Miss Universe Credits Filipino-Texas Family for Her Crown 

R’Bonney Gabriel is the first Filipina American to wear the Miss Universe crown in the pageant’s seven-decade history and, at 28, the oldest entrant ever crowned.

Gabriel, the first American to win the contest since 2012, believes her success was shaped by her biracial background, which she describes as a combination of her “big, loud and fun” paternal Filipino family and her “charming, small and reserved” maternal Texan family.

“The two different sides of my family really, really shaped me to be open-minded and realize people have different ways of going about things and showing their love,” Gabriel told VOA’s Thai Service during an interview in New York days after her victory on January 14. “It really helped me to be more of a dynamic person and really just accept anybody for who they are.”

Gabriel, however, said she could not help but feel like a minority as she grew up in two Texas cities in the Houston area, Missouri City and Friendswood, where there were few Asian Americans even though that cohort is now the state’s fastest-growing demographic.

“Sometimes I wondered where I fit in, especially as a kid. We always just want to fit in and feel cool and accepted,” she said, adding that as an adult she’s come to see the importance of embracing one’s own culture.

Gabriel hopes that her victory as the oldest Miss Universe will show people that they should love themselves for being who they are.

“As a woman, I believe age does not define us,” the 28-year-old said during the Top 5 round of the final competition. “It’s not tomorrow, it’s not yesterday, but it’s now. The time is now that you can go after what you want.”

And she says she didn’t realize she would be the first Filipina American to be Miss Universe until she won the pageant which she entered, in part, to promote her sustainable clothing line, R’Bonney Nola.

Gabriel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion design at the University of North Texas, displayed her design sensibility on the final day of competition. She wore a dramatic black-and-blue evening gown with glass beaded fringe by Filipino designer Rian Fernandez for the Top 5 round. She stood out from others who competed in lighter-colored confections.

“I told him that I wanted something bold, something dark and strong. And we went with black because not a lot of girls have won Miss Universe in a black gown,” she said.

“People may be fans of it or not but that doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, I love it and I own it, and that’s really a message that everybody can really resonate with,” she said. “I think we all have different styles that we need to play into different personalities to not be scared, to express it. Never play it safe in life.”

Three months before being selected as Miss Universe, Gabriel won the Miss USA 2022 contest with another unique outfit dubbed “A Beautiful Storm.” Having begun experimenting with textiles when she was 15, Gabriel painted a midnight blue tank top and trousers with “storm and rain clouds” in white, gray and blue to reflect the turmoil she felt.

“I think everybody in life, when they’re going through a storm, they’re either entering a storm or leaving a storm,” she said. “But we have to find beauty in the darkness and beauty in the chaos.”

Her turmoil was only exacerbated when allegations emerged that the voting in the Miss USA contest had been rigged to ensure her victory. The contest organizers told the Los Angeles Times the allegations were “false” and “absurd.”

Keeping that mind positive on days when the world felt like I cheated to win Miss USA even though it wasn’t true.”

Moving forward, Gabriel continued to promote sustainable fashion, the hallmark of her R’Bonney Nola line. A fluffy white top designed by fine artist Rene Garza that Gabriel wore for a Miss Universe photoshoot at the Empire State Building was made with recycled plastic-mesh flower protectors.

“I want to continue promoting that all over the world, showing how you can upcycle pieces and make something fabulous,” said Gabriel, who also teaches sewing classes for low-income women who have suffered domestic violence or human trafficking.

“Women are so talented,” she said. “If we… provide those learning opportunities, it really equals empowerment and opportunity to continue on in life and change the financial ecosystem that they’ve grown up in.”

A US Political Divide on Shoot-down of Chinese Spy Balloon  

A political partisan divide quickly emerged Sunday over the U.S. shoot-down of a Chinese spy balloon, with the Biden administration defending its safe takedown offshore over the Atlantic Ocean while Republicans contended it should have been shot down more than a week ago before it could fly across the country over key military installations.

Pete Buttigieg, President Joe Biden’s transportation chief, told CNN’s “State of the Union” show that China’s deployment of the balloon was “an unacceptable intrusion on American sovereignty.” But he said the U.S. military, on Biden’s order last Wednesday, shot it down Saturday “without any damage to people or property…after assessment of the risks” of doing it over the U.S. mainland.

“This was done in a very effective way,” he said.

The debris from the missile strike on the balloon, which had been drifting at an altitude of more than 18,000 meters (11 miles), landed about 10 kilometers (6 miles) off the shoreline of the southern U.S. state of South Carolina. Buttigieg said the debris field stretched for more than 11 kilometers (7 miles).

