We recently spoke to Bernadette Belle Wu Ong, the 2020 Miss Universe Singapore titleholder, as she prepares for the 69th Miss Universe competition. The competition, which takes place on 16 May 2021, will be held in Florida in the United States.
Ong, born and raised in the Philippines, shares more about how she got started in the pageant industry and gets real on some of the pressures she’s faced while competing.
How did you get into pageantry?
I actually started pageantry when I was in university. I was in SIM-RMIT, and I did [pageantry] recreationally as a way to make new friends. I ended up winning the competition in 2014. I then moved on to work in events, production, and commercial work. This eventually led me to this competition by the Singapore Racecourse centred around pageantry in line with their SIA Cup.
However, these competitions don’t quite compare to Miss Universe. Miss Universe is the creme de la creme in the pageant arena, and the program focuses more on advocacy, you as an individual, and how strong you are as a candidate through your past stories and heuristics.
How did you become a Miss Universe candidate?
It starts with an audition in front of a panel of judges. As part of the process, they’d ask you questions about yourself, your advocacy and all of that is meant to suss you out. They also check out your walk. You’re then shortlisted and made to take on different types of training to improve your photoshoot, makeup, and catwalking skills. In my year, we needed to highlight different parts of Singapore to create content.
What are some of the pressures of being in the pageant circuit in Singapore?
In Singapore, you don’t get a lot of opinions that filter through compared to a very pageant-loving country, and I think that’s where the pressure starts coming through. In Singapore, the pageant arena isn’t as vocal, and the “sash factor” isn’t as strong. Singapore has gone under the radar a bit, and with that, I think it allows the contestants to feel around and explore the whole competition more freely, without having to do everything with a fine-toothed comb.
When I joined, for the most part, it was a lot of fun. Of course, I wanted to win, but it was a lot less pressure [as compared to a country with a bigger sash factor].
A “sash factor” is essentially a term used to describe a country’s reputation in the pageant circuit.
What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learned since competing in Miss Universe?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it’s all collaboration and every single person [that is part of the process] is important. As much as I’m the face for Miss Universe Singapore 2020, at the end of the day, it’s not just going to be about me; it’s going to be about everyone that rallied behind me and the work they’ve put through. It’s also about representing the country right and doing right by the process for future contestants.
How do you rise above a toxic situation that can occur in the pageant circuit?
* On the morning of this interview, Miss Universe Russia 2020 contestant, Alina Sanko, came under fire for posting a racist video making fun of fellow Miss Universe contestants. Belle gives her comments in response to what happened as well.
Regarding the controversy: For the most part, because we have a group chat with all the other contestants, they’re very loving, kind and supportive. So, this is a standalone instance.
On a personal level, if I get attacked based on my looks — because I have been — or anything superficial. I generally don’t have a good tolerance for this sort of behaviour, and it’s especially rife on social media; I think it’s an avenue that people use to filter their opinions, and sometimes it’s unwarranted and to the point of bullying. So when that happens, I cut them off, block them out because I don’t need that sort of energy in my space.
More often than not, toxicity exists outside of the competition, where people still hold traditional opinions about what the pageant industry is like.
Drawing from experiences in Singapore, none of the girls was catty, and everybody was supportive. It’s a lot of fun, actually, and it becomes almost like a sisterhood programme where you meet these girls quite often, and you go through the same challenges and training. More than anything, it’s nice to share that and meet new people in the process.
What sort of advice do you have for women looking to compete in the pageant?
I think pageantry is a programme more than a competition, especially the one in Singapore. When you do it in your country, it feels like a programme, but when you do it internationally, it feels more like a competition, and you have to step up and prove your stake.
From my personal experience, initially, it felt more like a programme. Coming into it, I feel like it allows you to learn more about yourself. Even putting on makeup, they teach you. Some of the girls there, it’s not their background to put makeup on at a professional level, and for me, I needed to do it because I go for castings, but most of them don’t. They either came from a background in engineering, finance or business management, and it’s an eclectic group of people in different professions. So, you don’t have to have known all of these things before coming in, and for a lot of them, it was their first catwalk training.
So, I think, for younger girls, this is a great programme to allow them to step into that. And, it allows girls to harness [their confidence] from within and give them a glimpse of how a real competition is going to be. You shouldn’t have to stress about whether you’re good enough,
Have the judging standards changed, in your opinion?
I think it has changed a lot — especially with social media. And this can be a good or a bad thing because social media allows you to voice out your opinions, especially in a competition like Miss Universe where in the past, you needed to be in the top 20 for them to give you a mike to speak on stage. Now, you can use your own platform. And with a platform like Instagram that proliferates content for the eyes, it definitely creates that bubble that beauty is a significant portion as to whether you get taken seriously or not.
From what I know, watching Miss Universe, [looks] are nowhere as important as how you perform on stage, what your charisma is. And, hearing from past Miss Universe Singapore, it’s been interesting to hear how someone you thought was going to get in, never got in. So, I think it's not as cut-and-dried, where the most beautiful girl gets to be the one that wins or gets placed.
Looks are important, that’s granted, but I wouldn't say that’s the reason you get selected. It’s really about how well you integrate with people, how charismatic you are, and how you perform on stage. And how much fun you’re having and, of course, how strong your story speaks to people.
Growing up, did you have any role models and who are they?
From the onset, it was Mulan. I would carry a VCR cover with Mulan on it, and when we went on a Europe trip, I would carry it with me everywhere. At that time, I didn’t realise that seeing someone like Mulan was representative. I resonated [with the fact that] she defied social norms and took care of her family and her country. I thought it was really inspiring. Also, the fact that she was athletic and tomboyish, and as a child, I would do that and try to do flying kicks and runs!
What do you hope to achieve if you win the title this year?
It definitely puts Singapore on the map, and I think winning it for the country would change the game. I feel like you need to come back to Singapore with a trophy before pageantry gets taken seriously, and we would get way more support. Because I feel like pageantry is not as strong in Singapore, and winning would do a lot for the country.
I think a modern-day woman would resonate with the programme because it’s really about giving you the platform to find out what you’d want to do and how can the programme help you aspire for the dream and goals you have, and help you become confident enough to walk down the platform and sashay in gowns.
If you could say something to your younger self growing up, what would it be?
I think this still speaks true, so I’m not just saying this to my younger self; I’m saying this to me as well. I think it would be to trust the process; and while it’s more comfortable to try and control the situation and strive for a specific goal, I think it’s important just to try and trust the process.
The finals will premiere exclusively on iQiyi app and at iq.com for free on 18 May.