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