Miss Universe Singapore Bernadette Belle Ong on the Power of Making Fashion Political
Earlier this month, Miss Universe Singapore Bernadette Belle Ong dominated headlines around the world with her bold, statement-making outfit at the Miss Universe 2021 National Costume Show. Designed by Arwin Meriales, the costume took inspiration from the Singapore flag with its red and white colour theme, but what caught the most attention was her advocacy for the #StopAsianHate movement with a hand painted message by Paulo Espinosa on her cape. It's a positive cultural shift, where people in the public eye are using their platform to draw attention to social issues in the wider world. Just think of Ong's peers, Miss Universe Myanmar Thuzar Wint Lwin and Miss Universe Uruguay Lola de los Santos, where the former drew attention to the situation in Myanmar, and the latter with an overarching message against discrimination and prejudice.
Here, we speak to Ong about her thought process for the design of her National Costume, the incredible response she has received, and the power of making fashion political.
Hi Bernadette, what an awesome message and outfit you rocked on the Miss Universe runway! How did you come up with the concept for it?
Thank you! Living in different places has allowed me to look at our nation with fresh eyes and not undervalue or take Singapore’s achievements for granted. One of these achievements is Singapore’s ability to be a multiracial, inter-religious and culturally diverse nation. Respect and harmony among all are interwoven in Singapore’s social fabric and I wanted to embody these values by making a bold statement that addresses the prejudice and violence happening in the world today.
I wanted a National Costume that was obviously emblematic of Singapore. I thought the flag was the most straight-forward embodiment of that. We originally had someone pitch the Singapore national flower—but that idea for National Costume has been overdone; and I wanted something that embodied Singapore’s social fabric.
What drew you to that message?
I wanted to use the Miss Universe platform to represent a larger purpose outside pageantry; and to bring light to grievances the world is facing today. While this may not be a message that necessarily resonates with everyone, racism exists everywhere, and that behaviour should always be called out.
Visibility on an international platform also means that I speak for causes that are relevant on a global level. Racism has been a prevailing global issue; and this type of violence extends beyond one race. Although I call out #StopAsianHate, other racially charged movements fall under the same overarching concern: contempt due to prejudice. My National Costume is a call for social harmony.
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What went through your mind when you took to the runway with that outfit?
I wanted to make a fierce entrance and project strength and impact to display resilience and fortitude. I also deliberately timed my turn with Nick (the emcee reading my National Costume bio) so that the final reveal was in sync with his prompt.
What was the Miss Universe team’s response when you told them about your outfit?
My director was in full agreement of my choice to make a political statement because it stood by the messaging I wanted to send out to the world: that I represent ethic diversity and social harmony by virtue of representing Singapore.
You chose to make a fashion moment a political moment as well—why did you choose to do so?
I felt it was important to showcase Singapore’s strong stance against racially charged violence whilst also highlighting the ethnic diversity and inclusivity melded into Singaporean culture. It is a call for other nations to look upon our nation, and witness different races co-existing harmoniously without contempt and strife.
What has the response been like for you?
The response has been overwhelming. This overwhelming reception just proves to show that it’s a message that needs to be put at the forefront in order for discussions to be had, because some people still deny that discrimination and the violence being played out goes hand in hand. This issue is also relevant in our local context and I chose to champion minority groups in Singapore. In particular, the migrant workers. I have worked closely with It’s Raining Raincoats on various initiatives to engage the community and improve their lives in Singapore.
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What’s next for you?
I will continue advocating for migrant workers and i’m looking into legislative case work for worker protection. So far, I have done a peer-to-peer literacy program (where I taught English), volunteered, raised funds, and petitioned for better transportation for migrant workers. I want to carry this advocacy forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.