MONICA SPEAR: 1984-2014

At Miss Universe 2005

It was a vacation that could have resulted in a reconciliation for a divorced couple.  Actress and Miss Universe 2005 4th runner-up Monica Spear, her British (but Venezuelan-raised) ex-husband Thomas Henry Berry, and five-year-old daughter Maya, decided to spend the Christmas and New Year holidays together in Venezuela, visiting family and taking in some touristic sights (as Thomas runs a travel and adventure company called Arekay Tours).  But on the evening of 06 January 2014, while traveling in a rented 2002 Toyota Corolla from the holiday destination of Puerto Cabello to Valencia, their car tires suddenly went flat.  As they were about to have their car towed for repairs, an armed group of bandits pounced upon them.  The family locked themselves in their car, which led the bandits to shoot the front window of their car, killing Monica and her ex-husband, while injuring daughter Maya in the leg.

Crime and murder is actually rather commonplace in Venezuela, to the point that the wealthier folks (including Monica herself) decided to reside outside the country (like in Miami, Florida, USA), some of them even choosing not to even come back to this country to visit.  It seems to have taken this tragedy to finally wake the government up to take some action on the long-festering situation, especially with the people outraged and finally taking to the streets to voice out against this.

Mourners taking it to the streets.

Pageant fans all over the world of course were shocked and also grieved online.  Miss Universe 2005 alumni with social media accounts of course promptly posted their reactions, paying tribute to a lovely, kind woman whose life ended too soon in an unjust manner.  Miss USA 2005 and Top 10 Miss Universe semifinalist Chelsea Cooley took it one step further, opening a crowdfunding campaign to raise a scholarship fund for surviving daughter Maya.  Below is her video for her campaign.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, I was celebrating my birthday, basking in the warm greetings and well-wishes.  I learned about the tragedy while I was at work, and once I confirmed that this tragic news was true, my mild euphoria turned into somber reflection instead.  It made me recall my own close brush with death a little over 10 years ago…

It was an August Saturday evening, and I came from a wedding expo at SM Megamall.  I rode an FX from Edsa Shangri-La towards Quiapo to get home.  I was texting my colleague at Mabuhay Beauties with my (even then) old fashioned cell phone (a Nokia 3310) while we were at the Sta. Mesa area when a rider in front of me pulled a gun and asked me to hand over the phone.  I first refused (because at the time, I thought, why would they fancy such an old-fashioned model when other people are carrying fancier cell phones).  Then he fired a shot at the bulky envelope bag I was carrying at the time.  I hesitated and he fired again, and that was when I yielded the cellphone.

Fortunately, I survived unscathed.  I thought at the time the robber fired blanks, and all I thought at the time what a jerk that robber was, and how inconvenient for me to have to borrow another cell phone to communicate with my colleague when I get home, and then have to go then buy a new cell phone (with my extremely limited budget at the time).  It was only a few days later when I opened my bag at my work (then at an educational publishing firm) that I found there was actually a bullet in it–a spiral notebook somehow deflected the bullet, though it pierced through some of the (very thick pile of) draft documents I was editing at the time.

When I relayed this incident to my parents, the first thing they did is lecture and berate me for being an idiot–that I should’ve given my cell phone away immediately or else I could’ve been harmed or even killed.  I have to say I am thankful that I was unharmed, and it was indeed a lesson learned.

As more details about Monica Spear’s death unfolded, the more it made me reflect about my own sentiments about my own country, and what is going on in my shores.  Though Monica chose to reside outside of Venezuela for her daughter’s safety, she still loves her country enough to visit, and thought it was still safe enough for her and her family to enjoy a vacation there.  Also remember, her ex-husband, Thomas Henry Berry, was also shot and mugged 15 years ago in the same country, but he still loved it enough to run a travel / adventure company there and visit it frequently.  It’s such a shame this is what that nation gave this couple in return.  I may have misgivings about my own country, and I don’t speak the national language very well (plus I often pass as a foreigner with my looks), but I still love my own country and am still proud to state that I am Filipino and this is my home.

But I am fearful and concerned that it is easy for my country to devolve into the same situation that Venezuela is in.  Ten years after my experience, criminality still continues and for some it seems to have gotten worse (my officemates continued to relay horror stories of crimes they personally experienced).  There are crimes committed that may stir initial outrage, but it seems as time wears on, nothing much has been done.  Some older folk even wanted to revert back to the times we were ruled under an iron hand–but it seems they have forgotten that most of the malaise we see in the political arena and in society in general these days were rooted by the poison/s planted by the same iron hand.  In practically all institutions we are supposed to hold as hallowed, we are greeted with ineptitude, corruption, infighting, or all of the above.

