Beauty and brains since 1908: Revisiting the culture of pageantry in PH

Published March 19, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Manila Bulletin


(In celebration of Women’s Month, Manila Bulletin is publishing stories featuring women who have made outstanding contributions to the country or to their communities.)

In line with this year’s theme of breaking the bias for International Women’s Day 2022 and the country eagerly awaiting who will be the next Miss Universe 2022 representative, it is timely to revisit the origins of the culture of pageantry in the Philippines and the first queens who demonstrated their possession of not only grace and elegance but also of wit and sagacity.

With the Philippines’ representatives to different beauty contests overseas bagging the crown and top places every other year or so, it is not surprising that pageantry has become part and parcel of contemporary Filipino culture. As early as they can walk, little girls are constantly prompted to show their best ‘Miss Universe’ impression. However, this particular aspect of our lifestyle is not only brought about by the relatively recent flourishing of beauty pageants.
In 1908, a Philippine Exposition was held in order to exhibit the progress of trade and industries all over the country. It was organized also as a celebration of the friendship between the United States and the Philippines. It became more commonly known as the “Manila Carnival” that involved programs showcasing the best that each province could offer.
Though with the considerable presence of commodities within the carnival grounds, what made it stand out was its election of a carnival queen who would serve as the face of the exposition.

The event became so prominent that in 1926, the practice was changed into a “National Beauty Contest” where the title “Miss Philippines” first saw the light of day. In line with the scheme of the exposition, elected Carnival Queens would lead the promotion of the trade and industry exhibited at the grounds.

Back then, candidates for the title heavily relied on their own upbringing, education and social status in order to win the crown. Most of them were only high school or college students who were representing their respective schools for the exposition. Even so, they were already noteworthy individuals well-known among their peers to be worthy of the Miss Philippines title without the complex and highly competitive pageant training that we have right now for prospective beauty queens.

Scholars and historians such as Alex R. Castro and Doris G. Nuyda have published material tracing the emergence of pageantry culture in the country as well as the beauty queens who formed it. Castro’s Aro katimyas da!: A Memory Album of titled Kapampangan Beauties (2012) outlines the Kapampangan beauty queens who have represented their province while Nuyda’s The Beauty Book (1980) documents the lives of the carnival queens of the early National Beauty contest up until the official organization of the Miss Universe pageant. Here are some of the beauties that stood out in the course of pageantry history in the Philippines:

It was Pura Garcia Villanueva who became the first Manila Carnival Queen. Before being crowned, however, she was known as a Spanish writer for the newspaper El Tiempo and the founder of the Asociacion Femenista Ilonga — an offshoot of the Asociacion Feminista Filipina, a women’s club dedicated to the promotion of social welfare and the encouragement of the participation of women in public affairs. Later, she would marry Teodoro Kalaw in 1910 and their daughter, Maria, would follow in her footsteps and be crowned as Miss Philippines during the 1931 Manila Carnival. After her reign as carnival queen, Pura continuously engaged in numerous socio-civic activities and later became the champion for women’s suffrage. In 1951, she earned a Presidential Award of Merit from President Elpido Quirino a few years before her death in 1954.

Pura Villanueva Kalaw: Queen of the Orient, Manila Carnival 1908. Photo courtesy of Bellas Artes Projects and the Mario Feir Filipiniana Library
Pura Villanueva Kalaw: Queen of the Orient, Manila Carnival 1908. Photo courtesy of Bellas Artes Projects and the Mario Feir Filipiniana Library

In 1929, Pacita “Paz” de los Reyes was studying at the College of Law of the University of the Philippines when she represented her university and won the title of Miss Philippines during the third National Beauty Contest. She fulfilled her role as Miss Philippines while still keeping her schooling a priority. After her reign, she went back to finish her law studies and had a career as a lawyer and educator.

Pura Villanueva Kalaw: Queen of the Orient, Manila Carnival 1908. Photo courtesy of Bellas Artes Projects and the Mario Feir Filipiniana Library

In 1932, Aleli A. de Guzman was crowned Miss Visayas and became known as one of the most accomplished women to emerge from the Manila Carnival. She was a student at the University of the Philippines and a charter member of the UP Sigma Delta Sorority whens he was crowned. After the carnival, she went back to studying and graduated in 1937 with a double degree in Chemistry and Medicine. Later, she would place among the top 10 in the Medical Board Exams. She is credited with performing the first abdominal operation in the Philippines and founding the St. Martin Charity Hospital in San Juan, Metro Manila. She earned many awards such as the Mariang Maya Award for Humanities (1983), Ulirang Ina Posthumous Award (2001), and the Mother Teresa Award.

More than about looks and sophistication, the Miss Philippines title carries with it a tradition of groundbreaking women. Today, we continue to have erudite beauty queens who have also become change-makers in their chosen fields as a testament to the first queens of the country that demonstrated beauty and brains since 1908.