Why Miss Universe Philippines Celeste Cortesi as Darna was a win for Filipino pop culture

The beauty queen dressed as the country's most famous superhero in the national costume round — and here's why that matters

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While other Miss Universe 2022 contestants picked intuitive symbols for their national costumes, Celeste Cortesi took the fantasy route.

During the pageant's national costume round, Miss Universe Philippines surprised the audience when she hit the New Orleans stage dressed as Darna, a revered comic book superhero in the South-East Asian country.

Many of Cortesi's supporters hailed the bold and creative choice, with some saying it's "about time" the fictional Filipino heroine is showcased on the global stage.

The Filipino-Italian beauty queen, however, ended her Miss Universe journey earlier than expected, as she did not make it to the top 16 — ending the Philippines's 12-year semi-finals streak.

Who is Darna?

Darna is an alien super-warrior created by the late Mars Ravelo, who was considered to be the "King of Philippine komiks". She is channelled by her mortal alter-ego, Narda, and comes to life by swallowing a white stone and shouting the superhero's name engraved on it.

The concept is believed to be first created by Ravelo around the time of the Second World War, which was also when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman first appeared in comic books in the US, in 1939.

The Filipino artist was inspired by the American superhero, so just like Superman, Darna can fly, has superhuman strength, is immune to man-made weapons and comes from another planet.

The character was initially published as Varga in 1947. Then, in 1950, Ravelo moved to a different publishing house, and relaunched the character as Darna, which marked the beginning of a meteoric rise for the Filipino superheroine. She was illustrated by Nestor Redondo, who would later work for DC and Marvel comics.

"Darna captured many aspects of the Filipino culture," Cherish Aileen Brillon, a Filipino scholar who has studied the fictional character for years, tells The National.

"Her, being a woman, at a time when superheroes were mostly men, made her really distinct, and that really resonated with Filipinos."

Her mortal alter-ego in the story, Narda, embodied the common Filipino, she explains, "although she is poor, and she's an orphan who was the maternal figure to her younger brother, she thrived".

"When she summons Darna, she transforms into a totally different person. She becomes powerful, self-assured and confident. For a country that has been colonised for many years, Darna is a strong aspirational figure. We wish to be like her."

This is why Cortesi wearing the Darna costume is a moment of celebration. "Because Darna has become more than just a comic book character for Filipinos — Cortesi's choice to portray her showed our identity and aspirations in a superhero language, which is extremely relatable globally," says Brillon.

It was also a perfect opportunity to introduce Philippine pop culture to the world, she adds. "We have a superhero who is almost just as old as the most popular superhero in the world."

The many adaptations of Darna

The Philippines has other local comic figures, including Lastikman, Captain Barbell and Dyesebel, but all fall short in comparison to Darna, whose relevance is even more punctuated by countless adaptations — from the big screen to the small, to even ballet productions, and now on the Miss Universe platform.

In 1951, the first film adaptation of Darna was released, followed by a sequel the next year. Three more actresses played Darna in various adaptations from 1964 to 1969.

A dictatorial regime took over the Philippines in 1972, but Darna's wings weren't clipped. In fact, during the martial law era, there was a wave of new adaptations, played by acclaimed actress Vilma Santos in four movies.

Vilma Santos as Darna. Photo: starforallseasons.com

"Vilma played a crucial role in further popularising Darna. Her portrayals earned the most box office success, with the first film even outside of the Philippines," says Brillon.

Brillon, who is a professor at the University of the Philippines, published a study in 2019, exploring how the story of Darna was made even more relevant during martial law, as she somehow became a symbol of the country's collective fight against fascist rule.

In 1986, dictator Ferdinand Marcos was toppled by Corazon Aquino, who, coincidentally, became the first female president of the Philippines, and also Asia's first female president.

Other iterations of Darna came out in the 1990s. In 2005, Darna was adapted for television again, this time appealing to a more contemporary audience. Angel Locsin, the actress who played her, has since been attached to the character, and is now almost synonymous with the name Darna.

Four years later, another Darna television series came out, and most recently, in 2022, another reboot premiered.

Scroll through the gallery below to see national costumes of Miss Universe 2022 contestants

Updated: January 16, 2023, 11:11 AM