I don’t know what’s it going to take in order for my nation would finally change for the better, but all I could hope for now is that it doesn’t have to take a sacrifice of an innocent like what happened to Monica Spear before we wake up and take action.



Maya (face blurred), Monica Spear, and Thomas Henry Berry during happier times.


It’s quite interesting that there are two winners from major international pageants whose victories were not well regarded by pageant fans and pundits, but who displayed extraordinary strength of character that fly in the face of the norms of their respective societies.  In fact for many pageant fans and pundits, they could be even regarded as the least deserving winners of their respective pageant.  However, even if one is outraged by their victories at the moment that they won, as time wears on one might reconsider their regard, especially how each of these two ladies took a stand and understand it in the context of the social milieus they are in.


During the early dawn timing that I watched the live pageant broadcast on my shores on then network ABC 5, I was impressed with the quality of the delegates competing as there were a bevy of stunners that to whittle them down into a Top 10 was extremely difficult.  On top of that, the production values of this particular pageant was terrific–even up to now, I thought that this is the type of production that Miss World should have continued to pursue, with hip background music, and relatively hip hosts (well, okay, Ronan Keating is not really hip, but he was at the peak of popularity at that time with his band Boyzone).

When the Top 10 was selected, in general I was satisfied, though I thought one lady was an obvious weak link in a bevy of stunners–the frizzy haired girl who represents Israel.  When Eric Morley called out the runners-up, it was slightly surprising, but I thought we would probably have a satisfying victory if, say, Brazil’s Adriana Reis, United States’ Shauna Gambill, or South Africa’s Kerishnie Naicker were crowned.  But little did I know that the one I perceived as the “weak link” on that Top 10 would be the one announced the winner.  To be blunt it left a bad taste in my mouth as after relishing the awesome production, we would end up with this frizzy haired, overly made-up girl as the winner?

Miss World 1998 Linor Abargil

The news stories that came out reporting her victory mentioned about how they were looking for a “modern girl” and that she fits the bill, but it also disclosed something unusual–it mentioned that two months prior to her win she was raped.  I thought, it’s good that she took a stand and had the courage to send her attacker to jail.  At the time, I thought it was just simply the right thing to do–I didn’t quite understand then about the barriers some victims needed to overcome to step forward and report that they had been violated.

As years wore on, I read more about how there is that overwhelming sense of shame that comes when one was violated, how it could overwhelm and tear apart the psyche that it could paralyze some people’s spirits.  Moreover, there is also a sense of guilt that maybe the victim subliminally invited that perpetrator to do the deed, that somehow they are complicit in that crime.  Plus, in areas like in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, especially in some Muslim cultures, when a girl is violated it brings shame to her family that sometimes family members would then murder the girl to erase that shame–which I found extremely foul, unfair, and unjust.  It made me appreciate that it actually took extraordinary strength and courage for Linor to step forward and report the crime done against her as in her region women who went through that ordeal would’ve been treated as if they were the criminals or worse, and is sometimes even a death sentence.

Recently, a documentary has been made chronicling Linor’s advocacy to encourage other women to speak out about their ordeal, directed by Ceclila Peck (daughter of actor Gregory Peck) called Brave Miss World.  It features Linor traveling around the world interviewing victims like her sharing their own ordeals–including testimonies from celebrities like Joan Collins and Fran Drescher.  An ironic note is that Linor herself has become an Orthodox Jew–a more conservative form of Judaism.  It makes me wonder how does she reconcile her new faith (which would normally be less sympathetic to her experience) and her sence of well-being?  Anyway, check out an interview made with the director and producer on the show Democracy Now and a trailer of the film.

Anyway, these days, Linor looks way better than the frizzy look she sported in Miss World–her beauty is more of an unconventional sort in my reckoning but still something that I have come to appreciate.  Though as a Miss World winner, I’m still that not into her as much, as say, the reigning Miss World Megan Young, but I admire her greatly as a human being for overcoming the obstacles imposed by society around her.

