Gemma Cruz Araneta on the strange phone call she got just before her Miss International win 2
Photo by Bob Razon of Bob’s Studio

Gemma Cruz Araneta on the strange phone call she got just before her Miss International win

In Miami Beach, the Pinay candidate received a strange call: ‘Hoy, Ms. Philippines, gusto mo bang manalo o hindi? Stop talking about Vietnam!’ 
DAHL D. BENNETT | Jul 20 2021

Filipinos are known to be big—no, huge—fans of beauty pageants, and it’s easy to see why. We love our fiestas, and pageants are like giant feasts, with parades and costumes and cheering on women who wear crowns, just like in a Santacruzan. We stay awake for the Q and A portion because we admire and like to celebrate those who speak English fluently, as much as we like to make fun of people who don’t.

But more than anything, it’s because we like to think, year in and year out, that we have a good chance in the race, to be considered the most beautiful woman in the world—no small thanks to the OG beauty queens of the 60s who started it all: Gemma Cruz-Araneta, the first Asian and Filipino to win Ms. International in 1964, and Gloria Diaz, the first Filipino to be crowned Ms. Universe in 1969.

It is worth noting (before missosologists call us out) that Monday, July 19, was the 52nd anniversary of the day Diaz won the Ms. Universe crown at Miami Beach, Florida, USA. It is also worth bringing up that we are, again, in the thick of preparing for a big pageant as Miss Universe Philippines just announced this year’s 100 delegates which includes Maureen Wroblewitz, first Pinay to win Asia’s Next Top Model, and Kisses Delavin, teen star and “Pinoy Big Brother” second place winner.


The politics of pageants

But beyond the pomp and pageantry we see on screen, the more interesting parts of beauty contests really are those that happen behind the scenes—the preps leading to the event, the rich men peering from the sidelines, and even the political issues that sometimes inadvertently become part of the pageant narrative. 

“Very few people realize that beauty contests have a political origin,” shares Cruz-Araneta in the latest episode of the podcast, Flipping the Narrative, where she is one of the guests along with another beauty titlist, former sexy star, Michelle Aldana, winner of Ms. Asia Pacific 1993. The  “fearless, frank and irreverent” podcast which aims to “flip the narrative on all things culture-, race-, gender-related” is hosted by the trio composed of Laura Verallo De Bertotto, Luis de Terry, and Bambina Olivares.

Cruz-Araneta would eventually see for herself the political connection of beauty pageants when she joined Ms. International at the height of the Vietnam War.

While in Long Beach for the competition, she recalls telling a reporter that her parents almost didn’t allow her to fly to the US because of a bombing somewhere in a harbor in Vietnam. The young Gemma would receive a call at her hotel later that day from a ‘nameless Filipino’ living in the US who told her over the phone, “Hoy, Ms. Philippines, gusto mo bang manalo o hindi? Stop talking about Vietnam, they don’t want to hear things like that here.” 

“I thought, ’Oh, my professor was correct,” recalls Cruz-Araneta, “there’s something political here.”

When buzz went around that she was among the top three bets to win along with Ms. America and Ms. Brazil, she figured the choices made sense in that political climate--the choice of Ms. America was to boost morale since there was an ongoing war; Ms. Brazil was mulatta so it may have something to do with race; while Ms. Philippines was possibly a way for the US to court President Diosdado Macapagal to send troops to Vietnam which he didn’t want to do. “Those were the things that were going on in my mind, but I don’t know if I was overanalyzing this,” Cruz-Araneta tells the podcast, laughing.

All discussion of the ‘politics of beauty pageants’ didn’t end there for Cruz-Araneta. When she finally won the crown, she said she would donate her $10,000 prize to Boys Town, a shelter for homeless young males. It was then that her mother--the late Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, award-winning journalist, author, and historian-- told her, “Oh, you really know your politics, don’t you? Because, you know how the Americans are. They always want to know where the money they are giving you is going.”

Gemma Cruz Araneta on the strange phone call she got just before her Miss International win 3
Homecoming queen. Gemma after the win, on the cover of Sunday Times Magazine. September, 1964

Race, beauty, and dirty old men

On the issue of race in beauty pageants, Cruz-Araneta says she would, during that time, get questions like, “Is it true that people live on trees in your country?” And she would find herself responding along the lines of, “Yeah, but we had escalators going down.”

She also narrates how, one time, her mom who was on her way to a pharmacy in Long Beach overheard a couple comment, “Ah, look at Ms. Philippines, what a pretty girl. I wonder if she speaks English,” to which Nakpil replied, “She does… and better than you.”

It is common knowledge how some ‘dirty, old men’ would hang around such competitions and Cruz-Araneta reveals that even in the 60s “there was always some rich businessman who want to get his nasty fingers in there.” Without naming the person, she shares how one businessman approached her and asked her where she lived. “So, I gave him my address. Aba! He arrived,” she narrates. “I let him in and we walked across the garden and into the house to the living room and he was probably shocked or surprised that I was living in a house like that. I mean, we are not a rich family but, in our house, we had, you know, paintings on the wall and my Stepfather had two Juan Lunas…and there was also a small library. Maybe he didn’t expect that,” she says, laughing at the situation. She added that soon after, they had a very ‘brief conversation’ until the man left. That was the last she saw of him.


‘You used to be the daughter of Carmen Guererro-Nakpil’

Discussing the advantages of beauty pageants for women, Cruz-Araneta agreed that it gave contestants, especially the winners, access to opportunities. “It is a way to be known the fast way,” she says, “In fact my mother told me, ‘You used to be the daughter of Carmen Guererro Nakpil and now, I’m the mother of Gemma Araneta.’”

But if anything, it was her mother who would constantly remind her to plant her feet firmly on terra firma and guide her to making the right choices when all kinds of offers—including starring in a movie with the late Fernando Poe, Jr—came her way.

“You know the adulation that your fellow Filipinos give you is really quite intoxicating,” Gemma says. “So, I think my mother saw that, that’s why she would say “Oy, lutong Macau ‘yan. Huwag kang maniniwala diyan,” she said, referring to the line her mother whispered. 

When Gemma got a movie offer, it was when her mom put her foot down and told her daughter, “You know, you are not going to do this. The only thing that you can do is accept invitation from schools and similar groups to talk about Philippine history and culture.” And that’s what the dutiful daughter did. 


The answer is still ‘world peace’

When the hosts ask how she wants beauty pageants to be, moving forward, Cruz-Araneta says she would like to see it go back on emphasizing the promotion of world peace, that the advocacies were something that the contestant sincerely advocated for, and that the candidates were really representatives of their country and culture. “When you say come in your national dress, it’s a recognizable national dress. By looking at the candidates, you will know where they come from. So, I would like it to go back to those gentle days.”

For the designers out there, maybe it’s time to rethink that fully functional “kalesa” outfit for the next contestant.