Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A beauty queen, while she wears the crown, is a spectacle. In a pageant-crazy country like the Philippines, they have long mastered the art of ensnaring the public imagination, if only for a few dazzling moments. It is also a country where beauty queens go on to become celebrities — that is, until life makes other plans.
Two beauty queens who have stepped into the limelight — and out of it — are Gionna Cabrera (Binibining Pilipinas Universe 2005) and Karen Loren Agustin-Ostrea (Binibining Pilipinas Universe 2002) who have known the pageant before social media made the personal “impersonal,” says Cabrera.
Cabrera, now a real estate broker, says: “Now every turn [and] every angle of the face is judged … Everything is publicized in one second.”
Twelve years ago, Cabrera may have only worried about going to Cubao Expo for the first time to get her pageant shoes, or how to get first dibs on dresses that candidates would have to wear. The atmosphere today is presumably more taxing. “I can see the pressure with Maxine,” she says. Reigning Binibining Pilipinas-Universe Maxine Medina, among others, has received criticism for the way she speaks.
For Ostrea, now an image consultant — who joined the pageant only upon the cajoling of Rodgil Flores of the Kagandahang Flores beauty camp — it took hard work and training to help her beat the odds in the competition. Before joining Binibining Pilipinas, she attempted to win the title of Global Beauty Queen Philippines, the first million-peso pageant in the country whose roster included the likes of Aubrey Miles and Justine Gabionza. Ostrea landed in the top 10, but lost. “I asked Rodgil for help with the Q&A,” she says, “because that was what I botched during the last pageant.”
Flores was a tough coach. Ostrea remembers being asked mock Q&A questions by Flores even as she endured a terrible bout of food poisoning. She was heaving with pain yet Flores asked her: “How can you be an ingredient of peace in this world?”
“I was not upset at all,” Ostrea says. “I was dedicated, [and] nothing is hard when you are dedicated.”
Before the pageant
Cabrera stands tall in high heels and her corporate attire, and seems not to have forgotten how to pose for the camera. Her gaze and her wide-mouthed grin come naturally. While she used to model, it was not in her plan, however, to become a beauty queen.
It was Jonas Gaffud of the Aces & Queens beauty camp who discovered Cabrera at a party. “During that time there was no Aces & Queens yet, it was called Mabuhay Beauties,” she says. “Aces & Queens is the foremost and leading camp training beauty queens. I was one of the first, and I started his winning streak in Binibini,” she says proudly.
“I was 22, fresh out of college, very idealistic. I wanted to have a voice in the world,” Cabrera recalls. “Joining a pageant would be seen as a stepping stone to achieve that.”
Ostrea, on the other hand — who previously joined Global Beauty Queen and lost — had to be “persuaded enthusiastically” by mentor Flores for three months starting November, before agreeing to go to a screening for Binibining Pilipinas. “After three months, [Flores and company] were coming over to my house, forcing me to join, so naging friends na kami. By February, it was his birthday.”
Flores pulled the birthday card. “Karen, diba friends naman tayo?” Ostrea remembers him saying. “Birthday gift mo na sa akin ito.”
“At that point, after three months of someone constantly telling you na kaya mo, mananalo ka, you start visualizing it, you start believing na, baka nga kaya ko,” she says. Ostrea said yes, and after being screened for an interesting 20 minutes, as opposed to the usual three — where the preliminary panel asked her “authentic questions” — she discovered something new about herself. “That was the first time I thought I was beautiful.”
Secrets of beauty queens
Cabrera’s career took a colorful turn after she won Binibining Pilipinas and represented the Philippines in the 2005 Miss Universe, held in Bangkok. She worked in sales and marketing, tried her hand out in government work in one of the country’s top offices, and sold wooden bags (made of acacia) of her own painted design in both local and international markets, as a dabbling entrepreneur. She even co-produced a fashion show in Portland, Oregon, to promote the bags.
Her self-named brand of bags had a niche market. “I had several titas constantly buying bags from me, and that kept me going,” she says. “The niche market would be aunts, because these are not really essential accessories, but the designs are one of a kind.” The designs are inspired by natural objects (such as leaves) and art deco.
As of now, the wooden bag business is on hold, though Cabrera plans to return to it as she waits for inspiration. “As an artist you always look for something to trigger or ignite the senses again,” she says.
For her part, Ostrea need not look further than the crown after she won the Binibining Pilipinas title. “The crown, more than anything, was what opened doors for me,” she says. “Without the crown, I would not be where I am right now. I would not be in my business, I would not do what I am doing, I would not be with my husband,” she laughs.
It was after being invited to teach a class for John Robert Powers, after winning the crown, that Ostrea was “hooked on the idea of transforming people.” In 2014, she wrote a book about it: “The Secret of Beauty Queens,” co-written with Binibining Pilipinas International 2006 Denille Valmonte-Ostrea and Binibining Pilipinas International 2005 Precious Lara Quigaman.
“Once a Miss Philippines … you’ll forever be public,” Cabrera says. “Even if you’re out of the limelight or show business, you still carry that responsibility to influence the youth, women, and implement your advocacies whatever they are.”
Ostrea, who had offers varying from a sexy role for a movie and several television hosting gigs, first thought that image consulting was an extra job. Several professional courses in image training and coaching later, she knew: “This is not on the side, this is my focus.”
Memories of the Miss Universe
Cabrera is no longer actively involved in Binibining Pilipinas, although she used to help judge in minor beauty pageants around the country. She tries to keep updated in ongoing pageant activities through Facebook, even as she is mindful of her continuing responsibility as a former Philippine representative to the Miss Universe.
“Once a Miss Philippines … you’ll forever be public,” she says. “Even if you’re out of the limelight or show business, you still carry that responsibility to influence the youth, women, and implement your advocacies whatever they are.”
Ostrea remembers the small things during her own Miss Universe stint in Puerto Rico, particularly when she co-hosted the Miss Universe fashion show in Davao last week. “It’s a thrill, because I’m a Miss Universe candidate, reminiscing on my experiences during the Davao show,” she says.
The highlight of her experience years ago was inarguably the food, particularly the “hospitality room” filled with “goodies, like junk food, sandwiches that were made fresh everyday, unlimited soda, [and] unlimited Jell-o” in the hotel where the candidates were billeted back in Puerto Rico.
“Every time there was an opportunity, when we get back to our hotel on midnight, I would come by and eat my Jell-o and stuff,” she laughs. “What a wonderful memory to be reminded of, because Miss Universe is here.”