It has been almost a decade since Filipino-Arab beauty queen Mary Jean Lastimosa stepped onto the Miss Universe stage, but memories of her arduous journey still linger.
“If you ask me if I'm willing to do it all over again, I'll probably say no,” she tells The National from a hotel room in Ilocos Norte, northern Philippines, where she is judging a local beauty pageant.
Unlike many young girls in the beauty pageant-loving South-East Asian nation, Lastimosa, now 35, never really dreamt of becoming a beauty queen. She only joined a university-wide beauty contest in 2006 as an extracurricular for her grades.
“I wasn't the young girl who believed she was pretty. I didn't imagine being on television,” says Lastimosa, who was born to a Saudi father and Filipina mother. “I never once looked in the mirror and thought that I will ever become a Miss Philippines.”
But her university stint paved the way to pursue pageantry further, and Lastimosa eventually flew to the US for the 2014 edition of Miss Universe, where she made it to the top 10.
Training fit for a queen
How did someone like Lastimosa, who grew up in a modest household in a landlocked province in southern Philippines, conquer a national stage and represent her country in one of the biggest pageants in the world?
The answer is the country's so-called beauty pageant boot camps.
Lastimosa is one of many beauty queens who've been put through an all-encompassing training school where pageant hopefuls are moulded. There, they are taught everything from posture to public speaking.
Another crucial aspect of pageant preparation is the "passarella" training, where girls are taught how to walk gracefully in high heels.
Often, beauty queens develop a "signature walk" that they use to leave a mark in competitions. Miss Universe 2018 winner Catriona Gray's passarella was called the “lava walk”, which involved slowly gliding and flowing through a runway, finished off with a slow-motion turn.
These gruelling boot camps run six days a week and sessions often finish at midnight.
One prominent camp is Kagandahang Flores, which has been training pageant hopefuls since 1996.
“My love for pageants started when I watched the first Miss Universe held in the Philippines in 1974. I was just seven years old,” founder and head trainer Rodgil Flores tells The National. “It was like fairy-tale characters were coming to life.”
In 1994, when Miss Universe was held again in the Philippines, it refuelled Flores's passion for pageantry. Two years later, he trained his first protege for a national competition.
Since then, Kagandahang Flores has been producing Filipina beauty queens for national and international pageants, including Lastimosa. Flores has also trained former Miss Universe Philippines contestants Rachel Peters (2017) and Gazini Ganados (2019) as well as Miss Earth winners Angelia Ong (2015) and Karen Ibasco (2017), among others.
Flores, 55, who runs the camp with his cousin, Gio Flores, a make-up artist, says he has lost count of all the girls he has trained over the years, but estimates it to be about 200 a year. When his studio started, he would scout for girls across the Philippines at local pageants. But as his popularity grew, he became inundated with requests for mentorship.
He trains them for free, funding boot camps through donations and the occasional sponsor.
This year, Kagandahang Flores is training 23 out of 40 candidates for Binibing Pilipinas, the national pageant that determines the Philippine representative at Miss International. Until 2019, the pageant also sent representatives to Miss Universe, but the rights was acquired by another organisation in 2020, who named the pageant Miss Universe Philippines.
Flores says girls train up to six months before a national competition, and an additional two to three months when selected for an international pageant.
“There are lots of sacrifices from contestants and from us, volunteers, who are passionate about helping these girls,” he says.
His work also caught the attention of pageants outside the Philippines. In 2015, Flores was tapped by Miss Universe Indonesia Anindya Kusuma Putri for training. He also trained Miss International Indonesia Kevin Lilliana Junaedy in 2017, who eventually won the global crown, as well as Miss Earth 2018 winner Nguyen Phuong Khanh from Vietnam. He has also trained beauty queens from Puerto Rico and the US.
Last year, Miss Universe Bahrain 2022 Evlin Khalifa flew to the Philippines to train ahead of the global pageant in January.
Khalifa, who had an all-Filipino team for her Miss Universe stint, spent two weeks in the country where she was trained by some of the best in the industry.
Josh Yugen, owner of Yugen Group, which owns the Miss Universe Bahrain and Miss Universe Pakistan franchises, calls beauty pageants a "national sport" in the Philippines.
“We have the three Bs: basketball, boxing and beauty pageants,” he tells The National.
Yugen, whose company is headquartered in Dubai, says he takes pride in pioneering the Gulf's participation in the international pageantry scene.
“Beauty pageants have evolved since they launched more than 70 years ago. A pageant has gone through several changes, from fashion perspective to culture and society,” he says.
“The landscape of our times has changed dramatically. Now you can see a beauty pageant not just as a plain bikini contest. It has changed to become a platform for young women to speak about their advocacies, tell their stories and inspire other women who may not have the same privilege,” he adds.
“Miss Universe, for example, champions diversity in women, celebrating their differences and acknowledging that perfection in women does not exist.”
Last year, the Miss Universe Organisation made the historic decision to no longer limit the contest to single women and, for the first time in 71 years, applicants can be single, married, divorced or mothers.
The organisation, which was recently acquired by Thai millionaire Anne Jakrajutatip, said it was a move to evolve with the times.
Miss Universe alumna Lastimosa, who has crossed over to hosting and acting, says beauty pageants will continue to be popular, especially in countries such as the Philippines.
“Whenever my European friends ask me why beauty pageants are still so popular in the Philippines, I tell them it's because Filipinos are constantly looking for inspiration,” she says.
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