“The top ten candidates are…”one of the hosts announced. The audience shouted in chorus with the drum roll. The hosts repeated the catchphrases for a second, a third, a fourth time—I could hardly remember. The blinding light blinked at me. In my mind, I wanted the hosts to hasten the announcement so I could remove my golden shoes at once, fly off the stage, and head home right away.
The hosts called Candidate number 5. Candidate number 5 had an indescribably strong presence. She was probably between 15-16 years old, one of the youngest candidates, whose personality belonged to the spectrum of Latin-American faces. All through-out the pageant night, it seemed like the chances and time had aligned for her—she received the following awards: Ms. Facebook, Ms. People’s Choice Awards, Ms. Audience Choice Awards, and all the awards from the sponsors of the pageant, a one year supply worth of beauty products, and the judge’s choice for the neo-ethnic and creative attires. Whenever she would walk the stage, all of the people in the gymnasium would have seemed to fold in a lingering applause.
The Candidates for the Mutya ng Calinan 2017 had an age range of about 16-24 years old. But with pageant make-up and pageant gowns, no one could accurately tell who belonged to a specific age bracket. All of the candidates looked relatively similar that night. We had similar facial features. We had similar make-up. Our hairstyles would seem to complement each other’s hairstyles. Some of us took the high bun, the classic beauty pageant hair style; some had their long, flowing big curls on. All of our costumes begged for a lift, the crowd’s approval, and the judges’ praise with their elaborate hues and intricate embroidery.
When I was younger, my father would ask me to watch beauty pageants with him on television. The shows would feature women, gracefully walking the stage in different attires, smiling, standing, clapping, and waiting all the time. I thought their task was easy—they just had to walk, smile, and wait. When the time for the Question and Answer Portion would come, all women were expected to brace themselves either for a call, or for a dismissal from the show.
All women, in my judgment, looked similar. I did not fully understand how they were rated. They walked the same way. Their hairstyles were the same. Their clothes were relatively complimentary. Perhaps, the moment called for luck, or chance, or fate.
Candidate number 11!” The crowds applauded. I wore the tag Candidate number 11. I slowly made my way through the front.
The hosts went on to explain the mechanics of the next drill: The Question and Answer Portion. All of the candidates would be asked to pick a piece of paper from the fishbowl. The pieces of papers had a corresponding hash tags written on them. The candidates would explain their viewpoints about their chosen hash tag.
Candidate number 5 picked the paper with the hashtag Pres. Rodrigo R. Duterte. The candidate gave a pro-President Duterte answer. Once again, the gymnasium folded into screams, praises, and applause.
I felt a sense of relief. I have always instinctively wanted to avoid questions about the President. I never agreed with Martial Law because I thought it was unnecessary, to counter insurgency. Martial law, for instance, could be used by parties with personal intentions. It might pave the way for the perpetual cycle of human rights abuses, similar to the cases we had in the Philippines during the regime of a dictator forty years ago. If that would be my assigned hash tag or question, I would rather not say a word.
When it was my turn to answer, the gymnasium quieted. I picked the same paper Candidate number 5 had picked. I showed the paper to the hosts. The masters of ceremonies told me that I could not proceed with the explanation because it was the same paper candidate number 5 chose. He threw the paper away and told the audience that I had to pick another paper. I scoured through the contents of the fish bowl, once more.
“Hashtag Calinan Barangay Council,” the hosts said.
I was not from Calinan. I would not be candidate number 11 if the former “identity holder” did not back out. I did not participate in the screening process last July because I was still in Manila for my summer classes. My handler dealt with the problem and asked the organizers to allow me to have a special screening in the last week of the month instead. When I returned to Davao, I received a text message from the organizers of the pageant that I was already part of the top 15 candidates. I represented Purok 23 of Calinan, the purok where our relatives lived.
I have been a resident of Catalunan Pequeno since birth. I would frequent Calinan because of the family gatherings at my aunt’s house. But, I was born in Calinan. I have the birth certificate as proof. And we have temporarily lived in Calinan for a year when I was in grade three. In fact, the other candidates of the pageant used to be residents of Calinan, but they moved to other places because of work.
