Pageant Bakla: Memoir of a Filipina beauconera

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Originally posted 2021-05-07 14:28:41.

Many people seem to think that ladyboys are a recent phenomenon, but this is far from true. It’s hard to find older material but I found this story on a Philippines website, from a publication that is now defunct. The name of the author is not known. It gives insight into the ladyboy pageant scene in the country and across south-east Asia, and also reinforces the observation that the ‘gay’ and transgender scenes are closely intertwined.

A pageant can be a small local affair with a stage set up on the back of a truck, or as grandiose as the Miss Tiffany contests, held in Thailand, or Super Syrena, in the Philippines.

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Memoirs of a Pageant Bakla

At 22, when most gays (discreet, screaming or confused) would have settled into their comfort zones, I indulged my inner Aphrodite and unabashedly joined a Miss Gay beauty pageant.

Growing up, I was naturally competitive, maybe because I come from a family of 11 (of eight boys and three girls), and incessantly grab attention anyway I could. I ran in the 200-meter dash and played against the varsity volleyball team (my friends and I, who were undoubtedly better and more creative at scoring, weren’t drafted into the official team of our Jesuit-run high school because, as the priests said, we were not “appropriate” representatives). I won spelling contests against older rivals and was invariably selected for verse choirs, drama fests and interschool whiz-kid competitions.

pageant bakla
Swimsuit portion in the wee hours of the morning in a barangay fiesta in Santa Cruz, Manila.

I am gay, therefore I’m mad (Boy George), or the methods to the madness

The mid-1990s was a crossroads of sorts for Miss Gay contests. The “all-natural” gays (non-operated on contenders) were slowly being supplanted (and defeated) by the surgically enhanced. (They had the unfair advantage.) It was the rise of the Japaneras and the gay prostitutes (those who can endure the torture treatments and afford the procedures to become more feminine), more womanly than real women (and I’m not saying the Pamela Anderson and Anna Nicole Smith science projects) and more modelesque than Linda, Cindy or Tweety (If they weren’t beauconeras, they could easily be drafted to the PBA).

Since they were already earning big bucks abroad, these gays weren’t in it for the money. Like me, it was for the momentary thrill, the sudden rush, the happy conceit that we were (kahit for a night lang) more beautiful than the general population.

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Preparing for a pageant

Because I belonged to the “non-ops,” preparing for a pageant required more lead time — shaving, for a start, the legs, armpits and bikini area (no Brazilian wax then!); and hair and makeup for about two hours, as I would argue with my hair and makeup artist over who I should look like for the night (Claudine Barretto? Ana Roces? Beth Tamayo?)

I don’t have shapely legs, but five layers of stockings would remedy that. Uneven skin tone? Hazel Bishop liquid body foundation is a miracle whip (Hey, bronzers and aerosol tanners were unheard of!). Rolled socks would make for breasts (the right lump para believable na dalagita pa lang), then the right shading on the chest to approximate a cleavage (learned that in Cosmo![Cosmopolitan magazine]).

After all the contraptions were in place, it was time to assume a female persona. All diva attitude, but tempered just so para hindi naman magmukhang drag queen masyado. Then, voila! I am woman.

pageant bakla
Winning Miss Gay Universe 1995 in a barangay in Tondo, Manila.

Hiram na mukha

Truth be told, a gay pageant is immensely more entertaining than a Miss Barangay this or a Mutya ng Purok that. During the Parade of Nations or the introduction phase, when a contestant screams her name as “Anjanette Abayari,” “Nanette Medved,” “Dawn Zulueta,” “Carmi Martin,” “Gloria Romero,” “Teresa Loyzaga,” “Ruffa Gutierrez,” “Carmina Villaroel” or “Phoebe Cates,” it was no empty boast or false claim.

The gays, unnervingly, were indeed the faces they coveted, some even classier and more beautiful. For my part, depending on who did my makeup, I fancied myself as Claudine Barretto or Beth Tamayo or Svetlana, a Soviet beauty. But some would snap back and say I look more like Judy Ann Santos, Daria Ramirez, Anna Capri or Lisa Bonet. Eddie Baddeo, too.

