Pia Wurtzbach: The making of a beauty queen

Apr 29, 2019
At 14, becoming a beauty queen was the farthest thing from Pia Wurtzbach's mind. She had to earn for the family.
PHOTO/S: Roy Macam for YES! magazine

Who is Pia Wurtzbach?

Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach was born in Stuttgart, Germany, to a German father named Klau Uwe Wurtzbach and a Filipino mother named Cheryl Alonzo, who is now a retired nurse based in London.

Pia can vaguely recall her early years in Germany. “I was very young that time,” she had earlier told YES!, in a phone interview in December 2015. “I don’t remember much about Germany. I have an idea, like where I went to school, but I was very young at the time.”

When Pia was around four or five years old, her family—including her sister Sarah, who is three years younger than Pia—moved to Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao to start a new life there. Why CDO, in particular? “Because my grandparents live in Iligan City. So the closest city after that is Cagayan.”

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Pia remembers her growing-up years in CDO with fondness. “I still remember our house there,” she recalls. “I think the best memories were spent in school, probably with my classmates and being with my dad. I was very close with my dad. I’m a daddy’s girl kasi.”

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The doting father spoiled his daughter with her favorite doll: Barbie.

“Every time that he would go to the mall, he would always surprise me by buying me a Barbie or something. He knew that I love Barbie very much. That’s why I had a huge collection. I had maybe around twenty dolls. I even had a house and a car for the Barbie dolls as well. The whole collection! He really spoiled me with that. So, I would always remember that my bedroom was like a Barbie display.”

Those dolls, Pia says, took up too much space in her bedroom. “I wouldn’t even sleep there because there were so many toys. I slept in the master bedroom with my parents.”

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Early on, Pia displayed a knack for drawing. The young girl, in fact, made a small profit from her drawings. “I remember I was so good at drawing that I would copy the Powerpuff Girls. I copied so well that my classmates wanted to buy my drawings from me. So, what I did was, I would sell to them for, like, one peso each, so I could have more money for baon, something like that.”

Pia’s life took an unexpected turn when her parents separated when she was 11. At the time, her mother was unemployed.

Fortunately, Pia had already been discovered, at age four, by a modeling agency that had been scouting around for talent. Her stint with the agency gave her opportunities to earn income for her family.

It was during her modeling stint that she moved, together with her mother and sister, from Cagayan de Oro to Manila. And it was in Manila that she would be launched, in 2002, as part of Star Circle Batch 11, that year’s crop of new discoveries of Star Magic, ABS-CBN’s talent management arm.

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EARNING FOR THE FAMILY

Under the wing of the country’s biggest TV network, the teenage Pia, who assumed the screen name “Pia Romero,” appeared in such TV shows as ASAP, It Might Be You (2003), Bora (2004), and Sa Piling Mo (2006), and in a number of Maalaala Mo Kaya episodes.

Aside from the fact that it paid the rent, put food on the dinner table, and kept Pia and her little sister in school, Pia’s job as an artista was a fun experience. “I would go to school on weekdays, and then, on weekends, I had tapings. I thought that even if it was our form of income, it was a pretty cool job to have at that age. I was never forced into it. I thought that, for my age, it was a cool job.”

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When Pia graduated from high school through the ABS-CBN Distance Learning School in Quezon City, her mother remarried and moved to London. Pia tried to live in England with her mom and sister for a few years, but eventually decided to give Manila one more try.

Since she has a natural passion for cooking, Pia then took up culinary arts at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies in San Juan, Metro Manila. While her new endeavor gave her new directions, she longed to fulfill one long-overdue dream: being a beauty queen.

“Even before I entered showbiz, I was always thinking about it,” she says. “But I was never able to do it because, if I had to train for pageants, I would have to give up my acting career. And I couldn’t do that because that was our source of income.”

Pia’s life changed forever in 2012, when she met famed beauty-queen maker Jonas Antonio Gaffud, one of the driving forces behind the now 16-year-old Aces & Queens (A&Q), a training camp for aspiring beauty queens.

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Jonas, fondly called Mama J by friends, colleagues, and talents, also happens to be the heart and soul of Mercator Model Management Inc., the talent agency that handles the careers of Benjamin Alves, Daniel Matsunaga, Ian Batherson, and former beauty queens Venus Raj, Shamcey Supsup Lee, Megan Young, Janine Tugonon, and Ariella Arida.

