Bullying in beauty pageants—and how

Don’t be deceived by the long lashes, perfectly coiffed hair and sparkly gowns

Flashback to December 2015—Miss Philippines Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach is stunned as she is called back to the stage to be crowned 2015 Miss Universe in Las Vegas, Nevada. Miss Colombia Ariadna Gutierrez had just been crowned winner but host Steve Harvey made a mistake reading the card. (Reuters/Steve Marcus)

In almost every generation, there is a coming of age movie that highlights the culture of bullying in everyone’s childhood—movies like “The Karate Kid,Heathers” and “Mean Girls”. These are all feel-good movies where the lead triumphs over the bullies in the end.

Time was when bullying was handled between the school, the parties involved and their parents. In recent years, bullying has taken center stage. Huge social media campaigns, celebrities and other public figures have taken up the fight to stop bullying.

Former Miss Universe Paulina Vega, center, takes the flowers, crown and sash from Miss Colombia Ariadna Gutierrez, to give them to Miss Philippines Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach during the pageant in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The beauty pageant world has been one of its loudest voices, through the efforts of numerous beauty queens and candidates who have taken up this advocacy. Their effort is not only to spread the message to stop bullying but also to let the victims know they are not alone. Beauty pageant candidates have shed the “Miss Perfect” stereotype to share their struggles and stories that young people can relate to. Many find it hard to believe that a woman who obviously hit the it’s-in-the-genes lottery has ever been bullied.

Many share how in their youth, their sudden growth spurts and lanky frames made them stick out like a sore thumb and earned them names like “giraffe” or “stick figure.” They recall how big boobs were not something a teenage girl knew necessarily how to deal with. For years, they felt awkward about their looks, were teased for looking different, and felt they didn’t belong. This resulted in shyness, lack of confidence and social awkwardness.

Many candidates note how they saw pageantry as a way to develop self-confidence and to improve their social skills. They challenge themselves to get out of their comfort zones. This newfound attitude allows them to celebrate and accept themselves for who they are. In return, they often speak their truths and share their stories to motivate and inspire young people.

Pageantry has been used by young women as platform for their advocacies, not just a stepping stone to fame and fortune. This is largely in response to beauty pageant critics who question the relevance of this supposedly archaic tradition and claim that it only glorifies external beauty and objectifies women. Having advocacies gives pageants meaning and depth far beyond themselves.

In the generations that pre-dated social media, bullying could be easily identified because the bully and the victim were face to face. However, today, verbal and social forms of bullying could be launched online by anyone. Beauty pageant candidates are now exposed to this amplified form of bullying from the netizens. False accusations, rumors, inappropriate sexual comments, derogatory remarks, name calling and practically any absurdity that cruel minds can come up with could be hurled at beauty pageant aspirants.

In recent years, the cyberbullying of beauty queens and pageant candidates has intensified—none more so than in the case of the controversial crowning of Miss Universe 2015. Through no fault of theirs, despite the pageant host’s admission of mistake after he announced the wrong winner, the Philippines’ Pia Wurtzbach and Colombia’s Ariadna Gutierrez became victims of cyberbullying by fans all over the world. It was even more shocking to see their fellow candidates speak ill of both candidates.

Cyberbullying gives netizens an insurmountable imbalance of power to lambast the queens about their styling, their grammar, their bodies, their personal lives and anything else the netizens fancy. The beauty queens are defenseless against the thousands or millions of anonymous faces. This time, the bully has no face, just a screen with a bunch of comments.

Unfortunately, the very medium that gives the queens the farthest reach is also, at times, a dreaded space to be in. Although they have learned to cope with bullying and have to come accept it is part of the territory, the women admit that at certain moments bullying could still hurt as if it was inflicted by the playground bully from childhood.

It’s feels like a Catch 22 situation for these women. If they respond to the trolls, it fuels these trolls to do more because they succeeded in getting the women’s attention. If the women remain silent, their silence could be mistaken for acquiescence, although an intelligent population should know that fact- and source-checking is key to discerning what one should believe.


Don’t be deceived by the long lashes, perfectly coiffed hair and sparkly gowns. Not every queen is a role model, at least until they mature, transform and take responsibility for their actions. The public sees only a part of the story and is not privy to what happens on the way to the crown and after.  Some beauty candidates could be so obsessed with winning that they forget the very meaning of what it is to be a beauty queen.

We’ve all seen the numerous parodies of backstage sabotaging—superglueing gown zippers, putting glass shards in shoes, hiding makeup. Movies like Miss Congeniality and reality shows depicting the catfights among candidates are familiar. Although it is only among a very small and rare minority, there are some incidents of bullying between the queens/candidates and their teams or camps.

Recent successes of beauty queens who won international titles have catapulted their camps, fashion designers and glam squads into the spotlight. Many young designers or other creatives who want to get exposure aspire to work with beauty queens. They want to belong to the inner circle and the candidate or queen has the power to say if they are in or out. Unfortunately, some queens or candidates use this power to get what they want and oftentimes don’t even realize they exhibit bullying behavior disguised as making empowered decisions. Many of the designers, stylists, hair and make-up artists and photographers choose to remain silent for fear that the seemingly more powerful beauty queen can tarnish their image in the industry.

The tremendous successes of the Philippines in the international pageant arena for the past decade need to be celebrated. They have inspired a generation about the immense beauty and capabilities of the Filipina. At the same time, this power and success must come with an equal amount of humility, decency and grace. Aspiring beauty queens and those in the pageant world must never forget all those years when we were “unplaced.” The beauty of those years is that the country, against all odds, supported and loved each and every candidate during those times. It is precisely this unconditional love that this nation has shown our beauty queens that kept them going until they cemented their place in history.

When it comes to bullying among pageant bloggers and beauty queens/candidates, a distinction must be made between constructive criticism or justified opinion and personal attack or offensive commentary.  Cultural, social, generational differences between the queens/candidates and the bloggers can sometimes be the root cause of the feud or misunderstanding. In other words, the “acceptability” of something depends on who you are talking to. Oftentimes, this is about what is tasteful or disgraceful, what is sexy or too sexy, what is too much or too simple.

In a world of political correctness and the emphasis on buzz words like inclusivity, diversity and empowerment, is there any room for healthy debates or discussions? In the world of pageantry, which is highly subjective, will only praise and positive feedback be acceptable and any dissenting opinions automatically considered as personal attacks or a form of bullying.

Maybe it is time to remind people about the essence of pageantry as expressed in the Miss Universe creed which was used up to 1990 and voiced over by the outgoing queen as the newly crowned winner took her first walk as Miss Universe.

“We, representing the countries of the world in the Miss Universe beauty pageant in order to further the cause of peace, justice and mutual understanding, do solemnly dedicate ourselves to the highest ideals of sportsmanship, friendship and goodwill among all the people of the Universe.”

About author


He is a multi-awarded contributing writer of Rappler and People Asia, web show host of Rappler Talk Entertainment, and a pageant consultant. He was a leading cast member of the reality show “The People’s Queen.” He graduated magna cum laude from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, major in Fashion Design (Los Angeles).

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