One-on-one with first Fil-Am Miss Universe, who wants to inspire people to be self-made
NEW YORK—Inspiring people to be self-made is a lifelong pursuit for R’Bonney Gabriel, who made history in January as the first Filipino American to win the Miss Universe crown.
An avid believer in sustainable wear, Gabriel is a fashion designer and model by profession, whose Houston-based clothing label R’Bonney Nola encourages a lifestyle of self-confidence and individuality. The brand, she says, reflects the values of Miss Universe 2022.
“I have a strong belief that everybody has something special, everybody has a passion and when we find that, our life can really just grow so much more and be extraordinary,” Gabriel told INQUIRER.net in a Zoom interview earlier this month.
Her path to the much-coveted crown has been remarkable. Entering the world of pageantry in 2020, Gabriel won the Miss Texas crown after three attempts. She became the first Miss USA of Filipino descent amid a rigging controversy.
She is only the ninth American to win the crown, ending a 10-year drought for the United States in the Miss Universe competition. At 29 years old, Gabriel is so far the oldest to wear the Miss Universe crown, which is one of the reasons Oscars best actress winner Michelle Yeoh moves her.
“I’m very inspired by Michelle Yeoh’s story because she’s the first Asian to win an Oscar for a lead role. She made history. That’s so exciting for representations, for Asians, and I find her story very inspiring because when she was giving her speech too, she was talking about how you don’t ever have to feel like as a woman you missed your prime.
“I resonate with that feeling, being the oldest-aged Miss Universe to win at age 28. I think now is more than ever the perfect time too, and it doesn’t matter what age you are. So I love her story,” Gabriel said.
Another Asian woman she admires is Anne Jakrajutatip, new owner of the Miss Universe Organization (MUO).
“I was able to spend a lot of time with her in Asia actually, which was incredible,” Gabriel said. Describing the founder and CEO of JKN Global Group as “somebody that’s not unattainable or unreachable” with whom she could bounce ideas, Miss Universe 2022 looks up to the transgender activist for the latter’s fearlessness and drive.
“She’s a self-made businesswoman and she’s built an empire. I was able to see that first-hand in her home city – Bangkok, Thailand – and I love how she’s willing to take risks. She’s fearless and she definitely has a vision, and she definitely is very present in the brand,” Gabriel said.
“As a new titleholder I’m glad I can always talk to her and just really absorb [how] she’s one of the most hard-working people I know. She does not sleep – when we were in Asia, she was around-the-clock working all the time, so was her team. And I know that’s what it took [for] her to get to this point. So I admire her for that,”
A recently concluded Asian tour brought Gabriel, 1st runner-up Miss Venezuela Amanda Dudamel and 2nd runner-up Miss Dominican Republic Andreina Martinez to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Gabriel found the trip rewarding and a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the beauty queens experiencing Asian hospitality, cuisine and traditional wear. A special trip to the Philippines is lined up for May, possibly with Gabriel’s parents in tow.
The beauty queen is excited to meet Filipino fans and is grateful for the die-hard ones who stood by her no matter what:
“The fans that have been following me since Day 1 are so loyal, and I have to thank them from the bottom of my heart. You know there are some days when the self-doubt or the cyber bullying can get to me and I feel down, but it’s those fans that support me and I feel their love that really just push me through the hard times and I have to really give them a big thank you.”
She said further: “I owe them my success so I want to say thank you to them, thank you for the people that have stuck with me, watched my journey as Miss Texas, my journey as Miss USA, the ups and downs and the false narrative around that and they still believed in me. So it means a lot and to all the Filipino fans I have to say maraming, maraming salamat sa support. I hope to see you soon in the Philippines and thank you.”
Gabriel expects this year to simply fly by with a lot of public engagements and traveling. When her reign is done though, she will focus more on sustainable fashion while continuing to engage the youth and women. A stint with the United Nations may also be in the works.
“I would like to be remembered as somebody that can connect with my words and really move people. Something I love to do is to be face-to-face with people or even on a Zoom and inspire people through my words and telling my story of how I faced a lot of rejection and how I found my passion through trial and error,” Gabriel said.