Justine Pasek – Interview With Miss Universe 2002

Circa 2002

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” we’ve been told our entire lives, a rather subjective view at the very least. What about, “True beauty lies within?” Have we now addressed our subjective ideologies with a more, perhaps, objective approach? Okay, we may not always believe it, but we accept it. Despite this acceptance of proverbial fact, how many times have we inwardly grappled with the pre ponderance of what truly defines beauty? We anoint ourselves the “eye of the beholder” and have banded together to define what qualities exemplify beauty, but are we being honest with ourselves? If what some say is true, and you can see a per son’s character through their eyes, then can true beauty even be seen through the lens of a camera?

Ultimately, each one of us cultivates our own opinion as to what constitutes beauty, and our answers are as unique as a Shakespearian sunset. However, in an effort to answer the timeless question and identify beauty in its most exquisite form, we hold pageants-the rubrics of today’s competitions being as diverse as the contestants themselves. Score cards aside, one thing was sure during the 2002 Miss Universe competition, Justine Pasek was the crowd favorite from the beginning-they saw beauty. With a glimpse into Justine’s history of compassionate volunteerism, one may realize that Jus tine is not only the most beautiful in the eyes of the beholders, but that she truly possesses an inward beauty worthy of the crown.

The Miss Universe website describes the contestants as “savvy, goal-oriented and aware,” and Justine Pasek, the former Miss Panama and new Miss Universe 2002, unabashedly personifies these traits. During her reign as Miss Panama, she has worked with Casa Esperanza, which is an organization that helps street kids get off the street and into schools. She has also set up fashion shows for charitable organizations such as the Red Cross, FANLIC (Fundacion Amigos Ninos Con Leucemia Y Cancer), and Fundacion Son Felipe, among others.

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A 22 year-old native of Panama City, Panama, Justine is the daughter of a software engineer for the Panama Canal Authority and a home maker, and big sister to her two brothers ages 12 and 14. Her grandfather was a marine in World War II and a pilot for the Panama Canal Commission. Before ascending to the crown, Justine modeled, worked in production for television specials, charity events, theater musicals and fashion shows. She has had her family’s support as a competitor in swimming, basketball and volleyball, and has enjoyed drawing, ballet, tap, salsa and gourmet cooking lessons throughout her childhood.

As Miss Universe 2002, Justine will travel extensively. working with internationally recognized AIDS/HIV organizations, including the Global Health Council, the Harvard AIDS Institute, AmFAR and the Center for Disease Control’s “Act Now” campaign. As a celebrity spokesperson she will be responsible for working with the international media to generate a better understanding and acceptance of AIDS and HIV and its prevention while helping increase awareness, funding and resources for these key organizations.

Chet Cooper, ABILITY Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, had the opportunity to sit down with Justine during one of her recent visits to Los Angeles. The following day he was invited to join her for a tour of one of CCFA’s (Caring for Children & Families with AIDS) homes for children. He witnessed first-hand her grace and poise both on-camera and in the presence of the children. As she sat in a rocking chair, cradling an infant to sleep in her arms, it became apparent that the fight against AIDS and HIV could choose no better a woman to have on its side.

Chet interviewing Justine Pasek, Miss Universe
Chet Cooper interviewing Justine Pasek, Miss Universe

Chet Cooper: What did you do before winning the Miss Universe Pageant?

Justine Pasek: Since I graduated from high school, I have worked on my modeling and traveling.

CC: What prompted you to take the leap from modeling to the Miss Panama pageant?

JP: The modeling agency I was with in Panama worked with the pageant’s production department and trained the contestants. I had always seen girls training at the agency but I wasn’t really into it. Last year, I thought it would be a very challenging experience, so I took it and…

CC: What happened? (laughs)

JP: (laughs)…and here I am.

CC: Have you gone to college?

JP: I haven’t been through college yet, although I definitely plan to attend in the future.

CC: It was probably not long after you graduated from high school that the issues and conflicts sur rounding Noriega were becoming more widely known. What were your experiences during that time?

JP: I was twenty years-old when the United States launched Operation Just Cause to get him out of there. The whole country was in a huge depression. He did a lot of harm and he endlessly violated human rights. I think we agreed that he needed to be out, but we weren’t going to have the power to do it ourselves.

CC: How did the citizens of Panama feel about Operation Just Cause?

JP: Even though there were no economic and human losses, it was a process. It is part of Panama’s history that we had to go through as a nation.

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CC: Today does Panama have regulated elections?

JP: Oh, there were elections before too. It was just that they would put whomever was to their convenience in the presidential position and you never found out who really won. The voting was manipulated.

CC: And things are better today?

JP: Oh, sure! God only knows what would have happened if you hadn’t been there.