It took me quite a while before I answered. My family gave me a hard gaze. I tried to gather up thoughts, the kind of thoughts I wanted to come out accurate in saying them. I bowed down and held the microphone in my hands.
All barangay councils, wherever they may be, have the same function. I said that Calinan Barangay Council was responsible to ensure the welfare and safety of the people. But, it was not the council’s job alone to make the place peaceful and progressive. Everyone, regardless of their socio-political and economic status, and religious beliefs have to contribute in the best ways they could.
The judges nodded, my family smiled, and the audience gave me applause.
“Hiyas sa K o,” one of the handlers said, pointing to the petite woman in long, big curls. Candidate number 6 went toward the front stage.
The masters of ceremonies called on Candidate number 6. She scoured through the papers inside the fish bowl. The Masters of the Ceremony asked the candidate about her thoughts on the reason for the Calinan Fiesta: the 68th Parochial Fiesta of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish.
I did not have the chance to see the performance of my co-candidates because our handler called me backstage the moment I have finished my Q and A stint.
All of the scores from category one to the last before the announcement of the top five candidates would be back to zero.
We had a relatively peaceful atmosphere backstage. There were no stereo-typical clashes between the candidates which may include but would never be limited to wardrobe sabotage, accessories-theft, outright insults, and implied mockery. The beauty pageant handlers, who were friends with each other, made sure that the space in the right-wing or the left wing backstage would be for their candidates alone. Mirrors, lights, and facial cover-ups were all over the make-shift room.
Mutya ng Calinan 2017, Kuya R said, copied the format of the annual Mutya ng Davao pageant. There would be nine judges, and there would be a series of qualifying rounds. The top 15 candidates would be chosen from the screening. The top 15 candidates would undergo photo shoots and compete in Ms. Facebook, Ms. Photogenic, People’s Choice Awards, and Audience Choice Awards, the last two awards would be based on the number of tickets sold for the pageant. On the pageant night, there would be a preliminary round, an interview with Calinan Barangay Council, and the nine judges for the pageant. The interview would be the primary basis for the selection of the top ten candidates. For the first round that would comprise 60%; the other 40 % would be based on Beauty and how we project with our neo-ethnic and creative casual attires. After the selection of the top ten candidates, the scores would be brought back to zero. The chosen top ten candidates would undergo the Question and Answer Portion in the pageant proper. The criteria for judging would be the same as the first round of the Q and A. Five candidates would then compete in the final round of the Question and Answer Portion.
While Kuya R had been preparing the contact lens, I spent the time looking at the cosmetics in front of me. There were more than ten sets of eyeshadow make-up alone, with different palettes, with corresponding brushes of varying line weights. The array of pageant tools, had different hues for blush, from the fair-skinned hues of baby pink, peach, and sheer plum, to the medium-skinned tints of apricot, mauve, soft-berry, to the olive-skinned, chestnut skin shade of orangey-peach, rose and bronze, and the dark-skinned colors of raisin, brick, deep terra cota, and bright tangerine. Nude, brown, pink, peachy nude, coral, orange, blue-red, orange-red, soft-pink, hot pink, neutral lip tints in history showed themselves before my sight. A combination of these colors would be painted on my face soon.
I looked around. I observed that most of the members of the glam teams looked feminine save for ours. Without a second thought, J picked up the blade and used it to remove hairs from my eyebrows. My skin tone had warm and cool undertones in it, so I had to go with beige, or cream-colored foundation to give an illusion of health to my pale face. J pounded the concealer on my face like a carpenter driving nails into the wood, to give me a seemingly flawless coverage. He used different lengths and thickness of brushes to paint the brows that would give a made-up face a lift. He took a set of false eyelashes, placed a generous amount of glue on the edge, and slowly attached the object to my real eyelashes. He combined the base shade of blue with black, mixed them with water, and stirred them accordingly. J went on to paint the skin on my eyes, my cheeks, and all my face. He gave my nose and cheekbones a deep contour. He balanced the dark shade of my eyes with a light pink lip tint.
For a long time, I believed I was not beautiful. When I was younger, there were people who said I did not look good. I was too pale. I had blemishes on my face. I was too thin. I had a slouched posture. I was bowlegged. I did not have a European nose. I did not look like prime-time child stars, nor print-ads models smiling their best for higher chances of product profit. I remember crying in my room for close to an hour just because of that.
