Last January 19th, I attended the Press Junket of the 63rd edition of Miss Universe pageant (a/k/a Miss Universe 2014, even though it's being held in January 2015) that took place at the Crowne Plaza Miami International Airport Hotel in Doral, Florida. It was a chance for members of the media (print, digital, television, radio, etc.) to interview the 88 contestants who have come from four corners of the earth to compete in the most coveted beauty pageant title in the world. I wish to thank the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) for inviting Critical Beauty to cover the event. My plane had just landed at Miami International Airport at 2:30 PM and the event was supposed to start at 3:30 PM. I took the airport shuttle which brought me directly to the hotel. When I arrived at the hotel at around 3:15, there was already a long line of media people waiting to get into the ballroom to interview the girls. Moments later, I found myself with media heavyweights like NBC, Telemundo, Teletica, Caracol, GMA Network, and Primera Hora which is represented by my dear friend, Héctor Joaquín Colón-González. While the heavyweights were well-equipped with massive videocams, tripods, microphones and well-coiffed attractive female interviewers, I came with my new Panasonic Lumix camera, my three-year-old iPad, and my two little digital cameras.
Finally, I made it to the ballroom. I had thought that we would get to interview 12 to 15 delegates face to face as it had been originally arranged, and that there would be chairs and tables everywhere where we could sit comfortably with each delegate and ask her several questions, similar to the set-up from the 2010 pageant in Las Vegas. However, because of the huge number of media outlets this time, the event became a round-robin type of interview consisting of several one-on-one interviews, panels or a combination of both. See photo below:
|Miss Italy Valentina Bonariva poses for the camera
Before coming to Doral, I had prepared specific list of questions that I wanted to ask 15 countries that I had previously selected, and that I was hoping to interview each delegate in a more relaxed setting, but alas, it didn't happen the way I would have wanted to. An MUO staff led me to my spot. There was barely enough space between media outlets which bothered me, especially when you're next to a major Spanish-language TV station. Then one by one, the contestants walked in. Any media outlet could just call out any delegate they wanted to interview, followed by photo ops. Some of these media outlets, I swear to God, have little concept of time-sharing as they ended up monopolizing much of the interview time allotted for each girl. Actually, there was really no time limit given to each media outlet; they could interview any girl as long as they wanted, and this is what made the press junket a little unpleasant. One media outlet in particular interviewed Miss Philippines for nearly 20 minutes. Several outlets interviewed Miss Venezuela for an average time of 15 minutes or so. I'm sure Miss Venezuela was getting tired of responding to the same questions, as well as the other girls in her situation. But if you're a beauty queen, you should be prepared to answer any type of question thrown in by the interviewer, and it doesn't matter if it's repetitive, annoying or personal.
So instead of waiting for any of the 15 countries on my list to walk in, I did what most everybody else was doing - yell the name of the country (India! Colombia! Belgium! Bahamas! Mexico! Turkey! Ecuador! etc.) and as soon as its representative caught my attention, I just coaxed her to say a simple greeting to her countrymen or to readers of Critical Beauty. To members of the Critical Beauty Fan Page who were nice enough to submit interview questions to me, I apologize for not having had any chance to ask any of them. Everything felt rush and uneasy. Instead, I just took endless photos of the girls. I took photos of them posing for others. I recorded videos of them being interviewed by other outlets. Yes, I was a parasite. LOL. But this critical parasite came up with some of the most interesting photos taken (you can view them at the Critical Beauty Facebook Page).
Every year, we pageant fans love making our own list of favorites even before watching the preliminaries. Sometimes, we base our list even without having yet seen any of the contestants in person. So we mostly rely on still photographs, videos, or social network commentaries to help us assess each candidate. People are asking me if my list of favorites has changed now that I have seen most of the contestants in person. I say most because there were several countries that were missing at the Press Junket like Lebanon, South Africa, Guatemala, Japan, Korea, Slovak Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovenia, St. Lucia,Turks & Caicos, British Virgin Islands, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Uruguay, Nicaragua, New Zealand (I honestly do not know the reason for their absence). So to be fair to these countries missing from the Press Junket and to other countries who were present but whose presence I missed (Germany, Guam, Guyana, Angola, Slovak Republic, Kosovo, Kenya, Tanzania), I will suspend my judgment until after the preliminary show.
So who impressed me at the Press Junket? In random order:
Turkey - for such a tender young age of 19, Dilan Çiçek Deniz impressed me with her natural beauty, eloquence and warmth. I just wanted to hug her like a daughter I never had. :)
Spain -She is currently my favorite to win the title. Desiré Cordero is undeniably gorgeous!
Netherlands - Tall, exotic, and vivacious, Yasmin Verheijen is in for the win!
Philippines - What can I say? Mary Jean Lastimosa exudes warmth and poise and a million-dollar smile! If looks could kill! But the girl is short. She was wearing 6-inch heels with 2-inch platforms, without which she would probably be around 5'4" in stocking feet.
India - Noyonita Lodh's beauty is rare as black gold. She's just as short as Mary Jean, but she is so full of charisma and energy! India is back in the game!
