Catriona Gray carried more weight on her shoulders than the 29.7-carat Phoenix Mikimoto Crown that was placed on her head on the glorious Monday morning of December 17, 2018, at the IMPACT Arena of Bangkok, Thailand, when she was named Miss Universe.
It was as if, as she spoke, she was feeling the desperation of the people of Smokey Mountain, a place that got its name from the firea and smoke of the metro's garbage dump as it burned.
As she took her victory walk, she was also walking for her father, whose bad knees have been a real concern for her, and for her mother, whose big dreams she has always pinned on her only child Catriona.
Resplendent in her red-hot Mark Tumang "lava gown," the 25-year-old girl from the Philippines was hailed the new queen, giving the country its fourth win in the Miss Universe arena, presumably the grandest of beauty pageants.
Amid the celebration and myriad cheer, there stood Catriona, the family breadwinner and a champion of poor children.
CATRIONA ON THE MOVE
Sipping a cup of coffee, on her fourth photo shoot of the day, Catriona tells PEP.ph (Philippine Entertainment Portal), in a bid to make everyone feel at home, "I just try my best na lang."
PEP.ph follows three sites—Esquire, Cosmopolitan Philippines, Female Network, all from Summit Media—this Sunday, March 3.
"It's not every day that it's jam-packed," Catriona says with a smile, "so when I take it, it's a lot of blessings naman getting to work with great people and getting to be home in the Philippines.
"So, wala lang, I just try to make it through. Coffee helps din."
Thrown in a whirlwind of activities in New York, Catriona barely had time to wave back to the Philippines after her Miss Universe coronation, but on this Sunday she is here on a two-week break and a homecoming celebration.
PEP.ph is a squeeze in her tight schedule. Billeted at the Versailles Event Garden and Tent of Novotel Hotel in Quezon City, Miss Universe 2018 welcomes us with a big smile.
As she tells her story, she strikes us as a spunky young woman making her way into the world, on her own, all the time worrying about her mom and dad.
She narrates, "I'm an only child, and I just remember me, my mom, and my dad. We're parang three musketeers. Always together."
It almost seems like Catriona is at bottom a gutsy, simple girl with a big heart and grand wishes.
This is the Catriona we face in a 26-minute interview.
Asked how it was in New York, all she could comment on was the weather, and nothing about shopping trips or clothes fittings or lively parties.
Quite unusual for someone who has just been crowned queen of the universe.
"Ang lamig!" she exclaims. "I've been there maybe for about a month all in all because I've also been travelling a little bit, but I love the apartment.
"I haven't explored enough 'cause it's cold. I just keep hiding at home after work but there are places I want to go. I want to explore SoHo, I want to go to Chelsea Market."
She shares the apartment with Miss USA 2018 Sarah Rose Summers, who knows her way around the city.
Catriona is thankful. "It's nice to have a friend who's been there. She has recommendations of places to go, places to see, which is nice."
One of the things she looks forward to in New York is watching more Broadway musicals. She says she enjoyed watching Dear Evan Hansen.
"I just love music kasi, e, and Broadway I love how they're acting, singing, all in one, live."
Catriona says her heart is filled with thank-yous for all the blessings coming her way as a beauty queen.
She says, "I never wanted to do pageants. I remember, even when I began, there were people, 'Ah you should try out Binibini, you should try out this pageant.' Pero I was like, 'Ayoko, I don't have interest.'"
"I thought it was just a show once a year and then every year, there's a new one. That's all I saw it as lang. I didn't realize, especially here in the Philippines, how much of an important figure in a society beauty queens are in a way."
The five-foot-eleven Bicolana stunner was then focused on a career as a fashion and commercial model. She was the face for many brands and was named one of the sexiest models in the country by Cosmopolitan Philippines in 2012.
But in 2014, her life took an unexpected turn. Her parents, who had been based in Canada, decided to join her and settle in the Philippines.
At the age of 20, Catriona suddenly became the sole breadwinner for her family.
Catriona recounts, "I was self-sufficient from the age of 18 to 19, 20.
"My parents moved to the Philippines after I got my first big pay check as a model, which was very exciting.
