The Philippines’ first beauty queen
The Filipino obsession with beauty contests is older than the Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss International and Mutya ng Pilipinas pageants. Our first beauty contests were religious pageants, introduced during the Spanish colonial period: the “Flores de Mayo” that celebrates the Virgin Mary under her numerous titles as lifted from the Litany of Loreto, and the “Santacruzan,” a commemoration of the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena.
Starting as a religious tradition, these evolved into the earliest form of beauty contests in the Philippines. Selected women in a community were ranked according to beauty into “zagalas” or ladies in waiting to an array of queens, each heralded in a procession and building expectation for “Reyna Elena,” considered the most beautiful of them all.
In 1908 the US colonial government established the Manila Carnival to attract foreign tourists and provide the various provinces that participated in it with a venue to promote their agricultural products, arts and crafts. From 1908 to 1925 the Carnival’s highlight was the selection of a Carnival Queen; beginning in 1926 the winner’s title became “Miss Philippines.”
The annual selection of a beauty queen ran until 1939 and was temporarily discontinued during World War II and the Japanese Occupation. The chronology of Philippine beauty queens starts with either Pura Villanueva (Mrs. T.M. Kalaw), the Carnival Queen of 1908, or Anita Noble (Mrs. Juan Nakpil), Miss Philippines of 1926.
Even in terms of beauty queens, nationalist Philippine history records only Villanueva as the first Carnival Queen when actually they were two: the Queen of the Occident, Marjorie Colton, a sister of the customs collector; and the Queen of the Orient, Villanueva. The queens were nominated by the Spanish, American and Filipino communities and the winners were chosen based on coupons printed in and clipped from newspapers and dropped into ballot boxes at: Clarke’s the Olsen Cigar Store, Libreria Colon on Escolta, Agencia Editorial on Carriedo, McCulough’s on Plaza Goiti, or the Manila Carnival offices.
In the canvassing of Dec. 23, 1907, the leading American candidate, a certain Mrs. Jones, garnered 4,169 votes. The leading Filipino candidate, Leonarda Limjap, fourth in the tally, trailed with only 779 votes. To complicate matters, Filipinos gathered at the Teatro de la Comedia and cast their ballots for a Filipino Carnival Queen, Carmen Francia. In the canvassing of Dec. 28, 1907, one Miss Beck took the top spot with 6,647 votes. Filipino candidate Francia, fourth in the list, straggled in with 4,352 votes.
On Jan. 13, 1908, the Carnival committee suspended the election of the Carnival Queen on allegations of an early form of dagdag bawas on the part of some American newspapers, which published four coupons in their issues against only one in the Philippine newspapers. Some coupons came from the newspaper Sentinel, unknown to the established dailies. Despite a 3-hour meeting called by the Carnival committee, nothing was resolved, prompting the Philippine and Spanish newspapers, as well as the candidates, to back out of the contest.
Then as now, the legislature intervened—and not in aid of legislation. After obtaining 39 of the 69 votes cast, Limjap was elected Carnival Queen by the National Assembly. Limjap, 17 and nicknamed “Nena,” was a graduate of Assumption College High School. She took up painting under Fabian de la Rosa and music under Ventura Galvez, played tennis, and was interested in fencing. Coming from a de buena familia, she had “travelled through Europe accompanied only by a French governess.”
Interviewed after her election as Manila Carnival Queen of the Orient, she expressed a desire to get to know the country better by traveling to all the islands in the archipelago.
But toward the end of January 1908, Limjap resigned as Carnival Queen, choosing instead to travel to Japan with the Regidor family! Two weeks later Pura Villanueva was selected Carnival Queen, but she refused the title, insisting on her nomination as Queen of Iloilo. Later, however, she accepted it, and became the Philippines’ first beauty queen.
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