It is common knowledge that the Philippines is an ardent devotee of beauty pageants. Very much a part of the Filipino culture, hundreds of beauty contests are held throughout the country every year, from local barangay competitions to national competitions that take the winners to the global arena.
For the longest time now, women from one generation to the next, all across the Philippines, train in the hopes of becoming beauty queens and ultimately earn the opportunity to carry the national flag in the most prestigious pageants around the world. To do so entails serious efforts not just from the prospective candidate but, as the saying goes, an entire village of experts. In the end, they are rewarded with the overwhelming support of their community, province, region or the entire nation.
Truth is, there is nothing that brings Filipinos together besides boxing champ Manny Pacquiao’s fights than the Miss Universe pageant, which is broadcast live on national television every year. Whether at home, in offices or traveling to work, Filipinos will always be glued to their TVs or these days their smartphones to watch what is touted as the “most beautiful night [or morning in the case of the Philippines] of the year.”
In fact, if you ask today’s generation of Filipinos about the significant events of this decade, it won’t be a surprise if they mention the Miss Universe victories of Pia Wurtzbach and Catriona Gray in 2015 and 2018, respectively, among their answers.
Now given the Filipinos’ obsession for beauty pageants, the current generation of fans should know the country’s history within the world’s most prestigious and glamorous beauty pageant. And now is the most opportune time to do as 2019 marks the 50th year since a Filipina first won the Miss Universe title and made the world aware of her beauty and intelligence.
Queen P [Pia Wurtzbach] and Queen Cat [Catriona Gray] aside for now, let The Sunday Times Magazine roll out the red carpet for the “Original Queen” in this fitting lookback on how this woman put the Philippines on the map of the most beautiful women in the universe.
Queen No. 1
The year 1969 was a historical period for space and the world of Philippine pageantry. While the United States sent American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to the moon via their spaceflight Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, the Philippines then sent 18-year old Gloria Diaz to the Miss Universe pageant in the United States three days later on July 19, 1969 (July 20 in the Philippines). That fateful day was about the same time Armstrong officially became the first person to walk on the moon and famously said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
While Armstrong was preparing for space travel, Diaz was a diligent business student at St. Scholastica’s College in Manila. As was the practice then, she was spotted by a pageant scout and convinced to join the sixth edition of Binibining Pilipinas. To be sure, she had no beauty queen training from the get-go but her morena beauty, charm and more importantly her wit captivated judges and audience on national pageant night, winning her the 1969 Binibining Pilipinas-Universe crown.
A natural for beauty contests, Diaz was an early favorite upon arriving at Miami Beach, Florida where the year’s Miss Universe grand coronation night was to be held. She did not disappoint as the pre-pageant activities unfolded, sailing confidently through every crucial turn. Case in point, when asked to give the names of her two brothers and nine sisters, she wittily re-joined, “Alphabetically or according to rank?”
Meanwhile, in the preliminary question and answer portion, when asked by Bob Barker — who was extremely popular in the Philippines back then as host of the iconic “The Price is Right” TV game show —, “Is it true that you Filipinos use your hands to eat?” Diaz was just as quick to reply, “Why, do you use your feet?” Fabulous.
Breezing through the Top 5, Diaz — who even more remarkably wore a white Pitoy Moreno original for the night — was just as quickly and cleverly answered the end all and be all of the pageant questions.
It went, “In a next day or so, a man will land on the moon. If a man from the moon landed in your hometown, what would you do to entertain him?”
Short and simple, Diaz replied, “Oh, just the same things I do. I think if he has been in the moon for so long, I think when he comes over he wants to change, I guess.”
Then and there, she charmed the world and was crowned Miss Universe 1969 succeeding Brazil’s Martha Vasconcellos. At 5-feet-5 inches tall, she was the shortest Miss Universe winner at that time, but what she lacked in height she more than made up for a good — and beautiful — head on her shoulders.
She proved this over and over again throughout her reign which took her to several countries to promote advocacies supported by the Miss Universe Organization, besides numerous public and television events in the United States.
In fact, she made such an impact that shortly after her coronation, a former US president mentioned Diaz on a visit to the Philippines. Landing in Manila on July 26, 1969, Richard Nixon said, “I think it is significant to note that the first world capital that I am visiting, after having greeted the first men to have set foot on the moon, is Manila, the capital of the Philippines. And that, it seems to me, is appropriate from a number of circumstances, but particularly so because now we speak not just of our world, but of the universe. And I am not unaware of the fact that a very lovely lady from the Philippines, Miss Gloria Diaz, has been named Miss Universe.”
Five decades after her win, Diaz serendipitously faced media during the Manila junket of streaming service Netflix’s original series “Insatiable” where she fittingly plays the role of a former beauty queen-turned-fierce pageant coach to the show’s lead star.
Asked to recall her experience as a pageant contestant, Diaz revealed she has never been a competitive person as others may think.
