WHEN Catriona Elisa Magnayon Gray left Manila for Bangkok to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, she had meticulously planned and laid everything out so that the moment the competition started, she let go and told herself to enjoy and have fun representing the Philippines.
“Every single time I stepped onstage I just enjoyed myself and I think people saw that. I was just happy to be there,” Gray told the Asian Journal in a freewheeling interview at the Miss Universe Organization’s new office in midtown Manhattan.
This was Day 3 of her hectic Media Week schedule doing interviews with Good Morning America, Live with Kelly & Ryan, AOL Build Series, Good Day NY and also with ABS-CBN and GMA Network from the Philippines.
Gray arrived in New York on January 2nd, after spending the holidays in seclusion. She celebrated her 25th birthday on January 6th which she spent going to church, eating out and watching Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway.
“I feel so grateful that I am here in New York City. I love it! It feels like it has sunk in na,” she shared. “I had a quiet holiday season and it feels like I am now stepping into my shoes as Miss Universe. I am suffering just a little bit of jetlag but aside from that, everything is well.”
The newly minted Miss Universe is looking forward to a year of opening doors and exploring possibilities to promote the platforms that she holds near and dear her heart.
“I want to have the best year that I could possibly have and that for me would be to do as much work as I could for different organizations because it has really been my identity for the past three years,” Gray said. “The reason why I do what I do is that I really aim to have this platform, to reach more people, and now that I am given this opportunity, I am so overly aware of the responsibility that I have. It is a challenge that I am so excited to pursue.”
Gray is excited to expand her work on children’s education and HIV/AIDS to other countries which have the same problems.
These two are platforms that she is passionate about because of personal reasons.
She is looking forward to expanding these causes and focus on things where she could make a difference like going to countries, for example, which have been successful in focusing on the social problem of HIV/AIDS and bringing what they have applied there back home to the Philippines.
Gray was 21 years old and she was going through a hard time in her personal career, struggling and frustrated and one day, she just told herself that she did not want to think about her problems for a moment and decided to do volunteer work, something that she has never done before.
It was as simple as logging to the internet and through Google, she found Young Focus. She was then living in Paranaque and Young Focus is based in Tondo, Manila, which was not that far.
Gray went to Tondo and met with the people behind the organization and she knew right then that she has found what she was looking for. More than that, the impact of meeting the kids and seeing their situation changed her life and her perspective on things.
“People there live with so little and yet, and yet, they still had smiles on their faces. They were greeting us as we walked past. Coming as someone who was frustrated with my own life, I had so many things that I wanted that I felt like I could have,” she said.
It struck her.
“I had so much to be grateful for. That really impacted me so strongly. That, and seeing the kids, made me question why was I born into a situation where I had the opportunity and here they are born to a circumstance where they don’t. That’s not fair,” she said.
Gray is a firm believer that education is one tool that could level out the opportunity. Children could have dreams of becoming a musician, the next president, to be an astronaut.
“Education is a platform that can validate that dream and allow them to pursue their dreams,” she affirmed.
Miss Universe: Behind the scenes
People now see a glamorous Miss Universe who worked hard to get that crown, something that a lot of people did not see.
You see, Catriona Gray did her homework.
“This is my second foray into pageantry and I knew what I wanted,” she said straight up. “I knew that I wanted to be hands-on in everything. That’s just me naturally.”
As a newbie before, she wanted to be guided by people who are experts in the field.
Gray represented the Philippines in the Miss World competition held in Washington, D.C. in 2016. She placed in the top five. Pageant enthusiasts contend that she should have won.
For her next foray a year later, which was Binibining Pilipinas, Gray said she knew what she wanted and what she would be most confident in. She knew how she could see herself as most beautiful in terms of her final look and styling.
She went in as an independent candidate and built her own team, which back then was an unpopular decision.
A lot of people told her that she was crazy for doing so because “there’s never been a Miss Universe Philippines who hasn’t come from one of the camps.”
“But I knew I could do it. And that’s my stubbornness. That was my vision and when I have a vision, I stick to it and I want to execute it,” she shared.
In the end, she gained a family from the team that she pooled together.
“We’re all good friends now and that’s something that I am so grateful for, that gift of family, they created that support for me and they allowed my vision to come to reality,” she said.
Not a lot of people know but Gray herself was the one who designed the now famous ear cuff that she wore during her coronation.
She wanted to be a Miss Philippines in her wardrobe and not just the letterings across the sash.
She and her team met with historians and travelled across the Philippines to research for her national costume and derive inspiration from the people, the culture and the history of the regions.
“I feel the Filipino people deserved that. I wanted to share what we could offer as a country. We’re not just nice people and beautiful beaches, we’re so much more than that,” she said. “I wanted people to learn about what I was wearing, that there is a story behind it. It was more meaningful that way.”
From the folklore of Ibong Adarna to the T’nalak weave to the various islands that her team featured in the video series that they released as the Miss Universe competition began, it was her way to generate more interest among her now growing team of followers, particularly on social media.
“It was such an amazing experience, probably one of my most memorable for the whole year. I am so grateful to my team for believing in my crazy vision. I went up to them and I said ‘I want to make a video series about my national costume’. It has never been before,” she said.
As a Miss Universe now and even during her reign as Miss Philippines, Gray has become a tourism ambassador for the Philippines, promoting not just the sites but the country’s culture as well.
Asked about her favorite spots, she mentioned “the mountainous provinces like Sagada (Mountain Province) and Batad (Ifugao)” along with the “beaches of Palawan, Coron especially”.
