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Michelle Dee's Miss Universe Gown: Honoring Apo Whang-od's Legacy or Exploiting Her Image?

Was Michelle Dee's Miss Universe evening gown a tribute to Apo Whang-od or a shameless act of cultural appropriation?

 |  7 min read

Michelle Dee's Miss Universe 2023 evening gown, inspired by Apo Whang-od, the revered Kalinga tattoo artist, has sparked heated debate. Was the gown a sincere tribute or an act of cultural exploitation?

Michelle Dee's Miss Universe 2023 evening gown is said to draw inspiration from Apo Whang-od, the renowned Kalinga "mambabatok" tattoo artist. However, many are left puzzled, myself included, as to how the gown truly reflects Whang-od's influence. Let's delve into the details and see if we can understand whether this connection is a heartfelt tribute or a strategic branding move.

Unveiling Michelle Dee's Miss Universe 2023 Gown: A Closer Look at the Apo Whang-Od Tribute

Philippines' Michelle Dee took center stage at the 72nd Miss Universe, showcasing her signature "Snake Walk" in a tattoo-inspired evening gown paying tribute to the oldest tattoo artist, Apo Whang-Od. Before scrutinizing the potential discrepancy between the claimed inspiration and the gown's design, let's delve into the details surrounding this creation.

The Inspiration

In an Instagram post, Michelle Dee described her gown as a heartfelt tribute to Apo Whang-Od, the last mambabatok of her generation. Whang-Od, a 106-year-old tattoo artist, employs a hand-tapping technique with thorns and bamboo sticks to ink Kalinga symbols on the skin. Dee emphasized Whang-Od's global recognition and her role as an icon preserving the rich cultural heritage of indigenous tattoo art.

Designer's Touch

Crafted by Mark Bumgarner, the same fashion designer behind Dee's green evening gown for the Miss Universe preliminary round, the long black bedazzled dress with intricate patterns carries a special significance. Bumgarner expressed his love and pride for the Philippines and Michelle Dee, aiming to make her look "powerful, like a warrior." The beading on the dress was intentionally designed to resemble tattoos, adding a layer of symbolism to the creation.

Apo Whang-Od's Influence

Bumgarner's message behind the gown was to resonate with Apo Whang-Od-a legendary Filipina whose art symbolizes bravery, beauty, and identity. The gown, according to Bumgarner, serves as a representation of timeless beauty, aligning with the broader theme of Miss Universe lifting age restrictions, championing inclusivity, and challenging age stereotypes.

Setting the Stage

Before we scrutinize the potential discrepancy between the gown's design and Apo Whang-Od's traditional tattooing style, it's important to acknowledge the thought and effort put into creating this piece. Michelle Dee's choice to honor Apo Whang-Od carries significant cultural weight, and Mark Bumgarner's artistic approach adds depth to the gown's symbolism. Now, let's critically examine how well the gown reflects the claimed inspiration from Apo Whang-Od's unique artistic legacy.

The Discrepancy

Described as black, sheer, and adorned with intricate tattoo motifs, Michelle Dee's gown doesn't seem to capture Apo Whang-od's distinct Kalinga tattoo art. Whang-Od's precise designs, using a razor-sharp thorn and thick black ink, are emblematic of the cultural richness of the Kalinga people. The absence of these elements in Dee's gown raises doubts about the claimed Apo Whang-od inspiration.

A Closer Look

Despite Dee expressing sincere admiration for Apo Whang-Od and labeling the gown as a tribute, the visual representation doesn't align with Whang-Od's traditional tattooing style. Whang-Od's designs typically feature intricate patterns inspired by the Kalinga tribal community, creating a gap between the claimed inspiration and the actual design. The negative aspect of this discrepancy is the potential misrepresentation of Apo Whang-Od's unique artistic legacy.

In using Whang-Od's name to associate with the gown, there's a risk of diluting the authenticity of her traditional tattooing methods, which involve a deeply cultural and symbolic process. Critics may argue that such associations could be seen as a superficial attempt to leverage Whang-Od's revered status for aesthetic purposes rather than genuinely paying homage to her heritage.

