Meet R'Bonney Gabriel, the Miss USA 2022 winner who went on to claim the Miss Universe crown in the midst of controversy

  • R'Bonney Gabriel became the ninth American woman to win the Miss Universe pageant in January.

  • She took home the crown after contestants said that Miss USA was rigged in her favor.

  • Here's how the Texas fashion designer made it to the Miss Universe stage.

Only nine American women have won the Miss Universe crown. R'Bonney Gabriel is one of them, and she did it following months of controversy that erupted after she won Miss USA.

But Gabriel wasn't always a pageant girl. In fact, she had only begun competing just two years before she became an international name.

Here's how the Texas fashion designer made it to the Miss Universe stage.

R'Bonney Gabriel is a model and fashion designer from Houston, Texas.

R'Bonney Gabriel Miss Universe outfit
Gabriel designed many of the looks she wore on the pageant stage.R'Bonney Gabriel/Instagram

Gabriel — whose first name was inspired by her father R'Bon — launched a sustainable clothing line after earning a bachelor's degree in fashion design from the University of North Texas.

Before her Miss USA and Miss Universe reigns, Gabriel was also a sewing instructor for the nonprofit organization Magpies & Peacocks.

Gabriel began competing in pageants after a hairstylist convinced her.

Miss USA R'Bonney Gabriel
Gabriel had only been competing in pageants for two years before she won Miss USA.Grant Foto

Gabriel told Insider that she was modeling for a hair photo shoot when a stylist said she needed to join pageants.

"She basically begged me for a whole year," Gabriel recalled. "Then COVID came around so my schedule opened up, and that's when I decided to take a leap of faith and go for it."

Gabriel said she took three-hour-long makeup lessons while preparing to compete, and would practice every single Friday "until I could nail it down."

Gabriel placed first runner-up in the Miss Texas 2021 pageant. She won the state pageant in 2022 and went on to compete in Miss USA on October 3 of that year.

Miss Texas R'Bonney Gabriel during Miss USA 2022
Gabriel during the 2022 Miss USA pageant in Reno, Nevada.Finesse Levine

Gabriel, who designed many of her own looks for the pageant, discussed climate change during the Miss USA question round. She also shared her belief that individuals can make an impact on the planet through their careers and lifestyles.

"I am a fashion designer. I actually made the outfit I'm wearing," Gabriel said. "I upcycle pieces and recycle different clothing to be more sustainable in my industry because I feel it's my duty. So I think that's something we can all look for in our certain industries and in our homes — to be more sustainable."

Gabriel won Miss USA 2022, becoming the first Filipino American to take home the crown.

Miss USA R'Bonney Gabriel
Gabriel made history when she won Miss USA.Miss USA/Instagram

The day after the pageant, Gabriel told Insider that it was a "huge honor" to make history by winning Miss USA.

"You can make a lane and pave a way for yourself, even if it hasn't been done before," she said.

Gabriel also spoke to Insider about where she stood on hot-button issues that were affecting Texas, including gender-affirming care for young people.

"I don't think the government should necessarily be involved in that as much as the parents making those decisions for their child," she said. "Trans hate is never appropriate in any time, in any place. That is really just the core of the issue — discriminating against somebody because they're different from us."

Gabriel also spoke out against Texas' law on abortion, which is banned in all cases except to save the life of the mother.

"At the end of the day, I would want a woman to be able to have that decision," Gabriel said. "Because in Texas I know that, even if it's rape or incest, abortion is still illegal — and I disagree with that."

The day after Gabriel won Miss USA, more than a dozen contestants said the competition had been rigged in her favor.

Miss USA R'Bonney Gabriel walk onstage during the Miss Universe competition on January 14, 2023, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Miss USA R'Bonney Gabriel walks onstage during the Miss Universe competition on January 14, 2023, in New Orleans, Louisiana.Jason Kempin/Getty Images

The contestants pointed to multiple conflicts of interest between Gabriel and Miss USA's national sponsors, including Miss Academy — the pageant school owned by Crystle Stewart, who was president of Miss USA at the time — and the med spa Mia Beauté. Both companies were also state sponsors for Miss Texas USA. Gabriel had been a student for years at Miss Academy and had been featured on Mia Beauté's social media pages.

