Pia Wurtzbach: Sexiest Woman Alive 2016
There is not much to look at in a nearly empty, cavernous hotel ballroom: The skeletons of tables and chairs and pedestals and parties-past tucked against one wall, the pattern of the carpet careful not to off end, the heavy chandeliers alit and looming overhead.
The virtual emptiness surrounding us is as good an excuse as any for the stunned yet cautious gawking once the heavy doors open: PIA ALONZO WURTZBACH, one day shy of being seven months into her reign as Miss Universe, is striding into the room wearing a loose shirt and an inconsequential pair of panties. Her hair is tousled, lionine in its fullness; her face is achingly bare. If I will myself blind to the bevy of people surrounding her, equal parts magazine staff and the entourage de rigueur for a beauty queen, it’s all too easy to place Wurtzbach as a young woman at the end of a long day, looking pleasantly exhausted, relieved to be stripped of both makeup and clothes meant for show.
Being Miss Universe takes work, is work. Even mussing up the glitz hanging about a title-holder insists on a certain kind of committed diligence from everyone involved.
But it is a calculated dishevelment, though no less appealing for it. Being Miss Universe takes work-is work. Even mussing up the glitz hanging about a title-holder insists on a certain kind of committed diligence from everyone involved. The careful way Wurtzbach was divested of her false eyelashes, the ruffling of her naturally smooth hair, the lotion rubbed against her shins-it’s part of the job. (And for us, her largely hushed audience, there is a keen satisfaction and awe in the witnessing of her studied undoing: Here is proof that the Miss Universe’s beauty is writ on her bones-a beauty magnified by the level of composure and self-possession required to cross a hotel hallway without pants on at least three times during the course of the evening.)
Her face betrays it with an open, determined expression; the same look is on her face as she takes her place before the camera. I mistook that look at first as a studied blankness-but it is, I come to realize, the look of a woman who knows that a job must be done, and done well; that to drape herself against a bar stool and smile on demand is an item on a considerable to-do list. It’s the same look she cast on me when we were introduced not half an hour earlier-a frank gaze, assessing: Who are you, what do you do, how do you and I do what needs to be done? (I am her writer, she is told; she inclines her head in response, she fixes her stare at me, and we do not shake hands.) It’s a look I will realize signals her taking instruction, of her instructing herself.
The phrase eludes me for most of the night, perhaps because its clumsy folksiness is at odds with how delicate a nearly unadorned Miss Universe is: game face. Wurtzbach has her game face on.
The phrase eludes me for most of the night, perhaps because its clumsy folksiness is at odds with how delicate a nearly unadorned Miss Universe is: game face. Wurtzbach has her game face on. It gets her through several hours of work in front of the camera, through the shuttling from dressing room to this vast makeshift studio, until she finally takes to a corner of the ballroom to change clothes behind a robe protecting her modesty.
It’s impressive to watch a professional at work, someone who has such complete control over her body and how it is perceived: A gentle roll of her right hip, an incremental twist of her torso, the shrug of a shoulder. Now, when the photographer asks for a smile, she grants it. It comes with very little warning, and when it does, it is revelatory. That smile, its mega-wattage, its ability to transform her face from a still life of matter-of-fact beauty into something more vivid, more involved. It is part of her arsenal, that beauty queen smile, one of the tools of the trade. She slips it on and off between shots, yet every time it breaks through, there’s a palpable genuineness to it.
It’s impressive to watch a professional at work, someone who has such complete control over her body and how it is perceived: A gentle roll of her right hip, an incremental twist of her torso, the shrug of a shoulder.
I wonder if it’s the same look she fixed on the diagram she drew of the pageant stage before the coronation night-that she would know where to walk and at what speed, and where to pause, and where to preen. Then, she eschewed the frivolity of unnecessary snap turns; you only have moments, have your audience truly see you. She says later of her minutes-long promenade during the Miss Universe’s evening gown portion: “Just walk. Get to your endpoint. Look at the camera.”
Later in the evening, I get caught in Wurtzbach’s orbit, and find myself watching her take a selfie. Her face flits through three general expressions: One with her chin tucked and her eyes (they are lovely and a warm brown) half-lidded, her mouth a coy pout-I am Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, and I understand that I can seduce you; the second with that smile, wide and bright-I am Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, and I am every beautiful girl you have ever caught a glimpse of; and her third look, intent and focused and discerning, for when the time for posing is over and the next part of the presentation comes to the fore-to select the right photo, to see how she did. I wonder if I’m a little bit in love with the reigning Miss Universe; if so, I wonder how many of us are.