“More than these beautiful places though, I would like to share aspects about our culture too, [especially] our textiles because these textiles could mean the livelihood of one community. Beyond our beaches, we have T’nalak and hand made brass and I think that is something to be incredibly proud of that is Pinoy talaga (really),” she explained.
Gray maintains that for as long as she can, she will wear Filipino accessories and showcase Filipino textiles and fabrics.
One designer who does her outfits is Jearson Demavivas, who created her national costume for Binibining Pilipinas and also designed the main body suit of her national costume at the Miss Universe pageant.
He hails from South Cotabato and he works with T’nalak all the time and he has respect for the fabric and knows what it means to the community, according to Gray.
Who could forget her national costume?
Gray paraded what she and her team called the “LuzViMinda,” deriving inspiration from the parol of Pampanga with her bodysuit printed with tattoo patterns used by the “Pintados,” indigenous people from some of the islands in the Visayas and a headpiece and brass accessories from South Cotabato.
Through her platform as Miss Universe, Gray looks forward to showcasing some of the Philippines’ many indigenous textiles and accessories, whether it is a sampaguita-inspired rattan bag or a hand-made burda callado silk top.
The red gown and famous walk
“I don’t know if you’ve heard if it, but my mom dreamt of me winning Miss Universe in a red dress,” she said laughing. “That is true, and that time I didn’t really think anything of it because I was just a teenager and I didn’t have any interest in it yet.”
Right after she won the right to represent the Philippines in the Miss Universe pageant, Gray remembered her mom’s dream. She knew she wanted red and she did not want to test fate so she said there was no other choice but to wear the red gown.
Mak Tumang, the gown’s designer, conceptualized it as a tribute to the Mayon Volcano, a national symbol and one of the most iconic sites from the Bicol region where Gray’s mom is originally from. He submitted his first sketch to Gray a month after she won the title and right there she decided it was going to be her finals gown.
“Daragang Magayon is a folklore and my mom’s maiden name is Magnayon which is a pre-colonial Filipino name so it all tied up together,” she said. “It felt like a beautiful tribute and there was no other option.”
The details of that fiery red gown symbolized the lava from Mayon’s eruption and her team tied it up with her now famous “lava walk,” although technically the walk came before the gown.
“Mak is exceptionally talented at what he does and he is incredibly meticulous which I greatly respect being a perfectionist myself,” Gray said.
The gown is made out of digitally printed material with 12 tones of Swarovski crystals and put on each tone of the fabric.
“Just imagine the labor and love and attention to detail that went into that gown, it was something amazing. When I wore it the first time I was in tears just because, it looked like it has a life of its own,” she shared.
And speaking of the now famous walk, Gray clarified some of the headlines that have appeared saying that because of her scoliosis, she was in tears as she practiced and perfected her walk.
“Some of them are a little out of context saying that I was crying in pain. I wasn’t. My scoliosis causes me mild discomfort especially on a long day of heels but it doesn’t hinder me in any other way,” she explained. “It is about learning the balance and coordination and it’s all about practicing.”
Childhood in Australia
Gray admits that she was very outdoorsy as a child and she had a very carefree and happy childhood. Since she was an only child, she said, “medyo sheltered ako (I was a little sheltered). I am very close to my parents who I love, love, love very much. I always spent time with my dog kasi wala akong sibling (because I don’t have a sibling).”
Her parents Ian and Normita were very supportive, even when she decided to move to the Philippines, and for that, she feels very blessed.
“My parents have supported me 110 percent in anything I’ve ever wanted to do. They never tried to define my dreams, they always pushed me to dream bigger because they always believed in me. I feel that is a very important reason why I am here today because they’ve always instilled that confidence in me, that I am capable, that I am worthy and that my dreams are valid,” she shared.
In an Instagram post, Gray said her dad taught her to be “tough, gutsy and give power to my words” while her mom told her to always trust her intuition and “hold a firery (sic) soul in a soft heart.”
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The two reasons that I am who I am today. 🙏 My mum and dad have believed in me and my potential since I was a little girl. My daddy taught me to be tough, gutsy and give power to my words. My mum taught me to always trust my intuition and hold a firery soul in a soft heart. Thank you for continuously guiding me. I love you both beyond words. ✨ @missuniverse #MissUniverse
More than that, what is the biggest lesson her mom taught her?
“If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, which I can apply to this journey because I really went all out,” she said, letting a loud guffaw. “I pulled together all of my resources, I really put my heart out in every single aspect up to the jewelry, the turns. My signature is on everything [on] this journey, I was really hands on.”
Gray believes that her biggest weakness is her being “over-analytical,” particularly when she was younger when she wouldn’t even stop to savor and enjoy her moments of victory.
On the other hand, she considers being creative as her biggest strength.
“I always try and do something different and being creative, I feel like it flows to every aspect that I put my hands on,” she said.
Gray describes her first week as Miss Universe with two words: grateful and fulfilling.
“Every step of the way, I have always been overwhelmed by the support not only from team, family and friends, but from the people, the Filipino people. They are the reason why I even considered joining again,” she said.
Exactly a year ago, Gray was at the Binibining Pilipinas office turning in her application. In between, there were moments of doubt and she would question herself if she is doing the right thing or if this was the right path for her.
It is the spirit of support from the Filipinos (including those overseas) that has helped Gray carry through the journey despite feeling overwhelmed at times, the same support that she says is helping her now fulfill her duties as Miss Universe.