There's a hawk leased to a stone perch in front of this old, overgrown home, in the middle of a plot of land that can’t be placed. Its bricks, windows, and ironwork vaguely suggest that the house was built in the early 20th century, but age and a few other oddities—like this goddamn hawk—have obscured anything else that might situate it. Various species of chickens, including a silkie that bears an amusing resemblance to Andy Warhol, roam free under hanging laundry and bougainvillea in bloom; while upstairs is an emptied art gallery joined to three bedrooms with creaky floors and suspicious mirrors. This place is so curious and so thoroughly unfamiliar that it’s almost exotic—as if it were some remote tropical idyll just a few dozen meters from the sea. At the very least, that’s what we’re determined to believe it is.
But it isn’t, and I meet Megan Young here, in an old house on a narrow street in Pasay City, and this is all just an elaborate exercise in make-believe. In fact, if not for the punishing Metro Manila heat and the familiar smell of sizzling Bart Burgers wafting from a nearby Burger Machine, it might have actually been conceivable that we were elsewhere.
In reality, this house is a bar—a dive, even by local standards—and while it does have a bizarre charm about it, it’s the last place you would expect to find Miss World 2013 walking around in various states of undress. But here she is, Megan Young in “practically nothing,” as she puts it; and from the right angle, with an ample leap of the imagination, it isn’t terribly difficult to mistake this place for somewhere more romantic, if not, at least, more real.
It’s a mistake you could very easily make, a mistake you’d want to make, a mistake that’s made even easier and more tempting because she’s right here, in front of you. Easier, because despite the down-home congeniality that she lets on with an unrestrained smile and her big, hazel eyes, Megan’s Filipino-American beauty is still decidedly out of place, and far too uncommon for these parts. More tempting, because her bare, olive skin glistening under the warm summer sun deserves a better backdrop.
So today, if mistakenly, I am elsewhere, and she is elsewhere—even if we’re really just here, with Warhol the silkie chicken.
WEEKS BEFORE I MEET HER, THOUGH, MEGAN actually was elsewhere, in New York, almost half the world away from here, where the weather was a different kind of punishing. “It was too cold,” she says, telling me that while she would have wanted to see more of the city, she was mostly stuck in her hotel this time. “I didn’t even get to go around for coffee.”
Megan loves coffee. She even took barista workshops, and can now brew coffee by hand. She loves coffee enough that she considers it one of her main reasons for traveling: to taste and experience all the different types and flavors from different corners of the world.
She tells me that she only got to visit one café during her last trip to New York—a shop on Broome Street called Happy Bones—and that she’d like to explore others in the area next time, when she isn’t there on business.
I’m not just going there because I’m Miss World, I’m going there because there’s a purpose. What am I going to learn that I can bring back here?
This last trip, however, was indeed for business. She flew in to ink a contract with Innovative Artists, an American talent agency that, as all the local celebrity news outlets were keen to mention, also happens to have represented the likes of Jim Parsons (Sheldon, from The Big Bang Theory), Ashley Greene (Alice, from Twilight) and Amanda Seyfried.
The whole thing was framed as Megan’s big shot at Hollywood, and while the thought of seeing her take roles befitting her talent is enough to hope that it were, she doesn’t like to call it that.
“I really don’t say ‘Hollywood’ or whatever,” she says, not quite as a matter of modesty, more as an insistence on disentitlement. “I don’t want to put myself in that position na I’m expecting something. I told the agency, ‘Expect me to really work my ass off.’” She begins to punctuate her sentences with a series of subtle, but forceful gestures. “‘If you think that just because I’m known in my country or whatnot, and I have recognition for winning Miss World or whatever…To me, those are great achievements, but I wanna push forward, and I’m willing to work from the ground up.’” She seems particular about keeping her feet on the ground this way, even if at this point, she’s earned the right to have her head in the clouds. “A title is a title, but it doesn’t define you.”
THIS NEXT BIG STEP IN MEGAN’S CAREER follows a long and successful run in local show business, starting with a top-six finish on GMA’s Starstruck in 2004, when she was 14 years old. Two years and a few minor roles thereafter, she would make the jump to ABS-CBN, where she would join the celebrity edition of Pinoy Big Brother, and star in a soap alongside John Lloyd Cruz. Megan would also snag a few roles on TV5, before moving back to GMA in 2015 to play the title role in the network’s second adaptation of hit Mexicanovela Marimar.
But her most recent lap in the spotlight was for GMA’s Alyas Robin Hood—“the Arrowshow,” she half-jokes—of which the most famous scene, with almost one million views on YouTube, involves Megan in a red two-piece swimsuit reminiscent of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, facing off with Andrea Torres in the time-honored teleserye tradition of girl-on-girl eyebrow-raising and shade-throwing. Suffice to say that by many accounts, Megan won that showdown.
Do I want to play safe—or do I just go for this, because it’s screaming in my face right now, and I’m not even sure. So I went for the risk.
