Gowns and Armors: 5 Beauty Queens Who Became Activists

FEU Advocate
March 30, 2022 03:46

By Mikaela Anne A. Laxa and Kristine Anjela C. Pablo

Perfect hair, smooth skin, immaculate clothes. A nice smile. Since the dawn of time, these are considered the defining traits of women. Precisely because women are taught to only strive for beauty, "beauty queens are hailed as the ultimate form of women–pretty girls with pacifist views." 

Breaking out of their conventional standard, some beauty queens have progressed past their passive takes on social issues and taken up more liberal ideals. And some have even gone the radical route–taking up arms to fight against oppressive regimes. Stripping their gowns and donning their armors, here are five beauty queens turned activists who proved they can march in the streets just as well as they can walk onstage.

1. Margarita “Maita” Gomez aka Ka Dolor (Miss World Philippines 1967)

To be a beauty queen is more than just bearing a crown. This is exactly what Margarita “Maita'' Gomez did. Known to many as Ka Dolor, she embraced the sense of serving the people. 

Gomez was born on May 23, 1947 in Pangasinan in a well-off family with their hacienda from Tarlac and Pangasinan. She was the eldest of the seven children of Jose C. Gomez and his wife Cecilia. With their high status in society, Gomez had a life like a celebrity. 

From Assumption High School and St. Scholastica’s College, Gomez then went to the University of the Philippines (UP) where she took her pre-medicine college program. 

Gomez embraced fame and even regularly attended Manila society events where Pitoy Moreno, a couturier, and a National Artist, hired Gomez as his model. She also attended a modeling school in Australia where she was selected as one of Manila’s “Five Prettiest.” 

In 1967, she bagged the title of Miss World Philippines. At the age of 20, she represented the country in the Miss World contest held in London. In 1970, she went back to UP where the First Quarter Storm (FQS) fermented, and joined the guerilla movement. FQS was a series of rallies, marches, and leftist unrest as a form of revolt against the Marcos regime.

Joining the underground, Gomez was first in the zone and became part of a propaganda team set in the Quezon-Bicol border area responsible for expansion missions. In there, they exalt educational discussions where she also met her husband Joey Decena. From Nueva Ecija, she was transferred to Central Luzon in 1978. 

She then joined the rebels in the mountain together with her eldest daughter, Melissa, three months before Martial Law was declared by then-President Ferdinard Marcos. Gomez had to leave her husband to continue her cause and formally join the New People’s Army (NPA) in 1972. 

Continuing her journey as a freedom fighter, she became GABRIELA’s co-founder in 1984. GABRIELA advocates for women’s empowerment and walks the talk to amplify the stories of human trafficking victims, embodying Gabriela Silang, where the name of the organization is derived from.

Gomez also lent a hand and became a part of Women for the Ouster of Marcos and Boycott (WOMB) in 1985. In 1986, at the height of the ousting of Marcos Gomez organized Kababaihan para sa Inang Bayan (KAIBA). 

Through organizing progressive groups and amplifying women empowerment, Gomez lived through the narrative of “Turn your back on your class to serve the people.” 

2. Nelia Sancho (The Queen of the Pacific 1981)

Nelia Sancho, like any other beauty queen, was at the peak of her career when she was crowned The Queen of the Pacific in 1971, held in Melbourne Australia. At the local level, she also won the Grand Archon of her sorority award in the University of the Philippines (UP), and a Reserved Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) sponsor. 

Sancho was also a fashion model. Wooed by the public, she can attain whatever she sets her mind to. But breaking the conformity, she found herself in jail together with other detainees four years after her lavish life. Labeled as a communist, her world that was once filled with cheers turned to calls for hunger strikes. 

She was tagged as the Guerilla Queen, which Time Magazine used as their cover page with Sancho dressed in a bikini with guns on her side. Sancho cleared that it was not her. 

She started by joining and participating in demonstrations, then eventually went fully underground as she witnessed the murder of two of her professors in UP at the hands of the military.

Sancho then publicly admitted that she was one of the women who the Japanese soldiers in WWII sexually abused, referred to as comfort women. She was 15. 

Together with 45 Filipino women, they filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government demanding an apology for the abuses. Because of this, she spearheaded Lolas Kampanyeras, a support group anchored to help comfort women. 

Dubbed as the “Queen of the Tolling Masses”, Sancho's turning point was seeing UP professors shoot at her watch without any trial. 

"The issue is not whether you are a communist or not. It's whether you are working for the people or not. For me, that's more important than identifying with any particular ideology." – Nelia Sancho (The Age, 1981)

Like Maita, Sancho was also one of the co-founders of GABRIELA. 

Sancho was arrested in the case of subversion, after her engagement in one of the underground movements in Cagayan de Oro where she was detained for two and a half years from 1976 to 1978.  She was released on humanitarian grounds.

