Which isn't to say she wasn't affected by accusations from some fellow contestants that her Miss USA win back in October was somehow rigged—prompting similar suggestions about the Miss Universe Pageant on social media—but weathering that storm has the fashion designer from Texas relishing her latest triumph all the more.
"Let me tell you, winning Miss Universe after going through all that is the sweetest, sweetest victory," a beaming Gabriel told E! News' Francesca Amiker. "I thought, this happened in my life to hopefully show people resiliency and how to keep going no matter what." (In response to claims that Gabriel's win was invalid, the Miss Universe Organization said in a statement, "The false rigging allegations are absurd and distract from the incredible milestones our organization and the delegates experienced this weekend. Instead of focusing on unfounded statements, we will continue to shine a light on global women's empowerment, inclusiveness, diversity, and transformational leadership.")
Beside, nothing could pierce the joy bubble that came with becoming the first-ever Filipina-American Miss Universe, as well as the first Miss USA to take the title in 10 years.
"My first thought was, Did I hear that right?" she recalled. "Did they say my name? Is it me? I was in disbelief."
But once Gabriel had that massive bouquet in her arms and the crown on her head, the gravity of the moment started to sink in.
"I just looked at my dad, he immigrated from the Philippines, he is part of the American dream," she said. "I felt so much emotion, so much pride. There were so many Asian Americans and Filipinos in that room that were cheering for me, and I could feel their energy. It made my heart so happy."
And if there was any sniping behind the scenes at this pageant, Gabriel says she didn't notice, calling her fellow contestants "so amazing" and shouting out all the intelligence and dynamism on display.
"We really have so much fun," she said, noting that there are actually 12 days of competition leading up to the televised portion, so they've spent a lot of time together by then. "We're all each other's hype girl and we'll take photos of each other for our Instagram. We're all in this together."
Among her history-making credentials, Gabriel is also the oldest-ever Miss Universe winner, a potential milestone she acknowledged during the pageant when asked what other possible change she would make to the competition, in light of the field recently opening up to moms and married women.
"For me, I would like to see an age increase because I am 28 years old," she answered on stage. "And that is the oldest age to compete. And I think it's a beautiful thing. 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."
Reflecting on that moment, Gabriel told E! that being one of the older contestants "gave me a sense of urgency to make it happen and to be able to tell that story. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to say that onstage in my question."
The feeling that it was now or never inspired her hard-core discipline: Gabriel stuck to a strict meal plan for two years (oatmeal and two eggs for breakfast, shrimp and green beans for lunch, salmon and broccoli for dinner, plus protein shakes between meals and "three to six rice cakes" for snacks, every day), changed apartments to cut down on drive time to work and her trainer, and dedicated almost no time to dating.
Nor does she expect to have much time now. "I barely even get to see my friends," she said. "I'm mostly just focused on getting the job done. I have one year to really catapult my career—this is a huge stepping stone for me, so that's really the priority."
So it was understandably upsetting to be accused of benefiting from an unfair process after she won Miss USA.
"It definitely affected me," Gabriel shared. "It delayed me on days when I was trying to train for Miss Universe. I felt really frustrated, honestly, because I had put so much work into going to Miss USA to win it, and I felt like all of that was taken away from me. There were times I felt really down about it."
And she actually didn't feel great about it until just a few days beforehand.
"It was like, 'I have been so stressed, it's been so tough, I don't know if I can do this,'" she said, describing her 11th-hour jitters. "Then I was praying about it a lot and God granted me mental clarity going into Miss Universe. I had my head on straight in the competition and I ended up winning it. So it's a huge blessing." (And when it was over, the first thing she ate was a quesadilla.)
The Miss USA controversy did come up in her closed-door interviews with the judging committees and, Gabriel said, "I was honest. There's nothing to hide. This is a story of pushing past negativity and I feel stronger from it. I feel really prepared to be Miss Universe now because the internet can say whatever it wants but I feel very strong in who I am."
And it was all in service of becoming what Gabriel calls a "transformational leader," someone who has harnessed her calling and translated it into action.
Learning to sew as a little girl inspired her love of fashion and design, and since graduating from the University of North Texas she has launched her own sustainable clothing line, R'Bonney Nola, and teaches sewing to survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. She is also a lead instructor at Magpies & Peacocks, a non-profit design center in Houston. (And if one day that action extends to dressing Beyoncé, so be it: "She's a Houston girl, I'm a Houston girl, and I admire her so much," Gabriel said when asked to name her dream celebrity client, "so I'm going to put that out there.")
Ultimately, she concluded, making it all the way to Miss Universe reinforced why she started competing in pageants in the first place, "not only to be a better communicator, but to amplify my voice using fashion as a force for good, pushing more sustainability in that industry and inspiring people," she explained. "My purpose is something that nobody can take away from me. People can take away my prizes or my team, or different perks of the title, but they could never take away my goals and my dreams."
"I'm using my passion that I've realized to transform lives," she said, "and I really hope this message resonates with people, to understand that we all have a gift to give to the world."