Linor Abargil today


I have already talked about the Miss International 2012 pageant in a previous blog post so I won’t elaborate much further except to post Ikumi Yoshimatsu’s coronation moment and crowning photo below:

Many pageant fans and pundits noticed when the 2013 edition of the pageant was underway that the reigning winner, albeit from the host country, was conspicuously absent and it was the 2008 winner, Alexandra Abreu of Spain, who was presiding and performing the duties of the outgoing queen.  It was then disclosed that Ikumi is in the middle of a messy litigation against a talent agency executive, Genichi Taniguchi, who reportedly was harassing her and her family to pressure her to join his mob-connected talent agency.  It came to the point that Mr. Taniguchi contacted the sponsors of the pageant to dethrone her.  Full details of how this situation came about can be found in this article from the Daily Beast.

I am aware how Japanese value “saving face” and also how amongst developed countries, women in Japan are most subservient compared to Western counterparts.  Ikumi talked about a “culture of silence” especially amongst Japanese media, especially as reflected on her petition.  That she stood up against a powerful entertainment agency at the risk of becoming a pariah to the Japanese entertainment industry is unprecedented, as most would just cower and obey the will of the harasser.  She is running counter to a society that is notoriously resistant to change (especially in terms of women’s rights), but we have to commend her that she has the guts to fight back and stick to her principles.  More Japanese women should look up to her as an example, to question convention, asert themselves and speak out, and have the courage to fight for principles instead of accepting traditions and conventions at face value.

At the press conference on 16 December, one day prior to the Miss International finals.

I’m torn about how Miss International handled this situation.  On one hand, I understand that Miss International wants to make sure that sponsors are unharmed and perhaps preventing Ikumi from performing her duties is also for the sake of her safety.  Though there were some news reports who thought she was dethroned, it seems that she is still officially Miss International 2012.  But I wish they should also have the courage to take a stand and be more supportive to her plight.

I have this gnawing feeling that despite her principled stance, societal resistance is too strong that the best outcome for her is to leave the country and establish a career in another country where the major Japanese entertainment companies have no control.  I still maintain that there are more beautiful looking Japanese ladies to my eyes over her, but I hope this intelligent, courageous woman would be a ripple that would eventually turn into waves to finally uplift the rights of women in her country.




Before I proceed, upon further research on this band’s history made me realize something–prior to Tim Foust’s entry as a permanent band member Home Free wasn’t a country group; their repertoire is more crowd pleasing numbers encompassing various eras like in the style of Straight No Chaser or the Cat’s Pajamas.  I think Tim’s country leanings made them go towards this direction, and the harmonies they were able to develop with new member Austin Brown sealed their direction, and they found their distinctive niche.

I also have to mention a fun video this group made with their co-Sing-Off colleagues VoicePlay, a “Zombies vs. Hillbillies” showdown where they did their takes on Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor”.  Imagine if popular cable series The Walking Dead turned into a musical comedy, this would be the result:

Now, this inspires me to imagine what if Home Free were in an “Ultimate Sing-Off” with Pentatonix?  How would that look like?  Let me switch the system a bit and turn it into a one-on-one showdown.  Who would beat who?  Let’s start with the main lead singers:

SHOWDOWN ROUND 1:  Austin “Steve Winwood” Brown vs. Scott Hoying.  Both are favorite lead vocalists by both Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman and the show producers.  Both are charismatic vocalists with wide vocal ranges and the tendency to go into melismas.  Both have significant gushing fangirl followings.  It’s a very closely fought battle, but in terms of looks and the way in the current incarnation of the group, Austin takes more lead vocal chores while Pentatonix is such a more democratic enterprise that Scott yields the lead to the other members a bit more frequently, this round goes to Austin, albeit by a narrow margin.  Home Free: 1; Pentatonix: 0.

austin vs scott

SHOWDOWN ROUND 2:  Rob “Babydaddy” Lundquist vs. Mitch Grassi.  This pairing seems to be a major physical mismatch–even though Mitch gained a few pounds since winning The Sing-Off, he’s still a puny pipsqueak compared to the burly heavyweight that is Rob.  If this were simply a physical battle, Rob could simply sit on Mitch and the battle is all over.  But in this kind of competition, singing is what we have to measure, and thus the playing field is all level.   And they have striking similarities:  both guys take the role of high tenors in their respective groups, both have backgrounds in musical theater, and both are funny people (not apparent during the Sing-Off in the case of Mitch, but have you seen his Superfruit videos?).  As pleasant as Rob is as a singer, Mitch’s high tenor/near-soprano range is so consistently impressive that Mitch is decisively the winner by a landslide in this round.  Home Free: 1; Pentatonix: 1.

