R’Bonney Gabriel – a fashion designer, model and sewing teacher from Texas – has become the first Filipino American to win Miss Universe.

Last year, she became the first Filipina American to win the Miss USA title.

Women representing 84 different countries competed in the 71st Miss Universe pageant, held Saturday in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The contest, which in the past has been called sexist, features “personal statements, in-depth interviews and various categories including evening dresses and swimwear”.

Gabriel is a former high school volleyball player and a graduate of the University of North Texas. A short bio on the organization’s website says she’s also CEO of her own sustainable clothing line, R’Bonney Nola.

During the final stage of the Q&A, she was asked how she would demonstrate that Miss Universe was “a nurturing and progressive organization” if she were to win.

The 28-year-old spoke about using recycled materials in her fashion designs and teaching survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence how to sew.

She concluded, “We all have something special, and when we plant those seeds for other people in our lives, we transform them and use them as a vehicle for change.”

Picture:
The competition took place in New Orleans. Photo: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The 10-judge panel included two past winners, as well as a musician, actress, dermatologist, fashion designer, journalist and former Miss USA.

Miss Venezuela took second place and Miss Dominican Republic came third.

Last year’s winner, Harnaaz Sandhu from India, presented Gabriel with her tiara, sash and bouquet.

The competition also focused on mental health, with the mother of former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst – who was diagnosed with depression and took her own life in January last year – paying tribute to her daughter.

Miss Universe announced a new fund in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and named in honor of Kryst.

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Miss Universe Organization owner Anne Jakkaphong hailed it as a “new era” for the pageant, saying “from now on it will be female-led, owned by a trans woman, so that all women in the around the world are celebrating the power of feminism”. .

The 43-year-old billionaire and transgender activist is the CEO of JKN Global Group PCL, the Thai media company which bought the Miss Universe organization for $20m (£16.6m) last October.

Between 1996 and 2015, the rights to the competition were partly owned by former US President Donald Trump.

Ms Jakkaphong, who has previously said she was inspired by chat host Oprah Winfrey, has spoken often about life as a transgender woman and is now the first woman to hold a beauty pageant in the United States.

Under the pageant’s new owner, the rules have been relaxed to allow married and divorced mothers and women to participate for the first time in 70 years.

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