Now, for the subject of my review subtitle, and I know for most readers following this essay series, this is what you came for

MISS UNIVERSE 2018:  PHILIPPINES – CATRIONA GRAY.  I have to note that to discuss this lady’s journey to the crown, it is inevitable we have to touch on her previous stint at Miss World.  It was a big risk for her to try again and first win her national pageant, and after clinching that title, then competing in this arena.  Even if she was the favorite to win, nothing was guaranteed, and this, even if the odds were stacked seemingly in her favor.  Catriona was aware of these risks, but she still went for it, as it turned out there was a pull of destiny calling her to do this, and thankfully, she reaped a huge reward in the end.  As I previously noted in my Miss World 2016 review, she somehow didn’t win over the Miss World insiders, at least initially, as they found her relentless optimism and ready way of delivering answers a bit too good to be true.  They probably only considered her worthy of finishing Top Five because of her unquestionably noteworthy noble project building a school for the indigent children living in Smokey Mountain, Tondo, Manila in a team up with Young Focus Philippines.  This project was so noteworthy that even the one who won the crown against her, Puerto Rico’s Stephanie del Valle, referenced her project in her farewell walk in 2017.   And this project loomed largely in key moments when Catriona opened her mouth during this pageant telecast.

She was called second to the Top 20, and after gigglingly asking Steve if he’s happy to see her and Steve noted that he’s aware to the eyes of Filipino fans he’s not well regarded for that infamous boo-boo, Steve asked her if she’s going to write a song about her Miss Universe experiences, what would she call it?  Catriona repied, “Well, you know what, Steve, as a Miss Philippines I have always felt the love and support of the Filipino people and I think I brought half of my country here tonight.  And so I will name my song ‘Raise Your Flag’, as I’m standing here not as one, but as 104 million Filipinos!”  For her Top 20 speech, we hear her first shoutout to the Young Focus project:  “Working in some of the poorest areas of my country, I found that it was a lack of child support not poverty that killed their dreams. A child once told me, ‘Cat, it’s just not my life and those dreams are not for me’ but I stand here today because someone believed in me and we owe it to our children to believe in them.

Needless to say, it’s a given she’ll advance in the Top 10 and she clearly made an indelible stamp in the swimsuit competition as she showcased her now-legendary “Lava Walk”, with that slow-mo twirl.  Sure, her figure is not as “buffed” or lean as other contenders out there, but it’s still a healthy frame that regular people would still envy.  We already saw hints of what she unleashed in the evening gown back at Bb. Pilipinas, as walking sultrily across the catwalk, she swept her hair on one side and wore her now legendary three-sunrays-and-stars earcuffs.  This time, Mak Tumang created a fiery red gown that was inspired by the lava that spews out of Mayon Volcano, with a little exposed pattern at the bodice that mimicked that little crack seen at the otherwise “perfectly conical” volcano.  To be honest, though, at the time I saw her in that gown, I was conscious of the group of people judging this competition–remember, the group is composed solely of women (arguably all heterosexual), and I fretted her taking the sultry route may backfire.  But then again, after listening to the reactions of vlogs from various former beauty queens all unanimously raving about the gown, I shouldn’t have worried.  Perhaps considering most of the selection committee were married women, perhaps Catriona provided them with an idea on how to spice up their marriages.

The gown clearly stood out among the rest of the Top 10 and with that and Catriona’s distinctive catwalk and stage presence it could indeed be said she dominated the Top 10 rounds.  This domination probably saved her from enduring a scenario that befell a huge favorite in the first Thailand edition of this pageant.  For the Top Five round, this was the topical question asked of her: “Canada recently joined Uruguay as the second nation in the world to make marijuana legal. What is your opinion on the legalization of marijuana?”  Catriona gave this very succinct answer:  “I’m for the medical use [of marijuana], but not so much recreational use, because I think, if people were to argue, what about alcohol and cigarettes? Everything is good, but in moderation. Thank you. To her credit, she did deliver a complete thought but compared to the answers delivered by the rest, many observers think there is something a bit wanting–some argued a bit more elaboration of the idea, and I kinda agree but I think it’s more of making a simple statement that “like alcohol and cigarettes, I think we do need to regulate recreational use.  Everything that feels good is good, but in moderation.”  I think my slight additions may have made her stance a bit clearer.  To be honest, I was fretting this could’ve been a Carolina Iszak moment, as back in 1992, this big front-runner was penalized dearly by the judges for her weak answer that from being a Final Three shoo-in, she was shut out in the end.  I think unlike the 1992 judges, the selection committee still put a strong weight to what transpired prior, and it helped that Catriona stood out from the rest of the Top Five as she was the only one in red while the rest blended together with their silver-lined gowns.

After hurdling the Final Five round, she finally clinched the crown with this eloquent speech:  “I work a lot in the slums of Tondo, Manila, and the life there is very poor and very sad. I’ve always taught myself to look for the beauty in it, to look for the beauty in the faces of the children, and to be grateful. I would bring this aspect as a Miss Universe to see situations with a silver lining, and to assess where I could give something, where I could provide something as a spokesperson. If I could teach also people to be grateful, we could have an amazing world where negativity could not grow and foster, and children would have a smile on their face. Thank you.”  As Davonna Finley puts it, “South Africa and Venezuela need Jesus” after Catriona delivered that answer.

