MANILA -- It was an image that needed no caption: a then 22-year-old Catriona Gray was pictured on the Miss World 2016 stage with her eyes closed, clutching the Philippine flag close to her chest and visibly heartbroken from her very fresh pageant loss.
Looking at it now, it is hard to imagine how she will eventually win Miss Universe after just two short years.
How did she do it? How did a Filipino-Australian girl manage to bag the coveted beauty title that, before Pia Wurtzbach in 2015, had eluded the country for over 40 years?
It seems obvious to lay the basics down. She had a great palette to work with. At 5-foot-10 with her long legs, long neck and a slender figure, Gray fits well within most beauty standards. She has great skin, a great smile and a bonus singing talent too. Sure, she has a good shot at winning the Miss Universe crown. But in a sea of nearly a hundred girls who, like her, have physical features that fall under society’s traditional comeliness, how did Gray come out on top?
To answer that, one must first look back at the story of Venus Raj who nearly clinched the title in 2010. Her fourth runner-up finish finally ended the drought that had left Philippine candidates on the wings of the Miss Universe stage for many years. And it began a renaissance of the local pageant scene.
Since then, Filipina candidates began placing high on the pageant. Much of that is thanks to beauty pageant camps like Aces and Queens (A&Q) and Kagandahang Flores (KF) that mentored the girls for the international stage.
But somehow, even with the beauty camp mentorships, no other candidate was able to deliver such an impeccable performance as Catriona Gray did.
It is interesting to note that Gray’s first foray into pageantry was through talent manager, Jonas Gaffud and the rest of the A&Q team. Under their tutelage, she easily crossed over from modeling to bagging the Miss Philippines World title.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it), Gray suffered an upsetting loss to Puerto Rico’s Stephanie del Valle who took home the blue crown on December 18, 2016.
The pageantry grapevine offers many theories on why Gray lost that contest. Some suggest it was politics within the international pageant. Others argued that Gray’s styling was too similar to that of Megan Young. Young, who was also mentored by A&Q, is the only Filipina Miss World winner to date.
But like they say, no use to cry over spilled milk. The reality was that Gray lost that year. But what we all didn’t know yet is that her Miss World loss was going to be instrumental to her redemption story later on.
Just days after failing to bring home the Miss World title, Gray wondered where her journey will take her next. On Instagram, she said it was her honor to represent the country. She also seemingly hinted of her future plans. “Keep your torches burning. Mine is burning stronger than ever.” For some fans, the message was like a prelude of what’s to come.
BREAKING DOWN HER WIN
So how did Gray flip her Miss World loss to a Miss Universe victory? There is no one answer. The victory, as Gray herself said, was a result of a collective effort. And as a pageant observer, I can see a composite of reasons.
In the Miss Universe stage where beauty is in the eye of the judges with varying tastes, all the girls seem to be on almost equal ground -- at least physically. In the end, it will all boil down on how a candidate will present herself and perform throughout the competition and especially so on the preliminaries and finale.
It sounds simple but carrying that mission out is always tough. And most fans agree, Gray’s execution was so flawless that it has now set the bar high.
In an attempt to inspire a repeat victory for the Philippines, I break down the elements of Gray’s Miss Universe journey which I think ultimately led to her triumph.
One thing Gray had over many other girls was her experience not only on the runway and on camera as a model, but also as a pageant contestant in another big pageant. She is one of the few who got to compete in both Miss World and Miss Universe. The grandeur and fanfare of a global stage can be unnerving and intimidating for first timers. And for Gray, having done it once before certainly has its advantages.
Cory Quirino, then pageant director of Miss World Philippines during Gray’s time, told me recently, “Catriona needed to be impacted by her failure to be able to redeem herself in a much bigger arena.” The things she lacked during Miss World, she was able to fill in come Miss Universe.
2. Philippine momentum and the girls who went before her
Again, thanks to Raj, people started taking notice of Filipinas in the pageant arena again. A momentum was built year after year since then. New representatives – Shamcey Supsup, Janine Tugonon, Ariella Arida and Mary Jean Lastimosa – took their learning from the ones before them to heart.
Of course, we all know it peaked in 2015 when Pia Wurtzbach was propelled to the crown. Maxine Medina in 2016 and Rachel Peters in 2017 held on to the spotlight a bit longer. They were able to secure spots in the top 10 and thereby kept the Philippines on the global pageant map somewhat.
While those girls from 2010 to 2017 (with the exception of Wurtzbach) did not win the crown, the missteps that were made during their time were taken into consideration to improve on the next year. Take for example the case of Mary Jean Lastimosa whose evening gown and national costume – both were designed by Columbian designer Alfredo Barazza – became controversial. The outfits were heavily bashed online and some say they cost Lastimosa the crown. Be that as it may, it was not in vain. That became the turning point for national pageant organizer, Binibining Pilipinas to start listening to fans and commission Filipino designers for the official wardrobe of the candidates.
