Don’t Knock it ‘Til You’ve Tried It

The author, shown here in New York City in her 20s, receives her crown from former Miss International, Melanie Marquez, while her baptismal godfather, former senator Ernesto Maceda, looks on.

People often wonder why women join pageants. On the surface, pageants seem superficial and ridiculous ― what with their crowns, sashes, and blinged clothing. However, those who have never participated in a pageant will never know the experiences, ideas, fun, plethora of new people, and motivation for self-improvement, that a pageant brings into your life.

Pageant women have a mindset that they compete against themselves ― and not against each other. It’s the judges who compare us. We are mentally disciplined, beforehand, to just do our best.

I participated in my first pageant at the age of 17, when I entered the Miss Delaware National Teenager Pageant. Out of 48 contestants, I placed in the Top 15, and won a trophy in the essay competition. The bug had bitten me. The second pageant I entered ― the Magandang Filipina Pageant, a contest for teenage women founded by Alex Esclamado, publisher of the San Francisco-based Philippine News, and founder of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), entailed travel to two states.

Having been raised by my parents, on the East Coast, in a Caucasian community (I was the only Asian female in my entire high school of 3,500), this was my first introduction to the Filipino American community. I won the New York regional contest and went on to the national pageant in San Francisco, where I emerged third-runner up. My pageant roommate was none other than Lisa Manibog, who came in 1st runner up. Lisa, eventually, became Binibining Pilipinas International in Manila, then went on to represent the Philippines in the Miss International contest in Japan.

A few years later, I competed in another pageant ― the Binibining Pilipinas USA Pageant, which I had planned to be my final bout, as I was now in my 20s, and needed to get started on my career. I recall preparing for three months for that pageant ― exercising every day for hours at a gym in Manhattan, writing dozens of ‘pageant’ questions for myself, and enlisting my friends to ask me those, and other spontaneous, questions.

My investment paid off. I won in a field of nearly 40 girls. I was crowned in New York City by Melanie Marquez, then a former Binibining Pilipinas International, who went on to win the Miss International crown. To this day, I remain lifelong friends with about a dozen of those girls that I met at that pageant. This was my last pageant. I went on to have a great journalism career, got married, and moved to Chicago.

The author with three of the international brunettes that she met among 65 women at the Mrs. International pageant. (L to R): Snezhana Baranova, Russia; Zunera Mazhar, Pakistan; the author; and Amruta More-Survepatil, India.

The author with three of the international brunettes that she met among 65 women at the Mrs. International pageant. (L to R): Snezhana Baranova, Russia; Zunera Mazhar, Pakistan; the author; and Amruta More-Survepatil, India.

Last April, nearly 20 years later, I was asked, by Maan Mendoza, Philippines National Director for the Mrs. International Pageant, to represent the Philippines. What!? Yes, you heard it correctly… Mrs. (for married women.) I didn’t even know that such pageants existed. If I agreed to do this, I told myself, it would mean lots of work. I was no longer the willowy girl from decades ago. Besides, the event was only three months away. I would be competing with dozens of women ― many of them pageant ‘pros’ ― and decades younger than me.

After thinking about it, talking it over with my husband, and consulting some friends, I decided to go for it. Why not? A last adventure in the world of bling. The journey would force me to exercise, if nothing else, and to eat a more healthful diet. Within three months, I got back into shape, and felt healthier than ever.

On July 23rd, I flew to Jacksonville, Florida, to take part in the Mrs. International Pageant. For the next three days, we rehearsed, took trips around the city, and posed for lots of photos. I didn’t take home the crown, but, I did receive the most online votes of any contestant (online votes were  separate from the judges’ voting process, and was established to create awareness and financial support for the pageant’s charitable cause — the American Heart Association’s Women’s Heart Health.) For that honor, I was given $1,500.

