NEW YORK (KTRK) -- Houston, we have a triple crown! R'Bonney Gabriel was crowned the 71st Miss Universe in New Orleans on Saturday after competing against contestants from 83 other countries. She is the first Miss USA to win the international title in a decade and first from Southeast Texas since the late Chelsi Smith in 1995.
"It was nonstop. I wasn't sleeping a lot. It was really busy. But I really had the time of my life. Those two weeks were so much fun. I had never been around so many beautiful, smart, and dynamic women before from all over the world," she said. "To spend every day with them, it was so interesting."
ABC13 has been following Gabriel's journey since she won Miss Texas USA and caught up with her again when she was preparing to leave for Miss Universe. This time, Gabriel spoke to ABC13 via Zoom from New York City, where she will be living during her year of service. She will also spend a lot of time commuting to and from Thailand, where the new leadership of Miss Universe is headquartered.
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Gabriel shared that one of her favorite and most unforgettable memories was participating in the Mardi Gras parade in her national costume. The impressive outfit, named "Women on the Moon," was a tribute to Houston's very own NASA Johnson Space Center working to send the first woman to the moon.
She said the replica of the moon was so large that it couldn't fit through a door. The costume, which weighed at least 30 pounds, required a whole team to transport from the Philippines to New Orleans.
"The designer finished it a week before the competition. To ship it to America was going to be about $4,000 and we didn't know if it would come in time. My parents are the real heroes here. They flew to the Philippines a couple days after Christmas to retrieve it," Gabriel said. "It almost didn't make it onto the plane until my dad tipped off the Filipinos at the airport that this was for Miss Universe. By the time I got on stage, I just had to laugh about everything it had been through."
One of her biggest insecurities while competing was polishing her runway walk, which fans said she executed flawlessly. Gabriel believes that one of the keys of her success was finding ways to stay focused emotionally and mentally. She shared that one of her favorite books is "Live Your Dreams" by Les Brown.
"I read books a lot. I was always feeding my mind with vocabulary and words of motivation. The mind is the most powerful tool in the competition. That's where you get your confidence. I always say when we feed our body with healthy foods to stay feeling good, we have to feed our mind the same way with healthy thoughts in words," Gabriel said.
During the Top 5 Q&A, Gabriel was asked, "Miss Universe recently made an inclusive change allowing mothers and married women to compete this year. What's another change you'd like to see and why?"
She answered that she would like to see the age limit raised from 28, before she ultimately became the oldest woman to ever win the Miss Universe title. Gabriel shared that she only began competing in pageants two years ago. Her cape during the swimsuit competition bore the message, "If not now, then when?"
"I started pageants late in the game and I think that the idea of age can deter a lot of women from trying new things. My age could have easily steered me away from trying a pageant, because maybe I felt like I was already too far along in my life's path. I never want any woman to feel that way. It really is never too late to try anything new," she said.
Gabriel is known for her passion of environmental sustainability in the fashion industry. Her biography on the Miss Universe website states she was a high school volleyball player who pivoted to fashion and quickly fell in love with constructing designs with fabrics and textiles at the age of 15. She earned a bachelor's degree in fashion design from the University of North Texas in 2018.
Up until January, she was the lead sewing instructor at Magpies and Peacocks in the EaDo district, teaching sewing classes to survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. The nonprofit design house is dedicated to using "fashion as a force for good" through sustainability and community impact.
She makes most of her pieces by hand in the studio, especially the ones that can be seen in videos of photos on her Instagram account. However, Gabriel said she did hire a team of seamstresses to help work on her Miss Universe wardrobe due to the extensive lineup and the short amount of preparation period they had.
Her interview outfit was designed with the theme of thunderstorms. Gabriel said it was inspired by her experience during the three months she served as Miss USA. Her national win was clouded with controversy, when several state titleholders accused the pageant organization of favoritism and rigging the results.
The Miss Universe Organization launched an investigation and ultimately allowed Gabriel to keep her title. Gabriel has also denied allegations of her receiving an unfair advantage in the competition.
"It (Gabriel's interview outfit) was really reflecting the time I was going through that was kind of very troubling as Miss USA, preparing for Miss Universe. It was just chaotic and stressful. My ideas come from anywhere, whether it's my mood or what I'm going through in life. So I painted the sides to create clouds and rain. I wanted to share the message that you can find beauty within a storm," she said.
She went on to say, "Never let negativity stop you from your greatness. I doubted myself a lot. There were times I wanted to give up, but I didn't let it bring me down. I ended up winning Miss Universe and it was the sweetest victory ever. I really can't believe it. I hope this inspires everyone."
Last year, Gabriel made history twice. She became the first Asian American woman to win Miss Texas USA and the first Filipina American to win Miss USA. Her mom is from Beaumont and her father is an immigrant from the Philippines. She said visiting her dad's hometown when she was a child helped instill a good work ethic in her.
"In the Philippines, they have that 'do it yourself' mentality. If something is broken, they'll find anything in the room to fix it and work with what they've got. No excuses. So I was taught at any early age to make things happen for yourself, even if you have limited resources," Gabriel said.
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Even after winning Miss Universe, Gabriel said she hasn't been able to get much sleep due to the adrenaline of her busy schedule. The day immediately after the international competition, she began media week and has been interviewing with different news outlets nonstop.
However, she has been able to finally eat some pizza -- the food she said she missed the most while dieting and training for pageants. After spending the last two years preparing for pageants, Gabriel expressed that she feels an immense amount of pressure lifted off her shoulders after winning the most coveted pageant crown in the world.
"I'm still going to work really hard, not towards competition anymore. But to really make the most of my reign and be the best titleholder I can this year. Miss Universe is a huge honor and big responsibility. I want to make the most of it and grow even more as a woman, become a better speaker and make an impact all over the world. It's pressure, but in a different way," Gabriel said.
As she travels all over the world during her year of service, Gabriel said she will carry Houston with her everywhere she goes. She expressed that she is extremely proud to be a Houstonian and is extremely appreciative of the support from her hometown.
"I would love the world to know how talented and hardworking Houstonians are. We are very diverse. We're open-minded and we come together. I mean, we've been through a lot as a city. Talk about Hurricane Harvey, the city really came together to help people out when their houses got flooded or damaged. We will have each other's back no matter what and I'm very proud of that. I'm proud to be a Houstonian and I will rep that forever."
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