I wonder if I’m a little bit in love with the reigning Miss Universe; if so, I wonder how many of us are.
* * *
Wurtzback is an easy talker, comfortable with fielding questions. There’s a familiarity to her tone, and to her accent: It’s the tenor of the everyday. The first time I heard it-the night she declared to the world that she was confidently beautiful with a heart-I was struck by the sheer normality of it. Not overly posh that it alienates; casually learned, easy. And it was right there on global broadcast, carrying her through her one shot at the Miss Universe title.
“You think the competition is on pageant night? No.” Her voice is distressingly throaty; her “No” a forceful affair, accompanied by a self-deprecating twist of her mouth. “It’s the whole three weeks that you’re there. And it’s not even a competition, on whether you’re going to be the best girl out of the bunch-it’s like you getting over your own demons. Iba eh. Hindi lang siya pagandahan. Parang: Matira matibay.” I don’t ask if she is referring to her fellow contestants or the demons she’s had to battle; at this point, with her the victor, what would be the use?
“Hindi lang siya pagandahan. Parang: Matira matibay.”
It’s almost trope, but the beauty queen before me grew up shy. In class, she prepared answers to questions voiced by the teacher, but never raised her hand to volunteer a response. “I didn’t have the guts to say what I was thinking,” she says of school. “It didn’t bother me,” she says of that shyness. When she relates the curse of the towering schoolgirl-“You know how they always make you fall in line, like, the whole class? I was always at the back. Alphabetically, or by height.”-I ask if that was why she grew up, as she calls it, socially awkward.
“Hindi ako na-bother na matangkad ako. Na-bother ako na-” And she pauses, fixes me with that unwavering gaze, begins to gesture in front of her. “-na early bloomer ako.” I try not to look at where her hands are flitting over-try so very hard not to look at her breasts, revealed by the deep V of her dress. And then she says, “Kaya ako naka-hukot.” And then she hunches her shoulders forward to demonstrate, and I have no choice but to look. (I also am silently cheering that she used the word “hukot”, a word I don’t get to hear a lot.) Wurtzbach enumerates the rest of the sins she bore as a teenage girl: braces, a frizzy head of hair, kept to herself. Funny, though, how the cruelties of girlhood transform into hashtag-how-to-be-you-po.
“I don’t think I’m the most beautiful woman in the world; I don’t think I’m the sexiest woman in the world. Miss Universe doesn’t choose perfect.”
The chat pivots to pageants, particularly on how the Miss Universe title is a benediction of one’s looks. She’s quick to brush that aside: “I hope people change the perception that it’s all- oh my god, it sounds so clichéd-that it’s all physical. Because the truth is, there are many girls out there who are beautiful, but not everybody wants to join a beauty pageant. Many girls out there are stunning, tall, smart, who have the confidence-but they don’t want to join Miss Universe.” She pauses, then launches into one of her louder and more animated exclamations, as though underscoring the most obvious thing in the world: “It’s a job-it’s a job! You’re applying for a job!”
She has a beguiling habit of leaning toward you as though the two of you are sharing a confidence, and you are compelled to lean in. “I don’t think I’m the most beautiful woman in the world; I don’t think I’m the sexiest woman in the world. Miss Universe doesn’t choose perfect.”
She is as at ease with recounting her triumphs as she is with cataloging her failures and disappointments. Her parents’ separation when she was nine, the uprooting from Cagayan de Oro to Manila that followed, and the stark change in lifestyle as the Wurtzbach girls-Pia, her mother, and her sister-fended for their themselves. And, more recently, her arduous campaign for the beauty-queen titles, marked by a string of missteps, bad luck, aggravatingly discouraging moments: “Everybody knows the story of how I tried three times in Binibining Pilipinas, and then eventually Miss Universe.” She is laughing at herself: “How I almost lost it-but then, winning it after four minutes of thinking I was first runner-up.”
Her first stab at the Binibining Pilipinas title: First runner-up to four title-holders, and serving as the odd-number girl so that the then-Binibining Pilipinas-Universe can stand front-and-center during photo-ops. (“I had to do the training, just in case I had to step in for any one of them. I didn’t want to; I wanted to have my crowning moment. I didn’t want to just replace anybody.”) Her second year: Risking a Tagalog answer, running out of time, plummeting starkly in rankings. (She recalls how, during the coronation night, the freshly minted title-holder’s crown fell backwards, to land at Wurtzbach’s runner-up feet. Shyly, with that maddening self-deprecation, and a laugh threading through her voice, she says: “I didn’t pick it up. I felt that it wasn’t my crown to touch.”)
