MISS INTERNATIONAL 2014: TRADITIONS BROKEN, TRADITIONS MAINTAINED (CONCLUSION)

With the exception of one, I can find justifiable reasons why each semifinalist deserve her placement in this cutthroat and hallowed group.  It’s quite interesting that this mix is rather Latina heavy–six of them in fact.  But it’s interesting that this group of Latinas are racially diverse–two are dark-complexioned, one is blonde Caucasian, and three are fair-skinned brunettes. The remainder are two blonde Europeans, and two Asians.  Let’s start with the headscratcher, namely…

PANAMA – Aileen Bernal.  Okay, she has a fair complexion, and her elaborately beaded pink gown makes a provocative impact.  But to say she is better than France, Guyana, India, Netherlands, Peru, and Philippines?  I think not–those ladies ate her alive onstage! The Japanese panel must have given her gown such a high score for her to sneak through.   How about her speech?  Oh, it’s generic, and she spoke haltingly, though she spliced in a quote from the late Mother Theresa of Calcutta that might have tugged at the heartstrings of the Japanese panel, but would now fall flat on most listeners.  She is just simply unworthy of this group, in my book.

BRAZIL – Deise Benicio.  Her stage projection skills are stellar, so it is unquestionable why she deserved to belong in this hallowed group.  She fell a bit apart in her cultural speech though–she started well enough as she talk about believing in love, peace, tolerance, and equality, but could barely progress and needed to complete her speech in Portuguese.  That lack of poise have made some pundits regard her speech as the weakest among the Top Ten.

BEST IN NATIONAL COSTUME:  INDONESIA – Elfin Pertiwi Rappa.  Though to my eyes Bianca was superior to her in stage projection, admittedly this lady is no slouch and I can understand why she might have won over the Japanese over Bianca.  She does have a bubbly cute appeal about her, and marry that with a stunning costume presentation (she’s a worthy winner of Best in National Costume, and this is tightly fought as there are a host of awesome costumes this year, like those of India and Thailand for starters), the derring-do to go onstage in a bikini (I don’t hear a furor by those supposed notorious Muslim clerics like the ruckus they raised at Miss World last year), and a lovely lacy royal blue number, it’s understandable how she made the final cut.  She also acquitted herself nicely in her cultural speech, even if it touches those generic points about equality, beauty, and peace.

MEXICO – Vianey Vazquez.  Her making the Top Ten proved unquestionable as she has the stage chops to back up her stellar beauty and buffed figure, plus she looks fetching in her sexy blue lacy gown (essentially could be converted to a cocktail mini-dress if you remove the lace overlay).  I was worried how she’ll perform during the cultural speech, but to my pleasant surprise she acquitted herself very well here–she talked about the key to ending wars is to respect each other, and she quoted a famous Mexican, Benito Juarez (the Spanish quote seems to say that respect is the way to peace, but she translated it as “everyone has the right to be respected”).  I know most pageant fans and pundits would’ve preferred her to make the Top Five instead of, say, the eventual winner, but there was another Latina who gave a stronger speech…

(Captured from UStream)
(Captured from UStream)

ARGENTINA – Josefina Herrero.  Just as I thought, this lady indeed radiated impeccably this time and she convincingly made the final cut, and yes, outranking her Miss World 2012 colleague from Israel.  She was just impeccably elegant with her hair up in a bun onstage all throughout.  Her speech, I found sweet and sincere as she talked about how she learned to appreciate that we all share one world and she wants to promote the bonds that are shared between us and to spread the message that everything is possible if we all stand by each other with love, peace, and respect.  It might sound shopworn, but she sounded sincere when she spoke that is why I had a high regard to her speech.

4TH RUNNER-UP:  FINLAND – Milla Romppanen.  As I suspected, the Japanese did dig her brand of blonde girl-next-door beauty that she fared very high.  But to her credit she has more polished stage chops than her storied predecessors.  But I was then surprised when she delivered her speech–it was emotional, but it was also sincere and coherent as she expressed that she realized she shared the same values as the Japanese, and she connected the value of listening to others to being able to respect and understand others.  It’s actually refreshing and profound, even if it went a tad long.  In fact, I may argue that she actually gave the best speech of the whole Top Ten.  Arguably, she gave a far superior speech than 2003 2nd runner-up Suvi Hartlin, 2005 2nd runner-up Susanna Laine, and 2012 1st runner-up Viivi Suominen.  If I judge her overall performance (with still a heavy weight on the final speech), I would’ve ranked her as 1st runner-up instead of this placement.  Did the Japanese judges penalize her for the length of her speech?  I have to note that after her speech, the hosts gave the directive to the other semifinalists to limit the length of their speeches to one minute.

