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12 unforgettable Miss Universe moments through the years

By Paul Rubio Published Jan 10, 2023 4:48 pm Updated Jan 12, 2023 9:35 pm

The 71st Miss Universe is upon us, with our very own Celeste Cortesi vying for the crown.

Die-hard pageant enthusiasts already excited for this year’s coronation night, which will happen on Saturday, January 14 (Sunday morning, January 15, Philippine time). But there’s a special reason why fans are excited for this year’s pageant, as this will be the first edition of the Miss Universe pageant to be held under new owner, Thailand-based conglomerate JKN Global Group.

How will the new ownership change the decades-old Miss Universe pageant? We’ll find out soon enough. But here’s what we can count on: Miss Universe will likely provide memorable unforgettable moments that pageant fans—especially Filipinos—will talk about for years, ready to be dusted off every time the pageant comes up in the zeitgeist 

Now, while we wait for the pageant, let’s jump back into Miss Universes past with these 12 moments that will forever live on.

Miriam Quiambao of the Philippines slips and falls onstage, Miss Universe 1999
miriam quiambao, miss unvierse

It was the fall that was heard around the world. 24 years ago, at the preliminaries of the 48th Miss Universe competition in Trinidad and Tobago, our own Miriam Quiambao took quite a spill during the evening gown competition. Her heel got caught on the hem of her dress, making her slip and fall onto the stage floor. But as queens do, she picks herself back up and continues on with her walk gracefully, to much applause from the live audience.

This stumble proved to be a blessing in disguise for the then 23-year old Quiambao, who became a crowd favorite and went on to finish first runner up. Upon returning home to the Philippines, she found herself an instant celebrity. She hosted various programs for GMA including their morning show Unang Hirit, Extra, Extra, and Extra Challenge.

Russia’s Oxana Fedorova gets dethroned four months into her reign, Miss Universe 2002 
oxana fedorova, miss universe

Every self respecting superfan can recite the sentence “If for any reason the new Miss Universe cannot fulfill her duties, the first runner up will take over.” in their sleep.

Ubiquity aside, this protocol has only been invoked once in the 70 year history of the pageant. Miss Universe 2002 Oxana Federova was 119 days into her reign when it was announced that she would be stripped of the title. Her first runner up, Justine Pasek of Panama took over her reign.

While the reason behind her dethronement was never officially revealed, there were many rumors and theories as to why, like getting pregnant during her reign (which she denied), and disagreements with the Miss Universe Organization. In a later interview, she stated that she decided to decline performing her duties due to lewd questions that she was asked while on The Howard Stern Show which she said the organization never warned her of. After her dethronement, she went on to have an entertainment career in her native Russia. 

Venezuela makes history for winning back to back crowns, Miss Universe 2008-2009 

Miss Universe 2009’s crowning is one of the most joyful crowning moments in all editions of the pageant. It was the first time that a country has won two consecutive titles, with Venezuela’s Dayana Mendoza passing on the crown to her compatriot, Stefanía Fernández. The two Venezuelan queens’ giddy embrace as they jumped up and down in happiness (they even dropped the crown in the process) is a moment that made the South American country the ultimate pageant powerhouse. 

The 56th Miss Universe pageant was marred by protests, Miss Universe 2007

2007 was a chaotic year for Miss Universe—and right at the bull’s eye center of all that chaos was Miss USA Rachel Smith.

All throughout the pageant festivities, she has been greeted repeatedly by loud boos from the audience. It was nothing personal, though–the boos had less to do with her than it did with the very tense relationship the USA has with the host country, Mexico. It didn’t help that she slipped and fell on her bottom in the evening gown competition, but she still managed to eke out a fourth runner up finish (Japan’s Riyo Mori won the crown that year).

The challenges did not end there: Sweden’s representative Isabel Lestapier Winqvist unexpectedly pulled out of the competition because of growing complaints in her country that beauty pageants degrade women; Misses Malaysia and Indonesia got into a bit of a scuffle about their national costumes, with Miss Malaysia alleging that her consume and Miss Indonesia’s were the same (Indonesia still won Best in National Costume); and lastly, Miss Mexico was ordered to change her national costume because people found the scenes of rebellion depicted in her skirt to be in poor taste and inappropriate. What a year. 

Alicia Machado vs Donald Trump, Miss Universe 1995
Miss Universe 1996 Alicia Machado, Miss USA 1997 Brook Lee, Donald Trump, and Miss Teen USA, Christie Woods

Alicia Machado’s whole reign as Miss Universe in 1995 is the perfect example of the terrible way women are being treated even when placed on a pedestal. It was during her reign that Donald Trump took ownership of the pageant, and the way she was treated was indicative of the misogyny that he would often be accused of in the future.

