Catriona Gray On Becoming Miss Universe
To be crowned Miss Universe is to be crowned the most beautiful woman in the world. For some, it is a lifelong dream. For others, it is an opportunity that comes along by happenstance. For Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray, it was a means of acquiring a platform that would bolster backing for her charitable causes. Not the typical pageant candidate—she had no affiliations with any beauty camp, and was often told she was neither Filipina enough nor fierce enough—Gray sought to break the mould the world insisted she fit best in. All eyes were on her when she stepped out in the resplendent “Adarna” gown done in collaboration with designer Mak Tumang, wowing audiences with her much lauded lava walk. But the striking figure she cuts is only part of who she is, for it is her heart that makes her truly deserving of the crown. Gray is a woman of purpose; she puts effort into building better futures for children in impoverished areas, helps raise awareness for HIV, and lends her voice in support of social justice and equality for all.
Philippine Tatler: What was your childhood like?
Catriona Gray: I was born in Cairns in the state of Queensland, Australia and am an only child to a Filipino mother and a Scottish-Australian immigrant father. Because of my dad’s work as a civil engineer, we moved around the country a lot when I was a kid. As a result, I was rather shy. My parents helped coax me out of my shell by enrolling me in a lot of extracurricular activities, which was how my love for performing and music developed. Aside from singing, dance, and drama lessons, I also got into martial arts when I was eight years old, and I earned my black belt by the age of 12. It was a wonderful childhood that cemented the close relationship that I have with my parents to this day.
PT: What was your introduction to the world of beauty pageants? Did you foresee that you would make a career out of it?
CG: My mum was already an avid fan of Miss Universe when I was a little girl. She would always tell me that I could win if I ever decided to join in the future, but I really didn’t have any interest in pageants at that time. It wasn’t until I was 21 that the world of pageantry opened up to me. A close friend had joined a national pageant, and while watching, I realised that it allowed beauty queens to have a platform in society and I began to consider combining the charity work that I was doing with the pageantry aspect. I was never motivated by the possibilities of having a career in pageantry, but by the opportunity to do more for my charity.
PT: When and with whom did you begin full-on pageant training? What are some of the difficulties you encountered and what were some of the greatest lessons you learnt early on?
CG: I joined Binibining Pilipinas in May 2017 and started training right away. My training was gradual, with time allotted weekly for the paserela walk and public speaking, both of which I studied under my mentor Carlos Buendia Jnr. I was an independent candidate, which means that I was not affiliated with anyone from a “beauty camp.” I never experienced any difficulties, but there were a lot of naysayers who would pinpoint my lack of camp and previous national title as my downfall. But I surrounded myself with my own team, found a family in them, and went on to pursue my dream of representing the Philippines in Miss Universe.
PT: What inspired you to try out for Miss World Philippines 2016? Can you share some memorable moments from this experience? How did it feel to win, and what impact did it have on the way you saw your life moving forward?
CG: My best friend who introduced me to pageants entered Miss World, and pageant fans and “experts” were quick to categorise me into a specific mould. I was told that my look wasn’t Filipina or fierce enough to make it into Binibini. I’ve since realised that there is no mould that determines your success in national pageants—or any endeavour for that matter. The amount of support I received was overwhelming and truly rewarding. I grew so much from the experience and now, looking back, my experience participating in a different pageant system was a very helpful training ground that allowed me to come back even stronger in my second foray into Philippine pageantry.
PT: How did it feel to place in the top five at the international level [Miss World]? How different is it competing on an international level as opposed to a national one?
CG: Placing third runner-up out of 120 contestants at my first pageant was definitely an achievement. Bringing pride to my country is a wonderful feeling that really characterised that experience for me. I was also able to see my charity project come into fruition through the opening of the Young Focus Child Care Plus Centre in 2017. Competing at an international level was challenging in that it was a completely new experience for me. What may surprise people is that nationals is at a different level of difficulty because in the Philippines, all the candidates are trained.