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3RD RUNNER-UP: UNITED KINGDOM – Victoria Tooby.  Admittedly she was only in my Bubbling Under list, but I knew even then if the circumstances are right she could go far.  After a polished performance in both swimsuit and evening gown, she clinched the deal with her speech–she talked about unemployment and how she wants to inspire people who endure in those hard times that with hard work and hope, you can achieve anything.  A well-deserved Top Five finish.

2ND RUNNER-UP: THAILAND – Punika Kulsoontornrut.  She sacrificed her title as Miss Earth-Water 2013 in order to compete in this pageant.  She was probably aiming to bring her country’s first ever victory to this pageant, but she ended up equaling her rank back at Miss Earth last year.  I think it is possible that she could have ended up the winner, but well, this contest turns out to be very tightly fought and almost evenly matched.  Working in her favor was her consistently luminously elegant presence (with a sexy twist).  In my opinion, she was actually the best in evening gown, so I was slightly surprised that the Miss Best Dresser award went to Miss Colombia instead.  It made me wonder–did they penalize her a bit for that cleavage exposure in that stunner of a white evening gown?  Then knocking her further was her rambling cultural speech–based on speeches I would;ve knocked her out of the Top Five and replace her with Mexico or Argentina, but you can’t discount her presence, and we have to give her the benefit of the doubt that English is not her first language, so that is why she was able to salvage third place.

1ST RUNNER-UP: COLOMBIA – Zuleyka Suarez.  It seems she is on-track to clinching a fourth crown for her country–she garnered two special awards as Miss Friendship and Miss Best Dresser, and she struck an impeccably elegant presence onstage (and yes, she earned her Best Dresser award with her simple but elegant shiny sheath gown).   She also gave an impassioned message against racial discrimination for her cultural speech.  If you ask me, she should’ve been the winner based on overall performance, but it seems with the slew of prizes she had already garnered, the Japanese judges seemed to prefer to award the grand prize to someone they deem similar to her but was not given acclaim or buzz during the pageant proceedings…

MISS INTERNATIONAL 2014: PUERTO RICO – Valerie Hernandez.  I have to say that after they called out Colombia as first runner-up, I was thinking that the one who might win it all would probably be either Mexico or Argentina.  It never entered my mind that it would be this lady.  But I have to concede she deserved her Top Ten placement based on her onstage performance during the finals–she looked impeccably elegant with her sleek hairdo in both the swimsuit and evening gown rounds.  But did she clinch the deal with her cultural speech?  To my ears, not really.  She mentioned that she knows winning the title comes with hard responsibilities, and that the responsibility requires a person with voice, vision, and leadership to promote the message of peace, unity, and love and she hopes to be that person.  It is generally good, but what I found lacking is the “how” she could be that person.

So it is headscratching for me when it was announced that she won.  Yes, she looked good when it counted, but to beat Colombia?  I’m not that convinced.  I would’ve preferred Mexico or Argentina in the Top Five instead of her and make Colombia the winner.  But then, when I look at her features more closely after winning, I’m getting a vibe–I noticed at some angles she is like a mocha version of Bea Rose Santiago and at other angles, Miss International 1970 Aurora Pijuan, if you fuse with the exotic features of Miss International 2004 Jeimy Paola Vargas.

Miss International 2013 Bea Rose Santiago
Miss International 1970 Aurora Pijuan
Miss International 2004 Jeimy Paola Vargas

Then I looked and squinted a little bit, and another legend popped in my mind–Miss Universe 1997 4th place finalist Verna Vasquez of Curacao.  I shook my head in disbelief, as I regard Verna as one of the all-time legendary beauty goddesses in my book (the lady who should’ve won Miss Universe that year).  But then again I reflected again and realized that 15 years ago I also made a similarly weird connection when I saw India’s Yukta Mookhey compete in the 1999 Miss World finals–I started having visions of the legendary (and similarly 4th placed goddess who should’ve won) Miss Universe 1992 finalist Carolina Iszak of Venezuela.   At the time, after Yukta nailed her onstage interview I thought this is what Carolina Iszak could’ve been if she just nailed her Top Six interview.  Yes, they don’t look anything alike at all, but I somehow got that vibe at that moment.  I suppose it’s a similar effect to the Japanese judges, even if they don’t really have Verna Vasquez as a frame of reference.