And because I tend to be didactic and scholarly in the question-and-answer portion, I quickly earned the moniker “Loren Legarda.”

pageant bakla
First runner-up to the legendary Coco Artadi, in Camarines Street (now Herrera Street), Santa Cruz, Manila.

No guts, no glory

Having done respectably in the brawns and brains departments, I felt the gnawing urge to find out how I would fare in the beauty arena. And before the ravages of time set in, I decided to take the plunge. But having discerned that I couldn’t possibly take on the great gay beauties of the time, I joined a pageant for first-timers at a forgotten barangay in Tondo, Manila.

Amid the squalor and foreboding sense of danger (completely unfounded), about 20 budding and blossoming beauconeras (beauty contestants) sauntered, sashayed, vamped and emoted on a makeshift stage hurriedly assembled the afternoon before the pageant.

It was a competition for neophytes, loosely meaning, first-timers, also-rans and non-veterans. As Miss Ukraine (“From the land of gymnasts, scientists and ballerinas!”), I gave it my all. All the knowledge I gained growing up watching Miss Universe, Miss World and all minor contests there ever were was put to fabulous use. I borrowed the swimsuit, cocktail dress and long gown of a friend — the legendary beauconera Joanna Roa (think Rita Hayworth and Lala Montelibano on a really good day).

Breaking into the top 10, my self-confidence quadrupled. I knew I could vanquish the competition come the question-and-answer portion. I knew I was articulate, storing at the back of my mind all the quotable quotes on virtually all issues of the day. (I kept a journal like it was my personal beauty bible).

And I knew the remaining finalists were smothered in their own stage fright and asphyxiated by the pressure they inflicted on themselves.

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On a roll

Me? I was on a roll. After blowing away the judges (I think) and the audience with my straight English, breathlessness, perfect pronunciation, politico-style reply to a question on the environment, I was crowned the new Miss Gay Universe 1995 of that unremembered barangay in Tondo.

Did I mention that my friend Joanna sat as a judge in that contest? Oh well, as in all contests in this country, a little “help” doesn’t hurt in achieving your goals. (Rigging’s too heavy a word to describe my triumph, as I honestly think I was regal, smart and radiant that night. Promise!)

Anyway, I somehow proved that my beginner’s luck wasn’t a fluke. I was second runner-up on my second pageant, all the sweeter because I was up against the “veterans,” the gays who have made joining beaucons a “profession.”

In this edition, the winner was a Montecarlo, a member of the “clans,” a group of gays who’ve banded together to form cliques of only the most beautiful and well-prepared. In any contest, chances are if it’s not a Montecarlo who’s crowned, it will be a Ponti, an Artadi or a Sicangco. No one should be presumptuous to apply to be a family member, as it’s by invitation only. Needless to say, I never got such an invite.

Third Pageant

pageant bakla
In evening gown, borrowed from the legendary Mindanaoan beauty Joanna Roa.

My third pageant did a lot for my self-esteem. I snared the top plum. The pageant was held in a depressing excuse of a street in Pampanga, Santa Cruz, Manila. Two or three other contests were just a few blocks away on the same night. Lucky for me, there were no veterans in my corner. For our stage, the barangay hired a 10-wheeler truck and attempted to spruce it up to befit a coronation.

More like an execution, really, as two of my friends who comprised my entourage (any self-respecting beauconera must have at least four — a makeup artist, costume-change assistant, hairdresser, wardrobe mistress) engaged in a catfight with other gay supporters. Apparently, when I did my trademark perfect English routine in the Q&A, the other gays deemed me too pretentious and too high-brow for a barangay-level “fun” event.

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I was too serious, they said. In my defence, my friends (brimming with pride and haughtiness) shot back that contestants should be like me. That a “mere” beaucon should be an avenue for us to change people’s misconceptions about gays and homosexuality, yadda yadda yadda… The other gays couldn’t care less what my friends were blabbing about and a near scuffle resulted. We would have been rendered drop-dead gorgeous had not cooler heads (the tanods) prevailed.