During her time as Miss Universe, Alicia gained roughly 12 pounds, which attracted a lot of negative media attention. Trump’s solution? Inviting 80 reporters to observe her while exercising, against her protests.

“I was about to cry in that moment with all the cameras there. I said, ‘I don’t want to do this, Mr. Trump.’ He said, ‘I don’t care,'” she told the New York Times in 2016.

That year, when Trump was running for the US presidency, she decided to join his opponent Hillary Clinton's campaign and speak out against him. She alleged that during her time as Miss Universe, he would call her derogatory things like “Miss Housekeeping” because of her Hispanic roots and “Miss Piggy” because of the weight gain.

Miss USA Brook Lee wins the crown with the most awesome pageant answer ever, Miss Universe 1997 

If 'going viral' is a thing that happened to pop culture back in 1997, then Brook Lee's answer to the final question at the Miss Universe competition in Miami would for sure be a top trending topic for days on end. And not for the unfortunate reasons many pageant answers make the rounds on social media these days.

All three finalists were asked the same question, "If there were no rules in your life for one day and you could be outrageous, what would you do?" Brook's response: "I would eat everything in the world. You do not understand. I WOULD EAT EVERYTHING, TWICE!"

Host George Hamilton and the entire audience roared with raucous laughter and applause. This was the moment that won her the crown. Many Miss Universe winners have given memorable answers, like India's Sushmita Sen and Lara Dutta, and our own Catriona Gray and Pia Wurtzbach, but Brook Lee's stand out all the more for its surprise wit, humor, authenticity and relatability. As the kids these days would say, we stan. 

Venus Raj's final answer scores major, major attention for the wrong reasons, Miss Universe 2010 

On the other side of the spectrum, Miss Universe Philippines 2010 Venus Raj's answer lives on in infamy. Our tall and dusky candidate was a clear favorite among the fans and the media leading up to the finals night in Las Vegas. The then 22 year old breezed through the swimsuit and evening gown rounds, securing for herself a place in the final five.

And then came the question and answer portion. Judge William Baldwin asked Venus "What is one big mistake that you've made in your life, and what did you do to make it right?" to which she replied, "You know what, sir? In my 22 years of existence, I can say there is nothing major, major, I mean, problem that I have done in my life."

Venus ended up as the fourth runner up and major media outlets at the time ran away with this story, often referencing the incident more prominently than the eventual win of Mexico's Ximena Navarrete. To be fair to her, it was a very difficult question to answer in the moment. She had the last laugh, though. While she failed to get the crown, she came home to a hero’s welcome, and she used her raised profile to jumpstart a career as a television host.

Her runner up placement signaled the start of the unbroken decade long run of the Philippines entering the Miss Universe semi-finals that culminated in Rabiya Mateo’s top 21 finish at the 2020 edition. 

Video of Filipino fans’ reactions to Venus Raj becomes a massive viral hit, Miss Universe 2010

It’s not a secret that pageant fandom is a force to reckon with. Although their thorough capacity to rally behind their respective girls is legendary, there are many instances that the competition among the fans turn the message boards and comments sections into toxic dumps of hate and sometimes even xenophobia. That is why the unbridled joy coursing through the above YouTube video uploaded by Lex Librea is so infectious.

It features Librea, Martin Bautista, Veejay Floresca, and Aleq Africa—four friends and pageant fanatics—as they react to the top 15 announcement at the 2010 Miss Universe finals. This is a prime example of the good side of the pageant fan culture: they applaud everytime a country gets called–none of the booing and name-calling that some pageant fans exhibit. But what is absolutely the high point of the clip is how EVERYTHING WENT NUTS after host Bret Michaels announced the Philippines’ Venus Raj as part of the top 15. There was shrieking, bed-jumping, more shrieking, hugs, some more shrieking, and finally happy, happy tears.

The video serves as proof that if for nothing else, beauty pageants do serve a grand purpose: to make people happy. 

Miss Universe was almost a casualty of Donald Trump’s presidential run, Miss Universe 2015 

Erstwhile former US president Donald Trump has always had a... let's just say problematic way with women. So the fact that he owned what is arguably the biggest international pageant system has always been something that didn’t sit right with many people.

Over the years, whispers of his various improprieties and general creepiness has always been part of the chatter around Miss Universe. And it wasn't like he was trying to hide it; he often bragged about it in various interviews over the years.

Allegations of him entering contestants’ dressing rooms while they were in various states of undress (some of the girls were teens at the time) were made public when he announced his presidential run in 2015. While this caused a major stink at the time, it was ironically not what forced his hand to give up the ownership of the Miss Universe Organization.

