27th place – Martha Vascocellos (Brazil)
(Our judges are: Greg Borowski, Willian Prendiz de Jurado, Edwin Toledo (Times of Beauty), Ricardo Guiraldes (Chilean Charm), Julio Rodriguez (Belleza Venezolana), Alberto Dubal (Miss Memorabilia), Jimmy Harris (Beauty School), Pepe Medel, Jean-Marie Vandecasteele, Andre Sleigh, Rose Foulger, Luis Trujillo. From GB, Ed Dominguez, Henrique Fontes, and Chris Kuntz)
For the first time since 1965, Miss Universe candidates did not travel to Brazil before going to Miami. The Europeans stopped by in New York, and the Asians spent some time in L.A., before they all gathered in sunny Miami Beach for the 17th edition of the Miss Universe pageant.
The 1960’s was a decade characterized by radical political and cultural changes in most parts of the world. People fought for love, sexual freedom, the end of colonialism, peace, equal rights for all genders and races, which contrasted with the non-sense Vietnam War, for instance.
In that context, Miss Universe was considered an outdated event, produced for the American mid-class. However, it kept on growing in popularity outside the boarders of the US, and in 1968 sixty-five countries, a record number that would be broken only in 1975, participated in the pageant.
For the Miss U organizers, it was of not interest to modernize the pageant or to use it to promote the revolutions and protests which were taking place everywhere. However, contestants themselves started showing a different profile from previous years. If most of them remained conservative, at least they lost that “movie star diva” air that they carried until the early 1960’s, and started acting more like models.
After 1966, some sort of “fashion revolution” took place in the world, new tendencies appeared, the feminine silhouette got to be more valued. Women of most nationalities started finding more space in their societies, and when it came to fashion, they started allowing themselves to show some more skin.
The first supermodels came to life and started dictating fashion tendencies, a trend that tended to grow in the upcoming decades. Glamour magazine published the first official list of supermodels, which included Twiggy, Cheryl Tiegs, Wilhelmina, Veruschka, Jean Shrimpton, Marisa Berenson, Benedetta Barzini, and the first black supermodel, Naomi Sims.
Beauty queens started adopting the models way of walking, talking, posing for photos. It was something new and cool, they wanted to use the pageant to become famous models themselves. In 1968, several candidates adopted the model style: Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Curaçao, Nicaragua, USA, Canada, France, England, Wales, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Congo, Switzerland, South Africa, Austria, Greece, Italy, and Yugoslavia. However, the most model-like candidate in the group was Miss Curaçao.
Miss England, one of the most charming delegates in 1968, left her job as a sales clerk, to risk everything in beauty pageants: “If I win, I will make much more money than working in a supermarket”. Miss Sweden commented about her experience: “They told me it would be lots of work! And it looks they were right! But I love it! Even if I don’t win I would like to come back here to live and work as a model”!.
Miss Greece, the sexy and sophisticated Miranta Zafiropoulou, was great in her interview with Bob Barker. Many people thought she should’ve been a finalist. Miranta became an actress in Greece, and can be seen in television shows and movies even today.
Yugoslavia, elected Miss Photogenic, Malta, and Congo (Kinshasa), participated in Miss Universe for the first time. Okinawa participated for the last time.
Since her arrival in Miami Beach, the bombshell from Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s Daliborka Stojsić, caught the attention of press photographers, journalists, and people in general, not only for her undeniable beauty, but also for being the first candidate from the Communist block to compete in Miss Universe in the 1960’s. She was one of the favorites for the crown, along with Misses Brazil, Wales, Finland, Greece, England, and France. Misses USA, Israel, and South Africa, followed in a second group of favorites.
Elizabeth Tavares, the first Miss Congo in Miss Universe, was considered a favorite by most other contestants. They thought she was very elegant and beautiful, and that she had everything to become the first black Miss Universe. Miss Congo, however, never believed it could happen: “I come from a country most people don’t even know exists, and I don’t think they appreciate black beauties here”. She was right about not winning, as a matter of fact, she wasn’t even a semi-finalist. However, another black candidate was about to make history in 1968…
Miss Brazil, Bahia’s own Martha Vasconcellos, was always the #1 favorite among the Latins. Her beautiful green eyes and perfect body statistics, granted her the favorite status. She was also news in local publications for always finding a way to take a nap, whenever she sat down, leaned on some other candidate’s shoulder, or even standing up!
Leena Marketta Brusin, the stunning Miss Finland, when told by a journalist that she could win, responded: “Are you joking?? All those girls are prettier than me!”. Leena was destined to win the Miss Europe title, later that year.
Miss South Africa, Monica Fairall, watched television for the first time in her life in Miami. It had not yet arrived in her country. The South African blonde caused sensation in the preliminary evening gown competition, wearing a daring dress “with its back cut as far below the waist as the law allows, even lower than her backless bathing suit”. Although she was one of the most applauded girls that night, her name was not called among the semi-finalists. Even Sylvia Hitchicock, Miss Universe 1967, tried to convince her not to wear it, but it was useless. “I’ve made quite a sensation, it was worth it”. Indeed, Miss South Africa’s daring move, which might have cost her a spot among the semi-finalists, was the closest thing to what the 1960’s represented in the “real universe”: she dared!
