From The Straits Times    |
miss universe singapore 2023 priyanka annuncia

Sashes, smiles and sequins. For many, the shiny world of pageantry conjures up images of catty competition, unrealistic beauty standards, and oft-parodied calls for world peace.

But Miss Universe Singapore 2023 winner Priyanka Annuncia (crowned on her second try), is determined to dispel these notions, describing her experience in the pageant world so far as a “sisterhood”.

“It’s not about pitting women against one another,” she says. “It’s really about building women together. We’re all going through the same thing, feeling the pressure, and we are here to encourage one another.”

Only when the tiara comes off does the 26-year-old don her gloves for a grittier mission: taking aim at the dark underbelly of human trafficking, using the skills she has acquired as a licensed private investigator, as well as the degree she earned in business law and criminology, to support the work of Alliance Anti-Trafic (AAT), a non-profit fighting the sexual exploitation of women and children.

A personal trainer and one-time boxing coach, Priyanka is also passionate about fitness, which propelled her into promoting body positivity via a clothing line – in 2018, she launched Bodsitive, a line of workout attire and swimwear with inclusive sizing.

As such, the world of pageants has become her unlikely platform for reconciling all these varied interests. Priyanka believes that pageants can serve as a platform for inspiring others, and that has inspired her to compete in three pageants, no less: Miss Singapore Supranational in 2018 (she won the Singapore title and was voted Miss Congeniality on the international stage), an unsuccessful run for the Miss Universe Singapore title in 2022, and finally, a victorious bid for the crown this year.

While she did not make the top 20 at the international Miss Universe pageant in November, Priyanka was a silver finalist in the Voice For Change competition, where contestants share their advocacies in a three-minute video.

“Through this, I see myself as a transformational leader: someone who wants to do good, someone who can motivate, encourage and uplift others,” she says.

miss universe singapore 2023 priyanka annuncia
Satin dress, Prada

On a mission for justice

Hollywood can claim credit for sparking Priyanka’s interest in criminal justice – she is a fan of crime dramas like Criminal Minds. “I wanted to be a protector,” she reveals. “That was what led me to pursue my degree.”

Priyanka enrolled in business law and criminology courses at Murdoch University-Kaplan Singapore, but she was itching to do more. “I like to get hands-on, so I decided to get my PI (private investigator) licence, and do the groundwork,” she shares.

As a part-time PI, she investigated missing persons cases and matrimonial disputes, but the turning point that marked her foray into social justice came after she graduated, during a heartfelt conversation with a friend.

“He’s from Thailand, and he opened up to me about what happened to him… how he was trafficked and exploited when he was a child. That hit really hard,” she says. “So I decided to research and look up organisations, and that was how I came across AAT.”

AAT, a non-profit founded in 2001, has operations in Vietnam and Thailand, which are known destinations for trafficked victims. When the organisation’s Thailand office responded to Priyanka’s queries, she jumped at the chance to volunteer.

Since working with AAT, she has helped the organisation study investigation techniques, and held a training session on the topic. She helped implement activities with survivors of trafficking in Thai government shelters, and researched international laws to compare against Thai legislation to identify areas for improvement. She also assisted the organisation with investigations and rescuing survivors, but declined to reveal details, citing the sensitivities involved.

“My years as a PI on the ground enabled me to work well in a team, have patience and a sharp eye on what to look out for, as well have solution-based approaches to investigation obstacles I faced,” she shares.

Priyanka’s heightened profile since winning the Miss Universe Singapore title might seem at odds with a role that calls for discretion and sensitivity, but the win has opened new doors for her. In October, she joined non-profit International Justice Mission on a trip to Washington DC to advocate for new laws to better protect children from online sexual exploitation.

“Winning this title means that I can get a seat at the table and enact change in the world. And that is powerful,” she says.

With her newfound platform, Priyanka plans to raise even more awareness, such as by making a documentary about fighting human trafficking some day, and continuing to do more anti-trafficking training for investigators, “so people in their own communities can tackle their problems and be empowered”. She also plans to further her studies in this area to continue her advocacy work.

miss universe singapore 2023 priyanka annuncia
Metallic ruched dress, Dolce & Gabbana
miss universe singapore 2023 priyanka annuncia
Velvet off-shoulder mini dress, & Other Stories. Metallic fingerless gloves, Dolce & Gabbana. Metal disc earrings, H&M

Reclaiming the pageant queen title

The self-professed tomboy was an unabashed admirer of pageants growing up. “As a child, I watched Miss Universe and Miss World on TV… it all seemed so glamorous!” she recalls. And she is unapologetic about entering a competition that has been crowning a narrow ideal of womanhood since 1952.

The dark side of pageants is well-documented – the perpetuation of Western-centric beauty standards (long hair, slim waists, Caucasian-esque features), the pressure on contestants to lose weight and have plastic surgery – but Priyanka wants to reclaim the beauty queen title on her own terms.