Over the course of his presidential campaign, Trump has repeatedly made controversial comments about illegal immigrants crossing the US border from Mexico. These comments were understandably met with negative reactions, forcing several companies to cut business ties with Trump. Among these companies is NBC, which has been the long time broadcaster of the pageant (as well as Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, who also fall under the banner of the MUO).

There was also major blowback from the pageant community itself, with many demanding that he relinquish his stake in the company. Mexico even announced that they will not send a delegate in the upcoming pageant in protest of Trump’s campaign statements.

All of this left Trump with no choice but to buy out NBC’s stake in the company, which made him the sole owner. He then sold the whole company to global management corporation WME/IMG, and with that, his 19-year hold on Miss Universe has ended. WME/IMG, however, sold the Miss Universe Organization to JKN Global Group last October 2022.

Catriona Gray, the game changer, Miss Universe 2018 

Catriona Gray’s exceptional showing while competing for the crown in the 2018 edition is now considered by many to be the gold standard in pageantry. Even before the competition started, all eyes were on her because of her winning performance in Binibining Pilipinas, as well as her top 5 finish at the Miss World 2016 competition. And from the moment she stepped foot in Bangkok for the pageant, she has consistently served an impeccable balance of all the things that people look for in a Miss Universe.

Catriona is undeniably beautiful, and with a figure few women can even dare to dream of, to boot. But it’s her wit, intelligence, and warmth that set her apart from her competition. Add to that a killer runway "Lava Walk" that made fans of even the biggest names in fashion (like Tyra Banks), a stunning finals gown that also made the headlines, and thoughtful answers that showcase both her brains and heart, and well, it was game over.

When Steve Harvey announced her as the new Miss Universe, the yardstick to which beauty queens are judged against up to this day was born. She is the ultimate picture of the modern Miss Universe and will continue to inspire hopefuls for a very long time. 

Spain’s Angela Ponce becomes the first transgender woman to compete, Miss Universe 2018
Angela ponce, miss universe

Spain’s Angela Ponce also made history on the 2018 pageant as the first openly transgender woman to compete for the Miss Universe crown.

The conversation about whether transgender women should be accomodated in beauty pageants traditionally tailored for ‘natural born’ women has been a hot button issue for many years. In 2012, a significant headway towards tolerance was achieved when openly transgender Jenna Talackova successfully waged a legal battle for the right to compete at the Miss Universe Canada pageant. While she didn’t advance past the top 12 cut in the competition, she set a precedent for Ponce, who competed and won in Miss Universe Spain six years after.

During the Miss Universe competition in Bangkok, Angela was a crowd favorite; and while she did not place in the competition, she was honored in an emotional segment of the show celebrating her milestone participation. To this date, she is still the only openly transgender woman to have competed in any major international beauty pageant. 

Steve Harvey and the winner announcement of our collective nightmares, Miss Universe 2016

Everything mentioned above in this list is pretty much a pre-game that leads us to this, the mother of all major Miss Universe moments.

WME/IMG, the new owner of the Miss Universe Organization, has just signed a multi-year deal with American comedian Steve Harvey to host the Miss Universe telecast. Everything went smoothly in his first hosting gig. Except at the end of the show, when everything went horribly wrong.

After announcing Miss USA Olivia Jordan as the second runner up, Steve, in front of a nervous and excited crowd waiting with the last two women standing, Philippines’ Pia Wurtzbach and Colombia’s Ariadna Gutierrez, said these famous last words before the trainwreck that is to follow: “And the new Miss Universe is… COLOMBIA!”

All is well and good. Outgoing Miss Universe Paulina Vega, also from Colombia, crowned her compatriot and successor, ecstatic for their back to back win, a feat achieved only once before, by Venezuela in 2008-2009. Not even two minutes later, as Ariadna is taking her first walk as Miss Universe, Steve shuffles back on stage.

"I have to apologize," he began before taking a long and awkward pause. "The first runner up is Colombia ... Miss Philippines, take your first walk as Miss Universe."

What comes next is perhaps the most painfully awkward moment ever filmed in any beauty pageant; it is a moment that is etched into our collective consciousness that we don’t even need to continue telling you what happens next. We’ve all seen it once or twice or maybe 15 times. It was the giant flub that led to what Steve said in a recent podcast conversation with Kevin Hart is “the worst week of his life.”

After the smoke cleared, Steve made amends with both women, in separate episodes of his US syndicated talk show. He has also hosted the Miss Universe competition four more times after, thankfully with zero major announcement blunders.

In 2022, he ended his contract with Miss Universe and will no longer host the upcoming pageants. He will be replaced by Olivia Culpo and Jeannie Mae Jenkins for the 71st Miss Universe pageant.