“In fact, I’m very complacent. [I felt] I deserved [it] and that I don’t have to compete. Bahala kayo; take it or leave it. Feeling lang. So when I won, parang I was telling them, ‘You think I should have won?’,” Diaz chuckled.
“My father is very down to earth. So that time before I joined Miss Universe he said, ‘OK, no matter what happens, if you lose, we’ll go to Europe okay? In my mind, ‘Why will I lose naman?’ Even in Binibini, I didn’t really know it was that kind of a competition. I was there for the picnic because it was the first time I was able to sleep outside my own home. So I was not competitive, definitely. But I don’t want to lose,” she enthused.
Now 68 years old and still candid as ever, Diaz also shared she was never a pageant aficionado, even if she forever holds the distinction of being the Philippines’ first ever Miss Universe.
“No I’m not an aficionado. In fact, I saw so many Miss Philippines. I think it was Kylie [Verzosa, Miss International 2016]. I said to her, ‘Hi, what’s your name again? Because you should enter pageants.’ She said, ‘Yes I did.’ I said ‘Oh really which one?’ She answered, ‘I won actually’,” Diaz laughed at her faux pas.
“Basta if I see somebody pretty and tall, I’ll say they should enter beauty pageants. I have very bad memory for faces,” she guiltily confessed.
Asked why she thinks Filipinos are fascinated with beauty pageants, Diaz thoughtfully replied, “I think because it is also a step to a better life for the family. Beauty queens think they’ll earn a lot supposedly. Then they can do other stuff like enter showbiz. I think even getting other jobs, if you’re a beauty queen, is easier because you have an edge.”
All the same, she observes that the pageant landscape today has changed greatly from her time.
“They do all kinds of very adult stuff now. Some of the pageants are in the casinos na. Meron pang plastic surgery and everything. But during my time, there was no such thing. Parang pa-wholesome effect kami,” she compared.
“Educational attainment, health — parang yun ang focus before. Pero ngayon, designer clothes are talked about. During our time, we were wearing designer clothes naman but it was not an issue [if someone wasn’t],” she continued.
“To give you an idea during my time, when the women parade, it means they’re being measured. You go into a room, 20 of you, wearing only underwear, with no bra, and you are measured. Then, on the pageant itself, they will say, 34-24-34 — the body measurements. Now, hindi na sinasabi yun. They only talk about age, height and weight. They have also diverted it into bikinis now,” Diaz added.
Into the biz
Like she said, being a beauty queen—and a Miss Universe title holder at that — gives a woman an edge. But while she easily set foot into show business some years after her reign, Diaz proved to be a brilliant actress just as she was on the pageant circuit.
In 1975, she was cast in her breakthrough performance as Isabel in the critically acclaimed “Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa” and was praised by the toughest of film critics. In fact her performance is still considered one of the most promising breakthroughs of any actress in Philippine cinema.
“I was a teen when I joined Binibini. But I entered the movie industry at 24 years old. People don’t realize that I didn’t go from 18 years old to the movies immediately,” Diaz pointed out.
“I was travelling, enjoying [myself] first after the pageant. But I had been offered right away to do film. I was not, however, going down that path immediately. So when I joined movies at 24, matagal-tagal pa. It was enticing because the producers say, ‘You know Gloria, we’re going to this island and this place.’ Ako naman, ‘Ah talaga?’ I forgot na nga it’s for movies eh. I just wanted to go to that island.
“They’ll ask me what costumes I want to wear. I’ll say, ‘costumes for what?’ We were really shooting pala with costumes and all,” she laughed again.
Since then Diaz has continued acting in film and television with an impressive 105 credits in filmography as recorded by IMDb.
Her awards for acting include Metro Manila Film Festival Best Supporting Actress for “Jose Rizal” (1998), PMPC Star Awards for Movie Supporting Actress of the Year and FAMAS Best Supporting Actress for “Nasaan Ka Man” (2006), PMPC Star Awards for Movies Supporting Actress of the Year for “Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo” (2008) and FAMAS Best Actress for a Supporting Role for “Sagrada Familia” (2010).
Meanwhile, her guest stint in the current second season of Netflix’s Insatiable is a hit among Filipinos, as well as another source of national pride since Diaz is officially the first Filipino actor to land a part in the streaming giant’s original productions.
Still the leading icon for Filipino beauty queen hopefuls, 1969 Miss Universe Gloria Diaz very sincerely and wisely gives this nugget of advice to those who dream of following her footsteps:
“The first thing I always tell them, ‘Before you enter a contest, you must think that this is not the end. This is just a stepping stone; something different. If you win, good. If you lose, it’s okay, you made friends, you enjoyed.’ That’s the first and the only tip I say actually. Mag-enjoy lang sila. Hopefully you win, do the best. Pero kapag hindi, there are other things to do,” she assured.