"And I guess they thought that it was the beginning of something for me, so they packed up everything, and they came all the way to the Philippines.
"And all of a sudden, I was the breadwinner for my family. It was so funny when that happened."
"It was like all the opportunities just fell away, like, I had so many doors closed in my face. It was incredibly frustrating and that came with the pressure of being the breadwinner."
"I was really, really down. I love my parents so much. I'm more than happy to provide for them.
"But, like, at that time I just saw my bank account emptying and emptying and emptying.
"I had the fear of, 'What if something happens to them and I need to have emergency costs, what if I can't?'
"So, I was so scared. I was so crippled by fear."
CAT TAKES THE PATH OF SERVICE
Instead of getting lost in her fears, Catriona decided to find herself in other pursuits. She became a volunteer for Young Focus Philippines, a non-government organization helping to provide underprivileged youth from Smokey Mountain in Tondo, Manila, access to education.
She relates, "For some reason, charity work came into my mind, and I found Young Focus online lang, and I went to Tondo and then I met with the staff.
"I talked to the teachers and the owners and the kids, and I really saw the work that they were doing and I really believed in it.
"On that day they offered to walk me through the community of Happyland near Smokey Mountain."
Happy Land is one of the most-deprived areas of Smokey Mountain.
"I was just so confronted with what I saw, what that experience was. I've never seen poverty in real life before.
"Of course, growing up in Australia, I never saw that."
"Seeing it with my own two eyes in the middle of a hot summer, and I just couldn't understand why I was so lucky to be in a situation where I had access to school, I had a roof above my head all the time. I never had to worry when I was a child about going hungry."
The experience made a huge impact on Catriona. She wanted to do more. She took her cue from a close friend who clued her in on beauty pageantry as a platform for her advocacy.
She recalls, "My very good friend, Valerie Weigmann, she joined as Miss World Philippines in 2014, so I was exposed to the world of pageantry through her, 'cause I supported her.
"I watched for the first time her pageant, and I was just amazed at how she was able to elevate not just herself but her cause through Miss World, through pageantry, and through that kind of community. So, that's how pageantry opened up to me, and I pursued it."
As they say, do good and it will come back a thousandfold.
She says, "It feels like a lot has transpired in the last two months.
"But it's been such a blessing, you know, I’m grateful so much!
"And even the journey itself, but these are the things that I'm most grateful about, 'cause… to get through all those ups and downs, but to be here now and look back.
"'Ayun pala, Lord, that's why it happened talaga. You were preparing me for this. Hay, salamat kay Lord!'"
HER ROYAL CATNESS
Catriona's pageant career started in 2016. She first trained with Jonas Gaffud and then with other pageant experts from Aces and Queens, a well-known training camp for aspiring beauty queens.
"First time I started pageantry, I was under a camp. That was mainly influenced by the fact that I was a newbie.
"I didn't know anything about pageantry. I was just a model. I knew how to walk like a model.
"But I don't know how to walk like a beauty queen, you know."
That same year she was crowned Miss World Philippines and represented the country to the Miss World pageant in the United States.
Catriona admitted to being disappointed. It was not because she lost, she explained, but because the whole experience did not live up to her expectations.
"After my bout in Miss World, I had a break for like a year and a half 'cause I really thought pageantry was over for me. It wasn't like not getting the crown, but I guess my experience just didn't live up to what I thought it would be, and I felt one pageant is enough for a lifetime 'cause you invest so much."
Joining another pageant was not really in her plans for 2018, but many loyal followers insisted that she join another.
In January 2018, she surprised everyone by submitting her application to Binibining Pilipinas.
"Everyone kept messaging me, like, 'Hey Cat, please, please, please reconsider. We'd love for you to represent the country again. Please, please, please think about it.'
"And at first I would ignore, and then I started thinking about it, like, 'Why did they really believe in me hanggang ngayon?' Like, that was like a year and a half later.
"I didn't understand that and then I started thinking, 'What if I did join?' Like, 'What if I could represent the Philippines in Miss Universe? What if I compete for Miss Universe?'
"I was 24 at that time so what have I got to lose? 'Hindi, sige na, let's do it.'"
