Michelle Dee, representing the Philippines in the Miss Universe 2023 pageant, made a significant impact with her unconventional approach, challenging the traditional norms associated with beauty pageants. Her journey in the competition, held in El Salvador, concluded in the Top 10, marking a notable return for the Philippines to the pageant’s semifinals after a brief hiatus. This return was significant as the country had previously enjoyed a 12-year streak of advancing beyond the initial rounds, a run that included two victories in 2015 and 2018.

Dee’s distinctive style was evident in her choice of evening gown. She wore a unique black gown, designed by Filipino designer Mark Bumgarner, which featured tattoo embellishments inspired by the renowned Filipino tattoo artist Apo Whang-Od. This choice deviated from the more typical nude and sparkly gowns often seen in such pageants. Pageant expert Adam Genato noted that Dee’s gown was a standout during the coronation night, yet acknowledged that it might have been too high fashion or edgy for the judges’ tastes. Despite not making it to the Top 5, Dee’s performance earned her three special awards: the Spirit of Carnival Award, the Miss Universe fan vote, and one of the three gold winners in the Voice for Change competition.

Dee’s approach was described as edgy, unapologetic, and authentic. Genato highlighted that her evolving hairstyle, progressively becoming shorter leading up to the pageant, signified her boldness to defy the stereotypical image of a beauty queen. Her entire campaign since the beginning was a stark contrast to the traditional perceptions associated with the Miss Universe contestants.

The event itself was a historic one, being the first Miss Universe pageant held in Central America since 2003 and the first in El Salvador since 1975. The competition saw other notable milestones, such as Colombia’s Camila Avella becoming the first mother to reach the Question & Answer portion, Portugal’s Marina Machete making history as the first transwoman to progress to the Miss Universe semifinals, and Erica Robin representing Pakistan as its first-ever candidate.

Despite not securing a position in the Top 5, Dee’s performance at Miss Universe 2023 was a testament to her commitment to authenticity and breaking norms, making her a standout contestant in the history of the pageant

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