By KUPLUTHAI PUNGKANON
MISS PHILIPPINES, Catriona Elisa Gray, already had a lot to her credit long before she entered the Miss Universe pageant – and won the crown yesterday morning.
A woman of remarkable beauty and exceptional charisma, Gray, 24, has delivered her homeland the best possible Christmas gift.
In the final round held at Impact Arena in Bangkok, Miss South Africa Tanaryn Green was crowned first runner-up and Miss Venezuela Sthefany Guterrez as second runner-up.
Ninety-four contestants from around the world participated in the competition, now in its 67th year. This was an historic occasion, with a transgender woman competing for the first time in a pageant that has as its theme “Woman’s Empowerment”.
The judges were all successful women in their fields, including Miss Universe 1988, Thailand’s Porntip “Bui” Simon.
Gray is an art lover and holds a master’s certificate in music theory, with ambitions to become a professional singer. Just three weeks ago she released her debut single, “In This Together”, in partnership with her organisation, Young Focus, aiming to promote unity among diverse cultures. That, she said, is the goal she wants to pursue as Miss Universe.
CONGRATULATIONS! HOW DOES IT FEEL?
It hasn’t really sunk in yet. I guess that will come tonight when I see my family. But in the meantime, I’d like to say thank you to all the media, |the fans, and to all my Miss Universe sisters also. I’m just so thankful for the experience in Thailand, to the organisation and to the |organiser TPN who looked after me so well.
WHAT’S THE FIRST THING YOU WANT TO DO?
I’d like to see my family and eat green mango with spicy chilli sauce and drink some Thai milk tea. That’s my special treat every time I come to Thailand.
SOUNDS GOOD! WHAT THEN?
I’d definitely love to expand my platform regarding education about HIV/Aids in the Philippines. It’s something I feel passionate about, not least because a few years ago I lost a friend due to complications from HIV. So I’d like to spread awareness.
Other than that, I want to insist on the need for education for young children who don’t have access to quality education.
I’ve worked with the organisation Love Yourself PH and I’ve been a volunteer as a teacher’s |assistant for students of the NGO Young Focus for more than three years, starting before I even thought of entering the pageant. |So I’m very proud that the |committee sees that.
Being Miss Universe is definitely going to keep me grounded and |humble.
YOU’RE OFF TO NEW YORK NEXT. HOW DO YOU FEEL?
Thrilled! There are so many Broadway shows I’d like to see and it would be wonderful to experience autumn and winter, because we don’t have that in the Philippines.
I hope I also get the opportunity to go to Indonesia and Europe, because I’ve never been. But I know that, wherever I go, I’ll have friends.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE CONTEST IN TERMS OF DIVERSITY AND WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT?
I think Miss Universe is a wonderful platform for promoting diversity and empowerment. It brings together women who represent their countries. They have stories to tell. They have passions and careers. We’re here together to voice what what touches our hearts. I think Miss Universe is an amazing |platform and we empower each other.
WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU ENCOUNTER ON YOUR WAY TO BECOMING MISS UNIVERSE?
There are of course many expectations for Miss Philippines. I relied on my inspiration, my fans and my supporters. I’d like to thank them because I wouldn’t be here without them.
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE KEY TO YOUR SUCCESS?
I think being prepared. I really think success relies on preparedness and opportunity. So if you’re prepared for an opportunity that comes along and you’re able to give it your all, it will lead you to success.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR EVENING GOWN AND WHY YOU CHOSE IT.
Mount Mayon in my hometown in the Philippines was the inspiration. It’s known for the perfect cone shape of the volcano. I chose red because, when I was 13, my mother told me she’d dreamed I won Miss Universe in a red dress. When I saw her earlier, she remembered that dream.
HOW ABOUT YOUR NATIONAL COSTUME, WHICH WEIGHED A HEFTY 50 KILOGRAMS?
I chose it because I wanted to show different aspects of our |culture as well as the different islands of the Philippines. Initially I was supposed to carry it on my shoulder, but once the lights and everything were installed I couldn’t, so that’s why we put it on a wheel.
But I’m so proud of the national costume because I received so much praise for it. It makes me so proud that people can learn about my culture this way.
VIDEO OF YOUR SLOW TURNS IN THE PRELIMINARY ROUNDS WENT VIRAL ON THE SOCIAL MEDIA.
So many people asked me about it. I just turn slowly! When you spin fast, you get a bit of momentum and the dress adds to that. When we were talking about how we could be different, my mentor and team came up with a signature move – to move slowly.
WHAT DID YOU THINK ABOUT THE QUESTIONS ASKED IN THE FINAL?
The medical-marijuana issue is definitely relevant to my country. It’s an active topic. As I said, I’ve read the studies on marijuana and obviously it needs to be further researched. Regulations must be put in place too before pursuing it further.
WHAT WAS THE MAIN OBSTACLE YOU HAD TO OVERCOME DURING THE CONTEST?
Keeping my spirits high and also always being pleasant, no matter how much pressure from external factors I was feeling, from those around you and in the social media. It can all be overwhelming.
I just kept asking myself, “Why am I here? Why I am in this position? Who are the people around me?”