This time, Catriona decided to compete independently and build her own team, a decision that drew mixed reactions from die-hard pageant fans.
She recalls, "I get a lot of doubters who would say, 'Oh, you know, you're not gonna win! You're independent, you're not gonna win, you're a previous title holder, you're not gonna win because if you lost then, what makes you think you're gonna win now?'"
Catriona ignored the comments and went ahead with her team--pageant/catwalk trainer Carlos Buendia Jr., shoemaker Jojo Bragais, fashion designer Mak Tumang, casting director Harley Tan, and stylists Ton Lao and Justine Aliman, hairstylist Brent Sales, makeup artists Jelly Eugenio and Memay Francisco, among many others.
"I just saw people that I really believed in, and you know the fact that they believed in me enough to become a part of my team, like it kinda just felt together in that way."
She adds, "And what's wonderful is that we all kind of became a family and everyone forged friendship within the group."
Catriona ultimately won the Miss Universe Philippines 2018 crown in March 2018, and in December, the Miss Universe title.
CAT SPEAKS UP
She kicked off her reign as Miss Universe by appearing in several U.S. television shows and attending fashion events.
With every opportunity, she continues to promote her causes alongside the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign of the Miss Universe Organization.
In the Philippines, Catriona has teamed up with Love Yourself Inc., a non-government organization dedicated to educating the public about HIV/AIDS prevention.
"AIDS and HIV is a big part of the Miss Universe brand, not only as my own individual passion. And I see that there's so much work needed to be done in the Philippines, especially with regards to stigma, and with regards to allowing testing and treatment to be accessible to everyone.
"Here in the city, we do have great NGOs that are doing great work, but when you think about the other provinces that aren't really being given the right resources or the right access, like we still have a lot of work to do, and I feel like the government could really help on that.
"We did have a good milestone, that we were able to lower the testing of HIV from [ages] 18 to 15, which is great, but there's a lot of work that needs to be done still.
"And I will always be vocal about it if I feel that I'm contributing to it. Because it's something that is very near to my heart and something I've been volunteering to for about two years now."
Catriona does speak her mind, and many pageant fans commend her for speaking out on national issues. She created a stir when she expressed dismay over the bill lowering the age of criminal liability and the idea of changing the name of the Philippines to Maharlika.
She says, "I always try and talk from my personal experience. I really do try and be as aware as possible before speaking out on a subject because I think that's what everyone should do--listen to all sides before formulating your own.
"And even when you do formulate your own opinion, be open to further conversation.
"I feel like it's my responsibility now 'cause I'm a forever Miss Philippines, obviously, but I really care about what happens in the Philippines.
"I care especially about causes that I'm very passionate about, like children education, HIV/AIDS, anything else that I feel like I'll contribute if I speak about it."
And her words carry weight because they make sense.
"I see a lot of times that people will take snippet of the headline and not read the whole article, and do you know what I mean?
"I like that there's a great level of awareness, there's a community to have conversation.
"The thing is, we're not researching before we believe or speak and I feel that's something that needs to change 'cause so many people are being hurt, so many causes are not gaining the right attraction."
Cat continues, "We're not putting the right attention on things 'cause we are formulating our opinions over small snippets we read or fake headlines or fake news or even hearsay.
"And that damages the movement more than it contributes to it because it leads to a lot of misinformed public.
"So I think that can also be adjusted in schools—teaching children, like, to read articles and check sources."
And, yes, she has something to say about social media.
"Again, it's a free place where everyone can voice out their opinion, and I think we should also instill... within ourselves as individuals to not put our value or worth within social media."
CATRIONA BEFORE SHE BECAME ROYALTY
Catriona was born and raised in Cairns, Queensland, to a Scottish-born father, Ian Gray, and a Filipina mother, Normita Ragas Magnayon.
Asked about her childhood, Catriona recalls, "I really had a beautiful childhood.
"We really treasure family time together 'cause my dad worked away from home a lot, so I really treasure the times that we're all together.
"I also love being outdoors, climbing trees, and in the pool or even doon sa ocean, like I'm a very outdoor kid so they're my favorite memories."
