Michelle Dee finds purpose on the pageant stage

Michelle Dee

Everything’s coming up roses for Michelle Marquez Dee, who has gone from being the most maligned Miss Universe Philippines titleholder to becoming the most awarded Miss Universe delegate, who received a rousing welcome befitting a true queen upon her return home.

Dee recently flew to Indonesia to film a campaign, and was spotted in Palawan for another project. She has also gone back to acting, joining the cast of the prime-time series “Black Rider” on GMA-7. A career as a singer might just begin in the near future.

On Dec. 10, weeks after the 72nd Miss Universe competition concluded in El Salvador, the beauty pageant fever still prevailed among Filipinos. Throngs of well-wishers trooped to Dee’s belated homecoming parade around the SM Mall of Asia complex in Pasay City—a far more celebratory event than what transpired at the neighboring Mall of Asia Arena in May when she captured the national title.

There were people who rejoiced when she inherited the Miss Universe Philippines crown from predecessor Celeste Cortesi at the national pageant. Still, hundreds of spectators shouted the name of the place represented by another pageant delegate in the Top 3, as they were marching to leave the venue.

But Dee was unbothered. And with her calm determination, she was able to rally Filipinos behind her in her quest for the Miss Universe crown in El Salvador. The naysayers gradually simmered down. Beauty pageantry, which had divided the nation, eventually united the people, with Dee emerging No. 1 in popularity polls.

The Filipino queen topped the fan voting, and even secured the biggest number of votes in the national-costume poll. Additionally, she became the first delegate from the Philippines to receive the “Spirit of Carnival” award from Carnival Cruises. She was also among the three “gold finalists” in the “Voice for Change” competition initiated by Miss Universe crown provider Mouawad with CI Talks.

Autism awareness

Dee may not have snagged the crown, but she went home with four accolades, the most for any Miss Universe candidate in history. She also received $12,000 for her chosen advocacy program from the Voice for Change contest, where she championed the cause for autism awareness.

This was the primary reason Dee chose to embark on beauty pageantry, which she initially thought was “very superficial.” With two brothers on the spectrum, she wanted people to learn more about autism, and to help foster an inclusive society for those diagnosed with autism. She surmised that perhaps beauty contests could help her reach out to more people.

“My two siblings in the autism spectrum really gave me that greater sense of purpose,” Dee said at her homecoming. “Autism Society Philippines, they have given me that sense of purpose and that energy to really try my best to represent all of us to the best of my abilities. Of course, with that platform, I really want to make a positive impact.” 

Dee comes from a family of international beauty-title holders: 1979 Miss International Melanie Marquez is her mother, and 2017 Reina Hispanoamericana Teresita Ssen “Winwyn” Marquez is a cousin. She worked as a model upon returning to the Philippines from a serene life in a farm in Utah in the United States with her family, with pageant aficionados convincing her to follow in her mom’s footsteps.

She dabbled in hosting and acting, too. But the call of the pageant stage persisted. She eventually gave in, and turned to her mom for advice. 

Marquez told her, Dee said, to be her own woman and not try to emulate someone else. 

Prep camp

For her initiation at the 2019 Miss World Philippines competition, Dee underwent training under the Aces and Queens pageant camp, the same team that produced Megan Young, the first Filipino Miss World winner.

Dee had to “unlearn” her modeling and show biz aptitude to transform herself into a formidable pageant contestant. Her preparations involved intensive “pasarela” (pageant walk) exercises, personality development workshops, and question-and-answer sessions. All this helped her convincingly win her first national title, which brought her to London for the 69th Miss World pageant. She finished in the Top 12.

In 2022, Dee again embarked on another pageant pursuit through the Miss Universe Philippines competition. She assembled her own team to prep for her second quest for a national title; she chopped her long locks to show a different side of her, and also to make a strong statement. But this foray was not as triumphant as her first: She received the Miss Universe Philippines-Tourism crown, a notch shy of the top prize.

Dee dusted herself off and returned stronger and even more determined in 2023. Again she assembled her team to devise a more comprehensive strategy that would help her win her ticket to the Miss Universe pageant. And she succeeded.

“With dedication, hard work, and perseverance, I … really focused on every single detail of the competition… It’s so important to really put purpose in my journey. And I’m so glad, I’m so happy for that,” she said.

Positive influence

According to Dee, now speaking from experience, beauty pageants bring purposeful individuals together. “One of the best things I love about pageantry is meeting like-minded, driven, and passionate women from all over the world who really want to make that positive influence,” she said, adding that she had developed relationships with many of her fellow delegates.

Expect to see more of this driven and purposeful woman even after her pageant journey has ended.

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