November 28, 2023
MANILA – The lights dim as two candidates make their way to the center of the stage. They join hands and look at the heavens — praying for their country’s name to be called. Minutes later, destiny calls the new queen to take the spotlight. The crown is placed on her head by her predecessor, as she takes her first walk as Miss Universe. In just a moment, her life is changed forever.
But behind the glitz and glamor, the Miss Universe pageant is never free from controversy. Since its inception in 1952, it has been through a number of OMG, if not vexing, episodes. This year’s pageant in El Salvador was not spared after the Philippines’ bet Michelle Dee was included in the Top 5 of the host country’s Miss Universe Instagram post, which they removed a few minutes later. Dee finished in the Top 10 despite her strong gown competition performance. Miss Universe El Salvador apologized for the gaffe, attributing it a “simple error” for placing Dee in its IG roster too soon even though she was not part of the Top 5.
From dethronement, a wrong coronation, rigging allegations, to reports of bankruptcy, let us look back at some of the biggest controversies in Miss Universe history which pageant fans — especially Filipinos — will never forget.
JKN Global Group files for bankruptcy
JKN Global Group, the Thai media company that owns the Miss Universe Organization (MUO), caused alarm in the pageant community as it filed bankruptcy in an attempt to solve a “liquidity problem.” Despite this, business mogul and owner Anne Jakrajutatip stressed that the 72nd edition pageant is her “first priority” in life and it will go on, which it did.
“JKN Global Group has announced a plan to refinance our debt and rehabilitate our business. While our operating cash is intact and the company will continue to run operations as planned, this is a necessary step in our growth to ensure that our debt is repaid and the company remains financially healthy,” Jakrajutatip said on Instagram.
The controversy stemmed from reports that JKN allegedly failed to repay bonds to investors at approximately $12 million (P670 million) on a deadline — which was imposed by the company itself. It then offered a partial repayment of $4.5 million (P251 million) in principal and interest, bringing down its liability amount.
Miss Universe 2002: Oxana Fedorova was dethroned
Oxana Fedorova of Russia was only 119 days into her reign as Miss Universe 2002 when she was dethroned from her title. Her runner-up Justine Pasek of Panama eventually took over. And even up to this day, some fans are still up in arms about who is the true winner.
Former MUO president Paula Shugart cited Fedorova being “unable to fulfill her duties” and that she “needed to spend a lot of time” in her home country, only for the latter to reveal that she chose to step away from her title after receiving lewd questions during her appearance on The Howard Stern Show, although a clear reason was not disclosed.
Neither Fedorova nor MUO has addressed the issue in a statement since then.
Miss Universe 1996: Donald Trump criticizes Alicia Machado’s weight gain
One of the most notorious incidents of how beauty standards can mentally affect one’s mental health is Donald Trump, who took ownership of the MUO from 1996 to 2015, taunting Miss Universe 1996 Alicia Machado of Venezuela.
Just short of her coronation, Machado reportedly gained 12 pounds which apparently led Trump to call her names such as “Miss Piggy” or “Miss Housekeeping,” in apparent reference to her Venezuelan heritage. She also revealed to the New York Times that the former president called approximately 80 reporters to cover her while exercising.
“I was about to cry at that moment with all the cameras there. I said, ‘I don’t want to do this, Mr. Trump.’ He said, ‘I don’t care,’” she told the New York-based media giant in 2016.
Meanwhile, Trump also appeared unapologetic of his gestures towards Machado in the past, and even referred to her as a “problem” in his 1997 book “The Art of the Comeback.”
“I could just see Alicia Machado, the current Miss Universe, sitting there plumply. God, what problems I had with this woman. First, she wins. Second, she gained fifty pounds. Third, I urge the committee not to fire her. Fourth, I go to the gym with her, in a show of support. Final act: She trashes me in the Washington Post,” he was quoted as saying.
Miss Universe Canada 2012: Jenna Talackova’s gender issues
It can be said that beauty queen Jenna Talackova, who was initially disqualified from Miss Universe Canada due to being a transgender woman, and her feud with Donald Trump became the catalyst for the MUO to lift its ban on transgender contestants in 2012.
