What you need to know
Light skin, pointed nose... the appearance of Miss Universe 2018 has sparked rancorous debate in the Philippines. While it's generally well-intentioned, it misses the mark.
Filipina-Australian beauty Catriona Elisa Magnayon Gray, 24, took the world by storm when she was crowned Miss Universe 2018 on Dec. 17. She competed alongside 93 other candidates from around the globe at this year’s contest, held in Bangkok, Thailand.
Back home, her fellow Filipinos stood by her and took a short hiatus from work just to see her live. Everyone was rooting for her. But despite this, some people contested her beauty, saying she did not look Filipino, and even questioned her nationality.
Filipinos generally have natural olive to brown skin, black hair, dark brown or black eyes, and a round-tipped nose. But many Filipinos have children with foreigners, resulting in a wider mix of physical features. Filipinos with traditional looks are slowly declining. For its part, the Miss Universe competition itself sees nothing wrong with mixed race contestants – if a candidate representing her home country is acknowledged by the government as a citizen, she is eligible.
Catriona Gray was born to a Filipino mother and a Scottish-Australian father. She is a citizen of both countries, but she competes as a representative of the Philippines and has entered into Filipino beauty pageants, including Binibining Pilipinas, in the past.
While the geyser of pride and honor is high after Gray bagged the Miss Universe 2018 title, there were people who thought her looks did not meet the standards of Filipina beauty. Her victory raked up revolting sentiments. People complained that her nose is too pointed, which is not typical of a Filipino. She does not have a Filipino accent when she speaks English, her Tagalog vocabulary is limited, and her name is not Filipino.
Gray was born and raised in Queensland, Australia. She did not move to the Philippines until she was 18 years old to pursue her career as a commercial model, when she started joining Philippine beauty pageants. As a dual citizen, she was allowed to decide whether to represent the Philippines or Australia in Miss Universe 2018.
Gray chose to represent the Philippines during the 67th Miss Universe pageant and proudly embraced the Filipino culture. In her Instagram post, she thanked her team for her success and wrote, “[The] Philippines, what an amazing honor it has been to carry your name across my chest and to embody you in all aspects. I may now carry the sash of Miss Universe, but I’ll forever be your Miss Philippines.”
It was how Catriona Gray saw her Miss Universe crown: It’s for the Philippines. But that’s not how other people perceived it, especially in Australia.
Australian tabloid The Courier-Mail featured a front page picturing Gray with a caption “Miss Universe Philippines” – but it replaced the country with “Queensland.” Hit Radio Australia also published an article on its website with a headline: “An Australian Girl Just Won Miss Universe But She Wasn’t Miss Australia.”
That Gray calls the Philippines home is something that Filipinos are extremely proud of. She raised the Philippine flag during the competition and displayed Philippine pride from start to finish.
However, her victory dug up sentiments that pageant fanatics worldwide generally appreciate a Western-centric notion of beauty – lighter skin, lighter hair and a pointier nose.
In this day and age, it’s not just race and beauty standards that make someone pretty. These standards also have roots in class and colonialism. In the busy streets of Metro Manila, massive billboards promoting skin-whitening products are ubiquitous. One promotes light skin as “the skin of the rich.” Sadly, some Filipinos see it that way. Others even think that people with darker skin are less important in society, especially indigenous people.
While Catriona Gray’s victory made every pageant-crazed Filipino proud, others still want to see more local faces in this big beauty contest. While they are happy the Filipina-Australian seized the crown back, they want to see a real Filipina beauty with a low-bridged nose, dark complexion, and untouched frizzy hair.
This is a perception of Filipino beauty that can be traced back to Spanish and American colonialism. Spain colonized the Philippines for 330 years, and many Spaniards had children with Filipinos – as did Americans and Japanese during their respective occupations of the archipelago.
On Twitter, user Nina Loleng wrote that Gray is undoubtedly beautiful, but her beauty is based on Western cultural standards. Others even joked that she is really beautiful, but that’s because she doesn’t look Filipino.
However, many Filipinos contested these criticisms and remained proud of Gray. Another Twitter user, Mench Kiss, wrote that although Gray’s looks don’t represent the standard Filipino beauty, everything she showed to the world is very Filipino.
This can be seen through her national costume: Catriona Gray wore a beaded tribal suit that features the prehistoric indigenous tribes in the Philippines with a massive painted lantern, known as Parol, adorned with LED lights. She accompanied her costume with the historical Babaylan paganism’s pre-Christian Shamanic dance, representing the ancient Filipino culture.
What makes her even more Filipino is her love and support for the children in Tondo, Manila, a philanthropy that stems back to long before her days of joining beauty contests.
She volunteers for the Young Focus Foundation, a non-governmental organization founded by Dutch/English couple Paul and Ann van Wijgerden. The foundation supports underprivileged young children by providing them with education and personal assistance. It is the beneficiary of the proceeds of Gray’s newest music video, titled “We’re In This Together,” which was released before the Miss Universe contest.
During the final question and answer portion of Miss Universe, Catriona Gray alongside Miss South Africa, and Miss Venezuela were all asked with the same question: “What is the most important lesson you’ve learned and how will you apply it to your time as Miss Universe?"
Gray did not directly mention the Young Focus Foundation, but she did reference the children in Tondo, Manila by saying:
I work a lot in the slums of Tondo, Manila and the life there is poor and very sad. And I’ve always taught to myself to look for the beauty of it and look in the beauty of the faces of the children and to be grateful. And I will bring this aspect as a Miss Universe to see situations with a silver lining and to assess where I could give something, where I could provide something as a spokesperson. And this, I think, if I can teach people to be grateful, we can have an amazing world where negativity could not grow and foster and children will have smiles on their faces.
Since mentioning her volunteerism, there has been a lot of queries about the Young Focus Foundation, according to coordinator and spokesman Mark Martin Soriano. He told the Philippine Star that they were overwhelmed and in high spirits because Catriona Gray directly mentioned Tondo, Manila and not just the Philippines.
Filipino beauty pageant enthusiasts have defended Gray and said that Miss Universe itself doesn’t just promote the beauty of every candidate where she came from. It also promotes the culture of a country and how the candidate represents the tradition and the way of life.
But many Filipinos still believe that being beautiful means having lighter skin and a narrow nose. Many women are still getting Brazilian blowouts to have straight hair and gleefully throwing away money for skin-whitening products.
The outcry over Catriona Gray’s Miss Universe win is somewhat understandable – it comes from the many Filipinos who want to see a standard of beauty in pageants that they feel belongs to their country, rather than to Western measurements. However, if Gray embraces her Filipino culture and tradition, it is impossible to argue that she is anything but a picture-perfect representation of her people and her country.
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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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