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The education of a wannabe beauty queen

You can correct a girl’s posture. Even personality and intelligence can be acquired and developed through training. Physical beauty can be enhanced through makeup and, in extreme cases, through surgery. One thing you can never really acquire is the aura of a winner. That’s something innate.

By Focus FeaturesJanuary 29, 2017

Whatever happens to Miss Universe Philippines 2016 Maxine Medina, talent manager and beauty queen maker Jonas Gaffud of Aces and Queens promised himself not to hide in the men’s restroom, as he often did in the past. As beauty contest-crazy Filipinos wait with bated breath for the outcome of Miss Universe, which the country is again staging for the third time tomorrow morning at SM Mall of Asia-Arena in Pasay City, Gaffud, as usual, despite being a pageant insider, can’t help but feel a sense of extreme excitement mixed with a tinge of dread and unease for his protégé.

His day job as head of Mercator Artist and Model Management, Inc., has had to take a backseat in recent weeks in favor of organizing Miss Universe-related ancillary events for former Ilocos Sur Governor Chavit Singson’s LCS Group of Companies. Despite his killer schedule, Gaffud can’t help but think about Medina whom he and his group, including Arnold Mercado, Bessie Besana, and lawyer Nad Bronce, had trained since early last year before the 26-year-old model-interior designer joined Binibining Pilipinas and bagged the coveted Miss Universe Philippines crown.

Makeup artist Albert Kurniawan puts the finishing touches on Miss Universe Philippines Maxine Medina
Makeup artist Albert Kurniawan puts the finishing touches on Miss Universe Philippines Maxine Medina

Aces and Queens and rival camp Kagandahang Flores (KF), which is led by events organizer and stage director Rodgil Flores, have been responsible for honing some of the country’s most successful representatives to such global beauty contests as Miss Universe, Miss International, Miss Earth, Miss Supranational, Miss Globe, Miss Global, and Miss Grand International. There are other smaller, lesser-known beauty queen training camps in Metro Manila and in the provinces, but Aces and KF are the biggest and most successful of their kind. Without them, the Philippines, which languished without a single girl making it to the Miss Universe semifinals for an entire decade in the 2000s, won’t be hailed as a so-called powerhouse country today in terms of its impressive performance in global beauty pageants.

Beauty queen products

Apart from Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach, Aces has produced Miss International 2016 Kylie Verzosa, Miss World 2013 Megan Young, Miss Globe 2015 Ann Collis, and a string of finalists in their respective global beauty tilts such as Ariela Arida, Janine Tugonon, Shamcey Supsup, Venus Raj, Catriona Gray, and Manila Bulletin’s Nicole Cordoves, the reigning Bb. Pilipinas Grand International, among others.

From left to right: Fashion designer Bessie Besana, Beauty queen maker Jonas Gaffud of Aces and Queens, and Personality development coach Arnold Mercado of Aces and Queens during an interview. (Jay Ganzon)
From left to right: Fashion designer Bessie Besana, Beauty queen maker Jonas Gaffud of Aces and Queens, and Personality development coach Arnold Mercado of Aces and Queens during an interview. (Jay Ganzon)

KF boasts off such “graduates” as Miss International 2005 Lara Quigaman, Miss Earth 2008 Karla Henry, Miss International 2013 Bea Santiago, Miss Earth 2014 Jamie Herrell, Miss Earth 2015 Angelia Ong, and semifinalists and finalists like Mary Jean Lastimosa, Parul Shah, Janicel Lubina, and Nichole Manalo, among others.

Like an overprotective mother hen watching over her chicks, Gaffud can’t help but feel a sense of ownership, as his girls go through each stage of the competition while trying to outshine and out walk the best of them on stage. He felt the same way with Wurtzbach in late 2015 in Las Vegas, Arida in 2013 in Moscow, and Tugonon in 2012, also in Las Vegas. In fact, said Mercado, Gaffud is also like that during local beauty contests.

