Political statements take center stage at Miss Universe, with pageant's blessing: 'We will always support a woman for using her voice'

The Miss Universe stage at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla., became the backdrop for multiple political statements as contestants from around the world sent powerful messages with their national costumes.

Miss Universe Singapore Bernadette Belle Ong was the first to gain widespread attention after wearing a red sequined bodysuit made complete with a red and white cape to represent Singapore's flag. When she turned around, the words "STOP ASIAN HATE" were revealed.

"What is this platform for if I can’t use it to send a strong message of resistance against prejudice and violence," Ong captioned a post on Instagram. "I wear my country proud and strong!"

In a subsequent Instagram post, she went into detail about how she got the outfit made by Filipino designer Arwin Meriales in just two days. The designer then offered to get a message hand painted onto the back by Paulo Pilapil Espinosa. "I knew straight away that it had to be about the movement revolving racial spite and prejudice," Ong wrote. "I’d say this is a HUGE win for everyone! We got our message across loud and clear! Thanks for roaring back at us with love and praise!!!"

Espinosa also provided a behind-the-scenes look at his art and shared that Ong "is not just a candidate. She's a woman with a mission. It was her idea to make the NatCos competition a way to raise awareness for a very relevant cause."

And she wasn't the only one.

Miss Universe Myanmar Ma Thuzar Wint Lwin also used the pageant's segment to bring attention to the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar. She ended up winning the category after walking out in a traditional costume and revealing a scroll that read "Pray for Myanmar."

Although the costume wasn't what she had initially planned on wearing, she explained on Instagram that the piece represented the "strong and unstoppable spirit of a woman." The most important element, it seemed, was the message she held up with it.

"I think you already know about the news of the crisis in Myanmar. Our people are dying and being shot by the military every day," Thuzar Wint Lwin said in an introductory video for the pageant. "Therefore, I would like to urge everyone to speak out about Myanmar. As Miss Universe Myanmar, since the military coup, I have been speaking out as much as I can."

She has previously used her social media platforms to educate followers on what is taking place in Myanmar and posts photos of her own involvement in demonstrations against the military. She even shared an autobiographical video on Facebook after landing in Florida for the pageant where she spoke about the fighting. "Everyone deserves democracy," she captioned the video. "So does Myanmar."

Now, after using the Miss Universe stage as an opportunity to inform many more, Lwin told the New York Times that she's worried about returning to her country. "I had to pass through immigration," she said of traveling through Yangon airport in a hoodie and glasses. "I was so scared."

Luckily for all of the women with statement-making costumes — including Miss Universe Uruguay Lola de los Santos Bicco who wore a rainbow skirt in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community — the Miss Universe organization is in support of each contestant's message.

"We will always support a woman for using her voice," Paula M. Shugart, Miss Universe Organization president, tells Yahoo Life. "This is a decision that they make on their own, I will never put anyone in a position of forcing anyone to make a statement. So obviously we want to make sure that whatever they do is well thought out and we will offer support. The only thing I require of our delegates in all of our system is to make sure that you’re educated on what you are speaking out against."

Shugart went on to say that there have been examples of political statements made with national costumes in the past. However, after a year plagued by the pandemic and growing attention toward various social justice issues, the timing is ripe for contestants to use this platform.

"This is a reflection of what has been going on within the organization for a few years now. Our mission is, and we tell every young woman, you have a voice, use your voice and stand for something. We want them to be the leaders of tomorrow," she says. "So I’m absolutely thrilled because I think this is a reflection of society and they have an opportunity to give a message around the world and they’re taking it."

Although she admits that people may still find it difficult to look past the stereotypes of the Miss Universe pageant, Shugart points out that people new and old to the organization have been "absolutely blown away" by the presence of these important topics on stage.

"What we are really speaks for itself," she says.

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