The top 15 in the preliminary swimsuit competition were Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Curacao, England , France, Israel, Korea, Nicaragua, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Thailand, USA , and Yugoslavia. Out of the 15, only Bolivia, Korea, Nicaragua, and South Africa would not advance to the semi-finals at the final event. Miss Nicaragua was a finalist in Miss World that same year, finishing as 6th runner-up. Miss South Africa would be a Miss World semi-finalist a couple of years later.
The theme production of Miss Universe 1968 was South American Extravaganza, but in reality, coincidence or not, it was a tribute to Brazil. The candidates sang songs like “Mais que nada” and other Bossa Nova titles in Portuguese!
The names of the 15 semi-finalists were announced: Venezuela, U.S.A., Greece, Yugoslavia, Chile, Israel, Canada, Norway, Curacao, Thailand, England, Brazil, Finland, France and Sweden. Misses South Africa and Wales were the only “big misses” of that year, and it was a very competitive group of semi-finalists. Miss Japan, chosen as Miss Amity by the other contestants, cried a river when she learned that she was not in the semi-finals.
Peggy Kopp, Miss Venezuela, opened the swimsuit parade with much grace and presence. Her exclusion from the preliminary swimsuit top 15 had been a hot topic of conversation among people after the presentation show. That night, however, she gave her very best, and suddenly became a favorite for the crown. Another stand out was Miss Curaçao. The black Caribbean beauty charmed the audience (and the judges) walking the runway like a true supermodel. Miss Chile, one of the surprises in the top 15, did a very good job, and so did Misses Finland, USA, Israel, and Yugoslavia. Miss Brazil also did an excellent job, showing maximum confidence, and being applauded by over 800 Brazilians present at the Miami Beach Convention Center from the beginning until the end of her presentation!
In evening gowns, the candidates from Venezuela, Greece, Curaçao, Finland, and Brazil, all did a great job. Miss England was the sexiest. Miss Yugoslavia, perhaps the #1 favorite when the pageant started, was not among the best on the runway, and at the point, many people suspected that she would not even reach the top 5. Miss Brazil wore a violet blue see-through gown, and she had to borrow Miss France’s hostess used panties, since hers had disappeared!
The top 5 finalists were announced: USA, Brazil, Finland, Venezuela, and Curaçao. For the first time in Miss Universe history, a black candidate had reached the pageant’s final stage of competition. Anne Marie Braafheid made history that night in Miami Beach.
After the final round of questions, Misses Curaçao and Venezuela gave the best answers, while Miss Brazil could not answer hers – simply saying: “I can’t speak”. Nowadays, it would certainly have cost her the crown!
Miss USA was the 4th runner-up, Miss Venezuela was the 3rd runner-up, and Miss Finland was the 2nd runner-up.
Misses Curaçao and Brazil were left on stage, and the world wondered if a first black Miss Universe was about to be crowned! “The first runner-up is Miss Curaçao, Miss Universe 1968 is Miss Brazil!”, Bob Barker announced.
Although Miss Curaçao did not win, her placement represented a huge step stone for black women, who realized they could do well in the pageant.
The Brazilian themed-pageant ended with a Brazilian winner.
In Brazil, especially in her native Salvador, capital of Bahia, the second woman to be crowned Miss Universe was welcomed like a true queen.
Martha was a controversial woman. Anamaria Cumba, the Brazilian chaperone (actually from Bahia, Martha’s state) who wrote the book “The World of Miss Universe”, did not have many good things to say about Vanconcellos. In Cumba’s own words, Miss Brazil was still sleeping when all other contestants were up for registration in the first official day of competition: “”Miss Brazil is a spoiled brat – wait till you see her. The first thing she did after she arrived was to order a big meal and wash her long hair; then she took one of the beds for herself. There is a woman who came with her (the daughter of the Governor of Bahia), and she has been bossing me around. She is driving me crazy!”, Cumba was told by another chaperone.
Cumba said that Martha was a very difficult Miss Universe to work with, who gave Miss Universe organizers many headaches. She ended the chapter on Miss U 1968 by saying: “Martha joined the pageant strictly to market her beauty. She needed money to get married and the only way to get it was to take advantage of her merchandise. That was her then… If you got it… flaunt it!
On July 20, 1969, when she crowned Gloria Diaz from the Philippines as her successor, it was the happiest day of the year for me!”.
Conversely, the Brazilian press always described Martha as an intelligent woman, who spoke fluent English, and was always friendly and ready to make new friendships.
Vasconcellos today leads a quiet and private life, practically disappearing from the public eye. She has two children from her first wedding to Reinaldo Loureiro: Leonardo and Leilane. She is currently living in the Boston, USA, where she studied Psychology.
Special thanks to Alberto Dubal for his valuable contribution!