We left my brother's house in the outskirts of Bangkok by about 5 am. There was an advisory the day before that the gates of the Impact Arena open at 5 am and would be closed by 6:10 am. We arrived at the arena before 6 am, still very dark, and a huge crowd of people were already there. The people were (mostly) dressed to the nines in formal attire -- with more fancy folks tiaras and sashes (conspicuously Thailand and Philippines).
Upon alighting from the car, we immediately recognized Miss Universe 2016 Iris Mittenaere in her reddish gown with a deep plunging neckline! Walking in, we saw Bb. Pilipinas Universe 2011 Shamcey Supsup, still looking mighty fine in her grey gown. There were a couple of past Ms. Thailands were also being interviewed by the media when we were making our way to the ticket gates to gain access into the auditorium itself. All this preliminary people-watching was a lot of fun.
Upon entering the auditorium and finding our seats, we excitedly saw the the X-shaped runway on the main floor, and we took a number photos of it. We were quick to note that we were seating among a big group of Vietnamese fans of, of course, Ms. Vietnam. This was the only other contestant that caught my attention prior to these finals, because of her cool short hairstyle, which she carried with elegance. They would prove to be very actively vocal cheerleaders for their candidate which added to our enjoyment during the show.
While waiting for the show to begin, there was an American preliminary host dressed in a silver suit, a Steve Harvey-lookalike, so some audience members thought he was the real thing. He and his Thai counterpart were trying hard to rouse the audience who seemed to be sluggish because of the early hour. To whet the audience attention even more, they were also giving out Apple products in ticket raffles (but, sigh, our numbers did not get called).
There was a countdown just before airtime, and the audience was asked to cheer loudly as the house lights were dimmed about five seconds before the count hit one. There were traditional drummers in red on the stage and the spotlights focused on them as they banged on their native drums. Pop star Ne-yo began to sing his opening number from within a group of Thai dancers dressed in gold in the middle of the X. All 94 candidates walked on and off one arm of the X stage in their casual wear.
After the song, Steve Harvey, now sporting a gray beard instead of his thick black mustache, came out in his sparkly suit to deliver his opening spiel. He then introduced the panel of pageant analysts plus-sized supermodel Ashley Graham, runway coach Lu Sierra and fashion guru Carson Kressley, whose statements we do not hear in the arena. Since we never heard their commentary at all during the show, I was surprised to read all the backlash against Sierra and Kressley after the show.
Harvey then proceeded to introduced the all-female board of judges. The list this year included two former Ms. Universe winners: Porntip Bui Simon (nee Nakhirunkanok) who won in 1988 as Ms. Thailand, and Michelle McLean, Miss Namibia who won her title in Bangkok in 1992. There were two judges from the Philippines, which was incredible -- world-renowned fashion designer Monique Lhuiller and a lady introduced as an architect and aviation executive Richelle Louise Singson-Michael.
Ms. Philippines and the Top 20
In what seemed to be a new segment of the show, these top 20 girls were given 15 seconds each to individually introduce themselves with their personal messages. Some messages were more memorable and had more impact than others. These were from: Philippines ("It is lack of child support and not poverty that killed dreams."); Vietnam ("From nothing, here I am. I can do it. You can do it!"): Venezuela ("Venezuelans are warriors of love."): and Brazil ("Conserving the Amazon is preserving the life on Earth.").
This segment was followed by a special feature on Angela Ponce, Ms. Spain, the first transgender candidate in Ms. Universe. A video about her controversial journey was shown which ended with her most powerful statement, "I do not need to win Ms. Universe. I only need to be here." Then, Ms. Ponce came out on stage amidst loud applause. The first thing she did was to remove her Ms. Spain sash as if to say that she represented all transgenders with the same dream, representing diversity in the world. Meanwhile, the controversy about trans-women in pageants for women rages on.
The Top 10
Top 10 candidates were then announced. All the first five girls from the first cut were still very much in the race: South Africa, Vietnam. Philippines, Nepal and Thailand. Perennial Ms. Universe favorites went in: Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Canada (the only Caucasian left so she certainly stood out in looks). Costa Rica and Curacao were unexpected surprises in the Top 10. These were the girls who the underwent the Swimsuit and Evening Gown competitions that followed.
Ms. Laos, on their first time to join the pageant, was named Best National Costume. She wore a golden Buddhist figurine costume with two similarly styled puppets in front and behind her. Last year's Ms. Universe Demi Leigh Nel-Peters's advocacy on #Unbreakable because of her horrifying hostage experience. She came out in a white pants suit, which is certainly out of the ordinary.
The Top 5
The Final Five were announced: Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Philippines, South Africa, and Venezuela. The Philippines was a clear standout in the group with her fiery red gown among the silvery gowns of the others. The questions were provided by fellow contestants. Puerto Rico answered a question about freedom of the press. Vietnam's question was about the #MeToo movement. Philippines question was about legalizing marijuana (I did not like the question because it does not lead to a memorable answer.) South Africa was given a question about refugees, which I thought she nailed quite well. Venezuela's question was relatively easy for veteran beauty queens, about the relevance of beauty pageants.
The pace picked up when the Top 3 was announced: Philippines, South Africa and Venezuela. It was very disappointing for me that Vietnam did not make it into the Top 3 because she was the most unique candidate, but those are the breaks of the game. All three were given only one question, and it was: "What is the most important lesson you've learned in your life and how would you apply it to your time as Miss Universe?" Philippines wowed the crowd when she spoke about finding silver linings in adversity. South Africa talked about people wanting to be loved and to belong so we should treat each other that way -- felt too short. Venezuela's answer was about working hard to achieve one's dreams -- felt too generic.
The Top 3
For the final look, Ne-yo serenaded the Top 3 with his 2008 hit song "Miss Independence." The audience was asked to turn on their phone flashlights once Ne-yo starts singing. With the moving backdrop of floating paper lanterns, the collective effect of all the lights within the dark arena was very dramatic and glamorous. From our seats, we can see Philippines gamely dancing to Ne-yo's song off-camera while South Africa and Venezuela were taking their respective walks.
After Demi Leigh Nel-Peters took her final walk, the final verdict was announced. Second runner-up was Miss Venezuela Shtefany Gutierrez. The first runner-up was Miss South Africa Tamaryn Green. Miss Universe 2018 is Catriona Grey of the Philippines!!! She was the fourth Filipina to win the prestigious title. As Pia Wurtzbach thwarted a Colombia back-to-back win in 2015, Catriona prevented a South Africa back-to-back this time around. You can see my video of this crowning moment is posted HERE.
The Crowning Moment
It was ecstatic pandemonium among the Filipino fans in the audience with that announcement and there were a lot of us there. The Filipino celebrations continued outside the auditorium as Pinoys (many proudly wearing the Barong Tagalog or Filipiniana outfits, some wearing sashes with the country's name or Catriona's distinct ear-cuff behind one ear) gathered together to rejoice together. For one moment of united patriotism, we joined in the group singing of the National Anthem to celebrate Catriona Grey's victory. You can see my video of this Filipino celebration posted HERE.
For me, it had been a crazy impulsive decision to go visit my brother in Bangkok to watch the Miss Universe pageant together. However, it turned out to be a most fortuitous one that paid off big time in terms of memorableness because of Miss Philippines' victory.