EXCLUSIVE: 10 questions with Miss Universe Org.’s Paula Shugart
NEW YORK — At the helm of the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) for more than two decades now, Paula Shugart is a staunch believer in the power of confidence to transform the lives of women and entire communities. In this one-on-one interview with INQUIRER.net’s Elton Lugay in New York, she shares a bit of her own journey and how MUO strives to stay relevant so that Miss Universe can continue to inspire people from all walks of life. Shugart also makes a special shout-out to former Ilocos Sur governor Luis “Chavit” Singson for “single-handedly” making Miss Universe happen in the Philippines in 2016, and talks about his role in future pageants. Excerpts from the interview:
INQ: In January of this year, former governor Chavit Singson announced that he had acquired the Miss Universe franchise in the Philippines. But last month, the Araneta Group refuted his claim. What is the official word on this?
Shugart: First of all, let me just say that I have amazing relationships with both. I’ve known the Aranetas since I first took this job and I have an amazing relationship with Gov [Chavit Singson].
In all honesty, this was a confusion of our own company’s creation. We are very excited about the brand with Endeavor [William Morris Endeavor Entertainment] who’ve owned us for a few years now. They have been blown away by seeing the support. Imagine if you’ve just bought a pageant company and you don’t know much about it and you come from the sports world and the first thing you see is you come into a Miss Universe Finals and it’s like the World Cup with Thailand, Philippines, Colombia, and everybody! And that’s my favorite thing, is to see the insanity of all of that. And of course, the first pageant they experienced was Pia [Wurtzbach] winning so they obviously understand the support and love in the Philippines.
We’ve just acquired this brand. What can we do to build on it? How can you get more involved in the Philippines and maybe take that elsewhere to other countries where we’re popular like Thailand. And Endeavor has so many offices in Asia, which we’ve never had that experience before. So it was really us approaching our partners to really get involved in the brand in the Philippines and see what can we do to bring it up.
Absolutely a conversation was had with Gov; a conversation was had with the Aranetas. Our idea was to bring everybody together. We were also talking to the network here to see what can we do with the Miss Universe Philippines brand. What can we do to build it? And Gov, I do want to really, really be clear—my partnership with Gov, really, I am very big fan. I got to meet him, when he single-handedly made Miss Universe happen in the Philippines.
He fulfilled my dream since I have been here and I have been very, very vocal about wanting to stage the event in the Philippines. I have always been vocal about my father, having spent so much time there when he was in the Navy. And there were times when it was very difficult and we didn’t know if we would be able to stage the event in the Philippines. And Gov said, “No, this is happening. This is good for Pia and it is good for all Filipinos.” And it is all about Pinoy Pride. I will always owe him a debt of gratitude.
As our partner, he’s brought other things. He brought all of the contestants last year after Las Vegas. He was very much involved with—that was FrontRow. And he brought that group together, he has done other events with us. He is really developing a partnership with Endeavor in other countries as well.
So we have a very, very strong partnership. He and I personally do, and I also have a very good relationship with Stella and Jorge [Araneta]. So you know, there was a lot of talking going on and Gov was always set up to bring whoever the new Miss Universe was. He was going to bring her into the Philippines for our first charity event with FrontRow and it just so happened [that] it was Catriona. So then out of that, a lot of craziness started and I think as an organization, we probably didn’t handle it as best as we could, but there was just so much craziness and chaos.
So we spoke with all of our partners about what could we do to really build the brand and conversations were had with everyone. We’re all still talking. [With] Binibining [Pilipinas Charities], we are going to do just the one show this year but we’re still talking about what else can we do next year. Gov is going to bring the contestants to Vigan, so he’s very supportive of us. And we’re going to continue—all of us as a group—working together to see what we can do to enhance the brand and hopefully use it as a model to export to other countries as well.
INQ: Is there any truth to the next Miss Universe pageant being staged in South Korea?
