The 25-year-old wasn’t your typical beauty pageant contestant. She ran as an independent in a bi-partisan system, handpicking her own coterie of trainers, mentors, designers, and stylists. After her Miss World 2016 bid where she made it to the top five under the guidance of Aces and Queens—one of the two boot camps that have a duopoly on the pageant industry—Catriona decided to go rogue when she entered Binibining Pilipinas and eventually Miss Universe. By that time, she knew what she wanted and how to achieve it. She was smart, she was creative, so why shouldn’t she have more of an input in determining her own path to the crown?
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On the morning of the shoot with Esquire, a barefaced, ponytailed Catriona walked into the hotel suite sporting large eyeglasses. She looked nerdy, friendly, and ready to attack the five back-to-back interviews and photo shoots she had that day. Bit by bit, under the skilled hands of the hair and makeup artists, she morphed into the glammed-up queen we’ve become familiar with.
But the transformative moment really came when she stood in front of the camera. The instant she lifted her head and threw back her hair, she turned into her own personal Sasha Fierce alter ego. Her eyes gleamed, her body took on more sensuous angles, and her hair seemed to float on its own accord. “God is a woman,” Catriona belted along to Ariana Grande, posing in sync to the music and making us believe.
In the interview/makeup chair, however, she was just Catriona, a veritable girl-next-door. Her story is well-known: She grew up in Queensland, the only child to a Filipino mother and Scottish-born Australian father. She had a happy, loving childhood, one enriched with dance and drama classes, martial arts and music lessons. She was primed to perform at a young age, but after she finished high school and wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do, she decided to take some time off and explore the other half of her heritage. Like many a bi-racial young adult before her, she came to Manila and became a model.
In a few years, however, she hit a slump. The pressure of being financially responsible for her family while living on a model’s sporadic income, topped off with other professional disappointments, led to a deep existential crisis. She sought to divert her attention to a worthy cause, and through a search online found an NGO that appealed to her sense of charity.
Recalls Ann van Wijgerden, founder of Young Focus International, “It was May 3rd, 2016, the first time Catriona and her mother Mita came by the Young Focus main office in Tondo. My husband Paul and I had a great talk with them; there was an immediate click,” she says. “We were immediately struck by this remarkably mature and down-to-earth 22-year-old.” Catriona and her parents kept returning, and they developed a close relationship, not only with Ann and Paul, but with the whole Young Focus family.
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Catriona’s visits to Tondo weren’t merely for photo ops. She spent time with the children and the staff, helped raise funds for the opening of a new building, put up benefit concerts here and abroad to raise money and awareness. She organized donations of equipment for the classrooms, and, using creative skills we would later see in the now-famous ear cuff and all her Philippine-inspired outfits, she helped redesign a jewelry line for a program where college students earn a bit of extra money crafting jewelry items.
Many people have come through Young Focus’ doors, using them for personal gain. Cynics viewed her volunteer work, and her final answer in the pageant, as coming from a particularly privileged viewpoint, but Catriona was truly moved and affected by what she saw at the former dumpsite, especially during that low point in her life.
“I do understand the skepticism and aversion to 'romanticizing poverty,'” van Wijgerden says. “This is something perhaps some from the richer classes are prone to do, i.e. have an unconscious, condescending attitude, resulting in a subliminal justification for not taking any responsibility for social equalities: ‘After all, they’re happy in their simple, poor lives. Let them be! No need to get involved!’” But this is definitely not the Catriona we know. She is passionate about making a difference, as well as respecting and loving the people you want to help.”