Why Calgary is a hotbed for up and coming Filipino pageant contestants
It’s not just about beauty anymore — it's the journey and experiences that come with international opportunity
The name Riza Santos might not ring a bell to everyone, but in the pageant world, Riza is royalty.
The Filipino-Calgarian beauty queen has achieved what is known as the "triple crown" by winning Miss Earth Canada in 2006, Miss World Canada in 2011 and Miss Universe Canada in 2013 — something never before achieved in this country.
Spurred on by Santos's success and a love of pageantry within Filipino culture, Calgary has become somewhat of a hotbed of aspiring competitors — both female and male.
As part of CBC Calgary's ongoing work with our Filipino bureau, we wanted to explore why pageantry is such a big deal within the community and how it's changing.
CBC's Paul Karchut sat down with Riza Santos, 11-year-old up and coming pageant competitor Jeanae Elisha Ventura and Harlijk Mirasol, founder and agent of Harlijk Productions, which produces pageants and manages competitors.
You can listen to the interview by clicking on the audio link below or read through our transcribed Q&A. Both have been edited for length and clarity.
Paul Karchut: I want to start with you, Riza, because this is something that you have seen great success in. I mean, somebody who has seen their start in the Calgary pageant scene and have gone on to become Miss Universe Canada. Can you describe what that was like for you?
Riza Santos: Definitely. I have what they would call Canada's Triple Crown. So I'm a Miss Universe, Canada, Miss World Canada and Miss Earth Canada title holder. I was born here in Alberta, raised in Canada. And I do have roots in the Philippines. Both of my parents are from the Philippines.
And the sense of pride that I received from the Filipino community and Canadians alike has been just so gratifying and I just have so much gratitude towards the community and the support that I've received over the years — raising funds for charity, raising awareness for different advocacies, and it's really helped me have a voice and a platform to help my health, helped my self-confidence and growth in the community. And I think that's something that I'll always be grateful for.
PK: Elisha, I'm watching you in the background here. And I see the smile on your face. Is Riza kind of like royalty to you?
Elisha Ventura: Yeah, I always admired her when I was a little girl, like when I was introduced to like the idea of pageantry. And I really looked, um, I'm inspired by you, by the way, Riza Santos (laughs).
RS: That makes me tear up a little bit.
I feel really emotional about that, because when you see the show itself, you don't realize the work that goes into it. And from a production standpoint, from a contestant standpoint, it's like it requires your all to really excel. I can't even express into words how much it means to me to hear that. And so thank you so much.
PK: There's an interesting and important terminology here, because traditionally I would have thought that these would be called beauty pageants. But the three of you are calling them pageants. Elisha, can you explain why that's an important differentiation here?
EV: Oh, because I believe that pageants are not just about beauty on the outside, but it's about inner beauty.
For me, pageantry is more than just a girl fashion show. But it's learning the importance of confidence and courage. And it gives us that platform and that voice to empower the voices of others that haven't been heard.
PK: Now Harlijk, you're a man on the pageant scene, and I'm wondering what are the challenges around that?
Harlijk Mirasol: There lies the misconception of it all. A lot of the things going on behind the scenes, the business aspect, the sponsorships, the production aspects are, I think, evenly divided between men and women.
For me, for example, my main advocacy is to really just promote, whether it's Filipino Canadians or Canadians, my main focus is to showcase the ladies and the guys. So the traditional beauty pageant concept is about the ladies, but pageants have evolved now. There's an equal number of female pageants with male pageants internationally, that are also getting the same opportunities, the same access to, you know, different opportunities for both male and female competitors.
PK: I didn't realize that pageants were a thing for male competitors, either. That's interesting. Harlijk, how big of a deal are pageants within the Filipino community?
HM: Filipinos in general are really very big in pageants, whether in the Philippines or anywhere in the world. And Calgary, we're very fortunate in Calgary. It has one of the more vibrant pageant scenes in Canada. Not all Filipino communities in Canada have that very active pageant scene. But here in Calgary, inspired in a lot of ways by Riza's success, you know, so Calgary's scene is such a very vibrant scene. And we've been sending delegates not just in national pageants all around Canada, but international pageants as well.
Canada in general, it's not such a big country for pageants. But the possibility for somebody like Elisha, who will follow in the footsteps of Riza, is such a big deal for the Filipino community — not just, well, not just the Filipino community in Canada, but in the Philippines as well.
The Philippines is nothing like Canada in terms of economy, in terms of, you know, we are not a first world country. But when you see all these previous beauty queens, former winners of Miss Universe who have gone through careers in show business, in business, in politics — it opens doors for you, so big and so fast. That's why it is such a big deal for us Filipinos to have pageants as one of the avenues for success or for growth.
PK: Riza, I was talking with one Filipino Calgarian who said "pageants are embedded within Filipino culture." Where do you think that love of pageants comes from?
RS: There are a few things that I can think, just from my own perspective. So we had Miss Universe titleholders back in 1969 and 1973, Gloria Diaz and Margie Moran. I actually had the opportunity to work on set on a TV show in the Philippines with Gloria Diaz.
Philippines also hosted the Miss Universe competition in 1994. I remember that because we had it on VHS and I remember watching that with my grandparents. Like, I remember the entire pageant. I've seen it more than once. And my grandfather passed away when I was 14. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to go to Miss Universe. He would say to me, "One day you're going to go to Miss Universe." And I was like, I'm going to go to Miss Universe, like, I'm going to work for it — just kind of in memory of my grandfather. I'm very close to my family.