U.S. Navy ships were collecting the debris from the ocean, and it was being sent to the FBI’s laboratory outside Washington for analysis.

Republican lawmakers criticized Biden for not shooting down the balloon when it was first sighted January 28 over the Aleutian Islands, part of the far northwestern state of Alaska, rather than let it drift west to east for a week over the entire U.S. mainland, including numerous military bases.

China said the balloon was gathering meteorological data and driven off course by wind currents, sending it over the United States, which the U.S. dismissed as a cover for an intelligence-gathering mission. China has not said where it had intended for the balloon to go.

U.S. military officials said, however, that whatever intelligence the balloon may have transmitted back to China was inconsequential and no different from what China and the U.S. collect from spy satellites both deployed over each other’s territory.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a frequent Biden critic, told “Fox News Sunday” that the balloon mission was “a reminder of what the Chinese are capable of” and that it had “inflicted humiliation … an embarrassment” on the United States.

Another Republican, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, told CNN, “There was messaging behind this” from China.

“This is a failure I don’t understand,” Rubio said. “Why let it fly across the middle of the country over military bases? If we fly anything over China, they’re going to shoot it down.”

China’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the U.S. shoot-down of the balloon was “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international standard practice,” and repeated its claim that the balloon was being used for meteorological research.

The airship first entered the U.S. air identification zone more than a week ago, then crossed into Canadian airspace. The U.S. Department of Defense said the balloon reentered U.S. airspace January 31. It was seen Thursday flying over Montana where U.S. nuclear missiles are siloed.

The U.S. has said it took technological measures to prevent the balloon from gathering any information as it crossed the country.

The discovery of the spy balloon comes at a sensitive time for China. It happened right before Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit China and meet with President Xi Jinping. Blinken canceled his trip after the discovery of the spy balloon.

Dennis Wilder, a former China analyst with the CIA, told VOA that the incident comes at a sensitive time for China’s leader.

“President Xi Jinping is on what I would call a charm offensive right now that started after [the] zero-COVID [policy] was lifted,” ending COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Wilder said, “… he wants to tell the world that China is open for business again. He wants very much to see American investors come back.”

Wilder said he thinks the incident will set off a new round of tension between the U.S. and China.

“If the United States is able to recover from the ocean information that shows that this indeed was a spy mission and not a meteorological mission and shows that evidence to the Chinese, we are going to embarrass the Chinese,” he said. “We may well very much embarrass the People’s Liberation Army. And so, I think that that will be difficult to manage, particularly if the United States comes out very publicly with this information. So, there’s going to be a tense period here.”

Another Chinese balloon was spotted flying over Latin America.

Psychedelic Churches in US Pushing Boundaries of Religion

The tea tasted bitter and earthy, but Lorenzo Gonzales drank it anyway. On that night in remote Utah, he was hoping for a life-changing experience, which is how he found himself inside a tent with two dozen others waiting for the psychedelic brew known as ayahuasca to kick in.

Soon, the gentle sounds of a guitar were drowned out by people vomiting — a common downside of the drug.

Gonzales started howling, sobbing, laughing and repeatedly babbling. Facilitators from Hummingbird Church placed him face down, calming him momentarily before he started laughing again and crawling.

“I seen these dark veins come up in this big red light, and then I seen this image of the devil,” Gonzales said later. He had quieted only when his wife, Flor, touched his shoulder and prayed.

His journey to this town along the Arizona-Utah border is part of a growing global trend of people turning to ayahuasca to treat an array of health problems after conventional medications and therapy failed. Their problems include eating disorders, depression, substance use disorders and PTSD.

The rising demand for ayahuasca has led to hundreds of churches like this one, which advocates say are protected from prosecution by a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In that case, a New Mexico branch of a Brazilian-based ayahuasca church won the right to use the drug as a sacrament — even though its active ingredient remains illegal under U.S. federal law. A subsequent lower court decision ruled Oregon branches of a different ayahuasca church could use it.

“In every major city in the United States, every weekend, there’s multiple ayahuasca ceremonies,” said Sean McAllister, who represents an Arizona church in a lawsuit against the federal government after its ayahuasca from Peru was seized at the port of Los Angeles.

The pro-psychedelics movement’s growth has sparked concerns of a government crackdown. In addition to ayahuasca shipments being seized, some churches stopped operating over fears of prosecution. There are also concerns these unregulated ceremonies might pose a danger for some participants and that the benefits of ayahuasca haven’t been well studied.