I had done research in Encarta. I had wanted to know how different people came to have different physical appearances. The reasons were biological. People living in the highlands had fairer and more prominent nose, and natural, rosy-white glow because of the climatic conditions of their country. Genetics would be second, in giving the most legitimate reasons for variations in physical features.
J shifted the light toward our direction. I looked at the mirror. I lost words.
“Guot kayo ni nga pageant, nine kabuok ang judges, ayaw gyud pag pa ores. Ayaw ipahalata nga first-timer ka. Project gyud bisan dili ka comfortable sa imong suot,” Kuya R repeatedly reminding me that the pageant would be a tough fight with nine judges to give the verdict for the night, that I should not leave the impression it was my first time to join one, and that I had to project, to act comfortable even if the opposite of the case was the truth of the time.
Kuya R and the rest of the glam team assisted me with my light ochre, coconut-husk textured neo-ethic dress, with a knee length cut in front, and a long, flowing trail of cloth at the back. One from the glam team placed a gigantic headdress on my head, which somehow cause my right leg to slightly bend because of its heavy weight. That was the first night I had worn my attire in full, atop the complex architecture of the stage. Days before the pageant, my father requested our handler to show us pictures of our costumes. My father had reservations about the costumes I would be wearing for the pageant. He told me that he wanted to see all of them beforehand. But, the handler said that the costumes were not on his possessions. The costume designer kept these costumes, and we could not reach the designer because he too, had upcoming events and a pageant before ours.
A member of the glam team broke the unprecedented noise backstage with his announcement of Candidate number 12’s fall. She was my friend. I was surprised with the news. During the practices, I noticed that she was one of the most graceful candidates. She was even the star dancer for our production number. Some of the people had speculated that her headdress was too heavy. Her glam team had flown to the backstage right away, to help her stand up once more.
The glam team spent all their night, grooming us like we were porcelain dolls without the faculty of giving a declining word. Perhaps it was my third time to get help for dressing up. The first one would be in my infancy; the second one was when I was on the verge of life and death in a hospital uphill where I had needed all intervention I could in changing clothes because cords were all over my body. I could not imagine the process at first because I considered that ritual a private experience for me. I could only take a slight rest in the fact that this was not the first time the glam team had handled beauty pageants for women. Luckily, we were told beforehand to prepare skin-tone, full-body undergarments because the dress drills backstage would be as adrenaline-jumping as the ones officiated inside military camps, with the segments of the show assuming the function of obstacle courses in the centennial training arena.
As soon as I finished the make-up rites, I opened my notes, reviewed the sample questions and answers I have prepared, and tried to memorize written points about socio-political realties, about women, their function in society, and the necessity of pageantry as platforms for the candidate’s individual advocacies.
Why did I join? That was the question all of the people around me had asked.
I once became an actress for a short film project in College. When a Media Arts student asked me to star in the short film he was producing, I just said yes to the uncertain. I believed that another person’s faith on what one could do should not be ignored. I did not think twice in accepting the offer for the dumpsite film project. On the next day, I went to the place with the director/writer/videographer. I played the role of “Marites” and acted like a garbage collector myself because it was written on the script.
The dumpsite film project worked for me. I received positive reviews about my acting performance. During the film festival, the audience had made the remark of how pitiful Marites was, of how they all thought I was truly Marites.
When Kuya R urged my cousins to register me for the pageant, I did not think hard about giving my consent. Perhaps the pageant stint would work too. There were people who had placed their faith on me; they had seen that with the proper training and preparation, I could do the job. Probably for the first time in my life, I wanted to try doing something I haven’t done in a long time. At that time, I wanted to try doing something I did not think through. Perhaps I wanted to test the circumstance. I wanted to keep a mental tract of things I should do or could do because the others said so, or I myself had the faith I could do it. I never had to test myself on this. I never needed to use this to test myself, to test what I can do; my life so far had brought a series of trials for me, with all the fated lessons I am to contemplate for another round of the obligatory existential mapping of place or so it seemed. I wanted to try this risk, for the sake of trying it.
