If anyone should know the pressure Miss Universe Philippines Maxine Medina is feeling right now, it would be Miss Earth 2015 Angelia Ong. Like Medina, Ong had the unenviable and seemingly impossible task of scoring a back-to-back win for the country a year after fellow Visayan Jamie Herrell won Miss Earth in 2014.
But she was able to do it, Ong said, thanks to her unsinkable optimism and the support of family and friends, including her mentors at Kagandahang Flores (KF). Ong’s rah-rah attitude is perhaps best encapsulated in her winning answer during the Miss Earth finals in Vienna, Austria: “We will because we can!”
“I really feel for her,” said Ong in a phone interview, referring to Medina. “I was in Maxine’s shoes once upon a time. When I was in Vienna during the competition, there were nights when I would cry myself to sleep because I felt I wasn’t doing enough. Then when I woke up, I would cry again.”
All eyes will be focused on Medina tomorrow, as she tries to follow in the footsteps of compatriot Pia Wurtzbach, Miss Universe 2015. It would be a sweet victory and perhaps also a controversial one for her and for the Philippines since the country is again staging the pageant for the third time.
“Kapit lang, Maxine. Mawala na ang lahat, huwag lang ang tiwala mo sa iyong sarili,” said Ong. “As long as she gives this contest her all, she won’t have to regret anything. No matter the outcome, win or lose, she’s still a winner because deep in her heart, she gave it her all.”
In many ways, Medina is far luckier than Ong was during her quest for a back-to-back win. While Medina, a Manileña, presumably has the full support of family and friends during her training, Ong, who calls Iloilo home, was virtually out on her own in Manila, except for the support of a few close friends and her KF family. To top it all, Ong, a working student, had to put her studies at De La Salle-College of St. Benilde (DLS-CSB) on hold, as she trained for both local and international contests.
“That’s why it’s important to have a family you could turn to,” she said. “In my case, it was KF. And no matter how much training you undergo, it’s important not to lose yourself. Don’t forget your authenticity.”
And unlike Medina who won in a local contest on her first attempt, Ong, a probinsiyana at heart, didn’t enjoy instant success. In fact, joining a beauty contest was farthest from her mind while pursuing a mass communication degree in Iloilo. At the same time, she hosted a local travel show for GMA network in her province.
“I didn’t wear heels,” she said. “Ni mag-kilay, ’di ako marunong. But a lot of people, both friends and casual acquaintances, kept telling me to give beauty contests a try. They said I’m pretty and tall enough to get noticed. But I didn’t have any clue where and how to start.”
Ong still didn’t give it much thought until she met Bb. Pilipinas World 2006 Anna Maris Igpit in Iloilo, her counterpart in Cebu, who hosted a similar travel show for the Cebuano audience. Having trained under KF, Igpit was able to answer some of Ong’s questions. She also called Rodgil Flores, head of KF, to endorse Ong to him. Soon enough, the adventurous lass found herself flying to Manila to personally meet Flores.
It was December 2010, two months before Bb. Pilipinas would start screening for new applicants. At the tender age of 19, and with barely enough training, Ong, with Flores’ encouragement, applied. That also meant quitting school in Iloilo.
Since the pageant was moving from GMA to its new home in ABS-CBN, network executives there wanted to make a splash. Instead of the usual 30 girls, 40 girls were to be featured that year to allow ABS-CBN to produce a bigger, grander show. Timing was on Ong’s side since she was eventually accepted.
“I was hilaw na hilaw,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have made the cut had they stuck to the usual 30 girls.”
Despite her inadequacies, which included a “bouncy” pasarela walk full of “quirks,” Ong felt optimistic of her chances. But the competition, led by eventual top winner Shamcey Supsup, proved to be too much for her. Ong eventually found herself, in gay par lance, “clapping” as one of the 24 “thank you girls” who didn’t make the top 16.
“It was painful,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to go far, but losing big on my first attempt still hurt. I also learned that joining a beauty contest could cost a lot of money. Nobody was providing me with shoes and dresses. I had to spend for everything. I also had to buy makeup, which didn’t last long because I was applying it every day. I was nearly down to my last centavo when I learned to solicit the help of sponsors two weeks before the contest.”
It was an education on Ong’s part on the ways of beauty contests, which perhaps Flores allowed her to experience. If he had other plans for Ong, the KF head didn’t tell her. Meanwhile, Ong decided to quit her job in Iloilo and stay in Manila for good. That also meant transferring to another school to continue with her mass communication course.