It was dark as the Hummingbird ceremony began on a Friday night in October, except for flickering candles and the orange glow of heaters. Psychedelic art hung from the walls; statues of the Virgin Mary and Mother Earth were positioned near a makeshift altar.

Participants sat in silence, waiting for Taita Pedro Davila, the Colombian shaman and traditional healer who oversaw the ceremony.

A mix of military veterans, corporate executives, thrill seekers, ex-members of a polygamous sect and a man who struck it rich on a game show had turned up for the $900 weekend. Many appeared apprehensive yet giddy to begin the first of three ceremonies.

The brew contains an Amazon rainforest shrub with the active ingredient N, N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, and a vine containing alkaloids that prevents the drug from breaking down in the body.

Those who drink ayahuasca report seeing shapes and colors and going on wild, sometimes terrifying journeys that can last hours. In this dreamlike state, some say they encounter dead relatives, friends and spirits.

“You were invited for a weekend of healing,” Davila told the group, before people lined up for their tea.

Locking eyes with each participant, Davila uttered a prayer over the cups before blowing on them with a whistling sound and handing them over to drink.

Gonzales and his wife, Flor, were among the ayahuasca newcomers.

They had driven from California, hoping for relief for 50-year-old Gonzales. He’d battled drug addiction for much of his life, was suffering the effects of COVID-19 and had been diagnosed with early stage dementia.

“My poor body is dying and I don’t want it to die,” said Gonzales, who rarely sleeps and is prone to fits of anger.

Maeleene Jessop was also a newcomer but grew up in Hildale, the Utah town where the ceremony was held. She is a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, a polygamist offshoot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hildale was the group’s stronghold. The ceremony was held in a tent on the grounds of a house once owned by a former FLDS member.

Jessop, 35, left the church after its leader, Warren Jeffs, was arrested for sexually assaulting girls he considered brides. He is serving a life sentence in federal prison. Jessop has struggled to adapt to her new life, battling depression and haunted by the physical and sexual abuse she endured as a child.

The roots of ayahuasca go back hundreds of years to ceremonial use by Indigenous groups in the Amazon. In the past century, churches have emerged in several South American countries where ayahuasca is legal.

The movement found a foothold in the United States in the 1980s and interest has intensified more recently as celebrities like NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Hollywood actor Will Smit h talked about attending ceremonies.

Some spend thousands of dollars to attend five-star ayahuasca retreats in the Amazon. But in the U.S., the movement remains largely underground, promoted by social media and word of mouth, with ceremonies held in supporters’ homes, Airbnb rentals and remote areas to avoid law enforcement scrutiny.

Like many of these, Hummingbird won’t be mistaken for a traditional Western church.

It has no written text and relies primarily on Davila’s prayers, chants and songs to guide participants through the ceremony. Davila follows traditions learned from his grandfather.

Courtney Close, Hummingbird’s founder who credits ayahuasca with helping her overcome cocaine addiction and postpartum depression, believes the designation as a church helps show that participants are “doing this for religious reasons.” But when it comes to defining it as a religion, Close stressed that depends on individual participants’ experience.

“We just try to create a spiritual experience without any dogma and just let people experience God for themselves,” she said.

Back in California, Flor Gonzales is convinced ayahuasca is behind her husband’s improvement. “I just feel like we have a future,” she said.

Dogs Are Coming Back to the Office With Their People

During the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, millions of people adopted dogs for comfort and companionship, and because they had the time to care for them at home since they were not commuting to work.

As many companies reopen to a hybrid work schedule — allowing their employees to work both at home and in the office — many pet owners want to keep their canine companions nearby and are taking them to work.

“Our pets are becoming our families, and it makes sense they should come to work with us,” said Steve Weinrauch, chief veterinarian at Trupanion, a pet insurance provider based in Seattle.

“It’s really important to me to be able to bring my dogs to the office,” said Diana Cross, partner support manager at Trupanion. “I love having both of them here, so I can pet them and play with them.”

Trupanion, like some other companies, allows well-behaved dogs to join their owners at the office during the workday. Trupanion was even doing that before the pandemic.

“As we go back into the office environment, the dogs are helping people adjust,” said Bridger McGaw, executive director of global security and services at athenahealth, an electronic medical records software company near Boston. He told VOA that pets are also beneficial to the company because they help build camaraderie and people are more engaged at meetings when the pets are there.

Helping to improve morale

Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, began its Dogs at Work program more than 25 years ago at its headquarters in Seattle. Today, some 10,000 dogs are registered at more than 140 Amazon buildings, according to Amy Neumeister, global services senior manager.

