Fil-Am Miss USA is Miss Universe 2022

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A Filipino-American who wants to use fashion as a force for good is the 71st Miss Universe. R’Bonney Nola Gabriel, 28, who represented Texas at Miss USA, was crowned on January 14, 2023, 9 AM Manila time, in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.

Along with other prizes, R’Bonney gets to wear “The Crown Number 12: Force for Good,” crafted by luxury jeweler Mouawad, which has a pear-shaped blue sapphires surrounded by diamonds and valued at approximately USD 5.75 million.

The Philippines’ Silvia Celeste Rabimbi Cortesi failed to make the semifinal round, ending the Filipina queens’ exceptional performances since 2010’s Maria Venus Raj ushered the pageant-crazy country from the “Dark Ages” of non-placements.

Miss Ukraine Viktoria Apanasenko won the Spirit of Carnival award while Miss Thailand Anna Sueangam-iam was given the Impact Leadership Award.

At Miss Universe, it’s not enough to be captivating. You have to be articulate. The organization picked a transformational leader in one of the most competitive batches in herstory. Forecasts, unfortunately but gleefully, were discarded immediately.

Miss Universe R’Bonney Nola Gabriel representing Miss USA during the swimsuit competition. (Photo by Troi Santos/BM)

American Conquest. R’Bonney is a graduate of the University of North Texas with a bachelor’s degree in fashion design. Though she exceeded the allotted 30 seconds, her answer to the final question–If you win Miss Universe, how would you work to demonstrate this as an empowering and progressive organization?– clinched the ninth Miss Universe crown for the USA.

It goes: “Well, I would use it to be a transformational leader. As a very passionate designer, I’ve been sewing for 13 years, I use fashion as a force for good. In my industry, I’m cutting down on pollution through recycling materials when I make my clothing. I teach sewing classes to women that have survived from human trafficking and domestic violence. And I say that because it is so important to invest in others, invest in our community and use your unique talent to make a difference. We all gave something special, and when we plant those seeds to other people in our life, we transform them and we use that as a vehicle for change.”

R’Bonney beat perennial pageant rival Venezuela, represented by the amazing Amanda Dudamel, who placed second: “I’m a fashion designer by profession. But I’m a designer of dreams as a woman.” It’s the fourth time that two pageant powerhouses met at the Top 2 since 1967, 1986, 1997.

The Dominican Republic’s (and Nicole Scherzinger lookalike) Andreína Martínez, finished third: “I have been working for women’s rights for as long as I can remember, it’s been my action to every single day. I’m here to demonstrate this, that it doesn’t matter where you come from, your background does not define you. Your courage and determination do.”

The Dominican Republic’s last placer was Kimberly Jiménez, fourth runner-up in 2020 to Mexico’s Meza. Their only winner was Amelia Vega in 2003. The USA’s last placer was Olivia Jordan, a selection committee member at prelims, who was the 2015 second runner-up to Pia Wurtzbach. Their last winner was co-host Olivia Culpo in 2012. Venezuela’s Sthefany Gutiérrez, was second runner-up in 2018 to Catriona Gray. Their last winner was Gabriela Isler in 2013.

R’Bonney was crowned by Harnaaz Sandhu of India. Incidentally, another Indian, Sushmita Sen, crowned another American from Texas in 1995, the late Chelsi Smith.

Unkindest Cuts. Norway’s Ida Hauan called in sick on pageant night, so the field was left for 83 women to compete for the crown. They were drastically whittled down to 1 then brutally cut to the Final Five.

Puerto Rico’s Ashley Cariño and Curacao’s Gabriëla dos Santos completed the Final Five. Those who advance to the mind-boggling, shocking Top 16 are Haiti’s Mideline Phelizor, Australia’s Monique Riley, Laos’s Payengxa Lor (first time in herstory), South Africa’s Ndavi Nokeri, Portugal’s Telma Madeira, Canada’s Amelia Tu, Peru’s Alessia Rovegno, Trinidad and Tobago’s Tya Jané Ramey, India’s Divita Rai, Spain’s Alicia Faubel, and Colombia’s María Fernanda Aristizábal.

Eleganza Extravaganza. The Top 16 competed in both swimwear (with capes provided by Liva Fluid Fashion where candidates turned them into works of art incorporating their advocacies) and evening gown of their own choosing.

R’Bonney flaunts her Filipino heritage and is proud of her father, Remigio Bonzon. Her national costume (cumbersome to a fault) was designed by Patrick Isorena. Her preliminary gown was designed by another Filipino, Rian Fernandez.

For her coronation, Fernandez created “a velvety fully handcrafted figure-hugging deep neckline shoulder studded gown. The black color of the gown represents competence and sophistication.  The gunmetal accents epitomize the strength and remarkable resilience of R’Bonney Gabriel and power of the United States of America. The black onyx and the glass mirror drops are symbols of reflection and self-growth. The fringe skirt depicts the movement of life with blue sapphire Swarovski stones that stand for the new era of emerging women. Truly, this piece is a vivid portrayal of a Phenomenal Queen!”

Miss Philippines Celeste Cortesi wearing a national costume inspired by Pinoy superheroine, Darna (Photo by Troi Santos/BM)

Pinoy Representation. It was heartbreaking to see Celeste no longer in the competition but Filipino Excellence was still showcased throughout the show. Our own Catriona Gray, Miss Universe 2018, served as behind-the-scenes correspondent. Co-host Jeannie Mai Jenkins wore a Resty LaGare crystallized corset dress. Fil-Am beauty empress Olivia Quido is a judge. Alicia Faubel of Spain, an honorary Pinay, wore Leo Almodal. And the ladies wore Jose Bragais shoes.

Diversity and Inclusion. R’Bonney is the oldest winner since fellow mixed-race Brook Lee of 1997. Her reply to a question was quite apt: Miss Universe recently made an inclusive change, allowing mothers and married women to compete this year. What’s another change you’d like to see and why?

She answered: “For me, I would like to see an age increase. Because I am 28 years old, and that is the oldest age to compete. I think it’s a beautiful thing. My favorite quote is, “If not now, then when?” As a woman, I believe age does not define us. It’s not tomorrow, it’s not yesterday, but it’s now. The time is now that you can go after what you want.”

It was also refreshing to see Big Freedia, the gender nonconforming, fluid, nonbinary American rapper and performer of the New Orleans genre of hip hop called bounce music, as one of the selection committee members.

Unsurprising since Miss Universe Organization chief executive officer Anne Jakrajutatip is a straight-talking trans billionaire businesswoman. In an impassioned speech onstage, she said: “[On] this stage called the Miss Universe competition, we can elevate all women to feel strong enough, good enough, qualified enough, and never be objectified AGAIN.”

Image credits: AP/Gerald Herbert