Miss Universe 1997 finalist Verna Vasquez
Incongruou connection:  Miss World 1999 Yukta Mookhey and Miss Universe 1992 finalist Carolina Iszak (images courtesy of Miss World Ltd and thaimiss.com)
Incongruou connection: Miss World 1999 Yukta Mookhey and Miss Universe 1992 finalist Carolina Iszak (images courtesy of Miss World Ltd and thaimiss.com)

Well, one thing is for certain–besides Japan missing the cut on home turf for the second year in a row, another major break in tradition that Miss International did this year is to make their Top Two women of color, which only Miss World and Miss America (yes, back in 1983 when Vanessa Williams won) have done so far.  Sure, two Latina woman of color have previously won, but that took place on Chinese soil, not Japanese soil.  Now, let’s see how long it would take for the Japanese to finally open up their tastes to allow colored women from non-Latin heritages to win.  Even if I disagree with who the winner is, I have to say this is a welcome progressive step forward for this pageant which is usually deemed as old-fashioned.

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

(Image courtesy of the Miss International Organization)

mages courtesy of Keith Tsuji for AFP/Getty Images and Stephen Diaz for Missosology unless otherwise indicated.

MISS INTERNATIONAL 2014: TRADITIONS BROKEN, TRADITIONS MAINTAINED (PART 1)

The 2014 edition of the Miss International pageant as expected featured some traditions that were stubbornly preserved, and others that were broken, for better or worse.  One tradition that is stubbornly preserved is the spare, almost threadbare stage where all 73 delegates parade individually in costumes, swimsuits and evening gowns–having the bare backdrop turned into a three-panel movie screen during interludes between rounds do not count as innovative.  Making the production seem all the more dated is the music being used–I know the Japanese are jazz fusion aficionados, but the piped in music used seemed to be from the late 1980s-early 1990s (gives me memories of those cocktail parties and car rides I had with my yuppie classmates and colleagues back in the day), and there is no distinction that would indicate the music is meant for which round–in fact it feels like the music–albeit varied–is actually looped across all rounds.

Well, there was an attempt to streamline the show a bit–this year, the delegates did not introduce themselves during the national costume round as was customary, and there were no “recap” sequences after each set of delegates (this year presented alphabetically in groups of five) were presented–after one walk down the catwalk for swimsuit and evening gown, that’s it.  Still, the show lasted around 3 hours and 45 minutes–main culprit is the last sequence when the winners were announced as there were lengthy photo ops to present the sponsor prizes (particularly the commemorative ceramic plates and the wristwatches from sponsors Noritake and Seiko respectively).

Anyway, veteran Miss International watchers like myself know what matters in slogging through watching this pageant are the delegates themselves, and in general they do not disappoint.  Here are some of my most piquant notes and observations:

* We’ve seen all of them in national costume during the Press Conference.  But it turns out that three of them made changes to their costumes since then as presented on finals night.  Cuba (Adisleydi Alonso Rodriguez) turns out she forgot her feathered headdress during the Press Conference, but it’s here in full-force here; Italy (Giulia Brazzacola) changed from a strapless black dress to a pink bustier one; and Myanmar (May Bayani Thaw) ditched her traditional tribal costume to a more regal golden one for the finals.  Needless to say all are improvements over the costumes they wore during the Press Conference.

Costumes changed from Press Conference:  Cuba, Italy and Myanmar
Costumes changed from Press Conference: Cuba, Italy and Myanmar

* When I caught sight of Miss Israel (Shauny Bult), a song pops into my head–Meghan Trainor’s mega-smash “All About That Bass”, and she did the best presenting her larger-than-pageant-or-modeling-standards frame.  She is for me the one who should win the special “Meghan Trainor” award for that reason.  But then it dawned on me that a couple of other ladies may be worthy of that award, too–Mz. Venezuela (Michelle Bertolini) and Portugal (Rafaela Pardete).  But as much as I want to compliment Michelle Bertolini for making the best of her larger frame, I have this image of my head of her returning back to Osmel Sousa’s pink palace, and Osmel viciously slapping her repeatedly with a fan berating her with this word: “¡Gordita!”

Meghan Trainor Awardees:  Israel, Venezuela, and Portugal
Meghan Trainor Awardees: Israel, Venezuela, and Portugal

* Speaking of Miss Italy again, she actually acquitted herself well despite her no-makeup look and less-than-polished stage presence, particularly making a better-than-expected impression in a one-sleeved black evening gown.  In fact, arguably, she might have outperformed her prettier “fresh-faced sister” onstage, Miss Norway (Thea Cecille Nordal Bull).  Both ladies could benefit from a beauty boot camp conducted by Aces & Queens (or maybe even Gouldian or any other beauty camp) as they have potential to be transformed into glamorous stunners down the line.

