MANILA, Jan 25, (AFP): Confetti rained down as tens of thousands of shrieking fans paralysed traffic in the Philippine capital on Monday to welcome the newly crowned Miss Universe, Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach.
The 26-year-old model and actress, looking regal in a flowing blue-green gown, waved the Philippine flag while perched on a float designed in the fashion of her diamond and sapphire crown.
The adoring crowd, many of whom stepped out of their offices and schools, jammed Manila’s streets and snapped pictures of only the third Filipina to win the Miss Universe title.
Many others screamed and waved at Wurtzbach from the windows of their high-rise offices as busloads of policemen were deployed to secure the homecoming parade.
“We are very proud that the new Miss Universe is from the Philippines. We’ve waited 42 years for this,” nurse Rosalinda Shappit, 61, who sneaked out of work to catch a glimpse of Wurtzbach, told AFP at the parade.
“Life is hard, but her victory somehow gives us hope.”
Beauty pageants are incredibly popular in the nation of 100 million people, who seek heroes partly to uplift their spirits from crushing poverty, frequent natural disasters and crippling corruption.
Such frenzied homecoming parades have in recent years been seen only for eight-time world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, who will retire after fighting American Timothy Bradley in April to build a political career.
The New York-based Miss Universe pageant is particularly popular in the Philippines, a former US colony.
“We’ve been waiting for this crown for a long time now,” Wurtzbach told reporters in Manila on Sunday.
“I don’t think a lot of people know how big of a deal Miss Universe is to the Philippines. It brings a lot of honour and a lot of pride to the country.”
Wurtzbach fan Miguelito Herrera, 47, travelled four hours by bus from Cabanatuan City, a commercial centre north of Manila, to join Monday’s parade.
Herrera credited his love of beauty pageants with helping him overcome bouts of depression after he was laid off from his job as a soda salesman in 2003, and after his mother died from heatstroke in 2013.
Being unemployed, Herrera said he was too broke to see a psychologist.
“When I see beauty queens, the feeling is so uplifting. It’s like we can endure so much, so many problems. They inspire a lot of people,” Herrera told AFP, wearing a white shirt with Wurtzbach’s picture printed on it.
Like many other Filipinas who have been successful in international pageants, the Philippine-German Wurtzbach is poised for a successful career in entertainment.
She told AFP in an interview on Sunday she had her eyes set on a Hollywood career.
“I want to be the Filipina Bond girl,” said Wurtzbach, who was a model and small-time television actress in the Philippines before her breakthrough moment.
Wurtzbach was crowned Miss Universe in Las Vegas last month following an epic blunder that played out to an estimated one billion people watching on television around the world.
The pageant host, American comedian Steve Harvey, mistakenly announced Colombian Ariadna Gutierrez as Miss Universe and then corrected himself minutes later.
The outgoing Miss Universe, Paulina Vega, took the crown from her humiliated and sobbing compatriot and placed it on Wurtzbach’s head.
Wurtzbach told AFP on Sunday she would use her new high-profile platform to raise awareness about HIV, especially in her home country where infections are rising.
Her week-long homecoming itinerary also includes courtesy calls on parliament and on President Benigno Aquino, a 55-year-old bachelor whom she was rumoured to have dated briefly.