The Branding Angle

This brings us to the question: Why connect the gown to Apo Whang-Od? Is it a genuine honor to Whang-Od's legacy, or is it a strategic move to add cultural significance within the competitive sphere of a pageant? The potential concern could be the perception of leveraging Apo Whang-Od's revered status within the context of a pageant.

In the realm of a pageant, where contestants aim to distinguish themselves through cultural representation and meaningful narratives, associating the gown with Apo Whang-Od may be viewed as a strategic choice to enhance Michelle Dee's performance and garner attention from judges and audiences. It's like branding all shades of purple with "BTS" - a clever strategy to catch the eye, but does it truly capture the essence of the color or the cultural richness it represents?

However, this strategic angle raises questions about the authenticity of the connection and whether it truly reflects a sincere homage to Apo Whang-Od's cultural legacy.

While the primary goal may not be a direct one related to commerce, as in a typical business context, there's still a risk of diluting the profound cultural significance associated with Apo Whang-Od's traditional tattooing methods. Critics might playfully argue that, even within the pageant framework, using cultural symbols for strategic advantage could be perceived as a departure from the genuine essence of cultural representation and a potential oversimplification of Apo Whang-Od's invaluable contributions to indigenous tattoo art.

Impact on Pageant Performance

Talking about Michelle Dee's gown at Miss Universe 2023 and how it was inspired by Apo Whang-Od brings up questions about how it affected her performance in the pageant.

The gown, meant as a tribute to Apo Whang-Od, stands out for its cultural significance. However, it's not the usual evening gown you see in pageants. Instead, it leans more towards a costume look, similar to what Lady Gaga might wear, with its intricate tattoo motifs.

This bold departure from the usual might have resonated well with some people who appreciate artistic expression. On the other hand, it could be one reason Michelle Dee didn't make it into the Top 5, maybe even influencing her overall ranking in the competition.

This raises discussions about finding a balance between pushing artistic boundaries and meeting the expected standards for pageant attire. The impact of the gown on her ranking brings up broader questions about what's considered suitable for a pageant and how unconventional choices are received in a usually conservative setting.

As we look at how this gown was received, it makes you think about whether it was a unique way of expressing cultural pride or, as some argue, if it went too far into avant-garde costume territory, challenging the usual norms of Miss Universe evening gown presentations. Opinions on this may vary, but one thing is certain - it got people talking.


In wrapping up our exploration of Michelle Dee's Miss Universe 2023 gown and its supposed inspiration from Apo Whang-Od, we've delved into the debate around whether it's a genuine tribute or a calculated move within the pageant scene.

Despite the gown's departure from the usual evening gown style, leaning more towards a costume-like appearance, it stands out for its cultural significance. However, a crucial question remains: does it truly capture the essence of Apo Whang-Od's art, or is it a strategic move in the competitive world of pageants?

While both Michelle Dee and Mark Bumgarner stress the gown's role as a heartfelt tribute to Apo Whang-Od, a closer look suggests a potential mismatch between the claimed inspiration and the actual design. The absence of key elements from Whang-Od's distinct Kalinga tattoo art raises valid concerns about how authentically it reflects her unique artistic legacy.

In the pursuit of making a statement and standing out, there's a risk of diluting the authenticity of Apo Whang-Od's traditional tattooing methods. Critics may argue that, even within the context of a pageant, using cultural symbols for strategic advantage could be seen as moving away from genuine cultural representation.

As the gown's impact on Michelle Dee's pageant performance sparks discussions about pushing artistic boundaries and challenging norms, the overarching question remains open-ended. Whether the gown is a true tribute to Apo Whang-Od or a strategic branding move in the competitive realm is subjective, inviting diverse perspectives and interpretations.

In this concluding reflection, the article prompts readers to think about the delicate balance between cultural homage and strategic representation in the world of pageantry. It raises awareness about the complexities involved in weaving cultural narratives into competitive platforms, leaving us with a lingering question mark and urging us to navigate the blurred lines between inspiration and strategy with a discerning eye and an appreciation for cultural heritage.

What's your take on Michelle Dee's Miss Universe 2023 gown and its connection to Apo Whang-Od? Do you see it as a sincere tribute, capturing the essence of Whang-Od's art, or do you view it as a strategic move within the pageant context? Share your thoughts and opinions on this intriguing intersection of culture, fashion, and competitive representation.

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