Fresh-faced Sisters:  Italy and Norway
Fresh-faced Sisters: Italy and Norway

* One thing I noticed about Miss Russia (Alina Rekko) across all three rounds of competition:  she seems to have a headgear fetish.  Besides the gold headdress during the national costume round, she sported a garland of flowers for the swimsuit round (reminiscent of what you see in traditional Ukrainian costumes–yes, there might be political implications there), then she sported some head jewels for the evening gown round.

Headgear Fetish:  Russia
Headgear Fetish: Russia

* I have to give props to the three ladies from Central Europe as they competed at a high level that in other years they might have made the final cut:  great jobs for Mz. Hungary (Dalma Kármán), Poland (Żaneta Płudowska) and Slovak Republic (Lucia Semankova).

Babes from Central Europe:  Hungary, Poland and Slovak Republic
Babes from Central Europe: Hungary, Poland and Slovak Republic

* Black Africa is actually represented very well with two high quality contenders–Miss Gabon (Maggaly Nguema) was particularly very polished all throughout her presentation, even employing the Riyo Mori Gucci Flash for the evening gown round.  Miss Zambia (Mercy Mukwiza) was slightly less polished, but she still made major impact.  Unfortunately, to paraphrase Destiny Child’s “Bootylicious”, the Japanese panel are still not yet ready for their jelly.

Black Africa Represent:  Gabon and Zambia
Black Africa Represent: Gabon and Zambia

*Four other ladies are also worthy of commendable citations for consistently strong performances:  Mz. Belgium (Gonul Meral), Belarus (Natallia Bryshten), Dominican Republic (Barbara Santana) and Turkey (Hilal Yabuz).

Commendable Performers:  Belgium, Belarus, Dominican Republic and Turkey
Commendable Performers: Belgium, Belarus, Dominican Republic and Turkey

* If they were selecting a Top 15 instead of a Top Ten, three traditional “goodwill” delegates have actually performed well enough to justify possibly placing (even if some might argue that several others are still better than them).  Miss Japan (Lira Hongo) proved to be very polished and poised even as there are several pageant fans and pundits who may still have misgivings about her looks and are glad she failed to advance.  Slightly projecting less luminously, Mz. Korea (Lee Seo-bin) and Mongolia (Bayartsetseg Altangerel) still deserve positive notices for their performances onstage.

Worthy Goodwill Reps:  Japan, Korea, and Mongolia
Worthy Goodwill Reps: Japan, Korea, and Mongolia

As commendable as the ladies I cited above, six ladies were particularly sterling, and arguments could be made that any of these deserve to make the final cut instead of about two (or perhaps three) who actually made it.  These are:

PERU – Fiorella Peirano.  In general she delivered on the hype onstage as she was lively and perky all throughout.  Sure there might be some slight misgivings that her figure looks a tad thick in a frontal angle like in the swimsuit photo below, but still her performance in all rounds were convincingly top-notch.

NETHERLANDS – Shauny Bult.  On top of her gorgeous face that pageant fans and pandits constantly rave about, she’s generally strong and polished onstage, she has a buffed figure, and her short-sleeved gown is actually good.  So many pageant fans and pundits wonder why she again failed to make the final cut?  Some insiders might claim attitude issues, but she seemed friendly on her selfies and other photos taken of her, right?

GUYANA – Ruqayyah Boyer.  Her stage moves are actually flawless and she projected like a princess in her elegant white ballgown.  I think to tear down the Japanese panel’s resistance over her brand of beauty, she should’ve sported a sleeker hairstyle–that’s the only quibble I could think of regarding her otherwise flawless presentation.

PHILIPPINES – Mary Anne Bianca Guidotti.  Sure, pageant mentor Jonas Gaffud of Aces & Queens may have assumed responsibility for Bianca breaking our six-year semifinalist streak, but you know who I believe actually deserves that blame.  Some people may complain that her halter-top ballgown is less-than-stellar (which I would agree) and then there is the resistance to her “less-classically-beautiful” features (sorry, again, Viola Davis) but even with those misgivings, Bianca actually did everything right and if you asked me she performed onstage at such a top-notch level that she could have worn down such resistance.  The unfortunate shut-out is definitely not Bianca’s fault as she actually gave her all and there is nothing more that we could have asked of her.  She should still hold her head up high despite the unfortunate placement, if you ask me.

Two non-finalists at least have the consolation of being granted special awards, so they got some traction despite failing to make the final cut.

