This year’s Miss Universe 2020 pageant was a lot like this year’s Oscar awards: it started off strong, proceeded with several changes from the usual show, and ended with a headscratcher, if not a downright shocker. It also ran for about three hours.
It was fitting, I suppose. After all, the pageant was held in Hollywood. Sure, it’s just the namesake city in Florida and not the movie industry mecca in Los Angeles, California, but the show did explicitly refer to the “Hollywood glamour” in its spiels.
Here’s how things went down in the 69th edition of the most famous international beauty competition in the world, the universe, rather.
Highlight: The opening statement
The first in many changes that the show made this year was at the very beginning. Eschewing the usual high-energy montage of the candidates or the pageant venue, the show started with the reigning queen, Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa, talking directly to the camera in a pre-recorded video shot inside a hotel room. “Last year, I had plans of changing the world,” she said.
The video then cut to footage of her winning moment in the November 2019 show, followed by several contestants revealing their own individual plans for 2020—pursuing studies, working their dream jobs, volunteering for social work. “But then…” Zozi interrupted, not unlike how Covid-19 interrupted those plans.
After a short montage of news footage about the pandemic, it was back to Zozi. “But when obstacles are placed in your path,” she beamed while standing up from her seat and making her way towards a glass door, “you grab a mask and you help make a difference.”
The video then cut back to the candidates, this time talking about what they found themselves doing in their countries during the pandemic—distributing care packages to poor communities, starting a motivational groups for displaced workers, working as spokesperson for her country’s pandemic task force.
It ended with Zozi, now standing confidently beautiful and triumphant in a veranda high up in the hotel, declaring, “It’s never been more important to take up space, get involved, and make a difference. Although we’re standing six feet apart, we still remain a universe united.”
It was a truly inspired opening. In just about a minute it elegantly encapsulated how the world turned since the previous pageant, and in very personal terms at that. It also cleverly used Zozi’s winning “taking up space” answer from 2019 as a running thread in this year’s competition.
Lowlight: The opening production number
This was the first show since the 2010 pageant that opened with a full-on choreographed dance production number featuring the candidates themselves.
It might have looked good on paper but the execution fell far short of the standard set 11 years ago where the ladies danced to the club hit Commander like, well, lady commanders—slick, sharp, sexy. No fault of the 2020 batch, though. The culprit here was bad stage direction.
Lowlight: The hosts
The show proved that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone. When it was announced in April that the pageant would have new hosts, nobody was exactly clamoring for Steve Harvey to return.
He had been the master of the Universe since 2015 when he made a grand, if infamous entrance in the pageant world with that major blunder during the announcement of winners. But by 2018, his jokes about that incident had already grown stale, even unwelcome.
It was time for a change; his five-year contract with the organization was up anyway.
In April it was announced that Mario Lopez, who had already hosted several pageants, would co-host with former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo. It also did not hurt that they’re both drop dead gorgeous. It sounded like a match made in pageant heaven.
But as soon as they took the stage it was impossible not to wish that it was Steve who’d gone out instead. Another joke about the 2015 debacle would have been more bearable than watching the chemistry-less duo of Mario and Olivia.
To describe their performance as phoning it in would be generous. They just did not try. Olivia, in particular, seemed like she would rather be elsewhere. She was so bad that some viewers including Miss Universe Philippines 2014 MJ Lastimosa, who was in the live audience, brought up Janine Tugonon in their social media posts. “May kakausapin lang kami ni JT ng masinsinan,” she tweeted. Someone on Facebook was more blunt. “Ayusin mo trabaho mo, Olivia. #JusticeForJanineTugonon”
The reference, of course, was Olivia’s surprise victory over Janine in the 2012 pageant where Tugonon was considered, and still is, to have given the best final answer.
Highlight: Thematic video inserts
In the old normal, the Miss Universe shows were beefed up with lots of video interludes or inserts. Most of them showed the activities of the candidates in the days or weeks leading up to the grand finals as well as tourism clips promoting the location of the pageant.
This year’s videos were more winsomely substantial. Each one had a theme or topic on which the candidates spoke their minds and expressed their sentiments—on ambition, bullying, social causes.
One particularly touching video segment featured several pairs of candidates having heart-to-heart conversations about their personal experiences of gender-based inequality and violence. The show also did not shy away from putting the spotlight on a specific candidate at the risk of being charged with favoritism: they devoted one stand-alone video feature on Miss Canada’s recent emotional reunion with her mother after being separated for 21 years.
The videos did not only give the candidates more screen time, they also carried the feministic “taking up space” premised in the opening video throughout the show. This is more like it, Miss Universe.
Lowlight: The audience
The live audience watching the show at the venue is usually a big source of the energy in pageants especially Miss Universe. But there wasn’t much of that this time and that’s simply because there wasn’t as big a crowd as in previous years. That’s obviously due to travel restrictions and other pandemic measures and protocols that are still in place.
Highlight: Zozibini’s farewell look
Zozibini has not made a single fashion misstep from the first time she stepped into the Miss Universe stage as a candidate in 2019 up to her final moments as the reigning queen.
This show saw her garbed in three different gowns. Of course, she saved the best for last—the stunning form-hugging black and white gown she wore for her final walk. It had an eye-catching tribal design that was clear nod to her African tribal roots.
But what’s most notable about the look is what she did and did not wear. Zozi covered her hair in a black head wrap, a white print in the front that completed her tribal look. Doing away with tradition, the Miss Universe crown was missing altogether as she made her final walk. It was one of the biggest welcome surprises in a show filled with quite a number of them. And it proved that a queen doesn’t have to have an actual crown to look very inch a queen.
Lowlight: The results
The Top 5 finalists had two chances to get the judges’ votes. The first one involved each of them answering a question from a fellow candidate, but presented to them by a judge, and the second saw them talking about a social issue they drew randomly from a deck of five.
None of the finalists gave an instantly memorable, quotable quote answer in both rounds, but Miss Peru was largely considered as giving the best responses and was widely predicted to win the crown.
So it came as a major surprise, or even a shock, when she was announced as the second runner-up. The next few moments turned more laughably bizarre when the final two candidates stood far apart from each other in the middle of the stage and lifted their arms towards each other as they awaited the announcement of the winner.
It was a nice touch to have Zozi stand in between them in the background holding the crown, which is dubbed “Power of Unity,” and the distance between Misses Mexico and Brazil was necessary in compliance with Covid-19 protocols but they just looked funny—like any moment red and blue streaks of lightning would come from their hands in a duel straight out of Star Wars.
But then again, they were in “Hollywood.”
Banner photos by Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images/AFP