CC: You enter the pageant and are crowned Miss Panama. Next, you’re in the Miss Universe contest where you make it all the way to first runner-up. What then, pack your bags and go home?

JP: I did go back home, but I also did some traveling in those four months.

CC: With the modeling?

JP: I was either modeling or doing pageant work. In fact, I was here in Los Angeles last month. They invited me to the Grand Marshal’s Central American Independence Day. It was nice because at the time, I thought Panama was just going to be happy that I got so far in the pageant. Then I started getting calls from other Latin American countries telling me they felt they shared the pride. It was really, really nice to know that you are backed by the whole Latin community and not just by your country.

CC: As first runner-up, did you wonder about the possibilities of what you could have done with the crown?

JP: Something happened… when we were down to the five semi-finalists of the Miss Universe pageant, we were standing together on stage and right before they started calling out the positions, one of the girls said, “Best of luck to all of you.” But it’s not about luck, it’s about one girl’s destiny… this time, it ended up being about two girls’ destinies. I was really happy with the whole experience. It was fulfilling in many ways and I enjoyed it to my own surprise. There was a lot of activity and I had such a good time getting to meet… being in such a rich environment to me was awesome. I got a lot of love from the Puerto Rican community where the pageant was, and I enjoyed sharing our similarities. That was something that was really nice. On top of that, on the night of the pageant my main focus was to do my best and represent my country. When you work hard for something, it should have some kind of result; even if you don’t end up with the crown. If you do a good job and you represent your country the best you can, you should feel satisfied. Being up there on the stage… that night I was just really happy to be there because I didn’t have any pressure to win…. so getting first runner-up was pretty good for me. You know, I laughed that I was even in the show! (laughs) So I was happy with that. Of course, my plate was pretty full the whole time.

CC: So you are a lot? (laughs)

JP: (laughs)…with activities! As first runner-up, I received a strong response from the population in Pana ma,, from the government and from private companies. That attention gave me power to help certain organizations, which I started doing. Now we almost have to squeeze them into the schedule.

CC: Talk about destiny-now you have this second chance, what you are going to do with it?

JP: To be honest, locally I was pretty powerful at the time, so l think I was able to achieve what I wanted with just how far I had gotten. It was good enough and I felt that way… but for instance, before this happened, I was talking to some of the staff from the Miss Universe organization about supporting PROBIDSI DA, a foundation in Panama that is con fronting the issue of AIDS. I noticed in my work during the year at the agency that we do benefits all the time: shows for Red Cross, cancer organizations and all kinds of special a charities. Through it all, I never heard of us doing anything regarding AIDS and HIV. I had a meeting with the person from the foundation and discovered they need a lot of support. I suggested seeing if we could get back-up from Miss Universe and now that I’ve become Miss Universe I’m using that even more. It is important to understand something I never thought I didn’t have the ability to make a difference just because I wasn’t Miss Universe.

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CC: You returned to Panama after winning first runner up. When did you find out you were going to ascend to Miss Universe?

JP: About a month before it happened I was flown to New York for a photo shoot. They told me a modeling agency was interested in me and wanted to have pictures. I agreed because it was a free trip to New York! (laughs) I went to New York and had the photos done, the photos taken were the ones they used on the website and for the press when they crowned me a few weeks. later. Then they invited me to Japan and China as first runner-up, and I agreed to go. When Paula Shugart. who’s President of the Miss Universe organization, personally showed up at the airport to pick me up, I knew that something was going on. She told me straight up what was happening and as soon as I accepted, the photos taken a month earlier appeared on the website.

CC: Was this first time that Donald Trump crowned a Miss Universe?

JP: I think so.

CC: Can you describe the experience?

JP: Everything was very exciting. I had a few hours going from the airport to the press conference to full absorb what was happening. The press was very warm. I was just enjoying the moment and not really paying that much attention to what was going on around me When they put the crown on my head… that was the moment… that’s when it really sunk in. I was happy. I got a kick out of it.

CC: What transpired this year was unprecedented. Do you have any thoughts on what happened with the former Miss Universe?

JP: I really don’t have many thoughts of Oxana (Miss Russia). I just think that her situation wasn’t optimal for her to do this job, which is very, very demanding. It was just bad timing for her.

CC: You’ve had the chance to do so much in such a relatively short period of time. What has been the most rewarding experience so far?

JP: It’s been very rewarding when I think about how much media attention, I’ve received regarding the issues we care about in Panama. Having the power to bring those issues out into the open-especially HIV-it’s very rewarding. I visited a couple hospitals. Seeing the kids who are sick smile… and their heartbroken parents… to brighten their day is very rewarding. Most of the things that we do are rewarding.