“Even before the hosts could begin calling out the runners-up and winners, Mama J (Gaffud) would leave his seat and go to the restroom of the Araneta Coliseum so he wouldn’t hear the results,” said Mercado, a.k.a. Mama Ruffa.

Under pressure

The pressure was too much for Gaffud to take, especially during Tugonon’s time since she and Miss USA Olivia Culpo were the last two girls standing. The Philippine bet later had to settle for first runner-up. It was the same during the time of Arida, who finished third runner-up to Venezuela’s Gabriela Isler in 2013

“I remember running again to the restroom that time,” said Gaffud in an earlier interview we did with him and his group a few years ago, referring to Arida’s time. “In order not to hear the hosts as they announced the runners-up and winner, I tried to sing as loud as I could inside the restroom. Once the winner is announced, win or lose, I’m usually back to my calm self.”

Gaffud with Mercado and lawyer Nad Bronce, Aces and Queens resident question and answer trainer
Gaffud with Mercado and lawyer Nad Bronce, Aces and Queens resident question and answer trainer

But because of host Steve Harvey’s major, major fumble during Wurtzbach’s time, Gaffud’s attempt to hide in the restroom didn’t work the way he wanted to. He did leave his seat again that time. When Gaffud returned to his seat to rejoin his friends, Harvey had already declared Miss Colombia as winner. With a heavy heart, Gaffud was already resigned to the fact that he and his fellow Aces would have to try harder next year to help the country produce its third Miss Universe.

But that wasn’t the case, as history would eventually bear out. As he was heading to his seat, Gaffud got the surprise of his life when Harvey went back on stage to correct his mistake. Wurtzbach, after a deserving performance, did win Miss Universe after all. Talk about going through an emotional rollercoaster! From excitement to disappointment, Gaffud found himself suddenly cheering for Wurtzbach with the rest of his fellow Filipinos inside Planet Hollywood Hotel’s AXIS Theater in Las Vegas, as his crowned protégé in blue waved to the crowd.

“No, come what may, I won’t be going to the restroom this time,” he promised. “Much as I would want to, I’m now glued to my seat as part of the organizing committee behind Miss Universe. But I have high hopes that Maxine would do well.”

Unheard of in the past

Going through a training camp to boost one’s chances of winning the crown or, at least, making it to the finals was unheard of during the time of Gloria Diaz and Margie Moran back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Even Miss International 1979 Melanie Marquez and Miss Universe runners-up like Desiree Verdadero and the late Chat Silayan didn’t go through additional training, save for endless fittings and tips they got from veteran designer and then beauty queen maker Reneé Salud during the late ’70 and early ’80s.

“There were no training camps back then,” said Diaz, Miss Universe 1969, in an interview earlier this month. “No one, as far as I know, [also] resorted to cosmetic surgery back then.”

Moran, Miss Universe 1973, agreed with Diaz’s observations. They didn’t find anything wrong with such measures, but they did acknowledge that times have changed. The level of competition among today’s beauty queens is different and, in a way, much more fierce.

Jonas Gaffud and Miss Universe Philippines 2016 Maxine Medina
Jonas Gaffud and Miss Universe Philippines 2016 Maxine Medina

Whereas Diaz and Moran had to rely on their natural good looks, innate poise and charm, and the support and advice of people behind Binibining Pilipinas Charities, Inc., (BPCI) which is led by former Miss International 1960 Stella Marquez Araneta of Colombia, beauty queens these days need all the help they can get—from makeup to walking, wardrobe to question and answer (Q and A) training—to go far in their respective international beauty contests.

For sure, Aces and KF aren’t the first of their kind in the world. Before the two local beauty queen training camps were formed, not a few Bb. Pilipinas winners in the late ’90s and even in the early 2000s had to fly to Colombia to receive additional training from the Latin country’s beauty queen makers. Neighboring Venezuela also has its own beauty queen training camps. Venerable beauty queen maker Osmel Souza runs one of them.

