Byrdie Miss Universe

Miss Universe R'Bonney Gabriel on Fashion, Filipino Culture, and Finding Her Voice

R'Bonney Gabriel's pageantry career has been full of historic wins. She was crowned Miss USA in 2022, becoming the first Filipino-American to take home the title. Gabriel continued her winning streak this year when she won the Miss Universe pageant, making her the first Miss USA to do so in 10 years (Olivia Culpo won in 2012). She impressed the judges and the world with her poise, philosophy on leadership, and unique passions. 

Gabriel believes this win is part of her destiny, but she says the experience is still a bit surreal. She never imagined she'd be a universally-known beauty queen one day. Gabriel grew up in Texas, describing herself as a reserved child. "I was extremely shy but curious about trying new things," she explains. "I was blessed to have parents who put me in many different programs. I tried ballet, softball, dance, volleyball, and band. I never thought I wanted to be a public speaker one day, though." Instead, Gabriel dreamed of working in fashion, falling in love with thrifting and designing in elementary school. She later earned a bachelor's degree in fashion design from the University of North Texas and launched her namesake eco-friendly clothing line, R'Bonney Nola

Gabriel turned her attention toward pageants two years ago after someone in the industry encouraged her to compete. Initially, she was hesitant. "I wasn't sure about it, but then I researched Miss Universe beauty queens like Catriona Gray," she explains. "She's from the Philippines, and I loved how she spoke." 

Watching Gray inspired Gabriel to embark on a similar path. For her, this journey has involved immense self-growth, even encouraging her to work through her nerves surrounding public speaking. "I started doing interview lessons once a week," she shares. "I would get so shy doing interviews, even mock interviews, but I just kept practicing because I wanted to be able to communicate who I am. I love how people like Les Brown move me with their words. One of my missions is to motivate people similarly."

It's safe to say Gabriel is doing just that. As Miss Universe, she aims to be a "transformational leader." She plans to use her global platform to inspire others to create change, highlight fashion as a force for good, and advocate for worthy causes. Ahead, Gabriel opens up more about her monumental win, her beauty routine, and practicing self-care amid her busy schedule.  

You are the first Miss USA to win Miss Universe in 10 years. When you were crowned, how did you feel? 

I was in complete disbelief. I never thought I'd be here. All my friends and family were crying tears of joy because they know I put my heart into whatever I do. I always felt like there was something greater for me, and I think Miss Universe is it. I also feel like this is part of my destiny because the competition was in New Orleans, and my middle name is Nola. Everybody calls New Orleans Nola.

Miss Universe

Courtesy of Miss Universe/ Byrdie

Your win means so much to the Filipino community. How does it feel to be a source of inspiration to so many? 

It's a huge honor because Filipino Americans are sometimes overlooked, and not everybody is familiar with Filipino culture. So, this is a chance to celebrate the culture. I hope my win plants seeds of growth in our society to recognize different cultures. Diversity is so important. Everybody wants to feel seen and heard in our country and worldwide.

You talked about being a "transformational leader" during the competition. What does that mean to you? 

A transformational leader identifies their unique abilities and shares them with the world to make it a better place. I'm very passionate about being a fashion designer. I've been doing it for half my life and now teach sewing classes to provide educational opportunities for women who have survived domestic violence and human trafficking. I also go to schools to help plant seeds of growth and imagination.

You mentioned your passion for fashion. What sparked this interest?

It started when I was a young girl. I loved looking at Vogue magazine and seeing the creative editorials. I also grew up going to the thrift store with my mom. I would find vintage pieces, and my mom would take them home and make new pieces for me. One time we purchased a puffy purple dress. It was an adult size, but she transformed it into my Halloween costume. Seeing her transform that piece inspired me, and I started making my own pieces. I fell in love with working with my hands and making something my own.

Miss Universe

Courtesy of Miss Universe/ Byrdie

You designed your swimsuit cape for the competition and added the quote, "If not now, then when?" What inspired this piece?

The Miss Universe Organization gave a white cape to all the contestants and told us to personalize it. I dyed mine orange, red, and black to symbolize a phoenix in the fire. I wanted to depict a phoenix rising from the ashes and coming back stronger and wiser through adversity. I also made wings in the back out of plastic bottles. It was fun to wear that on the stage and spread the message about sustainability. I worked on that piece until I left for the Miss Universe competition. I pulled all-nighters to bring it to life, even working on it on Christmas and New Year's Eve. 

Let’s talk about your competition glam. You wore a bold, red lip during the final round. Can you share what lipstick you were wearing?

During the finals, I wore a black gown. I wanted to be bold and wear a red lip with the dress. I used red lipstick and lip liner from MAC. I slapped it on quickly backstage. We had like three minutes to get ready. 

What are some of your other favorite makeup products? 

Eyebrow wax is one of my must-haves. Sometimes, I'll even wet a soap bar, put some on a brush, and apply it to my brows to keep them in place. I also have to have some concealer under my eyes and mascara.

What does your skincare routine consist of?

If I'm wearing a full face of makeup, I'll start by using a makeup wipe. Then, I'll wash my face twice to get the makeup off. Depending on my mood, my skincare routine can be either a three-step or a 10-step process. If I have time, I'll use a toner, serum, moisturizer, oil, and a face mask. I just started using Kora Organics products after my friend suggested I try them. I also just tried Olivia Quido's Secret Gold 24k Gold Mask, which is awesome.

Miss Universe

Courtesy of Miss Universe/ Byrdie

Now that the competition is over and you’re slowly settling in New York, how do you plan to practice self-care?

My current version of self-care is treating myself to pizza and ice cream. When my life gets more stable, self-care will involve going for walks in the morning, doing yoga, and journaling. I keep a journal with me wherever I go and like to write down five things I'm grateful for, no matter how hectic my schedule is. That keeps me centered.

What are some of the things you hope to do during your reign? 

I want to be the best Miss Universe possible and represent the brand well. We embody independent, empowered women. This role is all about advocating for special causes. Miss Universe works with Smile Train, and I'm very excited to work with them. I also want to continue using fashion as a force for good and raise awareness about sustainability in the industry. I'm looking forward to growing more as a woman and continuing to inspire people to work hard.

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