CC: After a world-wide tour, you recently returned to your homeland of Panama for the first time since your coronation as Miss Universe. What was it like?

JP: It was probably the most Miss Universe experience I’ve had so far because we had security everywhere. We had Willie who was the security manager and then we had police escorting us everywhere we went. That’s the way I had always pictured Miss Universe traveled and when Oxana visited Panama, that’s the way it was for her. So far in my reign, I hadn’t really done it that way-with the crazy security thing. It was weird. I felt like a president, but it was very nice, I was happy. The people were very warm and loving and the whole country was very supportive. We got to do an inauguration for a testing center for PRO BIDSIDA, the foundation I’d most like to talk to you about. We also visited Barro Colorado Islands.

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CC: You’ve expressed an interest in environmental advocacy. Was the purpose of your visit to the islands regarding AIDS and HIV or the environment?

JP: That’s the sort of thing I’ve been trying to teach and educate the pub lic about as Miss Universe. People are just not very aware of what we have and the things that go on with the environment… and we have this place that is unique in the world and I wanted to draw attention… so we got the media to address the issues that I’m interested in: the AIDS issue and the tropical rain forests issue.

CC: You mentioned that you wanted to talk more about PROBIDSIDA. What does the foundation do?

JP: PROBIDSIDA is a foundation dedicated to the wellbeing and dignity of people living with AIDS in Panama. What we did was launch a testing center, hotline and a donation account. The fact that we had all the media’s attention geared toward the foundation was a great milestone in my country. You never hear about AIDS and HIV in the news, it doesn’t really happen.

CC: Holding the babies and interacting with the children at CCFA in Los Angeles… placing your crown on one of the young residents of the home-what were your feelings after that day?

JP: That was my first hands-on experience with the illness. It was a very moving and learning experience because of the human connection I developed. I learned from everyone I met and the things I saw. I learned from the children and from the people who are devoted to the children, the foundations. the researchers. the hospitals. I feel that I will become a better spokesperson every time that I have contact with people who have AIDS or HIV because then you really know. You really are in touch with what you’re talking about.

CC: When we were at CCFA, your publicist received a message that the President of Panama was in the hospital and that you were to call and help cheer her up. At the time, you laughed and admitted the whole experience was a little surreal-you were being called on to telephone the President. Have you had many similar celebrity moments like that?

JP: Oh yeah, I remember that happening. (laughs) No, I have not had many like that!

CC: Did you end up calling her?

JP: Yes, I spoke with her.

CC: Do you have any specific goals that you want to accomplish prior to the end of your reign?

JP: There’s really nothing I feel I haven’t been able to accomplish because we’ve covered so much. It’s a great feeling and I’m very pleased with the things that I’m still doing. It’s just a matter of time.

CC: Do you have any plans after your title ends?

JP: Well, fortunately, I’m going to make some money throughout the year. I’m planning on investing in my education.

CC: What are you going to study in school?

JP: My goal is to balance studies in environment with the fashion industry; it’s called fashion merchandising. I want to somehow use my career in the industry to reach more people and use my education to help build aware ness about environmental issues.

CC: Are you going to focus on environmental issues concerning manufacturing, sustainability and things of that nature?

JP: No, I want to use the fashion industry to garner attention towards the importance of protecting the environment.

CC. I believe you’ve mentioned the possibility of law school. Do you still have that in mind?

JP: I’m not sure. It’s still something I have to measure, but I don’t know if I’ll need it with the activism that I’m doing now. I’ll have to determine what I’m going to do.

CC: Have you considered politics?

JP: I’ve always had very strong opinions, on political, social, cultural and religious issues, but I never really thought about it. I thought about law… politics-not so much. But I don’t want to close myself to that kind of option either, because I think it’s an honor to work for your country and to improve it… if you really do it. (laughs) You know?

CC: (laughs) Yes. Politicians are servants to the people. It almost sounds from your back ground that’s what you want to do anyway.

JP: I don’t know, I wouldn’t go as far as to say I want to go into politics straight up. It’s definitely a very passionate world, so it is appealing to me. But I don’t know if I could.

CC: How are you at math?

JP: It’s not my favorite subject, but I can do well if I concentrate on it.

CC: I ask because I notice you’re left-handed. It seems as though many people who are left-handed tend to be more analytical.

JP: I’m very analytical.

CC: Then would you consider yourself a thinker or a feeler?

JP: Definitely both. It’s hard to separate between-as you mentioned-how we react to our feelings more than our rational thinking. I consider it a conflict because the mind works one way and the chest works another way.

CC: Here we call it the heart.

JP: No, because it’s not just the heart… I feel everything, everywhere. It’s not just limit ed to the heart.

foreword by Romney Snyder

May 2003, Panama will host the Miss Universe competition.



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