Miss Universe is on!

In Photo: Miss Australia Caris Tiivel, Miss Indonesia Kezia Warouw, Miss Japan Sari Nakazawa, Miss Korea Jenny Kim, Miss Malaysia Kiran Jassal, Miss Myanmar Htet Htet Htun, Miss New Zealand Tania Pauline Dawson, Miss Philippines Maxine Medina, Miss Thailand Chalita Suansane, Miss Vietnam Dang Thi Le Hang and Miss USA Deshauna Barber flank Miss Universe 2015 Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach for the kickoff event of the 65th Miss Universe Competition on January 30, 2017.

miss charlizePAGEANT fans—this one included—couldn’t hide their hysteria as 10 candidates from the Asia-Pacific region arrived in the country for the kickoff ceremony of the 65th Miss Universe Competition at the swank S Maison Mall at the Mall of Asia Complex.

With Miss Philippines Universe Maxine Medina, 26, as their host, the candidates will enjoy first dibs at experiencing the much-heralded hospitality of Filipinos as they take a whirlwind tour of Cebu, Manila and Siargao for prepublicity promos for the pageant. Their early presence gives them a chance to endear themselves to fans ahead of their 80 other competitors.

The kickoff event was hosted by Wilson Tieng of Solar Entertainment, the largest provider and content operator in Southeast Asia that will be the official local media partner. At the event were Tourism Secretary Wanda Corazon T.  Teo and Tourism Undersecretary Kat de Castro, with partners Okada Manila, SM Lifestyle Entertainment Corp., Philippine Airlines, San Miguel Corp., Jpark Island Resort and Waterworld Cebu, and the Hotel & Restaurant Association of Baguio, Rep. Joey S. Salceda of Albay and beneficiary Pass It Forward.

“Tonight we officially kickoff the Miss Universe Competition being hosted in the Philippines next year. Let us then give ourselves a salute and a big round of applause that we have come this far—we are now just a few weeks closer to the final show, the coronation on January 30, 2017, at the Mall of Asia Arena,” declared former Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson of the LCS Group, the major mover among the sponsors of the pageant. “Soon the country will occupy the global centerstage, as more than half-a-billion Miss Universe fans and supporters watch us in over 190 countries and territories in the entire world.”

Paula Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) who has a Pinoy fanbase of her own, was equally enthusiastic. “I love the Philippines! I want to thank you for what you’ve done to the MUO over the years. This is a dream come true not just for Pia; it’s also a dream come true for me. We have 11 candidates tonight. Imagine in over a month, we’re gonna have 90 contestants from all around the world. Come January 30, here, everyone is going to know about the Philippines.”

The first to arrive at Friday dawn was Tania Pauline Dawson, 23, an actress, singer, teacher and model who won Miss New Zealand 2016. She has Pinay blood and wishes to be the second Miss U from her country after Lorraine Downs in 1983.

Deshauna Barber, 27, a lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve, arrived on Friday morning. She is Miss USA 2016 and was crowned by Olivia Jordan, who will host the pageant along with Steve Harvey and Joey Mead King.

Jenny Kim, 23, is a South Korean model who was Miss World Korea 2015 first runner-up and was appointed Miss Universe Korea 2016 by Park Jeong-ah, national director of Miss Universe Korea.

Caris Tiivel, 23, won Miss Universe Australia 2016 on her second try. She will try to better the feat of her predecessor, Monika Radulovic, who was fourth runner-up last year, or third runner-up depending on who you believe between her and Miss France Flora Coquerel.

If she wins, Caris will be the third Australian winner after Kerry Anne Wells in 1972 and Jennifer Hawkins in 2004. In 1994, the second time the pageant was held in Manila, Michelle van Eimeren was a heavy favorite and eventually married singer Ogie Alcasid.

Model Chalita Suansane, 21, is Miss Universe Thailand 2016. Areeya Chumsai, her country’s rep in 1994, was also a crowd darling. Thailand has produced two winners, Apasra Hungsakula in 1965 and Porntip Nakhirunkanok in 1988.

Miss Japan Sari Nakazawa, 23, a model from Shiga, hopes to crack the top 10 like her predecessor Ariana Miyamoto last year, or perhaps win the title like Akiko Kojima in 1959 and Riyo Mori in 2007.

Dang Thi Le Hang, 23, was second runner-up at the 2015 Miss Universe Vietnam pageant and was appointed Miss Universe Vietnam 2016 by Tony Nguyen Quoc Toan, the national director of the Miss Universe Vietnam pageant.

Miss Myanmar Htet Htet Htun, 24, is an actress, TV host and model. She was also Miss Myanmar World 2014 second runner-up. Her country is a relative newbie to the pageant and Htet hopes to make a splash.

Kiran Jassal, 20, is a model who was crowned Miss Universe Malaysia 2016. Her mother was Mrs. Malaysia 2015. She honed her catwalk skills under Malaysian supermodel Amber Chia.

Kezia Warouw, 25, is a model who won Puteri Indonesia 2016. A towering 6 footer, she easily stands out and will be closely watched after the victories of her Puteri batchmates Felicia Hwang (second runner-up at Miss International 2016) and Ariska Putri (Miss Grand International 2016)

Miss China Li Zhenying, 24, arrived on Saturday evening and will join the others on the tour. I thought Miss Singapore, Cheryl Chou, would be joining them, too, but she was a no-show.

Queen Pia, who admits to still being attached to her crown and was “hesitant” to relinquish her title, also welcomed the visiting beauty delegates.

“It’s not only a dream of Paula’s, a dream of the Miss Universe Organization, but also a dream of mine to bring back the competition here, and to show the world how beautiful the Philippines is. And it would really be great if I can finally have a proper walk onstage, in no less than in my home country, of course,” the teary-eyed, but visibly excited, reigning titleholder said.

Image Credits: George Buid

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This writer is a beauty, celebrity and fashion columnist for BusinessMirror, and did fashion editorials and celebrity profiles for D+, its monthly supplement. As much as possible the column, called Tota Pulchra, only deals with the good, the great and the glamorous.

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