare speak about the pageant beyond the trappings of beauty.
“You don’t have to be formally educated to be able to answer these questions. . . They’re vague and basically what it calls for is for you to go to your core. These are questions you should be able to answer in a casual setting. The challenge is how to make it witty and how to come off really charming and how to come up with original answers. It becomes more difficult when they ask questions that are more specific like politics, religion and your stand on certain issues. But I like that. It’s a challenge. As I started training, I realized, kaya ko naman pala sagutin. I don’t have to be afraid of the questions.” (Inquirer.net, Pam Pastor, 21 Dec)
It was this kind of fearlessness that we saw at her Miss Universe performance, which eventually got her the crown.
The world’s a pageant
There is every reason to continue to believe in the dangers of the beauty pageant as an institution, in the ideological implications of having one world entity imposing a standard of beauty across the world. And yes it might be said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and sure we might assert that even the Miss Universe has had its diverse set of winners, across race and creed, and therefore across skin color and facial features. But there is no leaving behind the required vital statistics, the weight and height, the high heels and sexy bikinis.
It is an institution that measures women based on how they look after all, and one that pits women against each other.
And yet the sadder thing might be that in the context of contemporary popular culture, this is not a task that is unique to the pageant. Fashion and advertising, film and TV, fiction and reality shows, social media and online culture, pit women against each other all the time. Celebrity is at the point when feminism is a useful term to get some mileage for the every wannabe star; but so is showing off one’s butt and boobs on social media.
All these are bound to global pop culture that puts a premium on women’s looks, in whatever role they play, whatever space they occupy. It’s not as if there is a dearth of intelligent women, or of feminists who fight for equal rights; no dearth either in women who refuse and question the enterprise of superficiality that is in contemporary culture.
It’s just that these women do not get the mileage that the next celebrity would get; in the Philippines, this means whitened skin and straightened hair, big boobs and thin waistlines, held in such high regard because celebrities shamelessly believe in it.
If it isn’t obvious yet: the world is a never-ending, very tiring beauty pageant for all women. We might not want to join the contest, but in the current state of affairs, especially in a Southeast Asia that puts such a premium on global recognition, well, we are already thank-you-girls before the contest even starts.
Pia the thank-you-girl
Wurtzbach had joined Bb. Pilipinas three times before finally getting a crown on her third try. In 2013, she was 1st runner-up, answering a question from then Director General of the PNP Allan Purisima about the greatest achievement of Bb. Pilipinas. “The candidates not just the winners but everyone. Each candidate, our lives will change and we become inspiration for the people.”
Thank-you-girl Round One.
In 2014, she wouldn’t place at all, faced with a question from Senator Sonny Angara who had asked it in Tagalog, which made Wurtzbach respond in Tagalog, too. It shouldn’t have been a problem at all, except that Angara’s question was vague: Anong pinakamagandang leksyon na maituturo ng isang babae sa mundo?
Literal translation: What is the most beautiful lesson a woman can teach the world? Which Wurtzbach might have understood as: What is the most important thing the world might learn from women? She answered: “Ang isang leksyon na maituturo ng babae sa buong mundo ay yung tiwala sa kanyang sarili. Yung intuition po na tinatawag natin. Kapag meron ka pong intuition alam mo sa sarili mo kung saan mo ilulugar yung sarili mo sa mundo. Kahit na hindi ka sigurado sa nararamdaman mo o sa naiisip mo pero kung alam mo sa intuition mo, then magiging successful ka sa kahit anong gawin mo sa buhay mo.”
Thank-you-girl Round Two.
Certainly across those two years, Wurtzbach’s confidence was the ace up her sleeve, but the Q&A would always do her in, in terms of both form and content. Her 2013 answer was neither here nor there, her 2014 answer mixed up confidence with intuition, and intuition with gut.
She didn’t quite answer her 2015 question either. Congresswoman Leni Robredo had asked her: Social media is now a very powerful tool for communication, can you tell us your thoughts about internet censorship?
Wurtzbach: “I think that we should be careful with what we post online, especially our thoughts and our opinions, that we don’t hurt anybody, especially selfies. We have to be careful with what we post especially with our bodies and our faces. So always think before you click.”
Nowhere in that answer is she actually talking about internet censorship, unless she takes censorship to mean propriety.
Regardless, Wurtzbach was thank-you-girl no more.
Pia the Olympian
The Bb. Pilipinas winners’ Q&A trainer, a lawyer, has spoken on TV since Wurtzbach’s Miss Universe win, pointing out how she continued to attend classes even when he himself told her she didn’t need it anymore as she was already such a good speaker. This is of course to point out how Wurtzbach was not one to rest on her laurels, or to take preparations lightly.
One of the things that I thought was interesting about Wurtzbach was how the news stories about her preparations for Miss Universe had to do with her going to the gym, needing to build strength and muscle for the pageant. She was not making it sound any more or less than what it was: a lot of hard work.
I thought then that Wurtzbach was treating the pageant like the Olympics, where doggedness and persistence, physical strength and passion, heart and determination, are of utmost importance. Yes it is about beauty; but this particular candidate was making it a point to tell us that it is more than that.
When she finally won the Bb. Pilipinas-Universe crown, she had said: “If you want something, you don’t give up on your first try. And don’t give up on your second try. You might get it in your third try.” She also brushed off the criticism that she has tried too hard, to the point of shamelessness, to get a pageant crown. “People are saying na trying hard daw ako. Yeah, I try hard talaga. I try very hard. I try very hard because this is what I want. I went through a lot of pain to get here, a lot of criticisms. It’s not easy.” (GMANetwork.com, 27 Nov)
And this December, Wurtzbach waxed philosophical about her journey: “Although it took me awhile to get here, I was training the whole time. I wouldn’t be the same Pia if I won Miss Philippines on my first try. I like the Pia I am now better.” (Philstar.com, Chuck Smith, 12 Dec)
I am certain that she means the three notebooks for the Q&A that she said she was reviewing backstage at the Miss Universe pageant.
Certainly Pia’s answer to the question about the US Bases left much to be desired, and yes one might imagine it to be a measure of her intelligence. Yet one might also think it a measure of her smarts: she needed to win this pageant, and she knew which answers would be acceptable. So she gave the judges and the audience what they needed to hear.
Regardless, it behooves us all to give her a chance, given all that she represents beyond just her looks. Wurtzbach’s voice, now on a global platform, is one that will be equated with us as nation after all, and if her story about training for the past three years is any indication, well, there is at least an openness here to knowledge and learning.
There is also the fact that now that she is Miss Universe, what Wurtzbach has said in the past becomes even more precious – a measure of how different she is from the beauty queens we’ve had in the past, not at all bogged down by conservatism or religiosity, refusing to be trapped in notions of propriety and beauty.
I don’t know about you, but it also seems anti-woman to dismiss Wurtzbach and her win as nothing, just because it is in the context of a beauty pageant. She trained like an athlete, and treated this as her personal Olympics. She is someone who is counterpoint to the superficiality that local show business sells, that Southeast Asian culture is trapped in.