“With hard work, you can do anything,” said fashion designer R’Bonney Gabriel. Today, as Miss Universe 2022, she wants to inspire young women everywhere with her message. Just last year, the Houston resident clinched wins at the Miss Texas USA pageant, followed three months later at the Miss USA competition, and then three months later, on January 14, 2023, the crown of all crowns, Miss Universe.
Gabriel’s story is a multi-generational American dream. Her father immigrated to America with a college scholarship, $20, and the American dream in his heart. Throughout her childhood, he told her, “You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to make the best grades, you just have to be the hardest worker.” That taught her that even if someone wasn’t born with a natural gift or talent, he or she could still train and work hard to perfect a skill, and achieve any goal he or she set.
Her mother, who came from humble beginnings in Beaumont, Texas, taught her patience, faith, and unconditional love. She “grew up with warm Southern hospitality, [and] I carry that same energy with me no matter where I travel in the world.”
“The hard work ethic and ‘can-do attitude’ combined with my mother’s kindness and heart to serve others are key characteristics that have been instilled in me from a very young age, and are now more important than ever for my role as Miss Universe,” she said.
Gabriel recalls an anecdote from her childhood when she wanted an outdoor playground set that cost a lot of money.
“We received a catalog in the mail with these extravagant-looking playgrounds, … and my dad said that we could build it ourselves. He taught me how to dig a hole and mix cement to build a base, how to hammer nails, drill holes, use a level, etc. It was four stories high … with a tire swing, ladders, and even a bridge. That project really showed me how to take a vision and build it into a reality. That shaped me to have a ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality in life.”
The Pageant Bug
She began entering pageants at age 25, after being encouraged by a woman she kept running into at photo shoots. When she first started, the goal was to challenge herself and become better at communicating and speaking because she was very shy.
“I placed first runner-up at my first pageant,” she said, “and got the ‘pageant bug.’ She soon discovered that competing in pageants requires a lot of work. She trained daily for two and a half years to get to Miss Universe, taking hair lessons, make-up lessons, walking lessons, and weekly interview lessons.
“I did mock interviews, watched the news constantly, trained my mind to formulate my thoughts and opinions in a particular way, worked out intensely, dieted, found sponsors, and spent lots of time designing and sewing my outfits for the competition,” she said. “Pageantry took over my life to the point where I didn’t have time for much else, but it was worth it in the end.”
Another incentive to enter a pageant was her strong belief that you should always give things in life a try at least once. In fact, she was in a juggling club in college owing to a love of the circus arts, worked at a haunted house where she would pop out and scare people, and put her dorm room mattress under her cutting/sewing table to sleep on because she had a small room and most of it was taken over by sewing supplies and tools, which would ultimately lead to her fashion brand: R’Bonney Nola.
Gabriel is the first Filipina American to win Miss Texas, Miss USA, and Miss Universe. “[It] is a huge honor, and I hope this inspires others to embrace their unique culture. I hope this opens the door for more representation in pageantry,” she said.
Gabriel also believes in giving back; when she heard about Magpies & Peacocks, an organization dedicated to collecting, curating, and reusing post-consumer textiles to reduce waste in the fashion industry, she knew she wanted to get involved.
“I was already so passionate about recycled/sustainable fashion,” she said. “When I walked in for my first tour, Ahshia Berry, the co-owner, offered me a job to be the lead sewing instructor for the MAKR program, which offers sewing classes to women of Houston who have survived domestic violence and human trafficking. I was so happy to get started with them!”
At Home in Houston
Growing up in Houston gave her an open-minded outlook on life. “Houston is home to every culture and ethnicity,” she said. “My high school experience was a great time in my life. We had every cultural background at school, and I was friends with everyone.
Gabriel was also friends with different crowds based on the different activities she enjoyed growing up. “I played volleyball, played oboe in band, and attended yearbook class. This upbringing shaped me to accept anyone for who they are and showed me the beauty of so many different people.”
One of the most challenging parts of her reign so far is the cyberbullying and harsh online comments that get her down sometimes.
“I try my best to ignore it. I’ve realized that no matter what I do, I just can’t please everyone, so I just remind myself that my self-worth does not come from other peoples’ opinions about me,” she said.
When her year is done, she will continue building her sustainable fashion brand, R’Bonney Nola, as well as modeling and working to educate and inspire young girls and women through her sewing workshops and motivational speaking. With her “can-do attitude” and excellent work ethic, R’Bonney Gabriel has the world (and the universe) at her fingertips—one upcycled dress at a time.
From May Issue, Volume 3