Since enrollment at De La Salle University, her chosen school, was already closed, Ong decided to enroll at nearby DLS-CSB. It also meant shifting from mass communication, which her new school didn’t offer, to marketing.
She worked on weekdays and went to school on weekends. Among her many jobs were working as clerk for a construction company, hosting and reading the news for a fledgling online news channel, and joining smaller beauty contests, including Miss Manila. She was still meeting up with her KF family once in a while, but her training with them was far from intensive.
“I have to admit that my eyes were on the prize when I joined Miss Manila,” said Ong. “Since the prize money was P1 million, that would have allowed me to study fulltime without going to work for a while.”
Alas, she only managed to win second runner-up. The top prize went to a girl from Tarlac who floored the judges with her answer. Despite settling for the smaller P250,000 cash prize, Ong found herself being invited by contest organizers to post-pageant activities.
“Since they seemed to like me, too, I also got to enjoy all the perks of the winner,” she said. One of her public appearances as a Miss Manila runner-up included going to the Araneta Coliseum to watch a Bb. Pilipinas pageant. It was then that Flores saw Ong in a different light.
The next day and for several weeks and months after that, Flores kept on nagging Ong to put on her beauty queen hat and give big-time beauty pageants another try. “Iba daw ang kutob niya ngayon sa akin,” she shared. Since her aim was to finish her studies, Ong paid him little heed until fate once more intervened.
Thanks to the government’s K to 12 program, there was a time in the country’s school calendar when there were no incoming freshmen enrolling in colleges and universities. In short, there would be a gap period in Ong’s school for at least a month.
“Since I wouldn’t miss much in school, I finally gave in to Tito Rodgil’s wishes,” she said. “I went to Carousel Productions, the company behind Miss Earth, to sign up. As soon as I was accepted, I began training again regularly with KF.”
Ong, to her slight shock, didn’t get kid gloves treatment any more when she resumed her training. This time Flores and company meant business. It came to a point that they didn’t allow her to go home until she perfected one of her weakest points—her walk.
“Since I had no muscle memory, my walk was a hit or miss thing,” she said. “Before I could leave the KF venue, they made sure that I perfected it. But when I tried walking again the next day, it was as if I was doing it for the first time. Nawawala na naman ako!”
But Ong persisted to the point of getting bruises and cramps in the process. With her wit and stage presence, she readily won Miss Earth Philippines. Still, her walk remained tentative up to the time she flew to Vienna to compete internationally. If there were two areas that were working in her favor, it was her spontaneity in answering questions and her dark olive skin, which would presumably be a hit with judges composed mostly of foreigners save for Filipino Lorraine Schuck, one of the founders of Carousel Productions.
She won, but it was a hard-fought victory that had its share of intrigues and nasty talk from naysayers who dismissed the Philippines’ back-to-back win in Miss Earth as another “hometown decision” even though the pageant was held thousands of miles away from Manila. But Ong couldn’t care less.
“If they only knew how hard it was for all of us to stand out and gain the judges’ attention,” she said. “Unlike other global pageants, Miss Earth has two rounds of closed-door sessions where the girls have two minutes each to impress the judges. To make one of the encounters more challenging, we were asked to wear only our swimsuits and not to put makeup on. Nothing, not even lipstick.”
Their second encounter with the judges was no less easy. This time they were asked to wear corporate attire and very minimal makeup. The logic behind this no-makeup routine is directly related to Miss Earth’s environmental advocacy, Ong explained. Have you ever seen tree planters or members of a cleanup committee wearing “contest makeup” during their outdoor activities?
Ong also resorted to a strategy she thought of herself days before actual judging. In order to gain the judges’ attention and say as much as possible about herself and her environmental advocacies given the limited time she had, she was already talking to them the second she entered the room.
“I already told them things I felt they wanted to hear,” she said. “It also helped that four of the judges in the room were people I met and talked with days earlier. I had no idea they were judges. Apart from establishing an instant connection, their presence helped me feel more at ease.”
And what about her problematic pasarela walk? Looking at YouTube clips of herself at the Vienna contest now, Ong could only laugh about it. What looks perfect to ordinary mortals is actually a walk riddled with errors and imperfections as far as Ong and her KF family were concerned.
“Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about my walk anymore during the finals,” she said. “If the endless hours I spent training would kick in, then fine. If it didn’t then I would have to simply make do and make up for it in other areas.” Which Ong did. That’s probably something that Medina should think about and channel tomorrow as she heads into one of the biggest fights of her life.