Mexico - Josselyn Garciglia wasn't on my original list, but with her Audrey Hepburn look at the event, she automatically got my attention (and Audrey is one of my favorite beauty icons of all time!)
Argentina - Valentina Ferrer probably stayed the longest in the ballroom, grabbing every opportunity to be interviewed. For that, I give her high points for her boldness! And she has the most incredible physique!
Serbia - Andjelka Tomašević is simply stunning! I didn't see any flaws whatsoever! I love that she wore her hair straight and made her look slightly taller.
Trinidad & Tobago - Jevon King is the ebony queen of the pageant! Tall, graceful, and exquisite!
Jamaica - Kaci Fennell is perhaps the most polished and the most recognizable candidate this year. She also has the most flawless skin! To me, she is the best candidate from the Caribbean.
Ukraine - If I had to choose the girl that resembles the Barbie doll the most, it has to be Diana Harkusha! She was wearing a ponytail and she would pull it playfully sometimes for the pictures!
Venezuela - Say what you want about Migbelis Castellanos, her hideous attire (a poor imitation of Chanel jacket and a purple mumu dress), or her "voluptuous" (a/k/a "fat") physique, but I found myself mesmerized by that undeniably gorgeous face!
Ecuador - Alejandra Argudo could very well be her country's first Miss Universe! This young woman is stunning, articulate, energetic, friendly and stylish.
Singapore - Rathi Menon is not pageant material, but she is definitely a modeling material! She was the best-dressed and the most entertaining girl at the event. She even managed to show me her amazing catwalk!
Puerto Rico - Gabriela Berrios has the most beautiful eyes and the sexiest legs! This girl could easily win her country's sixth Miss Universe crown!
And now the disappoinments from the Press Junket. These girls are some of the favorites to crack the top 15, but I'm not sure anymore:
Russia - Yulia Alipova is tall and has a great posture, but she looks like a vampire with a bit of color.
Australia - Tegan Martin looks pretty from a distance, but up close is a different story.
Colombia - I don't understand the hype about Paulina Vega. To me, she came across as strange, with all that hair-tossing and over-the-top posing. Not my cup of tea.
France - Like Colombia, Camille Cerf only looks good from a distance or in photoshopped images, but up close her beauty is ordinary.
So there you have it. My impressions on the Press Junket.
And now the preliminary show!
The prelims were held yesterday, January 20th, at FIU Arena. But before I give my impressions, allow me to gripe about getting to the venue. Who knew that there is both an FIU Stadium and an FIU Arena. The former is an outdoor football stadium and the latter is an indoor basketball stadium. It is easy to find the former as there are signs everywhere and the structure itself is obvious. But the latter one is not. My Uber driver had to stop and ask me to Google-Map the correct address, but it was not coming up on my iPhone GPS. So we ended up going in circles. We saw a golf-cart load of athletes and asked them to direct us to the arena, which we finally found! It was already about 1:30 PM. Hector Joaquin was already inside the arena and was waiting for me. MUO had sent an e-mail to the media stating that a press center would be set up. Since HJ and I were both starving, we asked a friendly female student to direct us to the nearest eatery, so she led us to a food court on the campus itself.
After a late lunch, we headed back to the arena, and the MUO staff notified us again that the press center was not yet ready. Instead of waiting for the set-up, HJ and I just grabbed a couple of folding chairs and set up our own press center on the second floor, just around the corner near the elevators used by the production crew. It was already 3:45 PM, almost 3 hours before the prelims. I started writing my review on the Press Junket, but I could not finish it because we were being told that all members of the press had to officially check in at the lobby, which took almost an hour. As soon as HJ and I got our VIP/Media seats located on the left side facing the stage, we just started taking photos and videos. A pair of Thai fans showed up wearing traditional Thai costumes. Several Filipino men showed up wearing the barong. As usual, you had eccentric and flamboyant individuals fluttering from one place to another wanting to get attention. And of course, the most passionate pageant fans from the Philippines, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Mexico came bearing their country's flags. As usual, the Latin fans are the most boisterous; they can cheer and boo as much as they want to their hearts' content. On the other hand, the Filipino fans - even if they are the most brutal online - are the most behaved in public.
Now I know why some pageant fans would rather watch the pageant (prelims or finals) at home in the comfort of their living room and on giant flat screen TV. Why? Because you can see the girls up close and the cameras pick up the right angles. But if you were watching the show in the arena from your seat, you get a totally different perspective. Oh, and another thing... there were no big flat screens in the arena, which prevented us from seeing a close-up of the girls' faces and attire. However, what televiewers are missing is the incredible amount of energy permeating in the arena, and of course, the thrill of being in the same room with passionate and highly enthusiastic pageant fans.
Okay, so let's cut through the chase and let's talk about the girls that continue to impress me after the preliminaries. In random order:
France - Yes, Camille Cerf had the personality of a jellyfish at the Press Junket, but on stage she was anything but flat! She was styled to perfection, from head to toe. And that simple yet elegant white gown simply enhanced her already perfect look.