But it's almost kind of like a sport, I want to say. We'll watch it like we would hockey almost or on the international stage, like we're cheering on for our country. We're cheering on our team, as it would be.
PK: Riza, what sort of avenues have opened up for you as a result of what has been a very prestigious pageantry career?
RS: Just touching on what Harlijk said, I can't even tell you the amount of opportunities that I've had based on having these titles.
So, I mean, just to start off, I've done several movies in the Philippines, blockbuster movies.… I'm working on an EP right now, music EP. I'm the vice-president of a technology company. And I think a lot of that correlates back to having the perseverance, confronting obstacles, different challenges.
I've been invited all around the world to cut the ribbon at mall openings in the Philippines, to attending the amfAR gala at the Cannes Film Festival, to attending the F1 in Singapore. It's just the amount of opportunities that I've had.… I don't know if I would have had those opportunities had I not entered the pageant to begin with because it really opened up so many doors for me.
PK: Elisha, when you hear about the success that Riza has seen, is this what you aspire to?
EV: Yes, it is. Because all of them have always been my biggest inspiration. And that's the reason why I want to become an inspiration to others — to do what they love and to be themselves. Yes, it is.
PK: How long have you been doing pageants for now?
EV: Well, I did pageants back in the Philippines when I was like four years old. But when I moved to Canada, I started doing pageants, my first pageant in Canada when I was eight years old.
PK: Harlijk, I'm sure that's a point of view that you sometimes hear, that people getting into pageants at a very young age means that it can be giving up some of the things that children have in their typical life. When you do hear those concerns, what do you say?
HM: There is always a trade-off, right?
People gain and people lose something. Like, for example, Elisha, she may be missing out on the other things that other girls would do normally. But she's also gaining a different set of experiences that those other girls will never experience if they don't try pageantry. Like, Elisha gets to represent her community, her country at such a young age. She gets modelling jobs. You can see her face in print ads, in commercials, and she will get to represent, you know, not just the Filipino community, not just Calgary, but maybe Canada.
She said she may be losing a few months of her youth, but she's also adding new experiences that otherwise would not be available to her.
So it's not like when you see reality shows about baby pageants or kid pageant. Of course, everything has a dark side to it. But for Filipinas, normally the kids, the girls, they want it as much if not more than everybody else in their families or in their support system. And that's how they become successful.
PK: Now, Harlijk, I'm sure you've heard concerns about objectification of women and girls in pageants. And as a guy who's made it his business to represent contestants and put on competitions, how do you respond to those concerns?
HM: Well, you know, the word objectification is the default criticism for people who don't really have an actual experience or knowledge of the pageant. And, you know, in some countries or some subcultures, definitely, it's an objectification, but it's a cultural thing as well.
But definitely for Canada, we're really about looking for substance, looking for role models. We're looking for advocates for whatever causes that we are trying to espouse.
So it really is from the outside looking in. It's so easy to say it's all about body or beauty or objectification. But that's why we welcome everyone who would like to get involved in whatever capacity.
PK: Riza, did you feel objectified when you were competing?
RS: No, and I think people have different reasons why they want to join a pageant.
For example, my motivating reason was because I wanted a new experience and I knew that the platform for the particular competition I was in was for the advocacy for environmental protection. And then the other ones, they all have charitable platforms.
But if we're referring to the swimsuit competition in particular, I think there's a certain athleticism. I don't know if I've ever trained so much like athletically before. I needed to have a healthy diet and I had to exercise and I had to know proper form for lifting weights, especially if you're lifting heavy weights. I was squatting weights like my own body weight. And so there's a discipline and there is training that is required to achieve that.
PK: Riza, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. Looking back on your pageantry career, what do you feel like you had to sacrifice?
RS: Wow, that's hard to say, because I really have benefited so much from every aspect.
Even when I think of some of the negative aspects, which would be, I would say that it is at times you have to have tough skin because you are going to receive a lot of criticism and you just, you can't take anything personally.
There's almost a subculture around pageantry where there are blogs that are dedicated to evaluating contestants and you are going to come across them because you're kind of curious. You know, what are people saying about me, especially in the international realm? And when you have all these people that are rooting for their own team or their own contestant, people from other countries that don't support you, you have to not take anything personally.
I think that that has helped so much in character development, self-development, and even just thinking about what I want from my life, how I'm impacting other people.
There's one interesting thing, and it came up recently because there was a girl that I was able to help through my pageant title. So there's an individual that was in the Philippines, she had scoliosis, and they came to me because just through word of mouth, they're like, 'OK, we think that you can help this girl. If she doesn't get this surgery, she's going to die.' And so I was like, 'Oh, gosh, what can we do?'
So with the help of my parents and the Filipino community, we were able to do a fundraiser for her and we raised the money for her. She was able to get her life-saving surgery.
So to me, I'm like, wow, this platform gave me the tangible opportunity to help save someone's life. And it's just incredible what awareness that these pageants can bring and really make a difference in other people's lives.
HM: People like to call the pageant world and the girls and the people involved shallow, superficial.… it's all about me, me, me looking good.
And I can tell you, those are the furthest things from these girls. I mean, it's not a superficial world and it's not a beauty pageant centred world. So I believe it's just going to keep on growing and growing and growing. And I'm happy that the Filipino community of Canada and Calgary is playing such a big part in that growth within Canada.