By Andrew R.C. Marshall
MANILA (Reuters) – Luis Singson, a larger-than-life Filipino tycoon who has brought the Miss Universe pageant to Manila, has much in common with the man who owned the franchise two years ago: U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
Both men are immensely wealthy and are immersed in politics. Both have a cologne named after them. And, in their own countries, both are synonymous with a globally televised beauty contest that has often been buffeted by politics.
Singson, a provincial police chief who survived bloody gunbattles in a family feud and then became a governor, however says he doesn’t see himself as a Trump in the making.
“We’re very different,” Singson said in an interview at his Manila mansion, its walls hung with photos of him posing with wild animals he has hunted and killed. “I’m going to give away my money. I don’t think Trump can do that.”
Singson’s LCS Group of Companies said it has paid $13 million in a one-off deal to bring Miss Universe to the Philippines, where the contest will be held on Monday morning to cater to Sunday night TV audiences in the West. It will be carried on the Fox network in the United States.
Singson, long-time governor of the northern Philippine province of Ilocos Sur before handing over to his son in 2013, amassed a fortune through agriculture, mining and transport. He hopes the beauty pageant will boost tourism and banish ugly headlines about his country’s bloody war on drugs.
“We might lose a little but it’s good for our country, good for our business,” he told Reuters. “This is the best vehicle to promote the Philippines.”
Even so, says Singson, his deal with the Miss Universe Organisation, which Trump part-owned as recently as 2015, almost fell apart after Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte took office in June.
Duterte launched a campaign against drugs that has since killed about 7,000 people, mostly users and small-time dealers.
When the United States expressed concern about the campaign, Duterte denounced then President Barack Obama as a “son of a bitch.” Soon after, Obama scrapped planned talks with Duterte on the sidelines of a regional summit in Laos.
All this unnerved the Miss Universe organisers and the contest was on the verge of cancellation, said Singson. The organisers declined to comment on Singson’s version of events, but said a solution was eventually found.
Singson supports Duterte and the anti-drug campaign and says the Philippines is “much safer” because of it.
In 2015, U.S. broadcasters NBC and Univision ended their association with the Miss Universe contest after Trump, then campaigning to become the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, called some Mexican immigrants “rapists.”
Miss Universe returned to haunt Trump’s presidential campaign last year, when Hillary Clinton criticised him for making derogatory remarks about the weight gain of a past winner, Alicia Machado.
POLITICS AND PAGEANTS
For Singson – better known by his nickname ‘Chavit’ – the pageant is a high point in a picaresque career. He also believes it is a shrewd investment.
Singson plans to expand his airline, Platinum Skies, which currently has four 32-passenger Dornier aircraft, and his bus company to capitalise on what he hopes will be a post-pageant surge in tourism.
Tourists are already visiting the Philippines in ever-greater numbers, particularly from China.
The Miss Universe contest will be a huge draw in the Philippines as well, where such pageants are closely followed. Imelda Marcos, the widow of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is a former beauty queen. So is Duterte’s long-time partner, Honeylet Avanceña, a nurse and businesswoman.
Philippine police officer Sofia Loren Deliu, known as the “Beauty Queen Cop,” reportedly joined Duterte’s security detail after participating in the Miss Earth contest.
One Manila congressman has urged Duterte to declare Monday a national holiday so that more people might watch the pageant. The reigning Miss Universe, Pia Wurtzbach, is a Filipina.
Over the decades, Singson has promoted many politicians, including boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, now a senator.
Singson has also helped topple others, most notably former President Joseph Estrada.
In 2000, Singson revealed that he handed over millions of pesos from an illegal numbers game to Estrada and his associates, accusations that eventually led to Estrada’s ouster and conviction for corruption.
Singson said he has survived six ambush attempts by a private army run by his cousins. Sixteen enemies died in one shoot-out, he said, and a 2003 film called “Chavit” – which he co-wrote – suggests he picked them off one by one.
Asked if that was true, he said: “I don’t know. It was an exchange of gunfire. I had to defend myself because I was ambushed at the time.”
Singson travels the world to hunt big game, an expensive hobby that might horrify many of Miss Universe’s 86 contestants who profess, in their official biographies, a passion for wildlife conservation and animal welfare.
He said an elephant he shot in Zimbabwe cost $150,000 “just to kill”, and tens of thousands of dollars to stuff and ship to his museum in Ilocos.
Displayed at his Manila mansion is a bloodstained shirt. Singson said he was wearing it when enemies threw grenades into a party he was attending in 1972, killing 11 people and wounding many more.
“Luckily I was dancing with a fat lady,” he said. “She absorbed all the shrapnel.”
The woman died in the attack, Singson said.
(Additional reporting by Karen Lema and Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)