When I told Papa that I got accepted for the show, he did not say a word in the beginning. Mama would later reveal that Papa had outwardly expressed his doubts about my pageant presentation.
The closest pageant experiences I had prior to that one, were my stints in elementary and high school. I was in grade three when our class adviser chose me to be Ms. Mexico for the United Nations Celebration; I won first-runner up for that pageant. In high school, I finished up to top 15 for an Environmental Science-themed beauty contest. During those times, our teachers would encourage the candidates to prepare not only for the physical requirements of the show. Research would be one of the most important factors to be considered first. Having informed opinion would be the best badge before the limelight, our mentors had taught us.
Candidate number 1 approached me. Before our initial crowd presentation, she asked if I was that candidate from Manila, who was not able to attend the screening process. I told her that I am from Davao, and that I only went to Manila for the summer classes in French language. She told me that she was a former student of my aunt in high school in Wangan, a barrio under Calinan District, that she was currently based in Cubao, Quezon City for her call center job and that she had come back to Davao for the pageant. The other handlers, I observed, gazed at Candidate number 1.
I just did my act in front of the camera, under the approaching twilight skies. I thought I could use the same mind set, there on the pageant stage. Whenever I would walk before the lights, I would always take a moment of complete silence, a moment of rekindling my faith. This was the summary of my only prayer for the night: to walk without tripping, to sing on pitch, and to answer as honest and as expressive as I could.
Gravity had performed its function of scourging my feet. It was probably my fifth or my sixth hour on stage. I wanted to fly-off from my six-inch high, pointed, golden shoes. I could not help but feel like I would be falling from the cliff anytime because it seemed that the stage had a life of its own. The stage would complement the candidates’ walk with its own conventions of electromagnetic literature. The stage reminded me of a forest kumonoy, perpetually prepared to entrap unsuspecting travelers caught in the midst of an existential traffic jam.
Whenever my left feet would hurt, I would look at the judges first to check whether they were looking towards my direction, then I would put the right foot forward, and interchange the positions accordingly. I slightly marveled at the way the other candidates were able to maintain their pose, and the same intensified smiles, as if they had not walked through the complex architecture of the stage the entire time, the predestined night.
I did not have an intensive, rigorous training in walking unlike my co-candidates. Kuya R, my handler, and Q, my cousin’s girlfriend taught me to project with pageant shoes on the roof deck of my aunt’s house, only weeks before the show. He walked with pageant heels, instructing me the exact theatrics of walking. While practicing, I realized I really had to imitate the walk of the beauty pageant candidates on-screen, not for aesthetic purposes but for scientific reasons: swaying the body from time to time would help balance the pressure in all the areas of the upper and lower body, thus, reducing chances for the build-up of pain around the feet.
Everything came in a flash. The next moment I knew, all of the candidates had lined up the stage in their casual attire for the announcement of the top five.
Traditional drum rolls, collective screams, and choreographed spiels paved the stage for Candidate Numbers 5, 6, 1, 13 and 11.
“What do the social media contribute to the issue on Martial Law?” one of the judges asked me, a few moments after the announcement of the final five.
“Social media is a good platform for educating the people about Martial Law. Through the social media, the Filipinos are being informed of the positive and the negative effects of military rule upon our country. In the social media, the Filipinos have the freedom to express their informed opinion about the necessity of the law. Criticism about Martial law is also being welcomed in social networking sites. There is a schism among Filipinos— there were people who were for and against the military rule. Some argued that the law could be used to perpetuate human rights abuses, while others stressed the importance of its embedded provisions for the security measures of the region. It is therefore necessary for us to be highly aware and critical of this matter. Social media would be one of the best ways for raising awareness and for imparting knowledge to the public about the current socio-political realties.”
If I conjectured correctly, the judge did not ask me about my stand. But they said my answers were too long. My answer, they said, would be a good material for an essay-writing piece, but probably, not for the pageant stage. I could only wonder at the fact of how all of us had all of the time to look at candidates in different attires; the sense of generosity, of giving ample time, of some of us would diminish when the Question and Answer portion would come.