And then she launches into her visions of the future: “Pageants are not the end-all and be-all. That’s what I want people to understand. ‘Alright, she won Miss Universe, cool.’ But what happens after that? When I have a goal, when I have my eye on it, sometimes life leads me to different paths-but I eventually get there. Eventually. I know where I want to be, but I’m not going to be too technical about it. I’m okay with making mistakes. I could stay in the States for a few years. And what if it doesn’t work? It’s alright. What if I’m homesick and want to go back to the Philippines? People might say, ‘Oh, you’ve wasted your chance, you were already in New York.’ But then, what if it works out here?” She takes a breath, begins again to laugh at herself. I get the impression she has been thinking out loud. “I can be impulsive. But I think my heart is in the right place when it comes to making decisions. I have some ideas on what I want to achieve in the future, the specifics. But I want people to stay tuned. One day, sasabihin ko na lang, ‘Remember that time you guys kept asking me what I wanted to do after Miss Universe? Ito ‘yun. Hindi ko lang sinasabi, kasi hindi na kayo makikinig, eh.’”
And then she does it again, that leaning-in: “Nothing,” she says, “was ever handed to me. I don’t feel entitled to things. Whatever I have now is a result of my hard work.” She pauses. “And I don’t think I’m finished yet.” She says this last bit with her off-camera smile, quiet and unadorned.
“Nothing,” she says, “was ever handed to me. I don’t feel entitled to things. Whatever I have now is a result of my hard work.” She pauses. “And I don’t think I’m finished yet.”
“I’m already starting to think about what it’s going to feel like when I pass on my crown. Because I worked so many years and so hard to get it-but I never actually thought about the day I’d have to give it up. I also have moments where-I don’t always have it all together, you know? But I guess that’s where the next set of challenges come in. When I think of that day-oh, I don’t know, it’s sad.” Wurtzbach-Pia, lithe and delicate and halfway adorable and believably shy Pia-falls pensive. She throws her shoulders back after a few beats, and continues with the same softness, but with more bravado. “But I practice what I preach. I always say that the true measure of a beauty queen is what she does after the pageant night. And, I guess, that also applies to the pageant night where you pass on your crown. Who are you, after all of this? That’s when you’ll really know if the girl is beautiful.”
* * *
I was repeatedly assured before meeting her that Miss Universe 2016 Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach has a reputation for being down-to-earth. It’s a peculiar description, one I nonetheless took in greedily. She does, after all, virtually has “have diamonds perched precariously atop a structured chignon” as part of her job description. Having made history-she will most assuredly be in textbooks alongside other Filipinos-propels you, after all, to the heavens; so does the pomp and circumstance affixed to the foremost beauty pageant of the world’s collective culture.
But the Miss Universe 2016 Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach I met, home for a handful of days in her endless tour circuit as the titleholder, has less ferocity than what the television conveyed. That is: She doesn’t flash, she simmers. There is an intensity to Pia when she is at work, equipped with self-possession and that eerie knowledge of how to put her beauty on display; and there is that disarming quietness, almost a reservedness for all her ease with conversation, when she is at rest.
She doesn’t flash, she simmers. There is an intensity to Pia when she is at work, equipped with self-possession and that eerie knowledge of how to put her beauty on display; and there is that disarming quietness, almost a reservedness for all her ease with conversation, when she is at rest.
At the close of our interview, I thank her, prepare to leave her to her dinner. I reach out to shake her hand, and she ignores it to move toward me and encircle an arm around me and bestow me with a beso. She is wearing a black nightgown now, modest but for the fact that it is her body the silk is molding. I try not to think that for a split-second, it is my cheek against hers, her waterfall of hair fragrant and framing-and then she is off. She tells me, in that soft voice now so familiar, that if I have any more questions, to just ask them. I do not point out that she will be flying back to New York tomorrow. I do not point out that it will be midnight in three hours, and she has so much more work to do before she slips into her real pambahay shirt or her real flimsy nightie and straight into the latest strange hotel bed in years of strange hotel rooms. I say goodbye, thank her again. Stunned by her embrace, I forget to remember if she smiled.
This article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue as "Being Miss Universe." (Styling: Clifford Olanday. Art Direction: Paul Villariba. Makeup: Don de Jesus. Hair: Cats del Rosario. Styling Assistant: Miguel Escobar. Production Assistant: Ednalyn Magnaya. Intern: Annicka Kotek. Shot on location at the Conrad Manila.)