There is one special memory of her childhood in Australia she will always treasure: the Little Miss Philippines pageant in Sydney that her mom made her join in 1999.
Her eyes light up as she recounts, "When I was five, my mom put me in that competition 'cause we were living in Sydney at that time.
"Of course, I didn't know what's going on, pero I won that pageant, like, a little one for ages 3 to 7 yata, something like that, so 'yon, Little Miss Philippines ako nung 1999."
Catriona grew up aware of her Filipino roots. Her mom usually brought her on vacation trips to Albay.
She remembers fondly, "I remember the first time I went there. I drove past the church and the school and my mom was actually with me and 'cause I haven't met my lola or lolo.
"They both passed away before I was born, and the only grandparent I met was my great grandmother.
"So, my mother's grandmother and my mom told me as we were driving past, 'Oh, that's where lola used to take us in school, that's where we go to church!'
"That was very special for me because I never met them, so in a way, I felt a little bit connected in that way. It was very sentimental."
When she turned 18, in 2012, Catriona decided to pack her bags and move to the Philippines.
She wanted to discover new things and find out for herself what she really wanted to do.
As Catriona tells PEP.ph, "It really signified a lot for me 'cause I was a very sheltered, lonely child, only child.
"Although my parents pushed me to be independent, I also realized that I was unsure of how to be myself... I didn't know what I wanted to pursue in my life, like I didn't know what I wanted to be.
"I had too many interests. I still have a lot of interests, but I had too many interests. I just felt a lot of pressure as a young adult being told, 'Okay, sige na, enroll into a university to study something for four years.'
"You don't know if you like it or not, but go na, so I took a gap year 'cause I wanted to just discover myself.
"And what I've learned about myself, and it made sense to come to the Philippines first, kasi yun ang roots ko, and I ended up staying and I discovered myself here."
But the way to finding herself was not always smooth.
Catriona reveals, "I was actually heartbroken with my first heartbreak ever.
"I just moved here, and I started as a model. I was living in a model apartment. It was all very new for me.
"For the first time, I was doing my own laundry, my groceries.
"Back then, walang Waze, walang Grab, so I'm taking cabs doing castings and stuff, but it made me mature a lot.
"I learned how to be on my own. Like before, I would get anxiety for going out by myself, and I just had to push past that and kind of mature and grow up."
She concludes, "And I guess I did, and I eventually made my own friends, 'cause my family naman here is in the province and I always lived in the metro so I was alone talaga.
"It helped me become a young woman."
AFTER MISS UNIVERSE
Catriona has nine more months as Miss Universe.
She says, "The crown is an amazing blessing, but it's not that once I pass the crown, my life would end. I think it's just a great stepping platform for major things.
"Of course, I want to have a purposeful reign, so I'll really try and work my butt off this whole year, and really try and set myself up to keep doing work as a spokesperson, as an ambassador.
"But also I want to pursue music, 'cause music is something that I love, that I really love doing.
"If I could write or collaborate my own music, put together an album. I'll really love that.
"And also, I want to be able to provide my parents with a retirement home. That would make me really happy.
"Get my dad a new pair of knees and even set up some personal businesses for me and my mom. So, that's a lot."
The Miss Universe crown is just the beginning for Catriona.
As for the rest of us, maybe for a treat, we can get her to sing something. Anything. She has a great voice, crown or no crown.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Dookie Ducay
SHOOT PRODUCER: Nikko Tuazon
INTERVIEW: Francesca Ganal, Nikko Tuazon
CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Jeremiah Idanan
SHOOT COODINATOR: Lou Ferrer
STYLISTS: Miguel Cruz, Jowi Guzman, Princess Villones, and Rex Atienza of StyleList, Inc.
MAKE-UP ARTIST: Jelly Eugenio
HAIRSTYLIST: Brent Sales
VIDEO PRODUCERS: John Henri Mariano, Jean Saturnino, Coleen Oliva
Shot on location at Novotel Manila Araneta Center in Quezon City.
Special thanks to Esther Swan and Jackie Shahinian of Miss Universe Organization, and Nonito Cuizon of Novotel