R'Bonney Gabriel is the first Filipina American to wear the Miss Universe crown in the pageant's seven-decade history and, at 28, the oldest entrant ever crowned.
Gabriel, the first American to win the contest since 2012, believes her success was shaped by her biracial background, which she describes as a combination of her "big, loud and fun" paternal Filipino family and her "charming, small and reserved" maternal Texan family.
"The two different sides of my family really, really shaped me to be open-minded and realize people have different ways of going about things and showing their love," Gabriel told VOA's Thai Service during an interview in New York days after her victory on January 14. "It really helped me to be more of a dynamic person and really just accept anybody for who they are."
Gabriel, however, said she could not help but feel like a minority as she grew up in two Texas cities in the Houston area, Missouri City and Friendswood, where there were few Asian Americans even though that cohort is now the state's fastest-growing demographic.
"Sometimes I wondered where I fit in, especially as a kid. We always just want to fit in and feel cool and accepted," she said, adding that as an adult she's come to see the importance of embracing one's own culture.
Gabriel hopes that her victory as the oldest Miss Universe will show people that they should love themselves for being who they are.
"As a woman, I believe age does not define us," the 28-year-old said during the Top 5 round of the final competition. "It's not tomorrow, it's not yesterday, but it's now. The time is now that you can go after what you want."
And she says she didn't realize she would be the first Filipina American to be Miss Universe until she won the pageant which she entered, in part, to promote her sustainable clothing line, R'Bonney Nola.
Gabriel, who earned a bachelor's degree in fashion design at the University of North Texas, displayed her design sensibility on the final day of competition. She wore a dramatic black-and-blue evening gown with glass beaded fringe by Filipino designer Rian Fernandez for the Top 5 round. She stood out from others who competed in lighter-colored confections.
"I told him that I wanted something bold, something dark and strong. And we went with black because not a lot of girls have won Miss Universe in a black gown," she said.
"People may be fans of it or not but that doesn't matter because at the end of the day, I love it and I own it, and that's really a message that everybody can really resonate with," she said. "I think we all have different styles that we need to play into different personalities to not be scared, to express it. Never play it safe in life."
Three months before being selected as Miss Universe, Gabriel won the Miss USA 2022 contest with another unique outfit dubbed "A Beautiful Storm." Having begun experimenting with textiles when she was 15, Gabriel painted a midnight blue tank top and trousers with "storm and rain clouds" in white, gray and blue to reflect the turmoil she felt.
"I think everybody in life, when they're going through a storm, they're either entering a storm or leaving a storm," she said. "But we have to find beauty in the darkness and beauty in the chaos."
Her turmoil was only exacerbated when allegations emerged that the voting in the Miss USA contest had been rigged to ensure her victory. The contest organizers told the Los Angeles Times the allegations were "false" and "absurd."
Keeping that mind positive on days when the world felt like I cheated to win Miss USA even though it wasn't true."
Moving forward, Gabriel continued to promote sustainable fashion, the hallmark of her R'Bonney Nola line. A fluffy white top designed by fine artist Rene Garza that Gabriel wore for a Miss Universe photoshoot at the Empire State Building was made with recycled plastic-mesh flower protectors.
"I want to continue promoting that all over the world, showing how you can upcycle pieces and make something fabulous," said Gabriel, who also teaches sewing classes for low-income women who have suffered domestic violence or human trafficking.
"Women are so talented," she said. "If we… provide those learning opportunities, it really equals empowerment and opportunity to continue on in life and change the financial ecosystem that they've grown up in."