The mapping of beauty pageants in the world had informed us to expect concise, idealistic answers from the candidates. The last line should be the most thought-provoking line, the most pleasing one that could ever come out of the candidate’s mouth. Brevity would always be part of the drill, pageant experience told me. Time-limits were meant to test the candidate’s ability to formulate brief answers that would be long enough to cover all pertinent details, but short enough to be memorable, and penetrative. The segment somehow reflected the way society had viewed women throughout the centuries: women were better-off seen than heard in all the aspects of life.
My handler waved his hands at me. I had to return to the backstage. While the top five candidates for the night had been preparing for the announcement of winners, the masters of ceremonies announced the final walk of the last year’s Queens.
“Dili na ta mag expect nga ma rayna ha… kabalo na ta…” one of the members of the glam team of the other candidate said, implying the possibility of pageant politics at work. I could barely hear the next words he had said afterwards. Our hairstylist gave me a quick glance before he went on with my hair.
The end of the speech meant the beginning of the reign of the top five candidates. We walked through the assigned places on the front stage in similar, Pia Wurtzbach-blue gowns. The moment of truth, the traditional introduction for the announcement of winners froze the audience in heightened contrast of pageant thrill and calm. The masters of ceremonies announced the major awards first.
“The Face of the Night Award goes to …”
That one, I thought, would be for Candidate number 5.
“Candidate number 11.”
“Ako?” I said aloud on stage. I carried the trail of my gown with my hands, and walked towards the Masters of the Ceremonies to receive the sash and the plaque for the major award.
“Ms. Eloquent is”… I heard the crowd called out my number.
“Ms. Eloquent is Candidate number 6.” I did not know but at that moment I thought she would win the pageant.
Time came faster than the next twitch of a working hand somewhere in the crowd. The masters of ceremonies called Candidate number 5 first. Candidate number 5 was fourth runner-up, Pag-asa ng Calinan. I continued to gaze around. I gazed at the crowd. My family smiled at me. My father was close to tears. Everyone was literally everywhere, taking pictures for the night’s (the dawn, rather) customary documentation on social media. The audience’ screams and untranslatable litany of words outranked the volume of pageant speakers, of pageant music, of pageant noise. The drumbeats echoed across the gymnasium, changing the topography of the acoustics of the night.
Third runner-up. Patnubay ng Calinan. Counsel of Calinan. One of the former Queens crowned me. I almost cried. I could barely believed I survived the night. I prayed.
I wore my crown for more or less half an hour, smiling in front of different cameras, in different angles, before one of the pageant staff politely asked me to surrender the merit. I wished I could bring the crown home for the event’s souvenir, but drills like this would happen, and one could only give an accepting heart as a response to the unknown.
Candidate number 6, the Hiyas sa K, was crowned Mutya ng Calinan for that night. Candidate number 1 won first-runner up and received the title, Sinag ng Calinan. Candidate number 13, Kuya R’s other candidate, was hailed as the Diwa ng Calinan.
“Sir, tan-awon nato ang tabulation basin nagkabaligtad to,” Papa’s colleague said, urging him to examine the official tabulated results of the pageant for possible mishaps.
The judges’ decisions would always be final, I said to myself. I never had the right to complain. To me, the finish was more than enough.
It was about two in the morning when we got home. The pageant ran for about seven hours. I was not yet sleepy though. Adrenaline rush, perhaps, the spur of the moment of winning overcame sleep. I hurriedly went to the dining room, where we had a meter-wide mirror plastered on the wall like an architectural ornament. I asked our house-helper to remove my false eyelashes because they were tightly glued on my real ones. The pageant face had to leave soon, for the next day, I thought. I took some wipes and removed the traces of make-up across my face.
I remembered reading a Facebook post cautioning people to stop saying that the most important thing in the world was inner beauty. The post argued that no one in the history of mankind had been walking around with x-ray machines for eye-wear. True, no one was, is, and will walk with one. But what would an x-ray machine see? What would an x-ray machine grasp? We were beyond physical. We were beyond blood and bones.
I continued to wipe traces of make-up around the corners of my eyes. In the mirror, I saw my thinly shaved eyebrows, the dark circles underneath my sight, my blemishes, my pale face.
Joanna Paula Magbanua Cagape earned her BA English major in Creative Writing degree, last June 21, 2019. She currently works at the Department of Education Schools Division Office of Davao City. She professes a deep passion for the Arts.