R’Bonney Gabriel was crowned Miss Universe 2022 at the New Orleans Convention Center on January 14, 2023. She is the ninth Miss USA to be so honored.
With a bearing reminiscent of a young Audrey Hepburn, at the press conference following the contest, Gabriel, after what must have been a very long day, was absolutely gracious as she answered each question from the media in a poised, thoughtful manner.
Asked what she was feeling just then, she replied “It’s the best feeling in the world. It’s been very challenging. There were ups and downs. But no one can take away your purpose.”
Among those purposes is to bring into the spotlight such issues as child labor, low wages, and sustainable materials. As a fashion designer, Gabriel is well-poised to do so.
For Gabriel, it had been a three-year journey to this point. She was a runner-up for Miss Texas 2020, then came in 1st Runner-Up in the Miss Texas 2021 pageant at which point she thought she had aged out. When she learned that she hadn’t, she tried one more time and won Miss Texas, followed by Miss USA and Miss Universe.
Gabriel is the first Miss USA of Filipino descent as her father was born in the Philippines and is from Manila. At the press conference she spoke in Tagalog and commented “Philippine blood is so strong.” After Miss Philippines did not advance to the semifinals for the first time in 12 years, Gabriel’s win must have been some consolation to the many Filipinos in the Convention Center audience and watching the competition on television as, apparently, the Philippines is a pageant-crazed nation.
At 28, Gabriel is the oldest entrant to be crowned. Miss Universe. Understandably, when she was asked in one of the final rounds what she would change in the pageant, she answered, without any hesitation, that she would increase the age limit. It will be interesting to see if she’ll be able to do so.
In response to another question, Gabriel observed, “This is surreal…I could barely hear them announce my name and had kind of a delayed reaction.” She wasn’t just saying that as it was clear that it took a few seconds for her win to sink in.
Gabriel quickly became grounded, however, and after commenting that she had had a chance to get to know Miss Ukraine, forcefully said that “UN nations must call on each other [to stop the war] as we must not have democracy be attacked in Ukraine.”
Earlier during the press conference, Thai transgender business tycoon Chakrapong Anne Chakrajutathib spoke about empowering women. She is the first female owner of the Miss Universe pageant.
The evening opened with a lively musical performance featuring local favorites Amanda Shaw, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and Big Freedia who was one of the judges as well.
In addition to Miss USA, the other semi-finalists, who competed in evening gown and swimsuit/hand-painted cape competitions, were Miss Australia, Miss Canada, Miss Colombia, Miss Curaçao, Miss Dominican Republic, Miss Haiti, Miss India, Miss Peru, Miss Portugal, Miss Puerto Rico, Miss South Africa, Miss Spain, Miss Trinidad and Tobago, Miss Venezuela, and Miss Laos who was voted into the Top 16 by viewers, the first time that Miss Laos has ever made it to the semi-finals.
Making it into the Top 5 were Miss Curaçao, Miss Dominican Republic, Miss Puerto Rico, and Miss Venezuela. I was impressed with Miss Dominican Republic’s response to her question asking her what she would advise the head of her country to do; she emphatically declared that “more education” was needed for all. The judges must have likewise been impressed as she was named 2nd Runner-Up, while Miss Venezuela became the 1st Runner-Up.
In a somewhat unusual move, two women were named Miss Congeniality, Miss Chile and Miss Malta. Both seemed lovely.
After a fulfilling year, Miss Universe 2021, Miss India Harnaaz Sandhu, gave up her crown. She commented that, sadly, the biggest problem of her reign was cyber-bullying; Miss Universe 2012, Miss USA Olivia Culpo, who was one of the evening’s hosts, concurred.
Earlier in the week, I had the pleasure of attending the Mayor’s Reception for all the contestants at Gallier Hall. After all 84 women paraded in, I was able to chat with some of them including Miss Armenia who turned out to be a 2019 graduate of Bentley College, outside of Boston, where the father of a friend of mine had been President for many years. My friend’s family is of Armenian descent and Miss Armenia, who grew up both in Armenia and the US, commented that it was nice see names around the campus that were similar to her own. Small universe, eh?