“Our more recent Miss Universe Philippines winners, with the exception of Shamcey (Supsup), who had to pick up her costume in Colombia while on her way to Brazil, no longer had to train in Colombia,” said Gaffud. “They already have Aces and Queens.”

Why is there a need for training camps?

And the likes of Aces and KF are willing to supplement a beauty queen wannabe’s training for free. Why are girls drawn to these beauty queen training camps, and what can they get from them that they can’t get elsewhere? What do modern-day Pygmalions like Gaffud and Flores hope to gain from spending time and even their own money to transform these girls, as the cliché goes, into the best versions of themselves? How did they begin to become beauty queen makers in the first place?

Gaffud, a former researcher for one of the country’s leading universities, started way back 2001 soon after meeting law student Zorayda Ruth Andam, a friend of Bronce. Bronce, who would later become Aces’ resident Q and A expert, and Gaffud encouraged Andam to join Bb. Pilipinas that year. Somewhere along the way, Gaffud and Bronce met Mercado and movie director Jeffrey Jeturian. The four gentlemen, it turns out, share a passion for beauty pageants. In due time, Mabuhay Beauties, precursor to Aces, was born.

Because of his unpredictable schedule, Jeturian became more of an adviser to the group. As they grew bigger to include Bessie Besana, now a full-pledged designer, architect Carlos Buendia, fitness professional John Cuay, and Indonesian makeup artist Albert Kurniawan, the group decided to change its name, upon Mercado’s suggestion, to Aces and Queens. “We are the Aces and our products are the queens,” said Gaffud in an earlier interview.

In KF’s case, Rodgil Flores, a licensed chemical engineer, and younger cousin Gio Flores, now a full-time makeup artist, were once upon a time like today’s pageant fans. They took time out from their busy schedules to watch parades and screenings of candidates at BPCI’s home turf in Cubao, Quezon City.

Gio remembers one of the earliest Bb. Pilipinas parades they went to featured then contestants Ruffa Gutierrez and Dindi Gallardo in 1993. Upon Gio’s insistence, he and Rodgil attended parades and press presentations almost every year just to get a closer look and pick potential winners from each batch of contestants.

It was this shared fascination with beauty pageants that pushed the two cousins to later look around and ask attractive girls whom they considered potential beauty queens to train under them. Gio, the more intrepid of the two, would usually do the asking.

Guts and gut feel

“KF’s start was born out of gut feel and the guts to ask a potential contestant if she was interested to be trained,” said Rodgil. One of their earliest trainees was Sonia Santiago, a classmate of Gio, who later ended up second runner up in Bb. Pilipinas in 1998.

Rodgil, Gio, and a few other KF pioneers changed the group’s name much later to Kagandahang Flores from Rodgil’s Girls. Their earlier products include Quigaman, Bb. Pilipinas Universe 2002 Karen Agustin, Binibining Pilipinas World 2007 Maggie Wilson, Miss Universe Philippines 2009 Bianca Manalo, and Henry, who won Miss Earth Philippines in 2008 before bagging the country’s first Miss Earth crown later that year.

Apart from overall head Rodgil and beauty and aesthetics department head Gio, KF is composed of, among others, George Garrido, visual poise, projection, and pasarela head, Agustin, personality development and image enhancement head, John Cliff Dimaala and Jan Kevin Geli, wardrobe and styling, and Jerome Balute, Miguel Ruiz, and Miss Global 2016 first runner up CJ Hirro, public speaking and handling pageant questions. Even Lubina has joined the group as an adviser to KF’s trainees.

Like Rodgil, Gaffud and his team also enjoyed a series of early successes with the local victories of Andam, Jonna Cabrera, Lia Ramos, Jennifer Barrientos, and Teresa Licaros. They all represented the country in Miss Universe. Because of their early accomplishments, the two camps eventually ceased to recruit potential beauty queens individually, as it was the girls themselves and sometimes their parents, mayors, and barangay captains from provinces near and far who began to seek them out. Others, like Ong, are recommended to either KF or Aces by their former “alumna”.

