the day the Philippines conquered the universe

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Gloria Diaz reacts with a euphoric smile as soon as she’s named Miss Universe in Miami, Florida, on July 21 (July 20 US Time), 1969, the first ever Filipina to bring home the coveted crown

Her answer came quick and easy, and she didn’t stammer nor hesitate at all, showing her presence of mind and grace under pressure.

Aboard Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, along with fellow Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, had just landed on the moon (“One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind,” said Armstrong), the first man ever to accomplish that feat, and Miss Universe pageant host Bob Barker, euphoric like every human on earth, read the critical and decisive question to each of the five finalists, four of whom inside a sound-proof cubicle: If the man on the moon should come down to Earth and visit your hometown, what would you do to entertain him?

Unruffled, the 18-year-old petite Bb. Pilipinas-Universe answered, “Why, I guess I would do for him what I always do. Since he has been away on the moon for so long, he would want a change.”

That, among other winning qualities, helped Gloria Diaz clinch for the Philippines its first ever Miss Universe crown (followed four years later, in 1973, by Margie Moran in Greece). Soon after, US Pres. Richard Nixon came for a visit and he mentioned in his speech, “Americawas conquered the moon but the Philippines conquered the universe.”

That was 40 years ago today (July 20 US Time) and history, as far as Filipinos are concerned, will forever put those two earth-shaking milestones — yes, conquests! — in tandem.

But did you know that Gloria first ended in a tie with Miss Finland Harriet Erickson, with 31 votes each? (Miss Finland would finish first runner-up, followed by Miss Australia Joanne Barrett, second runner-up; Miss Israel Chava Levy, third runner-up; and Miss Japan Kikuyo Ohsuka, fourth runner-up)?

Recalled journalist Gloria Garchitorena-Goloy (who chaperoned Gloria Diaz to Miami, Florida, where the 1969 Miss Universe pageant was held) in a series of articles she wrote for the Sunday Times magazine (included in her book At The Crossroads), “Since there could only be one Miss Universe, the judges went into a quick huddle to resolve the deadlock. Voting secretly again, they decided between the two. In the meantime, the ranking of the three other finalists was not divulged until after the judges had come up with the final official list. And they gave Miss Philippines seven votes and Miss Finland, five votes. Gloria Diaz had become Miss Universe of 1969!”

Gloria (in excelsis, according to Quijano de Manila in a glowing Free Press article) came home to a heroine’s welcome. And, as they would say, the rest is history.

“I remember that they were making so much fuss about moon landing,” said Gloria about that “moment in time” in an exclusive interview with Funfare, “and when I thought about it, it came like a deja vu.”

Asked what was on her mind when the crown was placed on her head, the irrepressible Gloria, now a mother of three, said, “You know, it’s funny. I was just telling my children that I realized that I had won only the day when I started to work. I went to sleep very late and the next day, they told me to be up by six o’clock. I wondered, ‘What are they talking about?’ Everything hadn’t sunk in yet. Remember, I was 18 and suddenly I was an adult. Before I knew it, I was signing contracts and all that. Well, I told myself, ‘A, okey, parang picnic!’ And I started to work na. It was only much, much later did I realize how much it would change my life.”

During her one-year reign, what Gloria considered most exciting was meeting heads of states and famous people. “And,” she added with a little wink, “goodlooking guys especially from South America.”

All too suddenly, she found herself on top of the world.

“I was an intern and I had never really met many guys. Suddenly, the whole world was opened for you. You travel and, with the money, you could buy nice dresses. For an 18-year-old, having a new dress is really something.”

And the most unpleasant part?

“I always had to sit with sponsors at dinner every night, instead of go home and watch TV or read magazines…and always having a chaperone.”

How did she feel when relinquished her crown to her successor (Marisol Malaret of Puerto Rico)?

“Right that very minute onstage, I realized that nothing was permanent and that you were really, really replaceable. How can I ever teach that to my children? I don’t know. It’s very hard to have that awakening. As soon as I gave up my crown, I lost my limousine to the new winner. It’s a good thing that my mother had arranged for somebody to take us back to the hotel. They were still very nice to me but I was given 24 hours to vacate my room.

“I guess that’s very interesting because even our presidents go through that. That’s why some of them hang on to power for dear life kasi it’s so nice. During your reign, nothing starts without you and you can kind of take your time. Within one year, you think the world couldn’t go on until you arrived.”

Gloria still has the replica of the Miss U crown but not her trophy which she left at the PAL office at a US airport due to excess poundage.

“I don’t know where it is, San Francisco or L.A. They said they shipped it back but I doubt if they ever did. I don’t know where it is. It’s big, as big as I am.”

Had she not become Miss Universe, what would she have been today?

“You know, I always think about that. Maybe I would have been a champion tennis player or a lawyer making millions. Or a politician. Those were my dreams. Or else I would be a plain housewife with many, many children.”

She has only three.

“Thank God,” she said.

Gloria has become one of the country’s finest actresses with an acting trophy to show for it.

How does she think the Miss Universe competition has changed?
”I could say that during my time, hindi pa uso ang mga retoke-retoke. At that time, I guess nothing was false about the contestants, except their eyelashes. Iba na ang laban ngayon. Everyone seems to be having some part enhanced, even having new boobs…including you-know-who.”

Asked if she would do the same if she were 18 again — you know, join the Bb. Pilipinas pageant and earn the right to compete in the Miss Universe contest, Gloria said, why not?

“It was good while it lasted.”

And a great honor to, you know, conquer the universe.

ricky lo/philstar

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