“I would eat everything in the whole world. I would eat everything — twice.” A chat with Miss Universe
If there were no rules, that’s what Brook Lee would do. Who would believe that a model, a beauty queen, a Miss USA… a Miss Universe would — could– admit this? Brook Lee did, in front of millions of people. A witty — and gallant — declaration that resonated and possibly secured her title of Miss Universe.
I was living in New Jersey when Brook won and although she was up against Miss Trinidad and Tobago (whom I was rooting for), her answer was so compelling, so universally acceptable, so honest, there was no way she could not have won. Incidentally, Miss Trinidad said that she would wear no clothes. No comment (my tongue is in my cheek). I interviewed Brook in Los Angeles. Here is what she told me:
Stefan Pinto: Brook, I’m thrilled to meet you. Thank you for coming. You’re the last Miss USA to win the Miss Universe title. What has it been like… I mean, after you won Miss Universe? Did your life change?
Brook Lee: It did… it did quite a bit. I left Hawaii to go to the Miss USA pageant with a suitcase and some macadamia nuts and I went to Shreveport, Louisiana in the dead of winter. I thought I was up for maybe a Miss Congeniality and a hair award and then I’d come back home to Hawaii, go back to school, finish out my year as Miss Hawaii. But I won Miss USA, to everyone’s shock and surprise — myself included. And then I won Miss Universe and everyone lost their minds — myself included. I was off and running. I did 13 countries in 12 months. I lived in LA for the first time by myself; I didn’t have to drive a car for a year; I didn’t have to pump gas for a year; I didn’t have to vacuum for a year. It was a surreal — sur-real — experience.
SP: Ha! I can only imagine. So, what are the duties of Miss Universe?
BL: My year was a lot different than how it’s run now. I was what’s called a “transitional.” Donald Trump had just, recently bought the pageant. So, I was still sort of under the “old guard” doing things the way it had been done for years before me; we still lived in LA, we still did a lot of charity, we still travelled the world and supported the pageant system, so a lot of my duties revolved around going to other countries, attending their pageants. I did a lot of work with Special Olympics which was the official charity for the Miss Universe organization at the time. I was unique because I am of Asian decent and being from the United States — usually a USA winner is blonde haired and blue-eyed to a certain extent. So my ethnicity was [a factor] when I became Miss Universe; I travelled to Korea, because I am part Korean, I travelled to Japan and to Thailand. I did a lot of things that a Miss Universe from the United States would not have typically done, simply because of my ethnicity. I was sort of driven in that direction.
SP: Right. And do you feel that opened doors for other ethnic women?
BL: Usually an ethnic woman of some sort would win, as the playing field is every country around the world, so there are a lot of different ethnicities, obviously, being represented. For me, it was really a shock to win the United States of America, because when I did win Miss USA and when I did compete for Miss Universe, the question I kept getting asked in Miami, if I didn’t have my banner on, was “what country are you representing?” So no one really took into consideration that I was the apple-pie girl from the United States. It wasn’t glaringly apparent that I was from the U.S. I was more proud of winning the United States and having a diverse look for the U.S than I was for joining the ranks of women from all over the world who are of all different ethnicities every year.
SP: Yes, I’m sure… I understand what you’re saying. The competition, for some countries are a huge draw. I recently read that countries like Venezuela, for instance, a lot of the girls are raised — from young — to want to compete for Miss Universe. Are you aware of this? What did you do growing up? Was it something someone suggested to you, “hey, maybe you should compete for Miss USA!”?
BL: [laughs] Nooooo. I was proudly referred to in the pageant community… there was an article written in a magazine that I was “the anti-beauty queen beauty queen.” In the sense that I didn’t believe in training. I wasn’t trained. I had run for Miss Hawaii USA once. A lot of girls are what they call “career pageant runners” — which is fine, there’s no judgement there — I ran in the other system, the Miss America system on the state level, in Hawaii and lost every year. I was the Susan Lucci of pageants in Hawaii. I had a lovely gay following who would come every year to watch me lose gracefully at Miss Hawaii America. I literally did it, honestly, to pay for my college education because we didn’t have any money and I needed money for school. I was able to win over $17,000 worth of scholarships to complete my college education — debt free. And that was without winning a crown. I ran in the Miss Hawaii USA pageant in my last year of eligibility.
SP: Is the pageant something you will recommend to young girls? Has it changed much?