Gabriel denied the rigging allegations, telling E! News on October 6 that she would "never enter any pageant or any competition that I know I would win."

"I have a lot of integrity," she added. "I want to be transparent, and I want everybody to know that there was no unfair advantage and nothing was rigged."

Days after the allegations were made, the Miss Universe Organization launched a third-party investigation and Stewart was suspended indefinitely. A spokesperson for the organization told Insider in January that the investigation found the Miss USA judges' scores were accurately recorded and no winner was pre-selected.

It was announced in August that Stewart would no longer be president of Miss USA. A representative for Stewart did not respond to a request for comment on the announcement.

Gabriel said the rigging allegations were a "huge distraction" as she tried to prepare to compete at Miss Universe.

Miss USA R'Bonney Gabriel
Gabriel said she didn't feel like she had a voice during her Miss USA reign.Grant Foto

"It really threw me for a loop," Gabriel told Insider. "I was definitely not expecting it."

And although many Miss USA 2022 contestants were speaking out, Gabriel said she felt like she couldn't respond.

"The hardest part was I felt like I didn't have a voice at times as Miss USA," she said. "I wanted to stand up for myself and say, 'Hey, this is false. This is very frustrating.' But I wanted to compose myself and carry this with grace because I was in the public eye. I wanted to show people how you can push back from adversity and be resilient."

Gabriel also credited her support system of family, friends, and coaches for helping "pick me back up and help me out of bed when I didn't feel like it."

"There were days I felt low," she said. "I felt very delayed in my process a lot of the time, but I had Miss Universe always on my mind."

Gabriel made a splash during the Miss Universe finals on January 14.

R'Bonney Gabriel at the Miss Universe competition in New Orleans on Saturday.
Gabriel at the Miss Universe competition in New Orleans on January 14.Timothy Clary/Getty Images

During the top-five question round, Gabriel said she hoped the Miss Universe Organization would change the age limit.

"I am 28 years old, and that is the oldest age to compete. And I think that's a beautiful thing," she said. "My favorite quote is, 'If not now, then when?' Because as a woman, I believe age does not define us. It's not tomorrow. It's not yesterday. But it's now. The time is now that you can go after what you want."

During the final question round, Gabriel was asked how she would demonstrate Miss Universe as an empowering and progressive organization.

"I would use it to be a transformational leader," she said. "We all have something special, and when we plant those seeds to other people in our life, we transform them and we use that as a vehicle for change."

Gabriel was crowned Miss Universe — the first Miss USA to do so since Olivia Culpo won in 2012.

Miss Universe R'Bonney Gabriel points after being crowned Miss Universe on January 14, 2023.
Miss Universe R'Bonney Gabriel points after being crowned on January 14, 2023.Jason Kempin / Staff / Getty Images

Gabriel was named the winner during the 71st Miss Universe pageant in New Orleans. In second place was Miss Venezuela Amanda Dudamel, followed by Miss Dominican Republic Andreína Martínez.

Gabriel told Insider that her Miss Universe win was the "sweetest victory," and she hoped it proved that she deserved to win Miss USA as well.

"No matter if people try to knock you down or there are misconceptions about you, you can't let that get to you. Just keep going and you'll get what you deserve," she said.

Gabriel's Miss Universe role has taken her all over the world. She'll pass on the crown to the next winner on Saturday.

Miss Universe 2022 R'Bonney Gabriel
Miss Universe 2022 R'Bonney Gabriel visits the Empire State Building on January 17, 2023, in New York City.Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Empire State Realty Trust

Gabriel recently made headlines when she helped announce the Miss Universe Organization's age limit change. The pageant is now open to all women 18 and over.

"What I love about Miss Universe is that they are always out first in line, looking for ways they can be more inclusive and better live up to the platform that they've designed for us," Gabriel told Women's Wear Daily after announcing the news at New York Fashion Week in September.

"It's a bold group of women in charge over here, and you know what, a lot of people tend to follow what we do," she added. "It's nice to be a standard-bearer, and I'm proud that we get to do this."

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