Having pets in the office helps with “morale and engagement at work and provides emotional support from bringing your best four-legged friend to work,” she told VOA.

They also bring joy to colleagues who may not have a dog.

“It brings smiles to people’s faces when they see a dog rolling around or chasing its tail,” said Weinrauch.

“During meetings, folks will drop in to see the dogs and get a cuddle, and I think that’s important in the workplace,” McGaw said. He noted the company even hosts “yappy hours” — a happy hour for employees and pets— which includes special dog treats.

Lorelei Pate, a program manager at Amazon’s Herndon, Virginia office, said she will be bringing in her dog soon. “After working remotely and then returning to the office part of the time, this will help maintain the balance between my work and personal life.”

Social benefits

Having a dog in the office can also be an ice breaker.

“It’s been awesome bringing in my green-eyed Labrador named Pistachio,” said Logan Cunningham, a senior financial analyst at Amazon’s second headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. “As a newer employee, Pistachio has allowed me to meet a ton of new people since dogs are usually a great conversation starter.”

“I have met people at work who I didn’t know because they came up to me and said they would like to pet my dog, Chai, an adopted pit bull, who wears a pearl necklace,” said Molly McLaughlin Soha, a senior marketing associate for athenahealth.

Health benefits as well

Studies have shown that pets can improve mental and physical health by reducing loneliness, relieving anxiety and lowering blood pressure.

A study by Virginia Commonwealth University found that employees who brought their dogs to work experienced less stress during their workday and had a higher level of job satisfaction.

“My dogs bring me comfort, especially if I’m having a hectic day with a lot of phone calls or meetings,” Trupanion’s Cross told VOA. “Taking a few minutes to snuggle or play fetch with them is really relaxing.”

“The animals offer real value to athenahealth,” McGaw said, “by lowering the stress in the office and helping people to really connect with each other.”

Keeping employees

Having dogs in the office may also encourage employees to stay at their workplace.

A recent survey by Rover.com found that 75% of dog owners said they were more likely to remain with an employer that lets them bring their pet to work.

Amazon’s Cunningham said being able to bring a dog to the office “was a big selling point” when she accepted her position. She said it’s been nice making friends with some colleagues who take a break from their work to play with her dog.

McGaw at athenahealth is encouraging other companies to consider allowing dogs at work.

“I think it helps with the recruitment and retention of employees and provides a valuable benefit for employees with the care of their pets,” he said.

VOA Interview: Chinese Balloon Operation Shows Disconnect Between Foreign Ministry and Military, Former CIA Analyst Says

Dennis Wilder, a former China analyst with the CIA, discussed the suspected Chinese spy balloon that was spotted drifting across the United States this week with VOA on Saturday.

Wilder, now a professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, spoke with VOA’s State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching shortly after the U.S. military shot down the balloon over the Atlantic Ocean.

Asked if the U.S. had missed the opportunity to collect intelligence of what’s inside the balloon, Wilder said, “No, not at all. The balloon was shot down in U.S. territorial waters off the coast of the Carolinas. The Navy and Coast Guard are at this time working on recovery of the package that was on board.”

China said it was a weather research vessel blown off course, a claim rejected by U.S. officials who said the craft earlier this week had been over areas of Montana where nuclear missiles are siloed.

The State Department has declined to comment on if there’s further diplomatic communication following the downing of China’s balloon.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: The PRC surveillance balloon has been shot down. What is the U.S. calculation? Did the U.S. miss the opportunity to collect intelligence on what’s inside the balloon?

DENNIS WILDER, FORMER CHINA ANALYST WITH THE CIA: No, not at all. The balloon was shot down in U.S. territorial waters off the coast of the Carolinas. The Navy and Coast Guard are at this time working on recovery of the package that was on board. Now, whether that package of sensors is intact, or was broken up upon entry into the sea, we won’t know. But they have divers out there. If it fell into the water and went deep in the water, they may be able to recover it from the ocean floor. But they will certainly make an effort to recover whatever the sensor package was on board.

VOA: Do you see an internal divergence within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, a disconnection between the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the balloon operation?

WILDER: Well, first of all, what I know to be fact is that there was definitely a disconnect between the foreign ministry and the military. My understanding is when first approached, the foreign ministry had no idea of this balloon system being over the United States. So, they were taken completely by surprise. My analysis is that this, because it was a spy operation, and because it was probably handled by the People’s Liberation Army, could well have been stovepipe. It could well be that it wasn’t well coordinated within the Chinese system.