rob vs mitch

SHOWDOWN, ROUND 3:  Adam “Jeremy Renner” Rupp vs. Kevin “K.O.” Olusola.  In terms of hunkiness, to my taste Adam wins it for me.  Interestingly enough, in terms of musical talent, Adam might even have the edge here as it is reported in his bio that he’s a multi-instrumentalist who could play several musical instruments (he specializes in brass instruments like the trumpet, though), even though Kevin has scored great renown and press with his cello-playing.  But what matters in this showdown is their beatboxing skills–this showdown is a “Beatbox-off”(I almost went like Ben Folds and called it a “Beat-Off”, which he initially mentioned on that legendary “I’m Alright” number but had to sanitize it and do a re-take on TV).  Now, both are probably amongst the Top Three best beatboxers in all four seasons of The Sing-Off, so I have so much awe and respect for their talents.  But, then I have to think: as good as Adam probably is in playing an actual trumpet, can he do trumpet or brass sounds with his voice the way Kevin does (or maybe even the sound of pebbles on water like in their now classic cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”)?  So because of those extra vocal skills Kevin has, this round goes to Kevin, though to Adam we have to send much love and respect for his talents; this is a showdown of masters, after all.  Home Free: 1; Pentatonix: 2.

adam vs kevin

SHOWDOWN, ROUND 4:  Tim “Loki” Foust vs. Avi “Bass Cannon” Kaplan.  Now this is probably what could be considered the main event if this were a boxing match.  There are fangirls salivating at this match-up of the basses.  Both of them are terrific standouts who also have solo vocal moments in their respective groups.  In terms of solo moments, it might seem that Tim has the upper hand.  Many people have also pointed out that Tim’s vocal range can stretch higher, but then again, so does Avi especially if you listen to “Little Drummer Boy” and his solo “Tumbleweed” video.  But then, the kicker–can Tim do overtone or throat singing like Avi?  It’s an evenly matched battle, but Avi probably takes it very narrowly because of that skill.  Home Free: 1; Pentatonix: 3.

Tim vs Avi

SHOWDOWN, ROUND 5:  Chris “Slim Daughtry” Rupp vs. Kirstie Maldonado.  Although technically the overall showdown is already won by Pentatonix, let us still take a look at this match-up.  Actually in terms of background and leadership, Chris might actually have the edge here–though except for a press round we didn’t hear him do a solo lead on The Sing-Off,  in their earlier incarnations he took lead singing roles, and he’s also reportedly the songwriter for their original material, like the stalker song they did and I featured in the first installment of this article.  His bio also says he can play several musical instruments.  He may not be prominent since Austin joined their band, but I think he’s still a power behind the throne especially since he’s a founding member of the group.  But bigger weight is for singing, and here Kirstie has made her presence felt, and as good as the stalker song was, Chris is not really as compelling a vocalist as Kirstie.  Chris may reassert himself in the band as time wears on, but at this point, Kirstie wins this round.  Home Free: 1; Pentatonix: 4.

chris vs kirstie

Let me squeeze in a review of Pentatonix’s latest video, their cover of Calvin Harris and Ellie Goulding’s “I Need Your Love”, released on the day of The Sing-Off season 4 finale.  In context of their PTX, Vol. II album, it’s a solid number, but the video enhances the experience of the song.  The video plays on the “couch” videos Pentatonix has released previously, but with multi-panel edits like in their classic “Daft Punk” video.  I also love the fact that their outfits are in basic colors–green sweater for Avi, yellow shirt for Kirstie, blue shirt for Mitch, purple sweater for Scott, and red jacket for Kevin.  But the clincher is how they reverted back to their old couch video format at the video’s end.  Definitely a treat.

On a final note, let us go back to Home Free.  It seems their brand of country is more of a light-hearted brand and they have released two videos thus far: a cover of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” and a Hunter Hayes medley.  Check them out below:

Both are starting off promisingly, although not yet in the million views level that Pentatonix now enjoys with each of their official video releases.  The line up of their album (to be released in February) looks like a pleasant combo of solid country numbers that I hope would make Nashville take notice, but what I hope for them down the line is that they challenge themselves the way Pentatonix regularly does instead of staying in light-hearted fare, probably like tapping deeper into the genre and do a cappella takes on bluegrass classics, or stretch their repertoire by adding serious folk rock in the style of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Band–if Macklemore & Ryan Lewis can find a balance with heavy serious fare and comedy, these guys do have the talent to probably strike the same balance.