It’s hard to believe there’s anything accidental about the moment 25-year-old Catriona Gray has found herself in. She was already a kind of pageant veteran when she won the Miss Universe 2018 crown, having already competed in four beauty pageants. And her celebrated campaign—earning the admiration of everyone from Tyra Banks to Ashley Graham—was run with such ease and confidence that it seemed safe to assume this is a competition she had always been preparing for.
Truth is, Catriona Gray had been trying to find her way for years. Before she was a beauty queen, she was a model with the looks to earn her stripes but a heart that was half in and out. If she seemed confident and at ease during the competition, it was only because she had gotten to a place of purpose and self-actualization. She hadn’t mastered the competition, she had mastered herself.
“I was not a pageant girl,” she explains. “It just so happened that I started off as a model. [And] I didn’t actually want to be a full-time model—I just ended up satisfying the creative inside of myself through being in that industry. Growing up, I really had too many interests.”
In her spare time, she would volunteer as a teacher’s assistant at Young Focus, a nonprofit organization helping underprivileged youth from Smokey Mountain, Manila. And yet, she learned, having disparate interests and a range of skills don’t always add up.
“I am a very ambitious person and when I came straight out of high school, I had all of these plans that I wanted to do for myself,” she says. “I had all these measures of success. ‘By this age I want to have achieved this and by this age, I want to have done that.’ When life doesn’t play out how you think it will, it’s so easy to get caught in the comparison trap—especially in the age of social media where you see your peers who seem to be doing so well and having it all, and you feel like ‘My life compared to that is not measuring up.'”
She surprised herself when she realized that her passions, her skills, her unique set of experiences all positioned her to be the ideal beauty queen. Understanding how meaningless the milestones for success our culture of velocity dictate has allowed her to focus on goals that are actually meaningful to her.
“[Working as a spokesperson for non-profit organizations] really is the reason I went on this journey in the first place. It wasn’t to get a crown, it was more to push my advocacy, which I feel has really anchored me through this whole process. [I realized that] if I can continue to do that for years and years on end, I will be a happy person.”
This is the reason why, when she told him she was going to compete, shoe designer Jojo Bragais knew she could go all the way.
“Choosing the team that’s best for her is a great thing because Catriona’s been in the industry for a really long time and she knows who the best people are to help her out on the journey. So I guess that’s the good thing about being independent… you choose the best among the best, not settling for someone who’s just part of the team where you think… ‘di naman sila best for you. I guess it worked for her.”
Much has been said about Catriona’s independent bid for the crown. “People would tell me, ‘An independent candidate has never won Miss Universe Philippines,'” she says. “Being part of a camp was seen as the formula to winning and if you’re an outlier to that formula, then you were doomed to fail.”
But Catriona knew that being in a pageant is very much a mental game. “[You stand out when] the energy you feel inside radiates [brighter] than your look. People think it’s all about being the prettiest or walking the best, but it’s really not,” she says. And she knew she was only going to feel safe, comfortable, and at her best if she was surrounded with people who understood her. The shoe designer Jojo Bragais, choreographer and runway coach Caloy Buendia, designer Mak Tumang, makeup artist Jelly Eugenio, hairstylist Brent Sales, stylist Justine Aliman and videographer Jolo Luarca are some of the creatives tapped to join Team Catriona.
“You know, what’s surprising is, before she joined the pageant, she had already done a lot of research,” says Jelly. “She had a whole mood board. She had a whole presentation, she listed down all the events, she had pegs for her looks… I have never met anybody like that. All the other girls are gonna join and they’re gonna be thankful when they win. But her, her preparation was very different. Para siyang aatake nang gera, alam mo yun?”
“Yung twirl na yan, talagang pinlano namin siya,” Brent says. “Yung aim talaga namin dati parang shampoo commercial… May mga videos kami kung paano niya ipa-practice, kung paano niya ife-flip yung hair para makita siya sa camera.”
“[The now iconic pieces like] gown and ear cuff, naisip niya talaga yun noong nag-Binibining Pilipinas palang siya,” Justine says. “Kailangan merong Filipino symbolism din sa kanya. Even though maraming nagsasabi sa kanya na she’s not Pinay, sa puso niya, andun talaga yung pagiging Filipino niya.”
By understanding her purpose and figuring out the most personally authentic way to compete in a pageant, Catriona had stumbled upon her own winning formula. “I wanted to be surrounded by people who shared that same creativity with me.” she says. “Being able to collaborate with them, it just made this whole journey. It made it unique because we took a fresh approach to preparing for a pageant. I was really able to interject who I am as a person.”
“Freedom from expectations is exactly what I’ve really identified with over the last seven years,” Catriona says. “Overcoming internal fear or fear that was rooted from other people telling me what they thought I would be able to achieve, thinking that I wouldn’t able to measure up.”
For Miss Universe, she found it in a team of passionate creatives. In the realm of finance, she’s found it in BDO.
“Working on Find Your Way with BDO was special for me—no other brand has done something like this where they looked at my story and used it to tell a bigger, more important message that needs to be said. They really took time to know who I am and what’s important to me, so they really get me.”
“I love that BDO is talking about finding your own way because it’s very unexpected. Everyone has a unique path and you have to find your own way and I feel like that is such a universal concept especially in my age group, where we are young and we are ambitious, and we always get caught up in the comparison trap, where you find people around you and organizations around you such as BDO that can really help you map out your own way to create the life that you love! BDO finds ways for me and everyone else, and that’s the kind of brand I need around me, to be partners with.”
“There will be so many people who will tell you, ‘This is the way you should do things,’ ‘This the way it’s been done before,’ ‘If you do it a different way you’re gonna fail’—but there’s really no such thing as formula,” Catriona says.
“Everyone has their own path and everyone makes their own way, and a big part of enjoying that whole process is being with people who love and support you.”
Disclaimer: This article is a press release provided by BDO.