BL: It has changed a lot. Nothing Donald Trump puts his fingers on doesn’t. He is the master of doing that. He sorts of takes things and flips them around. But I recently spoke to some women who were undecided about running either for Miss Universe or USA pageant and I always say to girls who are thinking of entering pageants — whatever the pageant is — you don’t go in it to win. If you are focusing on the shiny thing that you are going to wear on your head — and that’s the sole reason why you want to run in these things — you’re going to be disappointed, whether you win or not. If you go into it for the experience of learning to be the best you can be, pushing yourself beyond your limits, opening yourself to opportunities, then whether you get the shiny thing on your head or not, you’re going to win because you got the most out of the experience. It wasn’t until I entered pageants, that someone actually asked me what I thought of the world, and how I felt about things and what were my convictions. That’s really what got me hooked; finally having a voice and sharing my opinion with a lot of people — and they cared — became addictive to me.
You actually have to be a politician, a diplomat and look good in a bikini — all at the same time
SP: Miss Universe certainly would give you a forum to do that, in terms of sharing your opinion. Certainly, when you win a prestigious title you can persuade a younger generation on what it means to be beautiful. It really is about the people you meet. Now, about the girls, was there a great sense of camaraderie?
BL: There is and I’m not even joking. One year, I went back, when it was in Puerto Rico, I was a behind-the-scenes commentator, and I had to read the bios of the girls competing. You would be astounded at the level of accomplishment of most of these women; some were Astrophysics majors — things you think are impossible to be in the same world as pageantry. It’s the few that make a blunder, say a wrong thing, or get nervous on stage… those are the ones that get all the publicity. The women who speak eloquently, who say something profound that makes you proud, won’t necessarily get the front page or the attention, and that is for the most part, the majority of the women who come through this organization. That’s what really frustrates me. There is so much stigma attached to being a beauty queen, when you actually have to be a politician, a diplomat and look good in a bikini — all at the same time.
SP: [laughs] Absolutely. Well said. Speaking of blunders and saying the wrong thing, I watched the pageant when you won. You were up against, Miss Trinidad and Tobago, right?
BL: Yes, she was in the final three. It was me, Marena Bencomo and Margot was Miss Trinidad and Tobago.
SP: What was the question that George Hamilton asked you? Do you remember?
BL: Yes. We were all in the isolation booth, which they don’t do anymore, which is unfortunate because it’s always kind of fun. Anyway, the question they asked all three of us was, “if you had no rules in your life, what would you do?” I think, Miss Trinidad had said that she would run around naked or something like that.
BL: Which I thought was brilliant… I mean, I didn’t hear it until later, cause obviously I was in the isolation booth, but I was like, “okay.” And Miss Venezuela had said something like she would snap her fingers and travel around the world and then I busted out my famous saying which I have been living with for the last 14 years [laughs], I said, “if I had no rules, I would eat everything. I would eat everything twice.” I was really just making a direct sort of dig at the pageant and Donald Trump. He was making fun of Miss Venezuela who was Miss Universe before me, because she had gained so much weight — in his opinion. They were asking people to call in to a hotline to vote on whether the new Miss Universe should be held to a weight clause in a contract. That was never told to us as contestants, so when that happened, live on stage, I thought to myself, I’m going to work this in.
SP: Oh wow… bless you! I had no idea of all of that background stuff!
BL: Yeah… People who know me, know. I was literally speaking on behalf of women who were appalled that suddenly being hoodwinked into having a weight clause in your contract. And that’s literally why I answered the question the way I did.
SP: But there are a lot of employers that do have weight clauses in their contracts. I wrote about the Hooters waitress who was fired for putting on so much weight. In a way, I could understand, but I thought your answer was so true as it appealed to so many people in that it’s something everyone wants to do — eat everything — but you can’t, because you’ll get fat. And to hear it from a Miss Universe… to eat everything in the whole world — twice. It’s one of the things people yearn to do — to eat and not get fat.
BL: If there was a magical way to be able to do that, absolutely. But I answered the question based on there being no rules, and they were about to impose a new rule, about your weight being an issue if you can be a Miss Universe. So, my answer was that if you’re going to hold me to a weight clause — this is what I would do if there was no weight clause. Fortunately, or unfortunately, everywhere I went, people served me everything twice!
SP: [laughs] Did you get any back-lash from saying that? Did people just see it as humorous?
BL: People saw it as genuinely spontaneous. I’m sure Donald Trump took it with a grain of salt. For the most part, people thought it was great. It took the pageant to a level that was more accessible to people. I wasn’t making lofty claims of wanting to save whales or something like that. I was just answering the question.
SP: Well, well done with that! So, Brook, looking back, what is your take away from all of this? The whole competing business?
BL: It’s all about the experience you take from it. It does take you a little bit of time to “un-hook” from the machine. It’s now about the legacy. I’ve stood amongst women who’ve gone on to do fantastic things in their countries — Finland, Colombia, Brazil — the fact that I can stand in their presence and be part of that exclusivity… that club, the experiences that we’re the only ones that can collectively share what that was like. Of course, the “now what” exists… and that itself is more compelling. A legacy.
SP: It really all boils down to everything else about you, doesn’t it? I mean when you’re competing in these things.
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