Isaac Newton once said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” In the same way, if Gray (and Wurtzbach) reached the top spots, it is by building on the foundation of the girls that came before them.
3. Creative narrative
Pageantry is all about showmanship. And Gray surely delivered in this part. Every piece in her wardrobe was well thought of -- from her arrival clothes that were inspired by the host country, Thailand, to her national costume and her trendsetting, patriotic ear cuffs.
She also had well-timed social media posts of AVPs and music videos to build buzz.
On the days leading up to the coronation, her team released editorial photos of her that were never seen before. Every single move was deliberate and was part of a big PR campaign -- her branded “lava walk,” her “slow-mo twirl,” the list goes on. One can say she won battle after battle throughout the pageant. And people were applauding.
A Miss Universe winner is expected to be a spokesperson for the organization and its charitable endeavors. Eloquence, therefore, is an important skill they are looking for in a potential queen. While the pageant does not discriminate against non-native English speakers, Gray’s mastery of the language comes as an advantage.
But the technical ability to speak the language is not everything. One must be able to quickly switch tones from casual to serious, playful to profound as the occasion calls for it. Some are able to do this, but then they lack content and authenticity.
Miss Grand International 2016 first runner-up Nicole Cordoves, in an interview, talked about how she trained her friend and fellow beauty queen for the dreaded question-and-answer round. Cordoves explained that Gray’s edge had been that she was well-read and that she truly did the research on today’s important issues.
5. Support system
Gray, in press interviews, had repeatedly said that she has a great support system from her parents. She revealed that her Australian dad and Filipina mother have been always supportive of her endeavors. Well, the girl is an only child after all.
But beyond her family, Gray needed industry insiders to help her in her Miss Universe bid. And what she did next spelled all the difference. It was something other serious pageant girls dare not do: she decided to go into battle sans an established beauty camp. Instead, she made her own. And it was a formidable one.
Many can only speculate why Gray decided to part ways with Gaffud and A&Q after her Miss World loss. From what I know though, there is no bitterness from either party so the separation may have been amicable. But to me, it seems that it may have something to do with her creative spirit. Perhaps, she wanted to play a bigger role and have a bigger say in all the details of her Miss Universe campaign. Perhaps she simply wanted to show her true colors.
And so she went with names that were not that established in the pageant scene: designers Mak Tumang and Jojo Bragais, mentor Carlos Buendia Jr., casting director Harley Tan, and stylists Ton Lao and Brent Sales to name a few. In the end, it proved to be worth the risk. Preparing for a big pageant could get out of hand several times. But she was able to keep herself in check, and her core group was there to help carry her visions out.
All that plus the 106 million strong (sorry, Cat, 104 million is so 2017) pageant-frenzied Filipino fans. That’s some solid cheering squad.
6. Mastery of self
But with legions of supporters comes the heavy responsibility of meeting their expectations. One can easily get lost with all the pressure. And this is where Gray’s biggest strength became evident: She had a mastery of herself.
Many times, fans would have high hopes for a great contender only to be disappointed when their bet chokes on stage out of anxiety. Handling that level of pressure requires a different mentality. But with Gray, she had a strong sense of who she is and why she is doing what she is doing.
And with a black belt in martial arts, this girl has an athlete’s mind. She knew what she was getting herself into and so she worked on the discipline that is required of her, did her homework and on exam day, she delivered.
As Janine Tugonon said, Gray is the “most prepared Miss Philippines ever.” Most of all, she was able to put herself in the right headspace consistently and especially when it truly mattered.
7. Lady luck
In her post-victory interview, Gray revealed that when she was 13 years old, her mother had dreamed of it all – that she would win the Miss Universe crown in a red gown. Was it just a dream? Or was that a prophetic vision?
All of those I mentioned are tough but with a special kind of person, they are attainable. Maybe a new girl with Gray’s caliber will come along soon enough and mimic her steps. But that still won’t guarantee a crown. What you will need is lady luck.
In Gray’s case, circumstances turned out to be on her favor -- like the host country being Thailand where her Filipino fans can easily visit to support her. The support she got made a butterfly effect on her confidence which led her to become the darling of the press and then a series of fortunate events. Truly, one can prepare as much as they can and give it their all and their best. But in the end, it’s still a matter of destiny.
In fact, had the pageant final been on another day, Gray’s fate could have been different. In the game, we all say, every pageant is different -- there are different girls, different judges, different circumstances and a different set of emotions and nerves.
As we all know now, Catriona Gray’s redemption story comes almost two years down to the day after her big pageant loss. And this time around, she came very much prepared for the game.
But the real reason she conquered the universe is because her victory was already written in the stars.
Barbie Salvador-Muhlach is a regular contributor for ABS-CBN News Life. Prior to joining ABS-CBN News as a journalist, she dabbled into pageantry and won Mutya ng Pilipinas and Miss Cosmopolitan International in 2010. She also finished in the top 10 of Bb. Pilipinas 2009.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.