The girl on fire

Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray. Photo from Bb Pilinas website.


There are two things that unite Filipinos: a Manny Pacquiao fight and Miss Universe. The latest Catriona Gray victory is the proof. Getting the crown since Pia Wurtzbach in 2015 had become the national obsession, more than getting back the Balangiga bells.

By now everyone is in high spirits to fiesta levels, having proven (by extension) that the Filipino is the best in the world - or at least, the most beautiful woman of the world. In 1969, Gloria Diaz gave us this national pride, sharing the limelight with the US astronauts who landed the moon, and she was called the Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa after a Celso Ad Castillo film, heralding the wet look in Philippine cinema. It took four years later for Margie Moran to duplicate the feat, and a long 42 years for Wurtzbach to triumph again. In between, expectations are high on every Filipina to don the Ms Philippines sash.

Catriona had been the hope, after she almost snatched the Ms World crown in 2016.

Catriona was in perfect form for the pageant. Philippine media gave a thorough coverage of her preparations since she won Bb Pilipinas-Universe. She trained in the gym and in the catwalk, and strengthened her branding, making her one of the most popular candidates this year - or maybe, only from the Pinoy perspective.

Observers were quick to point out that the 2018 edition was one of the toughest. It wasn't easy to point out the leads even after Catriona slayed at the preliminaries. There were favorites like South Africa, Puerto Rico, and perennial powerhouse Venezuela. Caucasian beauties like USA, Canada and Australia, and the Latinas were also there. At least tight rival Colombia since Wurtzbach's victory waned.

One of my favorites, Vietnam, for a moment gave a strong presence until the interview, proving that communication skills puts a lot of weight. Catriona's English was excellent, thanks to her Scottish lineage, Australian birthplace, and American education, yet it was the uragon in her genes that made her Filipina.

This year's format was quite different: there was no online voting, the candidates were selected by the same all-woman jury from preliminaries to the finals. But the highlight was the entry of the first transgender candidate from Spain, Angela Ponce. Why she wasn't noticed at all by the judges to place even in semi-finals speaks a lot of the Miss U organization. Was the all-woman jury part of the ploy? The most that the Miss U did was insert a special feature acknowledging her. But Ponce need not win the crown. To have conquered the all-women stage and be heard by the world was triumph enough as the voice of the LGBT calling for justice and inclusion. I admire Spain's openness and boldness for fielding a transgender. I have seen this acceptance in the films of Pedro Almodovar.

Needless to say, all sangkabekihan were tense while watching their pet Muning. It was a relief when Ms Philippines was called second in the 20 semifinalists, and later in the top 10, when each candidate gave a self-introduction. Catriona's intro sounded very studied, well prepared and well-delivered; the others sounded more spontaneous with focus on their advocacies.

We started feeling nervous. Then we learned that some of the girls were lawyers, medical students, teachers, etc., while Miss Philippines is a professional model. I apologize for thinking less of models. Catriona has shown that her modelling career has prepared her for the rigorous beaucon routine. If beaucons were a sport, I think models are the professional athletes.

Catriona attempted another slow-mo turn in the swimsuit round, but this time it looked predictable. South Africa, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, even Curacao gave a strong challenge. When she came out in the red flaming lava gown, and my niece said she looked like Jessica Rabbit, I said Oh no! But the gown can be intellectualised to represent Mt. Mayon if one googles designer Mak Tumang's posts, so okay, at least she stood out in an all-metallic and neutral court.

In the first interview round, she was given a question that was meant to disarm her: what she thinks of marijuana use. Did they expect her to say that even the Philippine president uses marijuana? But our girl stayed very calm and gave a no-fuss answer of OK for medical use but not for recreational use. Unlike other questions that allowed candidates to show strong positions, passion, and impressive rhetoric, Catriona's was rather unimpressive. So we prayed harder she could get into the top 5, and she did! Perhaps it was her no-nonsense approach to answering the question. We were prepared to leave the TV set if she didn't get to the top 3, but hell she just did!

They were given the same final question: What lesson in life could you apply in your job as Miss Universe? Catriona elaborated well, starting with her experience with children in Tondo, to her resolve to be able to give poor children opportunities to smile and be grateful despite tough times - the proverbial silver lining. I found her hurrying through to beat the 45 seconds time limit; she sounded rather tense compared to Venezuela's cool composure, allowing her translator to deliver her message. In the end, Catriona emerged victorious affirming that it pays to be specific, and that illustrating with personal experience makes for more sincerity, than a polished general rhetoric.

So it came to pass that Catriona Gray, the girl on fire from Oas, Albay, was crowned the most beautiful woman of the universe in 2018, proving once and for all that hard work and determination, however prosaic these words, are still the main elements in achieving one's goals in life.

The author is a professor at the University of Antique and St Anthony’s College and a cultural consultant. He was formerly director for the Antique Binirayan Festival which includes the Miss Binirayan Beauty competition.

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