Talackova was initially stripped of her dream to compete in a beauty pageant after she was barred by the Miss Universe Canada organization due to her gender history. This, along with Trump saying in a “Good Morning America” interview that she should “focus” on “running up in Canada and seeing how she does” instead. She then sought the help of women’s rights lawyer Gloria Allred to assert her right as a woman qualified for the national tilt.
This move eventually led to Talackova being allowed by the MUO to compete in her home country days later, with the Trump-led organization saying she met the “legal gender recognition requirements of Canada.”
Despite ending her Miss Universe Canada journey in Top 12, Talackova’s battle was a source for transgender candidates to break ground in the pageant. Years later, Angela Ponce represented Spain in Miss Universe 2018, while Rikkie Valerie Kollé of Netherlands and Marina Machete of Portugal competed in 2023.
Miss Universe 1974: Amparo Muñoz’s resignation
The late Amparo Muñoz of Spain may ring a bell for pageant fans, as she gave up her Miss Universe 1974 title six months into her reign. However, she was more known for not fulfilling her responsibilities as the titleholder.
Despite allegedly “refusing a planned [trip] to Japan,” there were no clear reasons for Muñoz’s resignation up to this day. She was a darling among Filipinos back then, so reports of her being “hostile” to pageant staff was among those that fall through the Miss Universe cracks. It was, however, reported that she was “homesick” and that she missed her boyfriend.
After giving up her title, the MUO was apparently left in shambles. Her first runner-up Helen Morgan of Wales couldn’t take over the title because she was crowned as Miss World 1974. On a side note, Morgan was forced to resign her Miss World crown after it was learned that she had an 18-month-old son being looked after by her mother back home.
Muñoz, however, remained as the official winner of Miss Universe 1974, but her successor, Finland’s Anne Marie Pohtamo, was crowned by Miss Universe 1972 Kerry Anne Wells of Australia.
Miss Universe 2015: Steve Harvey’s wrong announcement
Pia Wurtzbach’s coronation in 2015 will forever go down in history as one of the, if not the most, controversial moment in pageant history, as it’s something of a beauty queen’s worst nightmare.
The moment is known by fans all too well, with Ariadna Gutierrez of Colombia being subject to embarrassment and heartbreak after Steve Harvey’s controversial hosting blunder, especially as she was hoping to secure a back-to-back win for her country. But even Wurtzbach did not have it easy back then.
“When I was standing there in the middle, and it was just me and Miss Colombia, I felt genuinely, really genuinely, so bad. How could you celebrate in a moment like this? That’s not how I wanna win. That’s not how anybody wants to win,” Wurtzbach recalled during an interview with Arab entrepreneur Anas Bukhash last August.
Wurtzbach noted that her coronation was not a “celebratory moment” for her, noting how it “feels to lose many times.” “And then [Miss Colombia] losing this way, it doesn’t make you go ‘Yeah, like Philippines, like what?’ There’s a girl standing right beside me who’s humiliated — like it’s not a celebratory moment. Although I felt like the fans were happy, there were also people who were really upset,” she added.
Both women seemingly mended their differences years later, after they reunited at a Paris fashion event in September of this year.
Miss Universe 2018: Misses USA accused of bullying
Videos tell no lies, but they also don’t tell the entire story. Such was the predicament of then Misses Universe candidates Sarah Rose Summers (USA), Franchesca Hung, and Valeria Morales (Colombia) who were accused of bullying Miss Vietnam H’Hen Niê and Miss Cambodia Rern Sinat for not being able to speak fluent English.
In the video, Summers said H’Hen Niê “pretends to know so much English,” and lamenting that Rern does not speak any English, while “not a single person here speaks her language.”
But social media didn’t take kindly to their video, and Summers had to apologize for the issue, saying there was no intention to mock the two Asian candidates. She also posted a picture of herself hugging Rern and H’Hen on Instagram. She said: “My life, friendships, and career revolve around me being a compassionate and empathetic woman. I would never intend to hurt another.”