Sancho remains one of the beauty queens who decided to turn her back on her once flashy life, to serve and call for the plight of the masses.

3. Remedios Paraiso aka Kumander Liwayway (Local Beauty Queen in her hometown)

Being the epitome of femininity during her time, Remedios Paraiso was the prized daughter of the former mayor of Mexico, Pampanga. In her early years, she engaged in stereotypical women's activities like playing with makeup, perfumes, dress-making, and dancing. She was even a popular local beauty queen in their town. 

Things changed when the Japanese military entered their hometown in 1942 during World War II, when her father, Basilio Gomez, refused to cooperate. As an act of power play, he was arrested, tortured, and paraded around their town as a warning, then eventually killed. 

Enraged by the blatant act of violence and heartbroken by her father’s death, Remedios joined the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap) which was the known resistance movement that formed during the war. 

She started in the medical team as a nurse, under the code name Kumander Liwayway–meaning“dawn”–and assisted with patching wounds and tending to the sick. With her continued dedication and discipline in the resistance, she was finally given a squadron that was hers to lead.

From then on, Kumander Liwayway, along with her squadron, wreaked havoc among the Japanese soldiers. They ambushed their troops, raided their garrisons, and stopped them from attacking certain areas. 

She became a legend during the Battle of Kamansi, when other squadrons had retreated from the force of the Japanese military, Kumader Liwayway and her troops stayed and fought fearlessly, and they were able to make their enemy retreat. Because of her capability as a leader, her squadron was told to reach 200 men at one point. 

Before entering any battle, she made sure her nails were polished, and would even put on perfume and red lipstick. Remedios Paraiso remains a legend until now–known as the warrior who still embraced her femininity even as she fought in battles to help the Filipinos.

4. Htar Htet Htet (Miss Grand Myanmar 2013)

Making history as being the representative of Myanmar in the first Miss Grand International beauty pageant in Thailand that happened in 2013, Htar Htet Htet was crowned with the Miss Popular Award in the pageant.

About eight years later, she resurfaced on the internet, but instead of the typical full face of make-up and elaborate hairstyles, she can be seen bare-faced, in a bucket hat, with a rifle slung over one shoulder.

When the Myanmar military seized power on February 1, 2021, and ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, many of the citizens of Myanmar fought back. Htar was one of those who joined the ethnic rebels in the jungle of Myanmar’s borders to take up arms against the military junta.

In a Facebook post, she said, “The time has come to fight back. Whether you hold a weapon, pen, keyboard, or donate money to the pro-democracy movement, everyone must do their bit for the revolution to succeed. I will fight back as much as I can. I am ready and prepared to give up everything. I am even ready to pay with my life.”

Htar’s photos reflecting her as a rebel against violent groups, so far from the glamor of orchestrated beauty pageants, show the reality of what women can be. More than just one-sided pacifists, they also have the potential to be fully-fledged warriors.

5. Thuzar Wint Lwin (Miss Universe Myanmar 2020)

Representing Myanmar in the 2020 Miss Universe pageant, Thuzar Wint Lwin placed Top 21 and won the Best National Costume Award, becoming the first Myanmarese to place in the competition. However, this did not come easy for her.

With the strict border protocols surrounding the country, it was almost impossible to hop on a plane and fly to Florida where the pageant would take place. So Thuzar disguised herself in a hoodie and dark sunglasses and sent her costume and props through an international courier.

Though she was able to escape and arrive safely, her costume was not able to make it. In the spirit of communal unity, the Chin community in Florida made her a costume in the image of their traditional dress.

Using her platform that allowed her to directly speak to a global audience, Thuzar utilized precious air time as she called attention to the conflict. “Our people are dying and being shot by the military every day. Therefore, I would like to urge everyone to speak out about Myanmar,” she said.

Wearing the costume made by the Chin community, Thuzar bagged the Best National Costume award as she walked onstage in the traditional dress from the besieged Chin ethnic minority, holding up a banner with the words “Pray for Myanmar”. 

Fearlessly facing and braving obstacles she encountered as she strived to fight for her country, Thuzar proved that there is no limit to nationalism and showed that those with the privilege to speak up should always grab that opportunity. Truly, she deserved the dress that the Chin community sewed for her, which they called the “Fearless Empress”.

Beyond the crown, these beauty queens resonated their purpose not only with beauty but with a heart. Despite the shackles of continued oppression and tales of “Babae ka lang”, they have crusaded and proved that beauty and strength are not mutually exclusive traits. 

Nationalistic. Fearless. Advocate – they are the women of revolution. As GABRIELA'S popular call to action goes, “Babae, ang lugar mo ay sa pakikibaka!” 

(Illustration by Shiena Sanchez/ FEU Advocate)


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