LAS VEGAS—A 20-year-old self-described “cellist-nerd” brought the Miss Universe crown back to the United States for the first time in more than a decade, and a beauty from the Philippines won first runner-up honors in a pageant where the world’s most beautiful women paraded in bikinis and ball gowns.
Olivia Culpo, a Boston University sophomore, beat 88 other beauty queens to take the title from Leila Lopes of Angola during the two-hour televised competition on Wednesday (Thursday morning in Manila) at the Planet Hollywood casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
Miss Philippines Janine Tugonon, a 23-year-old licensed pharmacist from Orion, Bataan province, came in second while Miss Venezuela, Irene Sofia Esser Quintero, placed third.
Rounding up the Top 5 were Australia’s Renae Ayris, third runner-up and Brazil’s Gabriela Markus, fourth runner-up.
Tugonon’s first runner-up finish marked the third straight year that the Philippines finished in the pageant’s Top 5. Last year’s representative, Shamcey Supsup, placed fourth, while Venus Raj finished fifth in 2010.
In Manila, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said that by winning first runner-up honors, Tugonon “held up the country’s banner and showed the world, once again, the grace, sophistication and beauty that Filipinas possess.”
“We find even more proof of the exceptional characteristics of Filipinas and Filipinos to be truly world-class,” Valte said.
Vice President Jejomar Binay said Tugonon’s runner-up honors represented a “triumph for the Filipino people.”
During the final round, the final five contestants answered questions from the judges, whose names they picked from a bowl.
The 20-year-old Culpo drew the name of 2010 Miss Universe Ximena Navarrete from Mexico, who asked if she had done anything she regretted.
Culpo replied: “I’d like to start off by saying that every experience no matter what it is, good or bad, you’ll learn from it. That’s life. But something I’ve done I’ve regretted is probably picking on my siblings growing up because you appreciate them so much more as you grow older.”
Tugonon picked noted fashion photographer Nigel Barker, who asked if it should be a prerequisite for a Miss Universe, as an international ambassador, to speak English.
“For me, being Miss Universe is not about knowing how to speak a specific language,” Tugonon said. “It’s about being able to influence and inspire other people. So whatever language you have, as long as your heart is to serve and you have a strong mind to show to people, then you can be Miss Universe.”
An article posted on the website of E! Entertainment channel cited Tugonon’s response as the “best answer,” saying, “Miss Philippines did an exceptional job with her question.”
Culpo, the middle child of five, wore a tight navy blue minidress with a sequined bodice as she walked on stage for the competition’s opening number. Later in the night, she strutted in a purple and blue bikini, and donned a wintery red velvet gown with a plunging neckline.
Culpo’s dangerously low neck line drew flak from some pageant followers on the Internet.
Tugonon wore a powder blue gown in shimmery fabric, whose electric pleated bottom portion vaguely showed what appeared to be her underpants. The overlapping sheer fabric on the bodice also concealed her svelte figure while the silvery floral accents, fans noted, looked like Christmas ornaments.
Her gown was made by Colombian designer Alfredo Barraza.
Culpo’s coronation ended a long losing spell for the US in the competition co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC. An American had not won the crown since Brook Lee won the title in 1997.
Culpo was good enough during preliminary competitions to be chosen as one of the 16 semifinalists who moved on to compete in the pageant’s finale. Her bid lasted through swimsuit, evening wear and interview competitions that saw cuts after each round.
She won over the judges, even after tripping slightly during the evening gown competition. Telecasters pointed it out but also noted her poised recovery.
Childhood in Bataan
In Orion, where Tugonon grew up, townmates remember her as a sweet-talking child who loved to play with other children.
Annie Gervacio, 48, of Barangay (village) Puting-Buhangin, said people were ecstatic at Tugonon’s feat.
“She was a classmate of my niece and we heard good things about Janine even when she was still in elementary school,” Gervacio said
Miriam Quiambao lauded Tugonon’s impressive performance.
“Janine did great and she even nailed the last question,” she said in a text message to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “Perhaps it was a very close fight between her and Miss USA. [Janine] gave her best and we are proud of her.”
Another internationally recognized Filipino beauty, 2010 Miss Cosmopolitan International Barbie Salvador, said she was impressed with Tugonon’s overall performance. “She couldn’t have done any better,” she said.
The Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc., which organizes the annual Binibining Pilipinas pageant where the country’s official representative to the Miss Universe is selected, congratulated Tugonon for her accomplishment.
“Just like Shamcey, Venus and Miriam, Janine showed the world the Filipina’s innate beauty, substance and elegance. Janine’s achievement mirrors her earnest preparations for the past seven months and determination to win,” the organization said in a statement.
Tessa Mangahas, publicity manager of the pageant’s parent company, Araneta Group, said that if Supsup raised the bar last year, “Janine raised it even higher this year.”
Ali Forbes, second runner-up in this year’s Binibining Pilipinas pageant, cited Tugonon’s dedication and sacrifice for her remarkable performance.
“I trained together with Janine and I personally witnessed how she worked hard for seven months. We saw her transform into the queen that she is right now,” Forbes said.
Gown blamed for loss
Online message boards devoted to pageants were abuzz with comments about the pageant’s results.
Remarks from not a few netizens protested the outcome and said the Filipino beauty should have won the pageant. Some were disappointed with the evening gown she wore and blamed the garment for Tugonon’s loss to Culpo.
The pageant was beamed live to more than 100 countries.
Tugonon is expected to arrive in Manila on Saturday. Reports from AP; Armin Adina, Michael Lim Ubac and Tarra Quismundo in Manila; and Greg Refraccion, Inquirer Central Luzon