Somewhere in between all that, she won a much more prestigious competition, too: Miss World 2013, making her the first and only Filipino contestant to take home the crown. It was a risk, she says, because the undertaking would coincide with a crucial part of her acting career. “Do I actually go for it?” she recalls asking herself around the time that the pageant auditions were starting. “Or do I try to ask for something more stable, which was work? Do I want to play safe—or do I just go for this, because it’s screaming in my face right now, and I’m not even sure. So I went for the risk.”
Now a title may just be a title, even in a country that takes beauty pageants very seriously, but winning Miss World would also play a more important role for her personally, flying her off to different countries on trips that she says would provide her with a good perspective of the world. “It really made me realize that this is the mindset that I need for each trip that I have: I’m not just going there because I’m Miss World, I’m going there because there’s a purpose. What am I going to learn that I can bring back here?” Far as she wanders elsewhere—and she has wandered far, being that she was Miss World and is now a bona fide, jetsetting TV star—Megan still concerns herself with what she can bring home.
THESE DAYS, IT’S USUALLY A FULL STOMACH. “When I go to these places, the number one thing I do is pig out,” says Megan, telling me that her appreciation for coffee had begotten a greater appreciation for food, and an appetite that leads the way whenever she’s abroad. It’s surprising, if a little unfair, because her hourglass curves don’t show it in the least. Obviously, it’s because she works out (quite religiously, as all 1.5 million of her Instagram followers know), so she rightfully allows herself a few gastronomic indulgences. “I travel for food and I travel for coffee. Other people travel for tourist spots or historical places or architecture, but me, I travel for food and coffee.”
We bid the hawk and the chickens farewell as we leave this bizarre place when we get to talking about Chef’s Table, a Netflix show that she’s currently obsessed with. Megan tells me, with an earnest longing, that she’s determined to eat at any of the restaurants featured on the show. “I really want to go to the one in Sweden,” she says, referring to Fäviken, a remote Scandinavian restaurant tucked away in an otherwise untouched 20,000-acre reserve. But first, she’d like to hit the one closest to home: Gaggan, a restaurant in Bangkok that serves progressive Indian cuisine, where she might just go on a whim one of these days. “I just want to take a weekend trip. Like, if there’s a cheap flight, I would go to Bangkok just to eat at Gaggan.”
She proffers another recommendation, from a sojourn in Japan: Katsudonya Zuicho, in Shibuya, Tokyo. “It’s an eight-seater. Small lang. But people really line up for it. When you go there, they ask you small, medium or large, because all they serve is katsudon, and that’s just the rice quantity they’re asking for.” She swears by it, even if it had to be her last meal. “I would get a medium,” she says, before pausing. “You know what, fuck it, I’d get a large. Dude, it’s the best.”
Right about then—or maybe after a few more impassioned oral restaurant reviews, I can’t recall—Megan yells, “Oh my god, mangga!” I look to my right and see a kiosk peddling mangga’t bagoong by the side of the street, so we pull over. Then, just as she’s just about to alight from the car, she realizes that she won’t likely make it out without drawing a commotion, so she asks if I could fetch her some instead. I oblige and return with half a green mango, two spoonfuls of bagoong, and a strange sense of fulfillment that I don’t normally get from buying street food.
THERE IS AN ABANDON WITH WHICH Megan Young makes her decisions, whether it’s in choosing the large rice bowl over the medium, or in stopping the car to buy mangga at a random street corner, or in thrusting herself into the paces of beauty pageantry and an international career. But it’s not reckless or indifferent—if anything, it’s out of confiddence, with the kind of security and self-assuredness that can only come from a woman who’s gone places by taking risks. It’s not that she doesn’t care about consequences, or that she isn’t afraid of failure or disappointment—it’s that she’s ready for them, and she knows that the right leaps of faith are worth taking. A little extra rice would be worth it. The mangga was worth it. A shot at a Hollywood movie would be worth it. It’s an intrepid approach to life—one that brought her where she is today, and will likely take her even farther.
I’m not leaving my life here. I’m not giving up work here. It’s just, while I’m on break, I’m also doing something else.
“I’m going back to the States in July and August,” she says. “For my… ‘new journey.’” Megan hesitates to call it that, but she does anyway, acknowledging that whatever comes of her new forays, she’d at least be richer for the experience, and it would be a journey no less. “We’ll see. Wala pa naman set in stone. I just want to see what’s out there.”
So this summer, Megan Young will be elsewhere, on the lookout for anything good that comes her way. She’ll be away on business or pleasure or both, eating good food and sipping good coffee. She’ll be meeting people, shaking hands, knocking on doors à lá La La Land.
But she won’t forget to leave part of herself here. “Some people would be like, ‘It’s such a tough industry, why are you leaving your life here? You’re so good here!’ Thing is, I’m not leaving my life here. I’m not giving up work here. It’s just, while I’m on break, I’m also doing something else. And if opportunity happens to knock on my door, then I will grab it by the balls.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.