Aura of a winner

“We at KF get excited when packaging a woman,” said Gio. “By simply looking at her, we know more or less how to make her more beautiful by playing up her best features and assets. We also know what contest a certain girl would stand out in. I guess a big part of it is an eye for beauty, which we have learned to develop over the years.”

Gaffud, in a separate interview, added: “For me, bone structure, facial symmetry, and how the light affects a woman’s face are important. You can correct the posture. Even the personality and intelligence, you can acquire through training. Physical beauty can be enhanced through makeup or even through surgery. The one thing you can never really acquire is the aura of a winner. That is something innate.”

More than anything else, both Aces and KF are motivated to provide virtual unknowns their time, energy, and resources out of a sincere desire to help. Since they love beauty pageants, they also view their respective involvements as their contribution to the country’s positive image on the world stage. Rivalries between the two camps are inevitable, but both Gaffud and Rodgil insist that they respect each other.

Both camps also denied that they charge “professional fees” for their services. They don’t earn anything from molding any of the country’s beautiful women. In fact, they even shell out their own money to rent out, say, a huge space with a floor-to-ceiling mirror where the girls could train their pasarela walk (the beauty queen’s equivalent of a model’s catwalk).

Free training

That’s why members of both camps need to have day jobs. Months before the beauty contest season begins, they meet up with their girls and conduct their trainings mostly in the evenings and during weekends. Their training intensifies once they win local contests.

In Rodgil’s case, he even sometimes cooks food for his protégés. He’s mindful of their diet and avoids feeding them fatty and salty foods that might cause them to gain weight or look bloated. Some of the girls from the provinces with no homes or relatives in Manila even end up staying at his place during the duration of their training.

“They’re brought here by their parents or their mayors or barangay captains,” said Rodgil. “Gone are the days when so-called talent scouts go out in search of potential beauty queens.”

If ever they do earn money from the girls, it’s usually after their reigns. As a talent manager, for instance, Gaffud has big plans for Wurtzbach as soon as she’s free from all her commitments with Miss Universe and Bb. Pilipinas. Rodgil can also cast some of his present and former protégés in shows he stages and produces.

“We’re not their managers once they are reigning queens. I don’t have a say on what they do. If ever I have projects for them, I write letters to BPCI and Miss World Philippines. As their managers during their reign, these organizations always have the last say,” said Gaffud.

During a more recent interview, Gaffud also took the opportunity to clarify nasty remarks from netizens that he and his fellow Aces have become “traitors” to their own country by supposedly agreeing to train Miss Universe Indonesia Kezia Warouw. What they did with the statuesque Indonesian beauty was more of a “pep talk,” he insisted. It was his way of returning the favor to Kurniawan, an Indonesian.

Returning the favor

“For several years now, Albert (Kurniawan) has been teaching our beauty queens how to do their faces for free,” he said. “He was responsible for coming up with looks that would suit the faces of Venus, Shamcey, Ara, and Janine. He also helped Maxine. Talking with Miss Indonesia and giving her words of encouragement when she was here in Manila was the least I could do for Albert.”

Gaffud claimed that he doesn’t know the supposed Filipino who was caught on video giving Warouw pasarela training. He could have been anyone, he added.

“It’s so weird,” said a livid Gaffud, referring to his bashers. “That guy, whoever he is, would be praised if ever Kezia wins Miss Universe. Filipinos would again proclaim to the rest of the world how good they are because a Filipino trained Miss Indonesia. In the meantime, they’re bashing me just for giving a pep talk.”

Was there ever a time they said no to a girl bent on training with them? Well, yes, but not in an outright way.

“It’s really hard to say no because who are we to stop them from pursuing their dream of becoming a beauty queen,” said Bronce, who was tasked, with the help of an English grammar teacher, to train Maxine for months in answering likely questions within and outside the contest.

“We don’t say no outright,” said Mercado. “We just tell them you may be good in other pageants.”

While KF trains anyone who’s able and willing to join almost all sorts of beauty pageants, Aces has limited its involvement to Bb. Pilipinas and the six crowns the country’s biggest and most prestigious beauty pageant offers, and Miss World Philippines.