What’s the inside scoop of joining such a pageant? My experience with Mrs. International was nothing short of wonderful. I was impressed by the fact that our national executive director, Mary Richardson, knew all of our names, and, there were 65 of us! There were a few things that I would have liked to have changed (organization of contestants onstage by state/country alphabetically, instead of some random selection (I was dubbed contestant #2), with identifying sashes to 1) make it easier for our families to anticipate when we were emerging on stage; and, 2) so people who don’t know us could identify us by our state/country. I know that some people in the audience were confused because, in the program booklet, we appear alphabetically. However, those are things over with which contestants have no control.

The author at the Hart Senate Office building on Capitol Hill to advocate for Hydrocephalus medical research funding. With her is Nia Sanchez, who is lobbying for heart health. Sanchez, Miss USA 2014, recently placed 1st Runner Up in the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant.

The most satisfying part, for me, was the chance to educate people about the reversible dementia ― Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, which afflicted my father, and to hear about the work that the others were doing for their own charities. We encouraged and helped each other the entire week even through the two days of preliminary, and final, competitions.

I lent my silver heels to Mrs. Asia who couldn’t find hers. Another one offered jewelry to Mrs. Australia, who needed a better pair of earrings, and many of us borrowed safety pins, sewing kits, and clothing steamers from others, such as Mrs. Canada. Some women even took 15-20 minutes from their own prep time to help others steam their gowns. Backstage, there were encouraging words of advice. There was so much genuine camaraderie among the contestants because we knew that we each possessed our own good qualities. If there were any harsh words said, or any back-biting going on, I didn’t hear, or see, any of it.

One contestant, Daniela Bright (Mrs. Italy), truly demonstrated how treasured the pageant experience can be in the life of a woman. Daniela had arrived bald, because she was fighting cancer, and was undergoing chemotherapy during the entire week of the pageant. She told us that she didn’t care about her illness, and that she just “really wanted to be here.” She was too weak to walk onstage, but she came to the orientation, participated in the judges’ interview, and watched the final night of competition seated in the audience. She told us that it was important for people to do what makes them happy because, as she knew too well, life is too short. In the midst of fighting for her life, Daniella grabbed the chance to check the “pageant experience” off her bucket list.

Pageants are often derided for the stereotype that they attract superficial, and self-absorbed, people. And, reality shows such as “Game of Crowns,” often support this stereotype. While, I can’t say that I have never encountered such people, we all know that superficial and self-absorbed people exist everywhere, and not just on the pageant stage. They can be found in the corporate world, professional sports, entertainment, arts, law, and academia, just to name a few sectors.

What I can say is that the majority of women involved in pageantry do possess an enormous amount of self-confidence, enjoy competition in other aspects of their lives (such as sports and academia), and relish the “girls only” camaraderie with a group of women. It would be similar to a bunch of guys leaving for a week on a “guys only” trip to compete in rounds of golf.

For many married women, a week at a pageant is a time to steal a few days just for themselves ― without the responsibilities of the job, husband, or kids. They get to hang around with other women, wear beautiful clothing for a couple of days, and reassert their individuality ― which many women often sacrifice after they get married, have children, or commit to a career.

Pageantry is a lot of fun, but it’s only for the brave. Are you averse to people criticizing you? If so, then, nope, pageants are not for you… because someone will always say something. One needs a large stash of courage in order to put herself “out there” in front of haters, and be comfortable with the fact that only ONE person will get to bring the sparkly tiara home. The true prize is what we learn about ourselves, and the positive changes brought on by the pageant preparation, such as a changed diet, an exercise routine, and being fit!

After the pageant, we assess our efforts. If you tried your best you will be satisfied and proud of what you have experienced. While there are metrics within the system, judges are human beings with subjective reactions to each woman they meet. Having said that, I believe that this year’s winner, Maggi Thorne, is very deserving.

When it’s all done, it’s time to return to the reality of life. We go back to our normal routines, change into loose clothing, and put on the flat shoes. We leave with memories of a truly fun and rewarding journey uniquely experienced by only a few.

Thank you, Mary Richardson, International Pageants Executive Director, Maan Mendoza Herrera, Philippine National Director, and the Mrs. International Class of 2014 for this wonderful experience.

That’s it! That was my last pageant. ♕

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