Shugart: We’re exploring it and again Gov has been doing a lot of business in Korea and he has been very supportive of Miss Universe. He really feels that Miss Universe should happen there. We’ve also been talking to other locations, so who knows? Maybe if it was Catriona, maybe we should go back to the Philippines.
INQ: How important is the support of the Philippines to MUO?
Shugart: Aside from being one of our greatest fan bases, the Philippines is very, very important. Look, all of the countries are important to us because we wouldn’t have a Miss Universe event if it wasn’t for all the counties participating. So I do think there is something about the Filipino people. I always say that it’s the hospitality of Asia combined with the passion of the Hispanic culture that just sort of landed in the Philippines, and has created this amazing fan base for us.
We have great fans in Thailand as well. Because Endeavor has so many offices in Asia, there’s an opportunity for us to really build a brand there. And for them [Endeavor] to see the passion in the Philippines—I mean there’s no place that you’re going to have 1.5 million people show up for a homecoming parade and not have to worry about crowd control.
INQ: Having been to the Philippines several times and worked with so many Miss Universe aficionados, what do you find memorable about the country and its people?
Shugart: I think it’s just the passion and the hospitality… My first time [in the Philippines] was when we went for Cordaid [Catholic Organization for Relief and Development Aid] with Gabriela Isler, we raised a quarter of a million dollars for the relief efforts for the typhoon.
That was the first time but then so many times obviously back and forth when we were building the pageant then after the pageant and you know World’s Strongest Man and all sorts of different things.
I love it, you know. I would say it’s the culture, there’s a joy… I was there for my birthday a year ago on one of the events. That was when I had my first Jollibee.
I actually like the [Jollibee] Chickenjoy better. [Also] I grew up having lumpia. I love lumpia. That’s one of those things where there’s no control. If there’s a plate there, that would be the end.
INQ: Can you tell us about Catriona’s reign for this year? What will be her focus for the rest of the year?
Shugart: Catriona is definitely someone that walks the walk—literally walks the walk. She is passionate about underprivileged children and really seeing that education is a means for a better life. We talked the other day and she has the spotlight. She’s very, very clear that she wants to use the spotlight to put a focus on it… She has a year and the epiphany the other day that she’s already three months into this was “Oh gosh, we have so much to do”.
And the fact that she’s so passionate about music. I mean she was here yesterday in New York doing an event with kids and using music. Music really is the one thing that is universal in a time when there are people and there’s so much hate, I think music is a unifier. So yesterday, she was at an education through music event. She went to a school and there was a choir that performed and she got to talk to some of the students—that’s her other passion.
Our job is to help her find the time to do all of the things that she wants to do in between her endorsement deals and juggling, not losing sight of what she really wants to do.
INQ: As president of MUO, what is the biggest challenge you face every year and what are your expectations for this year’s pageant?
Shugart: The biggest challenge is every year we have a new title holder. So by the time that we’re up and running, we really want to make it the best year possible for a person. We set goals and there are so many things that we want to do. And I would say the biggest obstacle for us is time because it just goes by so quickly. And you know we say the night that someone is crowned, “Enjoy every day because before you know it, even when you’re in the middle and “Oh I’m so tired, I just want a day to sleep,” but the next thing you know when you give up the crown, like “OMG where did it all go?”
So I say the biggest challenge is every year the organization as a whole has its own goals, but then every year we need to fine-tune it for each woman whether she’s Miss USA, Miss Teen USA or Miss Universe—and really trying to figure out that balance can be a challenge.
INQ: What’s the one thing you find most fulfilling about your job?
Shugart: Hands down, meeting all the women. I am so blessed to be able to, in some way, touch somebody’s life.
My husband, we were realizing that we’ve been married for 18 years as he started to post everything from our past online on his Instagram since he just joined. I got sick right away right after we got married, and I couldn’t have kids. That’s not what was meant to be for me.