Gaffud, who always welcomes inputs and disagreements within his group, always has the last say. And this includes whom to train and whom to say no to.

“Well, it really takes too much of our time to train,” he said. “We can’t train everybody. If I really feel that she doesn’t have it, I will tell the girl that she’s probably suited somewhere else.”

Eye for beauty

Rodgil has a different way of viewing it. Gio insisted that his kuya has an eye for beauty like no other. Unlike other camps, which turn down applicants because they’re not beautiful enough, said Rodgil, KF doesn’t. As long as you’re tall and slim enough, you’re welcome to train under KF. Had KF turned Quigaman and Henry down, we would have one less Miss International and Miss Earth today.

“Kuya would always say kahit di maganda, we would be able to hone that girl to conform with the standards of the pageant she wishes to join in,” said Gio. “Most of the time, he has been proven right. We’ve made not a few girls win or at least become runners-up. And take note that these girls weren’t that pretty or striking when they first started with us.”

Still, both camps admit that training a girl, especially one with no experience on stage, is no walk in the park. A classic example was Shamcey Supsup, Miss Universe Philippines 2011. Not only was she reluctant to wear a two-piece swimsuit days before the Bb. Pilipinas screening, the trained architect and board topnotcher never wore high heels before she began training under Aces. She was also clueless when it came to makeup.

Apart from watching her diet, a wannabe beauty queen also needs to be disciplined enough to regularly go through a supervised workout to achieve not only the right curves, but also the right cuts. A toned body with a hint of abs has now become de rigueur not only in Miss Universe, which requires contestants to wear two-piece swimsuits, but also in newer beauty contests like Miss Globe, Miss Supranational, and Miss Grand International.

And since no one knows her face better than the girl herself, they are also trained not to rely on makeup artists to do their faces. Before they leave for their respective pageants, they’re all trained to do various types of makeup—from day to evening looks, casual to full-on contest makeup—on themselves.

“Albert (Kurniawan) nearly gave up on me initially,” said Supsup, who was prevailed upon by her mother to sign up with Aces before joining Bb. Pilipinas in 2011, in a previous interview we did with her. “But I persisted until I got it right. I had to make it work since I was already into it.”

Not only did Supsup surprise everybody, including herself, she also originated the now famous “Tsunami Walk,” which involves a bit of “natural” wiggle and swaying of the hips with every step. If Supsup has her “Tsunami Walk,” Raj has her “Pilapil Walk,” Tugonon her “Cobra Walk,” and Arida her “Ariva Walk.”

In the case of Aces, for instance, “we actually prepare them (girls) as early as the local pageant to already start thinking international. Should they win in local pageants, we still fine tune their training according to their needs and the pageants they will be sent to,” said Gaffud.

Of course, once their respective contestants win, both KF and Aces now have to deal with the local contests’ franchise owners. In the case of BPCI, everything has to pass through Araneta. Now that Cory Quirino has bowed out as franchise owner of Miss World Philippines, beauty queen makers now have to deal with talent manager and new franchise owner Arnold Vegafria.

Gowns and other issues

In recent years, the gowns Filipino beauty queens wore to the finals, especially to Miss Universe, became a contentious issue among beauty pageant fans. It didn’t sit well with them that Araneta kept on tapping fellow Colombian Alfredo Barrazza to do the gowns of the country’s beauty queens. In a previous interview we did, Gaffud came to the defense of Araneta, whom he credits for looking after each batch of Bb. Pilipinas winners like her own daughters by providing them with everything they would be needing during their respective contests, “down to their toiletries.” “Only Bb. Pilipinas does that to its winners,” he said.

In early 2015, not a few fans blamed Lastimosa’s failure to break into the top five of Miss Universe for the first time in four years due to her form-fitting, strapless white Barrazza gown. Whether or not it ruined the beauty queen’s chances remains highly debatable. As expected, Araneta found herself bashed from all sides. Not a few outspoken Filipinos even questioned her loyalty for insisting on hiring a fellow Colombian.

