MANILA/CEBU - Two decades ago, doll-faced Miss Belgium's hair was adjudged the shiniest by Ivory shampoo, while Miss Thailand's bedimpled smile was hailed as Kodak-perfect.
The shampoo brand has long vanished from grocery aisles and the camera-maker is gasping for life, but Miss Universe is back in the Philippines for a third time, attracting a new batch of sponsors who are willing to bet millions of dollars to ride on the pageant's skirt tails.
President Rodrigo Duterte's government is hoping the exposure from one of the world's most recognized brands will boost his bid to market the Philippines as a tourist destination, with bikini-clad contestants from 86 countries posing for photos in beaches and swank hotels.
The president's ally, former Ilocos Sur Governor Luis "Chavit" Singson, has run up a $14-million dollar bill to bankroll the project. He has partnered with Japanese casino tycoon Kazuo Okada and the Tieng family of Solar Entertainment Corp.
"Worthwhile investment grabe ang exposure sa Pilipinas. Maganda sa ating bansa (This will bring great exposure for the Philippines. This will be good for the country)," Singson told ABS-CBN News.
Singson, a prominent politician in the north who keeps a zoo with tigers and snakes, said he hopes to at least make a modest profit, if not a loss, for his venture.
Other sponsors include the country's biggest companies: the SM Group, Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co., San Miguel Corp., and Philippine Airlines
Miss Universe coincided with the grand opening of Okada Manila, the Japanese tycoon's billion-dollar casino on a glittering Manila Bay strip that the Philippines hopes will challenge Las Vegas and Macau as a destination for high-rollers.
It also provided global publicity for JPark Island Resort and Waterpark in Cebu, the venue for the pageant's swimsuit presentation, putting it at par with Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas and Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas.
Resort owner Justin Uy said JPark shelled out P60 million for the "once in a lifetime" opportunity to host Miss Universe candidates in their swimsuits.
"We'll have more tourists because we can feature Cebu all over the world," he told ABS-CBN News. "Even if we spend money, it's okay because with this kind of event, we will really benefit in the long term."
Solar Entertainment hopes to build its brand as the go-to company for international events by hosting the pageant, said its president, Wilson Tieng.
"It's no joke. It's nerve-wracking. It's demanding. Sometimes there are hiccups like a moment's notice that we have to deal with," Tieng told ABS-CBN News.
The SM Group is providing accommodations at its spaceship-like Conrad Hotel and is hosting the finals at the Mall of Asia Arena, boosting the giant theater's credentials as an international venue, having recently hosted Madonna, Mariah Carey and Lady Gaga.
Philippine Airlines touted its being the "official carrier" of the pageant for the third time, jetting candidates to Cebu, Davao and Boracay.
Tourist arrivals jumped 15.7 percent in 1994, the last time the Philippines hosted the pageant, which slowed to 11.8 percent in the following year.
The stage for 1994 pageant at the Philippine International Convention Center was a showcase for tourism, with giant images of the Banaue rice terraces and the Mayon volcano.
Officials, however, are more hopeful this year, as 86 women, each with roughly 100,000 followers on social media, provide a steady stream of photos and video.
"The big difference is social media, which was not available in 1994," tourism assistant secretary Frederick Alegre told ANC. "You realize that the candidates themselves are the social media agents for the Philippines."
The pageant could also offset the country's negative image abroad, brought about by Duterte's bloody anti-narcotics crackdown, said economist Agustin Arcenas.
"Medyo harsh ang perception ng mundo sa Pilipinas (The world's perception on the Philippines is a bit harsh). To have something like this could probably soften it a little bit. It is not all about people getting killed, there’s also something fun that’s going on," he said.
While the government did not spend to stage the pageant, Duterte ordered all government agencies to cooperate with the Department of Tourism to ensure its success.
The Philippines is overhauling its infrastructure to reassert itself as a tourism destination in Southeast Asia, after being eclipsed for years by neighbors Indonesia and Thailand.
The Department of Tourism recorded 5.4 million international arrivals from January to November last year, up 12 percent from the comparable period in 2015. Visitor receipts grew 3.24 percent to P211 billion.
This year's candidates frolicked on Boracay's white beach, strutted in ternos on the cobblestone streets of Vigan, picked strawberries in Baguio and showcased Mindanao tapestry in Davao City.
The six-decade-old Miss Universe claims its global telecast is viewed by one billion people and its reach is not lost on international businessmen, including US President Donald Trump.
Trump owned the pageant until last year, following a spat with his partners over his anti-immigration comments. The pageant is now being run by US entertainment and talent agency WME-IMG.
The pageant, under Trump, provided the real estate mogul with marketing opportunities, with 2014 candidates, including the Philippines' Mary Jean Lastimosa, posing in pink bikinis at his golf course in Miami.
The Miss Universe Organization, over the last decades, has cycled through clothing and cosmetics sponsors.
Its current sponsors include closely-held US retailers Sheri Hill for evening wear, Chinese Laundry for shoes and Farouk Systems Inc. for hair care.
Reigning queen Pia Wurtzbach stepped out for a recent reception in Manila in a black lace Sheri Hill ballgown, which she proudly showed off to red carpet reporters.
After shelling out a fortune to mount the 65th Miss Universe, Sinsgon told ABS-CBN that he was unsure if he was willing to do it again.
"Ngayon walang gastos ang gobyerno so medyo hirap kami ngayon... Hindi namin iniisip na malulugi kami kasi in the long run, mababawi din," he said.
(The government is not spending anything and that makes it hard for us. But we are no longer thinking about losing because we can profit from it in the long run.) -- with reports from Vivienne Gulla, ABS-CBN News