Justine Pasek Magazine ArticleMiss Universe Justine Pasek interviewed by Chet Cooper

Building HIV/AIDS Awareness

“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 preponderance 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 person’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 Justine 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.

A 22-year-old native of Panama City, Panama, Justine is the daughter of a software engineer for the Panama Canal Authority and a homemaker, 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 a home for children sponsored by Caring for Children & Families with AIDS. 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.


Interview with 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 surrounding Noriega were becoming more widely known. What were your experiences during that time?

JP: I was 20 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.

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, packyour 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 ate a lot? (laughs)

JP: (laughs) ...with activities! As first runner-up, I received a strong response from the population in Panama,, 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 I 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 PROBIDSIDA, a foundation in Panama that is confronting 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 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.

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 the 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 fully 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.



More stories from Justine Pasek issue:

Govenor Jim McGreevey: Supercharged

Business is People: Interview with Panasonic's CEO

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