In an unprecedented move in late 2015, Araneta finally allowed Wurtzbach not only to choose her designer, but also to have a say on what she intends to wear. The Filipino-German beauty queen gave her inputs to veteran designer Albert Andrada, who came up with the now iconic and much-copied royal blue gown, which Wurtzbach wore on coronation night. And the rest is history.

Medina, a seasoned model, could probably wear almost anything on stage and still get away with it. But she, too, was given the chance to choose and collaborate with a preferred designer. Not a few pageant fans loved her emerald green gown with a skirt made of layered fringes, which she wore to the preliminary judging last Thursday. Unless she changes her mind tomorrow, she plans to wear another Rhett Eala creation, which the whole universe would see on stage should she be lucky enough to reach the crucial evening gown competition.

It’s her supposedly weak communication skills, which has everybody worried. After declaring in her send-off party earlier this month that she would answer any question thrown at her in English, her mentors at Aces recently began floating the possibility of Medina resorting to the unprecedented move for a Filipino beauty queen of requesting for a Filipino-speaking interpreter.

“We’ve trained her the best way we could,” said Gaffud. “And since questions in Miss Universe now tend to lean towards current events and social issues, we also discussed that with her.”

Even the current administration’s war on drugs and its supposed consequences? “Yes,” Gaffud added. “She has a ready answer for that.”

From the heart

In a recent TV interview with broadcaster Jessica Soho, Bronce underscored the importance of allowing the girl to think on her own and “from the heart.” He also discouraged future contestants from memorizing their answers to various possible questions. In the long run, that’s not a very wise or sound move, he said. Once a question is asked differently, or a “permutation” is introduced to a supposedly standard question, the girl might end up with a jumbled answer.

It’s important to answer a question with clarity and sincerity because certain judges have a way of sensing if a girl’s answer is memorized or fake. Lapses in grammar are forgivable, but being tentative with your answer like what happened to Bb. Pilipinas Universe 1999 Miriam Quaimbao could cause you the crown. That was how Bronce, with the help of an English teacher, approached his training with Medina—they grilled her and made her come up with her own answers that are direct to the point, but with sincerity.

“We have different views, for instance, when it comes to divorce,” said Bronce. “She’s not for it, but I am, but I let her stick to what she believes in because those are her views. I didn’t force my views on her. I just guided her on how to express them more effectively.”

Unlike most fluent English speakers, Bronce has no problem with Filipino beauty queens asking for an interpreter like their Latina counterparts who are dependent on Spanish-speaking interpreters do. Out of tradition, it’s BPCI, he said, who insists that the country’s representatives to global beauty pageants speak in English.

“Latinas who can speak passable English really enjoy an advantage because they still ask for a Spanish-speaking interpreter,” said Bronce. “The extra time allows them to think and compose their answers.”

It’s no longer a question of pride about our ability to speak English as a people, he continued, but a “tactical” move on the part of the country’s beauty queens to ask for a Filipino-speaking interpreter should they feel the need for one. Such measures have become more crucial in light of how Miss Universe has continued to evolve under its new owners.

Miss Universe recently announced a series of changes in the way it will conduct its pageant this year. From 86 girls, the number would be cut down to top 12, then top 6, and finally top 3. For the top 6 girls to gain a slot in the top 3, they would have to pass through the proverbial eye of the needle by answering tough, most likely tailor-made questions for each of them.

Would Medina stick to her word by answering the final question in English, or would she resort to the unprecedented move of asking for a Filipino-speaking interpreter? But the bigger question perhaps is would an interpreter make any difference in the way she would answer the make-or-break question, or would it only further highlight her presumed weaknesses? Would her answer enable her to make good on her other promise to score a back-to-back win for the Philippines?

We’ll find out if all those months of training in English grammar and diction, not to mention copious reading on news and current issues, would kick in for Medina tomorrow and eventually give the country its fourth Miss Universe crown.