My fourth pageant was at the Faces of the Nineties at the legendary gay bar 690 on Retiro Street, Quezon City (After this, I contemplated retiring. No kidding!). I joined the monthly elimination round, where five winners would advance to the grand event in December. The gig was in-your-face (harap-harapan), meaning you’re at eye level with the judges.

Gays who would otherwise look queenly on a stage (Spotlights and distance will render one flawless, slimmer, taller) would be reduced to mere caricatures on an intimate setting like 690. Unforgiving judges, some ageing beauconeras and fag hags who wouldn’t be fooled easily, can spot your tricks right on.

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As in the real deal, gay pageant is won by the sheer force of a gay’s personality. If there are so many trappings and add-ons — big wigs, big boobs, garish gowns, stupid swimwear (what’s goin’ on down there?), mechanical delivery of replies, you’re a TYG (thank you, girl). I was myself as I could ever be, but more experienced (okay, more beautiful) gays went on to the finals.

The fifth pageant, on the very street where I lived on Severino Reyes in Santa Cruz, Manila, was an amusing episode. Many of my neighbours were incredulous that I was the one onstage competing. I forgot to mention that when I’m not on my malandi mode, my daily look is glasses and tied hair, geeky gay, or manang. Remove the glasses and put on blue contacts, and I’m a different person. I emerged first runner-up.

The next two forays were forgettable, while my eighth was not. It was in Villanueva in Cagayan de Oro City, my hometown. I competed against people I knew so it was a rather tense encounter. As we were trimmed down to the final three, Cris (Ruffa Gutierrez, though more like Imelda Papin), a towering gay, would deliberately step in front of me (a pocket Venus, naks!) so the judges would only notice him.

Undaunted, I would go down from the stage (Provincial venues were most likely at gyms) and stand in front of the judges (Cris couldn’t, because her makeup, while flawless from afar, was filthy up-close). This went on until the final judging. Needless to say, Ruffa won over Claudine.

The story, though, doesn’t end there. Just as we winners (and whiners) were happily morphing backstage into our ordinary selves, a fight suddenly ensued. A huge drunken gay (ostensibly, a fan of mine) punched one of the gay organizers (a dear friend) for supposedly cheating me of victory. Fighting like bulls (and the men that they really were), the two got into a boxing (and screaming) match.

Villanueva is known for its annual gay pageants but that was the first time that violence of that kind visited the place. Fighting for beauty; it was an unforgettable way to end my beauty pursuit.

Beauty and madness

Violence, though, hardly figured in any contest I joined. The worst that ever happened was when a disgruntled contestant, usually someone who won every major special award but wasn’t in the top five because he blew his chances in the Q&A, threatened to hurl his trophies onstage in hopes of disrupting the proceedings. Or when supporters sabotaged the remaining contestants by hiding their things, mangling the gowns or just sour-grapeing backstage to anyone who would sympathize, which would be no one, actually.

The happy finalists invariably said, “Bumawi ka na lang sa susunod na pageant, bakla!” The beauty of a beaucon is that you can always make “bawi” on the next contest, which can be sooner than the next night on the next street.

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Cause celebre

The year 1995 was a good one to join beaucons. Contestants were mostly “colegialas.” We took great pride in somehow “elevating” the “legitimacy” of such pageants because our education meant that we wouldn’t be ridiculed in the Q&A, that any quasi-religious/philosophical situationer and how it can be reconciled with our sexuality would be answered convincingly.

By being onstage, in high heels and long gowns, we may have made great strides in advancing the gay cause of equality and non-discrimination. We have discovered a platform to air our concerns, grievances, gripes and predicaments. Maybe in those few moments in the spotlight, in the throes of adulation, we have changed the misguided notions of some people of gays as predators, deviants and perverts. In that struggle lay our essence, I guess. I hope.

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The pageant Q&A or I need an interpreter!