MISS INTERNET BEAUTY:  INDIA – Jhataleka Malhotra.  When the Indian pageant fans are properly motivated and deployed like what happened in this case, they can overcome our passionate show of force, and that seems to be what happened in this case as India beat us in the internet votes.  Admittedly her swimsuit performance is not that stellar, but she more than made up for it in her long-sleeved ballgown.

MISS PERFECT BODY:  FRANCE – Aurianne Sinacola.  I have to say, this is a well-deserved award, as my eyes popped when I saw her va-va-voom figure during the swimsuit round.  Now, I presume she earned this award because of her swimsuit performance–now why was she then shut out of the Top Ten?  I don’t think she scored very low in evening gown as she actually looked lovely and elegant in her pink short-sleeved sequined number.  Sure the short-sleeved style is also sported by several other delegates, but did the judges pull her down too low simply because it’s not that distinctive?  In my opinion, she deserved to make the final cut instead of one or two ladies who actually made it.

Images courtesy of Keith Tsuji for AFP/Getty Images and Stephen Diaz for Missosology unless otherwise indicated.

COMING UP:  THE TOP 10

RESULTS REACTION: MISS INTERNATIONAL 2014

I knew that surprises are in store for this edition of the Miss International pageant, as prior to the finals I could barely figure out who is standing out.  So, even as I anticipated the ennui-inducing production that is characteristic of the Japan editions of this pageant, I couldn’t help but tune in to check out who eventually would pull out from the pack.  Thank goodness unlike last year, the Ustream webcast feed did not have as much disruptions on my end, and I got to see the program in full.

I’m slightly surprised at my track record as it actually improved from last year–I got five out of ten correct, with two in my “Bubbling Under” list and one in “Striking Distance”.  The two I didn’t get at all include the one who eventually won it all, and one headscratcher.  Surprisingly, I also got three of the Top Five right.  I’ll be doing a full-fledged review later this week, so I’ll provide details of my take of the Top Ten by then.

I have to report that it seems my “fear” has come to pass, and the presence of the talisman didn’t seem to work this time.  Because of the high expectations set, the winner of the Ruth Ocumarez award is Miss Philippines (Bianca Guidotti).  I’ll report more about her actual performance in my full-fledged review, but I’ll now disclose why I had appreshensions that she would miss the final cut–I can recall last year, the reigning Miss International from Japan, Ikumi Yoshimatsu, was forced by the organization not to perform her duties because of a controversy involving a shady but powerful talent manager, and it seems one immediate fallout from it was shutting out the host nation from the Top 15 that year (I know Japan was shut out again this year, but I think it’s because of the more brutal Top Ten format, and the Japanese panel justifiably felt she fell short compared to those who actually made the cut).

Ruth Ocumarez Awardee: Bianca Guidotti of the Philippines

What does last year’s issue have to do with this year?  Remember that prior to trooping back to Japan, Miss International 2013 Bea Rose Santiago went on local TV griping about the limitations imposed on her that didn’t allow her the opportunity to travel as much as other reigning queens from other pageants or to pursue the charities she wanted to espouse.  Some people might assume that all seems to be well when Bea returned to Japan to be present in all activities and crown her successor (plus being part of the board of judges as tradition in Japan dictates).  But I have this gnawing feeling that underneath the happy appearances all is not really well–we live in the Internet age and clearly someone from the Miss International organization have caught word about that pronouncement, and even as polite as the Japanese are, they can retaliate brutally while keeping up with placid appearances.  I felt that to penalize Bea’s behavior, the Japanese organizers (with the Japanese panel) decided to apply the penalty to poor Bianca.

Knowing the Filipino’s sad penchant for crab mentality, another possible (though not so crucial) factor also entered my mind–Bea and Bianca are from opposing rival beauty camps back in the Philippines, and there is that possibility Bea voted against letting Bianca through the Top Ten.  But I’m giving Bea the benefit of the doubt here and I believe she tried to push for our bet, but unfortunately she’s overruled by the majority.

What’s my opinion of the final results?  I may respect the decision, but it felt like Miss Universe 2013 all over again–if you ask me who ranked the best amongst the Top Five (or even the Top Ten), I would have a very different ranking.  Still, I started to appreciate the “not classically beautiful” features of the winner, Puerto Rico (Valerie Hernandez), and I have to concede she really looked impeccably elegant when it counts.  More on that in my full-fledged review later this week.

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

Royal Court: 3rd Runner-Up – United Kingdom; 1st Runner-Up – Colombia; Miss International 2014 – Puerto Rico; 2nd Runner-Up – Thailand; and 4th Runner-Up – Finland.