Ukraine - Diana Harkusha's performance and looks have been very consistent, and I want her to crack the top 15.
Ecuador - Alejandra Argudo remains consistent throughout the competition. She could certainly equal or surpass her compatriot Constanza Baez's second runner-up position in 2013.
Philippines - Mary Jean Lastimosa's most powerful weapon is her captivating nature! She captivates the audience with those swaying hips, that effervescent smile, and those amazing curves!
India - Love her or hate her, but Noyonita Lodh delivered to the hype! So what if she's petite? At the prelims, she was giving a Celina Jaitley vibe - full of energy and phenomenal stage presence!
Jamaica - If singer Alicia Keys and legendary icon Josephine Baker had a daughter, she would look like Kaci Fennell! Kaci is just the epitome of grace, coolness, and sensuality that is rare among beauty queens.
Mexico - Josselyn Garciglia's impeccable styling and aristocratic bearing, coupled with a beautiful gown and sultry catwalk, makes her a shoo-in for a top 15 position.
Puerto Rico - Gabriela Berrios, in my opinion, is the best delegate from her country since Mayra Matos in 2009. She is a fierce competitor and I would be shocked if she didn't make the top 15.
Argentina - Valentina Ferrer is the best representative from her country in a very long time. She is one hot, amazing young woman with an incredible physique and stage presence.
Spain - Desiré Cordero is the girl to beat! She would make an excellent Miss Universe.
***Girls that did not impress me at the Press Junket and/or that I missed at the Press Junket but impressed me at the prelims:
Dominican Republic - Some people ridicule Kimberly Castillo's nose job, but it's really not that bad. LOL. She looked and presented herself like a true beauty queen on stage. I wouldn't be surprised if she entered the top 15.
Thailand - Pimbongkod Chankaew. Her name is forgettable, but certainly not her performance at the prelims! This young woman did her homework. She simply beamed on stage with her radiant aura and exquisite movement.
Guyana - Niketa Barker is the best representative from her country. And the stunning green gown just complimented her gorgeous ebony skin and face! Could the crown not be too far from her reach?
Russia - Although she looked like a vampire with a little bit of color during the Press Junket, Yulia Alipova looked like a billion rubles in her stunning red dress and perfect pulled back coiffure.
Indonesia - Elvira Devinamira wore a stunning and expensive-looking gown during the Press Junket, which was over the top and inappropriate for the informal occasion. She also seemed aloof. But at the prelims, her inner fierceness just exploded on stage in her exquisite gown and dazzling catwalk.
Colombia - Paulina Vega projected herself on stage like a true beauty queen, and now I see the hype about her. She's in it to win it!
Kenya - Forget that she resembles actress Lupita Nyongo. Lupita doesn't have Gaylyne Ayugi's spunky personality and fierce catwalk. Gaylyne could very well be the first delegate from her country to make the semis.
Kazakhstan - If Aiday Issayeva were wearing a Philippines or Thailand sash, she would get unlimited amount of attention, but unfortunately she's not because her country is not yet a pageant powerhouse. But if you took away her sash and just focused on her performance at the prelims, you would perhaps contend that she's in the same league as Miss Philippines or Miss Thailand. An amazing body, a sexy catwalk, and a flawless face - all traits of a real beauty queen.
***Girls that impressed me at the Press Junket but disappointed me after the prelims:
USA - I loved Nia Sanchez when she competed in Miss USA. But at the Miss Universe prelims, I felt that she has lost that spark that made her win Miss USA. Her red Michael Costello gown is to die for and it fit her like a glove, but I just don't see her making the top 5. Though I could be wrong.
Trinidad & Tobago - I was expecting more from Jevon King. This young woman wowed me at the Press Junket with her eye-catching outfit and regal demeanor, but that white gown she wore at the prelims did not compliment her lovely figure at all. She looked like she was wearing a silk bed sheet. Poor choice for a gown.
Venezuela - Migbellis Castellanos's saving grace is her undeniably beautiful face and the huge support that she receives from the huge Venezuelan population in Doralzuela, er, Doral. But the girl also has the worst physique among the favorite contestants.
So who do I think could be the 63rd Miss Universe? Only 15 semifinalists will be chosen this year to advance to the final round, but this year has become even more competitive than last year; so instead of top 15, we're going to have a Top 20 Critical Beauty favorites, regardless whether or not they performed well during the preliminaries. Please also consider that we don't know how each contestant did during the one-on-one interviews with the preliminary judges, which leaves room for either elimination or advancement.
The Top 20 CB favorites for the 63rd edition of Miss Universe (in random order)
SPAIN - ARGENTINA - MEXICO - COLOMBIA - USA
PUERTO RICO - INDONESIA - SERBIA - UKRAINE - RUSSIA
THAILAND - PHILIPPINES - VENEZUELA - ECUADOR - JAMAICA
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO - INDIA - FRANCE - DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - GUYANA
If you missed the live streaming of the preliminary show, you can watch it on YouTube:
If you missed the live streaming of the preliminary show, you can watch it on YouTube:
By Rafa Delfin / Photo credit: Miss Universe Organization