“Pageants are one platform on which women are celebrated,” she says. “I see these platforms as a show of confidence, where a woman is confident and authentically herself.”

Priyanka has always been confident, even if she didn’t view herself as beauty pageant material initially.

“When I was younger, I was a real tomboy – I didn’t see myself in shiny dresses. When I got into fitness, I felt like I had to be tough,” says the one-time boxing instructor. “But I was confident about myself and who I was. I was comfortable with my looks.”

Part of this stems from her upbringing. Priyanka’s parents did not impose limits or demands on their three daughters. “My parents told us we could be anything. We didn’t have to be doctors or lawyers,” says Priyanka, who is the middle child. “They didn’t tell us to follow a certain path.”

Her faith has also been key. “I am very rooted in my faith as a Christian; it’s very grounding. I know who I am, and I feel I can be authentically myself,” she adds. Eventually, she learnt to embrace her femininity and even signed on with a modelling agency. “Looking back, I think I wanted to challenge my own perceptions and stereotypes [about what it means to be a woman].”

This deep core of confidence came to the fore when Priyanka lost her bid for the Miss Universe Singapore crown in 2022 – she did not even crack the top five and, for the first time in her life, self-doubt took over.

“I was broken, just completely broken. I’d been working so hard, and I asked myself, ‘Did I lack something? Was there something wrong with me?’ I was just crushed,” recalls Priyanka.

The immense pressure she’d placed on herself during her 2022 run made her feel “not authentic”. She says: “I went in with the expectation that I was already a winner of another competition [Miss Singapore Supranational in 2018], and if I lose, that’s really bad. I felt I had to be perfect. Basically, I can’t make a mistake.”

But once she had the time to rest and come to terms with the outcome, she saw the bright side coming through the hard way. “I think being broken helped me find myself more. I went back to my faith, and I felt more at ease. I learnt about what was within my control, and what wasn’t.”

miss universe singapore 2023 priyanka annuncia
Duchess satin top, Prada. Earrings, stylist’s own. Nose ring, Priyanka’s own
miss universe singapore 2023 priyanka annuncia
Duchess satin top, Prada. Earrings, stylist’s own. Nose ring, Priyanka’s own

Finding her authentic self

To the surprise of her family and peers, she decided to dive right back into the fray and try again for the title this year, armed with a fresh determination to be herself.

“[After last year], I had to work on redefining myself, stripping away whatever titles and expectations I had of myself, and find out: ‘Who is Priyanka? What is she passionate about?’” she says.

The change in event organiser also gave Priyanka fresh motivation – the pageant’s new organiser is Pink Tank Events, an Australia-based company that also runs Miss Universe Australia and Miss Universe New Zealand. Through the self-development courses provided as part of the competition prep – which run the gamut from catwalk training to public speaking – Priyanka found her “inner voice”.

“I really dug deep and asked myself who I really was. It was game-changing. I felt like I discovered a side of Priyanka I hadn’t seen – someone who was unapologetic. I became better at drawing boundaries, and less of a people pleaser. I felt like I became more real,” she muses.

During competitions, she has seen women reassure one another in moments of insecurity. “Some women feel like they don’t deserve to be there, and another sister comes over, and she’s like, ‘No, it took a lot for you to be here’,” shares Priyanka who, likewise, has tried to provide a listening ear for other women during pageants.

“We try to be each other’s support system, and I feel like that’s not really talked about.” But in a space that demands perfection of women – perfect looks, stellar achievements – how “real” can Priyanka really be? After all, the first time she took part in a pageant, she bought herself a pair of 10cm heels and did household chores in them, to master her sashay – hardly a realistic experience of the everyday woman.

“Well, what is perfection anyway?” counters Priyanka. “Perfection means different things to different people. It all boils down to being authentic, and how I represent myself.” She is proud to have represented Singapore as a minority, and her work as a personal trainer, an owner of a body-positive clothing line, and advocate against human-trafficking, embodies her dream of being a “transformation leader who can inspire others”, she points out.

Is she worried about being judged as a pageant queen for the rest of her life, long after the glitter of her reign in Singapore settles?

“No, I’m not worried because the title to me is so much more than just what is at face value,” says Priyanka. “If an individual wants to judge me at face value, that’s their own perception. In their own heads, that’s what they’re thinking, and they’re judging me based on that.

“But this title is so much more – the doors it has opened, the opportunities I’ve had, and the people I’ve been able to impact. I’m really excited to use this as a stepping stone for whatever I want to do next.”

miss universe singapore 2023 priyanka annuncia
The Miss Universe 2023 official costume: Brocade jacket and bodysuit with attached skirt, Lisa von Tang. Velvet strappy sandals, Priyanka’s own

STYLIST’S ASSISTANTS Jeanne Ardella & Isabella Luna
Amos Lee & Ho Jia Hong
HAIR Grego
MAKEUP Clarence Lee, using Hermes Beauty