efe-epaManila

The Philippines, a nation obsessed with beauty pageants, showered Catriona Gray with affection at a homecoming parade through downtown Manila on Thursday following her coronation as Miss Universe.

Thousands of Filipinos took to the streets for a four-hour spectacle that saw the capital come to a standstill in a bid to catch a glimpse of Gray, who in December was crowned Miss Universe 2018 in Bangkok.

"I am a huge fan of Catriona, I love her," said Mary Bubbles, a 27-year-old transvestite who went to the parade sporting a crown and waving placards featuring photos of Gray. "We are all very proud of her in the Philippines."

Joining millions of Filipinos, Bubbles witnessed the contest on one the many huge screens that were erected in public spaces on Dec. 17, as the city ground to halt leaving the normally bustling streets devoid of traffic.

"In the Philippines, we are beauty pageant fanatics, they are like our Olympic games," Bubbles continued, saying that there are three "Bs" Filipinos obsess over: basketball, boxing and beauty contests.

Many Manila citizens requested to leave work early so as not to miss the momentous parade of the beauty queen who was born in Cairns, northwestern Australia, to a Scottish father and Filipino mother, and who was brought up in the northern province of Albay in the south-east Asian country.

Gray is an outspoken advocate for children's rights and a spokesperson for an NGO that helps deprived and vulnerable children in the downtrodden neighborhood of Tondo.

Many NGOs have welcomed Gray's activism and hope it will highlight the need for action.

Gray is a beauty pageant veteran having already been crowned Miss Philippines in 2016, reaching the Miss Universe finals in the same year, and she also won the 1999 Little Miss Philippines aged five.

The country's obsession with beauty contests started in 1908 when the United States colonial government launched the Manila carnival during which a queen was crowned, which later grew into the current Miss Philippines pageant.

Beauty contests soon became a national sport with events for people of all ages mushrooming across the country in neighborhoods, villages, towns and cities.

"Initially women would take part in these competitions because they did not have other avenues to develop professional careers," Jose Wendell Capili, an expert on popular culture at the University of Philippines, told EFE.

These contests are still a way to escape poverty in the Philippines as often these young women and children are a source of income for their families, he added.

Local, regional administrations and the national government support these pageants which are backed by beauty training camps that prepare future "queens."

The boot camps also offer the girls academic studies which many use as stepping stones to further education.

A good example of how these camps help these women forge careers is a look back on how previous pageant winners have faired after the competition.

Gloria Díaz, 1969 Miss Universe, went on to become an award-winning well-known actress.

1964 Miss International Gemma Cruz became a successful writer and directed the National Museum.

Margarita Moran, 1973 Miss Universe, became the president of Ballet Philippines and sits on the board of trustees of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. She was elected the cultural agency's chairperson in Apr. 2018.

While evidence suggests that many women access education via these boot camps, not everyone approves of the nation's obsession with beauty pageantry, particularly women's rights groups which consider there is much work to be done in order to challenge gender stereotypes that are deeply attached to Filipino culture and society.

"We need to raise a critical awareness of women's roles in society, which are perpetuated by these beauty pageants, as well as shifting social discourse in order to achieve true empowerment of women," Joms Salvador, said secretary general of the feminist organization Gabriela.

By Sara Gómez Armas