PT: What was your state of mind as you prepared to compete in Miss Universe? What were some of the greatest sacrifices you had to make while doing so?
CG: I was very hands-on and knew what I wanted for my journey to Binibining Pilipinas 2018 and Miss Universe. I took on a leadership role within my team and did a lot of things that weren’t expected of me, but that came as a result of my creativity and willingness to proudly represent the Philippines. Every step of the way, I felt extremely grateful for each opportunity.
PT: Did you reach out to any of our previous Miss Universe winners for advice?
CG: I actually didn’t. For me, there isn’t one true formula to winning pageants. Every girl has a different story.
PT: You are very close to your family. How supportive were they of this venture?
CG: Very—just as they’ve been for every one of my ventures since I was young. Every step of the way, they were there to give me support, love, and guidance.
PT:What was the atmosphere like on the days leading up to the finals? Was it easy for you to befriend your fellow contestants? Outside of rehearsals, fittings, and other pageant duties, were you given opportunities to bond and get to know each other?
CG: The atmosphere was charged with nerves and anticipation in the last few days leading to the final competition. My 2018 Miss Universe sisters are an amazing group of women, who all contributed to the very supportive and uplifting atmosphere I experienced behind the scenes as we would all help and encourage each other. I was very close to Denmark and Sweden and a lot of our fellow ASEAN neighbours.
PT: The designs you wore during the Miss Universe competition really captured everyone’s attention, especially due to the stories that accompany each one. Can you share how you conceptualised your looks and how you worked with Mak Tumang to translate your ideas into the gowns?
CG: I love working with Mak because we collaborate. I gave the colour of the gowns and he knows I love symbols that pay homage to the Philippines. From there, he conceptualised “Adarna” and “Mayon.” It was his workmanship, creativity, and vision that really made the gowns come to life as the iconic dresses they now are.
PT: What, for you, is the most challenging aspect of any beauty pageant? How does participating in such pageants help empower you as a woman?
CG: Having the necessary mental toughness—or mental fortitude—because there are so many external and internal pressures. Participating in pageants empowers me in every facet of being a woman, especially by coming together with other ladies, empowering and uplifting each other, and learning from one another while crossing the barriers of culture, standards, race, and beliefs.
PT: How did it feel to become Miss Universe? How has your life changed since winning the crown?
CG: I never dreamt of being a beauty queen, but since making the decision to join again in May of 2017, I have worked every week. My life has drastically changed. I used to lead a simple life; I would do my own grocery shopping and move around on my own in Manila, but I can’t do that anymore—at least for now. My life has been thrust into the public eye, so I definitely have to make many adjustments. But character-wise, I still feel I am the same girl.
PT: What do you miss the most about living away from home? Also, what are the most exciting things about living in New York?
CG: I love living on my own in a vibrant, fast-paced city. I know that this year, I am not just going to explore New York as a place, but learn, grow, and discover myself as a person. But while I’m away, what I miss is the feeling of being able to walk around like an ordinary person back home.
PT: What about your duties as Miss Universe excites you the most? Which among the causes you back do you hope to do more for?
CG: It would definitely be working to further different causes and using my platform and voice to positively impact people’s lives. I will always be passionate about education and HIV/AIDS, but any organisation whose work is devoted to good is something that I’ll be willing to lend my voice and efforts to.
PT: How do you hope to change the world as Miss Universe? What kind of queen do you want the people to remember you as?
CG: I want to be remembered as a relatable and purposeful queen. I feel like beauty queens—or any public figures, really—can be so influential when people feel they can relate to them and see themselves in them. So that’s my wish: to show people the real Catriona in hopes that they can see some aspect of themselves in me and my story; so that when I do take part in working with different causes and organisations, people will feel like they too have the potential to leave a positive impact on their communities.
- Photography Fadil Berisha
- Photography Michael Stewart