MANILA, Philippines - The 30-somethings behind pageant forum Sash Factor can list the names of all Filipina beauty queens in order without batting an eyelash. They've diligently covered local and international pageants and will eagerly wax poetic when describing their favorite contestant.
No wonder more and more people are turning to their magazine-cover-format website for the latest in Philippine pageantry.
Sash Factor and similar pageant fora are a manifestation of the Philippines' enduring pageant mania. We might as well admit it: when it comes to pageants, Filipinos [even those who claim not to care] will always turn a curious ear.
Humanizing beauty queens
Photo by Dennis Natividad
Sash Factor founder Brix Vera was infected by the craze in 2010 when he first heard about Venus Raj, the country's representative to Miss Universe that year.
"I saw her on Boy Abunda's show saying she was filing a charge against Binibining Pilipinas for her dethronement. I thought to myself, 'This is probably the first time in Philippine history that a beauty queen will do this'," Vera tells Rappler.
It was partly the legal aspect of the affair that intrigued Vera, a law student at the time. But it was also Raj bringing a human, fragile face to pageantry.
"She was so pitiful. I saw her crying on television," Vera continues. "Our perception of beauty queens is that they're perfect, poised and like goddesses — but they're also human."
It's this mixture of drama, emotion and conflict that make pageants as captivating to Pinoys as soap operas or basketball games. The fact that Pinoys are pageant junkies has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world.
"Yung Miss Universe sa Vegas, anong sabi ng hosts? [In the Miss Universe pageant in Vegas, what did the hosts say?] 'The entire Philippines is here'." In recent years, Filipinos have become the main consumer of pageants, says Vera.
"Latinos are avid fans, yes, but they don't spend money on pageants. But we Filipinos really shell out cash. Filipino fanatics even pay pageant groups for exclusive photos [of the candidates]. International pageants really target Filipinos."
Surely, it can be no coincidence that this rise in pageant interest among Filipinos is accompanied by the recent stellar performances of Pinay beauty queens in international pageants?
After Raj's catalyst 4th-runner-up placing in the 2010 Miss Universe pageant, the country's bets have consistently made it to the finals of the world's most popular beauty pageant. This culminated in Janine Tugonon's first-runner-up placing in 2012 which was hotly contested by many who thought she deserved the crown.
Pinoy pride can be a great motivation and rallying call. Filipinos all over the world have responded with gusto, showing up at pageants held in their parts of the world, blasting their support for the Pinay candidate on social media or literally coming to the candidate's aid [like when Raj's evening gown was mysteriously "altered" and Pinoys helped fix it in time for the pageant].
But like any obsession, it has its bad side. Vera frets how many Filipinos "tend to put down other candidates. For example, they will compare Miss Malaysia and Miss Philippines. Automatically, they will say, 'Malaysia is so ugly!'"
Photo courtesy of Raymond Golez
Vera and fellow Sash Factor member Raymond Golez try to peg down the definition of "sash factor," an elusive word used often in pageantry.
"Regardless of a candidate's beauty, she will get noticed simply because of the country written on her sash. Countries like Venezuela and USA have this. It means you have a fighting chance," explains Golez.
The power of the sash manifests itself in every pageant and in the most surprising [and often, infuriating] of ways.
"For example, in last year's Miss Universe, Malaysia's Kimberly Leggett was really beautiful and she was always in people's top 10 predictions. But because Malaysia doesn't have sash factor, she didn't even make it to the Top 16."
Bolstered by the Pinay candidates' strong performance in international pageants, the Philippines has gained this much sought-after sash factor.
This is why there's a very big chance that Miss Universe 2014 will be held in the Philippines, says Vera.
"It's also right in time for the anniversary of our country's Miss Universe 1974 hosting," he adds.
Who knows what new heights Philippine pageant mania will reach when this dream becomes a reality?
Homophobic Miss Universe 2013?
Photo courtesy of Dennis Natividad
Already, the Sash Factor gang is preparing to cover Miss Universe 2013 to be held in Moscow, Russia in November. But the excitement of pageantry is marred by Russia's strict crackdown on LGBTs [lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders].
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed what has been dubbed an "anti-gay law," criticized for being studded with unclear statements but nevertheless poses a threat to LGBT visitors to the country.
"One of us already has a visa for Moscow but we're still debating if we should cover it. We might get sent to jail!" worries Vera.
Golez adds, "Many people are anticipating that Miss Universe this year will be boring. Without the presence of the gay community, it won't be as successful."
Because of how close Tugonon came to winning the crown in 2012, Vera and Golez agree that all eyes are on the Philippines this year.
"Ariella Arida is under the most pressure out of all the beauty queens. The expectation is that either she wins the crown or matches Janine's feat. Some gracious enthusiasts say she should at least be in the top 5," says Vera.
Arida is now being trained by Binibining Pilipinas and famed beauty-queen-maker Jonas Gaffud and his Aces and Queens group in time for the pageant.
"She's still undergoing a transformation," shares Golez. "Right now, they're trying out different looks for her. Jonas [Gaffud's] camp is very mysterious, unlike before when the process of training the girls was highly publicized."
But Vera is optimistic that the world will see great things from Arida.
"She's determined, willing to learn, palaban siya [she's a fighter]."
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Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.