Philippines: How to make a beauty queen

  • 2 February 2014
  • From the section Asia
Filipina beauty queen Sandra Seifert won Miss Earth-Philippines in 2009 and ended as first runner-up in the international Miss Earth
Image caption Sandra Seifert won Miss Earth-Philippines, and promoted environmental causes

Sandra Seifert is tall, pretty, smart and articulate, but it took a while for her to decide she wanted to take part in a beauty pageant in the Philippines.

"I have been asked in my younger years to consider joining, and I just never felt ready or prepared," said Ms Seifert, who started working as a model at the age of 14 and later worked as a television presenter.

But the moment finally arrived in 2009, after she had finished a nursing degree in New York. At the age of 25 - the limit for most pageants - time was running out.

Ms Seifert trained for over a month at a so-called beauty camp, setting her sights on representing the Philippines at the Miss Universe competition. But she said pageant organisers disqualified her days before the finals over bikini photos published in a men's magazine.

Undaunted, she decided to take part in another national pageant weeks later. Not only did she win the national Miss Earth title, she went on to compete in the international pageant, where she was crowned runner-up out of 80 competitors from all over the world.

'Queen maker'

Media captionJonas Gaffud says candidates need to train for six months to prepare for competition

Beauty pageants have been popular in the Philippines since they were brought to the country by the American colonial government in the first half of the 20th Century, says Jose Wendell Capili, an academic at the University of the Philippines in the capital, Manila.

Opposition from feminists, if there is any, is muted.

The recent successes of candidates in international competitions have heightened interest even further.

Mr Capili, who wrote a book about Philippine pageants, says that as a result, pageants have become more competitive.

"In the old days, an untrained candidate may end up winning a title either because she is a great beauty or is someone from a pedigreed family," he said. "These days, there are talent scouts and modelling agencies who actually train some of the girls, months, even years, before the national competition."

One of the most successful beauty camps is headed by Jonas Gaffud, who is CEO of a large modelling agency, Mercator.

He and a teams of mentors field an average of 10 candidates a year. The mentors work for free, and many of the women dominate the national pageants and go on to place well internationally.

Mr Gaffud is credited with helping Megan Young win the first Miss World crown for the Philippines in 2013. His team's beauty queens have also been finalists in every Miss Universe pageant since 2010. Some have also placed in previous Miss World and Miss International finals.

In scouting a potential candidate, Mr Gaffud said that height - at least five feet five inches tall (165.1cm) - and "the beauty of face" were most important.

But training was just as important. He said candidates need to start training at least six months before a competition. This included studying the pageant's cause, learning how to walk on stage, knowing how to do hair and make-up, exercising to tone the physique and practicing how to answer questions, he said.

Ms Seifert, who trained at another beauty camp, said that the hours spent training were intense.

"There are different exercises that you do, all the way from head to toe. Stretching, neck rotations, really tough waist movements to shape your waist," she said.

One exercise was called the "duck walk" and involved walking in circles in a bikini at a dance studio lined with mirrors. "Just imagine doing lunges in high heels with a book or several books on your head - and they cannot fall," she said.

And despite her previous experience as a television host, she still received coaching for the pageant Q&A, as well as advice from former pageant winners.

Love for beauty

Image caption The Philippines has placed in the top five of the Miss Universe pageant in the past four years

Like Ms Seifert, Sian Elizabeth Maynard also trained at a beauty camp before taking part in a national pageant, even after successfully winning three local titles.

She did calisthenics exercises and walking training, which included "doing weird lunges and wiggling".

"So when we do these lunges, and we wiggle our hips, it's really tiresome. And we all do this in four-inch heels minimum. It helps us to lengthen our stride and to put more sway in our hips," Ms Maynard said.

Sometimes she had to do the high-heeled lunges while answering questions called out by her mentors.

"And then, every so often while we're doing it, one of them [trainers] would just call out a question, like you know, 'If you had to take out an element out the universe, which element would it be and why? Earth, wind, fire or water?'

"It's really not just about smiling and standing in front of people. It's a lot of hard work," said Ms Maynard, now 27.

Even the tiny details matter, Mr Gaffud said. He helps pick the right outfits and involves himself with how a candidate "should sway on stage". He even helps pick a candidate's lipstick shade - anything to help improve her chances. He said mentors tried to build on a candidate's natural traits, such as whether to cultivate a sweet or sexy image.

Some mentors do charge for their services, but most like Mr Gaffud do it "for the love of finding a girl".

"This is a side project," he said, adding that mentors help pay for the candidate's make-up, pictorials, food and sometimes even their rent.

Some mentors, however, go on to manage their beauty queen's careers after they are successful in pageants.

"They don't expect us to pay for anything, which I just find really amazing," said Ms Seifert, "because these pageant aficionados have full-time jobs, but they really dedicate so much of themselves to helping us develop and train," she said.

Stepping stone

Image caption Certain pageants, like Miss Earth, advocate for agendas like environmental awareness

Becoming a beauty queen is not always glamorous, Ms Seifert cautioned. "The moment I got crowned was the moment all the hard work began," she said.

In her case, being a Miss Philippines-Earth winner and Miss Earth runner-up meant many public appearances to promote environmental causes.

Pageant winners have high public profiles in the Philippines, and winning a title is seen as coming with big responsibilities. As "an important public figure", it was important to set a good example to young girls who looked up to beauty queens, Ms Seifert said.

Winners are feted, introduced to high-ranking officials, and often recognised on the street and asked to pose for photographs.

Anjo Lorenzana, a lecturer from the Ateneo de Manila University who specialises in media and popular culture, said pageants were also an opportunity for the Philippines to promote its image on an international stage.

"By winning international beauty contests, Filipinos, who are usually equated with lowly occupations, can be seen in a better light," he said.

For the candidates, pageants can be a stepping stone for upward social or economic mobility, Jose Wendell Capili said.

He added that Filipinos were deeply passionate about pageants, pointing to heated online discussions. "Rooting for a particular candidate can sometimes break up families, friendships and relationships," he said.

Tammy David, who has been photographing pageants since 2007, said the most unusual pageant she shot was inside a large jail.

"You could see how parents were proud because their daughter was Little Miss Bureau of Corrections," Ms David said. "Beauty pageants are everywhere."

More on this story