“If you were to choose a winner for tonight from among your fellow contestants, who will she be and why?” went one of my questions. “I would choose Miss Spain” came my quick reply. (Miss Spain nodded her thanks. I was Miss Portugal.) “Because she embodies all the qualities that one should possess as a beauty queen…” I went on extolling her virtues till kingdom come.

My friends and the other contestants looked at me, horrified, like I was fool. What was I doing? In my arrogance to show off my command of the English thesaurus, my clarity of thought, my confident delivery, I was actually endorsing an opponent!

It was one of those trick questions that left contestants rattled. Eager to impress with a ready reply, we tend to blurt out what comes to mind, unknowingly digging our own grave. I ended up first-runner-up. Yeah, Miss Spain won. Stupid.

Otherwise, it was in the question-and-answer portion that I was always in my best element. If there was a special award for this category, I would be a runaway winner (Ahem! Ahem!). The only special award I ever got was for Miss Friendship. Go figure.

I had this strategy (or temerity) to be intriguing so I could lead the host to ask me questions. It starts with the introduction: “I am no dealer in mysteries. I am no lover of philosophies. But it’s clear enough, ladies and gentlemen, that what is standing in front of you is a VISION! Good evening, my name is (whoever I looked like that night) and I represent UKRA-INEHHHH!!!!”

Now, there weren’t any contestants who would steal the lines of the Vampire Lestat, or was there anyone who would pick an exotic country like a former Soviet republic. I had the host’s interest piqued. The judges and the audience would only hear me speak, so I could create my own advantage. This was the only way I could get noticed over and above the more ravishing, preternaturally pulchritudinous contenders.

Because I was petite and looked delicate (True!), the host would be disbelieving if I said I was already 22. How come? But you look younger, he’d insist. “Well, you don’t have to look your age. You just have to defy it,” I’d shot back. The host was floored. (I got that line from a Revlon ad with Melanie Griffith. Ha ha ha!)

The backlash or what price prestige?

My friends from Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro and University of the Philippines — intellectuals, snobbish and proud — were dismayed at this turn of events in my life. A Miss Gay pageant for them was beneath me, an activity that we should only enjoy watching but never be active participants in! They were horrified and distressed.

Lirio, my best friend in college, admonished: “What are you doing with your life?!” Back then I was in limbo academically, still searching for my purpose in life.

Being a gay beauty queen just wasn’t a “respectable” option for someone of my caliber. Leee, one of my BFF (best friend forever, duh!), though impressed when he caught me “lecturing” at my last contest on the World Bank/International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs and its economic implications, was nevertheless incredulous why I had “to stoop so low” and join a gay beauty contest. Cheap! They all chorused. Their seeming condescension hardly bothered me, though, because when I was called into the winners’ circle, they were the loudest ones to cheer me on!

But before arthritis set in (from wearing five-inch killer heels to augment my height), before my skin broke out into moon craters (from wearing too much cheap makeup) and before becoming a constant TYG, I stopped competing. Like Garbo, I retired while I was still on top.

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The pageant hostess or where do ageing beauty queens go?

As more and more Japaneras and retokadas reigned supreme over the “au naturelles,” I decided that it was time to step down. With five wins over eight pageant attempts, I knew I did fairly well in the beauty sweepstakes. So, the next logical step? Hosting.

Months after my contest-frenzy period, I was tapped to host gay pageants myself. It wasn’t hard to find a smart, witty, confident, beautiful gay. When I did spot her from a myriad candidates, I had the giddy tendency to “guide” her to winning the crown. Unheard of for a host to display such blatant bias, sure, but then, I was always radical.

“Lucy Torres” won for her charms in the two most memorable contests that I hosted. What’s more, she wasn’t “scientific” at all. It was fun turning the tables on the hapless contestants, who would invariably beg me to simplify my rat-tat-tat style of questioning.

It was a beauty contest all right but they knew I had another agenda: To present to the public that beyond all the glitter and gloss was an intelligent gay waiting to be recognized. And applauded.

(Note: This article was written in 2005 for the queer magazine, L, which folded up before this was published. Unearthed recently, the insights, thoughts and shade are vintage 2005.)

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