I have this opportunity to help so many young people. If there can be just hundreds of confident young women out there that can spread the word and make their place, and if I’ve had anything at all to do that to help people to realize that they can be anything they want, then that’s the biggest blessing ever.
INQ: We always say that Miss Universe is about women empowerment, and that pageant winners become advocates for women’s rights. How do you make this more impactful and meaningful each year?
Shugart: That’s a really good question. Well, I think first of all, if we do our job right, then whoever comes in will build on whatever has been built the year before and help in keep[ing it] going.
This is the time for women. There are opportunities open to us that have not been open. When I was making decisions about what I wanted to do with my life, there were things I didn’t pursue because “Oh no, I can’t do that because I’m a woman.” Nobody says that now…
I do have a book that I make all of our titleholders read, all of our contestants read. You may have seen it out there, “The Confidence Code”. It’s not my book, it’s a book I make them read. It’s about just really taking on life and it’s about women. I wish I wrote that book.
INQ: Miss U has been lauded by many, particularly the LGBT community around the world, for allowing a transwoman to participate in last year’s competition. Though Miss Spain Angela Ponce didn’t win, she made history for being the first one to be accepted by no less than MUO. Are we going to see more trans women participating in the pageant this December?
Shugart: I don’t know if you will in December. You might. Honestly, when we made the change in 2012, I think we found the letter—obviously when Angela was competing, we found the letter that I had sent out to the directors at the time and I had said that we are an organization that evolves and it’s not about the day that we have the first transgender contestant, which will happen and we don’t know when and there it was, however many years later it did, it’ll be about the day that we don’t even talk about it.
Absolutely, I think for a lot of people, aside from Catriona’s win, the emotion of the night, I’d say the most emotional moment was Angela walking on that stage… She’s an amazing person. I mean talk about confidence, and just that moment on the stage, it was beautiful. I think that single act, when she went out there and the video ended, she walked out and smiled then she went down and knowing that you’re reaching almost a billion people around the world, you cannot tell me that that did not affect people. Then that’s how you effect change.
INQ: On this Women’s Month, the country is shining a spotlight on women everywhere regardless of race, religion, etc. Can you tell us your thoughts about a Miss Universe woman, what makes her so special? Why do people need to celebrate her?
Shugart: Well, I think a Miss Universe woman represents all women. So I think you celebrate all women. It’s funny ‘cause I was just talking about this before. I really believe that we’re not looking for somebody that’s perfect. We’re looking for somebody that can lift others up. Because if they spend the whole year of the reign, it’s not about them. It’s about- some people from the outside that don’t understand the pageant wouldn’t know that, “Oh, it’s all about who’s the most beautiful and if she’s wearing the crown, it’s all about me, me, me, me, me. But it’s not. And maybe in that moment it is, but then for 365 days after that, it’s about, “OK, I’m going to go here, how do I take this? How do I make a change here? How do I let someone know that you are not your circumstance and you can rise above your circumstance?” And she is a very special person that can handle that and do that, and really- ‘cause it’s tiring. You need so much energy for the job. You’re always flying, you’re always going places and really following the things that you’re passionate about.
I celebrate anybody that has that kind of energy… I think that now the person should be celebrated because they are the embodiment of possibility—and that is the embodiment of helping other people realize their potential. And I think particularly for women, it’s all about confidence and the things that have held people back—you are not your circumstance, you can rise above and be the best version of you. If there’s something that you want to do, do it or try to do it. We learn from our failures more than we learn from our successes. And if you don’t do something, the No. 1 thing particularly for women that holds them back is fear. We don’t do something because we’re afraid that, “Oh, we don’t have enough background, we don’t have enough education on it,” so we don’t try.
Well, men are more apt to try. So then you’re already doomed to failure because you haven’t tried. So therefore you don’t do it, then you’ve already failed. So I’d rather try. And that’s what I think part of being Miss Universe is about is to try. Hey, this year only one person won but everybody on that stage left better for the experience.