After her coronation, there were some netizens who raised an objection that her final speech seems to romanticize poverty.  I can understand where they’re coming from but if you listen to her message closely, and if you know what the Young Focus project was about, it was to help provide tools for these people to rise from their lot in life.  You can contrast that to the now-canonized Saint Mother Teresa, as there are stories coming out of the woodwork that she is not as saintly as she seems, especially since even if she raised funds for her charity she did not do much to alleviate the poverty conditions in Calcutta and kept the place in squalor.  Guess who is the one romanticizing poverty?

Yes, Filipinos all around rejoice in her victory.  It’s so interesting how Catriona’s audience of admirers are not only the pageant fans, but also regular folks.  She is proving to be a potent force that can unite all Filipinos, especially since politically we are all enduring polarizing divisions.  I would also like to share the reaction by former Miss World Philippines director Cory Quirino, as the first words that came out of her mouth after witnessing her win was “This is vindication for Catriona Gray!”  She expresses my sentiments, exactly.

Catriona also inspired numerous memes related to her Miss Universe journey, and we Filipinos are such a creative bunch that I can’t help but laugh when I saw them.  Let me share a few of my favorites:

First, here is a new girl group inspired by what the Final Five wore, and an unforgettable phrase that Catriona gave in her final speech:

Then, in reference to the fact that commentators Lu Sierra and Carson Kressley did not list Catriona in their Top Three favorites:

If VENEZUELA was Pocahontas, Nicki Minaj or Cher, and SOUTH AFRICA was Ariana Grande, guess who did Catriona channel?  The comparison is very apt as indeed the inspiration was obvious.  I also have to note that the movie Jessica Rabbit (not the original novel version) and Catriona also are those who look like femme fatales but are good girls in the end.  “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” as Jessica puts it on the film.

Then, a movie scene that seems to be a precursor to the slow-mo twirl element of the “Lava Walk”.  Carlos Buendia, the architect of the now legendary walk, were you inspired by the Roderick Paulate scene from the 1994 film Bala at Lipstick [Bullets and Lipstick]?  Just to pile on the “kismet” factor, the year this film came out is also the year of Catriona’s birth.

I would like to also discuss how Catriona was able to transform her persona from the virtuous, almost virginal divinity we saw at Miss World into a powerful divine siren persona in Miss Universe–little did we know that divine glow was not from a demure virgin but a more powerful, alluring deity.  From many accounts it seems that Catriona was kinda reined in by her handlers during her Miss World stint, and they were conscious of trying previous formulas that worked–that could explain why she was almost a Megan Young clone in her Miss World stint.  I’ve heard stories from some insiders about Catriona’s eventual choice to go independent when Bb. Pilipinas came around–Catriona’s explanation that she wants a team that would focus solely on her instead of a team whose attentions are on multiple ladies at a time is actually true, but there is more to it than that, though for now, those underlying reasons are for another time.  Catriona also described herself as “headstrong” and she has a lot of input and ideas that she wants to put in her preparation–I mean, it’s not necessary for her to do a video series about her national costume inspiration but it’s a treat to witness how the inspiration and the journey unfolded.  The team she put together truly deserve kudos for their contributions to her success, but I think there is an unsung element that helped her fully unleash that sultry, sensual, and ultimately, powerful persona.

If you see how Catriona’s boyfriend of five years, Clint Bondad, looks like, you will perfectly realize why Catriona has a sultry, sensual side.  In my opinion, he’s like the key that helped unleash Catriona’s full potency.  In some ways, he’s like Steve Trevor to Catriona’s Wonder Woman.  Yeah, some might also note that Catriona’s Bicolana bloodline also plays a role (especially if you know stereotypes about Bicolanos, with their love of spices and such), but I’d maintain that having a partner that has such swoon-inducing charisma on his own is key to unlock and finesse the inner sensual fire of this lady.  I do have to note that the way Catriona presented herself, she demonstrated how empowering and liberating expressing your sensual side can be and it is not necessarily mutually exclusive to being a decent, classy, compassionate, and moral person (unlike how many religions tend to view this).  It’s a message I totally would get behind.

Clint Bondad beefcake shot
Clint in Bangkok during the Miss Universe finals, cheering for his girl.

Though most Americans would associate this song to the Damon Wayans, Jr. and Shawn Wayans film White Chicks, for most FIlipinos the song “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton would be associated with a commercial by telecommunications firm Smart (a PLDT subsidiary).  I watched and loved this commercial six years ago and it’s one of the most memorably romantic TV ads I ever saw–it only dawned on me after her win that Catriona and Clint were the couple in this classic commercial, and this was the occasion where they both first met.  And can you imagine this couple will now be replicating this commercial several times as Catriona is now based in New York and Clint in Manila (co-hosting a morning talk show)?

Catriona has also revealed how her mother had a dream of her winning the Miss Universe crown in a red grown when she was 13 years old.  I suppose that Miss World setback proved to be the path that helped her reach her destiny, and based on the smashing impression she made in her first media tour (and the massive growth in her following since her Miss Universe win), expect Catriona to make a big impact in the universal stage, not only during her reign, but for years to come.



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