Often when you have covert operations, and even here in the United States it’s the same way. Often when there’s a covert action or a covert operation that you’re trying to keep secret, you don’t inform everybody within the political system. So, there’s a real question of how high up the chain of command in Beijing, this was approved. Who knew about it? Were they given a chance to comment on it? Or was this really very much an operation of the People’s Liberation Army?

VOA: You have been watching PLA for more than three decades, is it typical for PLA to act alone without looping in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Within the PRC political system, does Chinese military have more influence on policy direction, more so than Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

WILDER: When it comes to an area like this, that’s in the PLA’s area of both expertise and authority. Then, yes, it has much more influence within the system than the foreign ministry.

I can tell you that there were several different times when we found that the Chinese foreign ministry and others were not informed. Let me give you a couple of examples. When Robert Gates as secretary of defense went to Beijing in January of 2011, immediately before his meeting with President Hu Jintao, the Chinese military announced that it had tested its new stealth fighter aircraft and released pictures of that aircraft for the first time. Secretary Gates felt that the PLA was trying to embarrass him. And so he decided to embarrass the PLA, because he thought that this might well not be a coordinated operation. So when he met with President Hu Jintao, he immediately said: “Your military has just tested a new stealth fighter on the eve of my visit. I will be asked whether this was done to embarrass me. President Hu, was this done to embarrass me?” President Hu laughed nervously and then turned to his PLA advisers, and asked, “Is this true?” Bob Gates, very well knew from seeing the body language, that President Hu Jintao had no idea that the military was going to do this kind of thing.

Another example is when the Chinese tested an anti-satellite missile against one of their own satellites. It was very apparent to the U.S. side, and Secretary Robert Gates was the defense secretary at that point, as well, it was very clear that the foreign ministry had no idea that this test was going to occur and was very embarrassed about it.

So I could give you more examples, but there is a clear history of the PLA not running these things through the foreign ministry and running it through very, very few people in Beijing.

VOA: In your assessment, how badly does the PRC want a high-profile visit from the United States secretary of state? And why?

WILDER: (Chinese) President Xi Jinping himself has indicated how important this visit was to him. President Xi Jinping is on what I would call a charm offensive right now that started after zero-COVID was lifted, where he wants to tell the world that China is open for business again. He wants very much to see American investors come back. He wants to see American companies not thinking of moving their supply chains and diversifying them away from China to places like India, Vietnam, other Southeast Asian nations.

And so, I think that the rapid speed of an apology from the Chinese yesterday is an indicator that he hoped to keep the visit of Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken on track. It is very unusual, in fact, I can’t give you an example of a time when the Chinese have apologized to the United States for anything.

And so this was unprecedented, and it showed how much China actually wanted that visit to occur. Of course, Secretary Blinken canceled the visit and now you see a bit of a harder edge out of Beijing rhetorically. But there was an attempt on the Chinese side to keep this visit in place.

VOA: What needs to be done before Secretary of State Blinken is to reschedule his trip to China?

WILDER: Well, I think we are in a new period of heightened tensions between the United States and China. Because if the United States is able to recover from the ocean information that shows that this indeed was a spy mission and not a meteorological mission and shows that evidence to the Chinese, we are going to embarrass the Chinese. We may well very much embarrass the People’s Liberation Army. And so I think that that will be difficult to manage, particularly if the United States comes out very publicly with this information. So there’s going to be a tense period here.

One of my concerns is that as these tensions rise in the next week or two, there could be difficulties in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea. Because Chinese military may feel they need to be more aggressive than they have been against U.S. reconnaissance flights in the area.

And you will recall that in December the United States accused a Chinese pilot of flying unsafely near an American aircraft. Now I was in the government and very involved in April of 2001. Actually, it was on April 1, 2001, when a Chinese pilot, flying very unsafely, collided with an American reconnaissance aircraft, forcing the aircraft, the American aircraft to land at Lingshui Airfield on Hainan Island, a military airfield. Fortunately, none of the crew are killed. Unfortunately, the pilot of the Chinese jet was killed.

It took us 11 days of negotiating with the Chinese to get that crew back. And in part, the problem was, that the Chinese government claimed that we had been at fault, that our pilot had done unsafe things, which was absolutely untrue. And the video camera footage that we had from the plane proved this decisively. Nonetheless, the Chinese insisted on an apology from the United States at that time, and we gave them a letter of regret from our ambassador in Beijing and that seemed sufficient to get the pilot and the crew home.