“Iba talaga ang appeal ni Pia,” Jonas tells YES! during a press conference. “She’s a chameleon. Kahit itabi mo siya sa ibang lahi, nag-iiba ang itsura niya. Puwede siyang maging Latina-looking, pero puwede namang maging Asian-looking din.”

In his interview with YES!, fashion designer Bessie Besana (aka Mark Bessie Besana), who is in charge of the wardrobe and styling of A&Q, recalls the three chance encounters between Pia and Jonas, during which Jonas noted that Pia was beauty-contest material.

“One was in a party,” Bessie says. “And then the second one was at the Star Magic Ball, because Pia used to be a Star Magic talent. And then the third time was in a mall. Those first two attempts, first two incidents, sinabihan na siya ni Mama J na parang ‘Alam mo, puwede ka.’ Pero si Pia, parang she never really felt it. Parang iniisip niya, ‘Totoo ba ’to na pupuwede talaga akong sumali?’ Pero she always had the intention of joining Binibini.”

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Jonas himself says that on the third meeting, which took place sometime in 2012 in Makati, he went with his instinct and made an unusual request to Pia: “Sabi ko, ‘Halika nga dito, umupo tayo at mag-usap tayo kung gusto mo ba talagang sumali. ’Tapos, pinagsuot ko siya ng heels! Kasi, tamang-tama ’yong kasama ko no’n, nakasuot ng tiil. Pinasuot ko sa kanya, ’tapos pinaglakad ko siya sa Greenbelt!”

(For those who may not be familiar with the term, tiil actually means “feet” in Bisaya, but is also gayspeak for high heels.)

Bessie tells YES! that the third encounter came at a really opportune time: “Saktong-sakto, kasi I think a couple of weeks after that meeting, we had our screening. Meet-and-greet ng mga possible girls na ite-train, kumbaga. So Pia went to that meet-and-greet, and she got in.”

Gerry Diaz, one of the senior advisers of A&Q, vividly remembers the reasons why Pia was a shoo-in at their screening.

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“Maganda talaga si Pia,” Gerry explains. “She has what it takes. Actually, all of us saw that in her. She topped our screening no’ng year na ’yon. Lahat kami, parang ‘Check ’yan!’ Kasi isa sa mga major consideration is the beauty of face, e.

“Kaya minsan, may mga candidates kami—‘Uy, ang galing niyang magsalita. Ang galing niya, matalino.’ Pero sasabihin nina Mama J, ‘No, Gerry, it’s still beauty of face.’ ’Yon kasi first and foremost, it’s the beauty of face. Kaya, di ba sa Miss Universe, after the final question, may final look pa? Talagang naka-close-up, gano’n? Pia has that. Bihira ’yong gano’n.”

Bessie echoes these sentiments. “Personally I think Pia is universally beautiful. Kasi I got the chance to be with Pia in different locations. Pag kunwari nasa abroad kami, napapansin pa rin siya ng mga foreigners. So, hindi lang siya maganda sa Pilipinas. Feeling ko, maganda rin siya sa ibang lahi. Di ba, she’s half-German? Universal ang appeal niya talaga. May aura din siya ng celebrity.”

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Arnold Mercado, another “pillar” of A&Q, who is known in beauty-pageant circles as Mama Ruffa, tells YES! that Pia not only looks good on camera, she is also relaxed when she is in front of it: “Meron kasing girls na ang beauty, pang-beauty-pageant lang talaga, hindi puwedeng artista. Merong gano’n, e. Pero si Pia, puwede kahit saan. Puwedeng commercial model, cover girl, puwedeng host, artista, beauty queen. Ang lamang kasi ni Pia, puwede siya sa lahat ng titles [ng Binibining Pilipinas]. Kasi, di ba, may mga girls na ang peg e Universe, ’yong iba International. Si Pia, puwede sa lahat.”

SHARP AS A RAZOR

It is not just looks and charisma that Pia has in spades. Her intelligence and her ability to think on her feet put her head and shoulders above the rest of the beauty contestants.

Lawyer Nad Bronce, who is in charge of training the girls of A&Q in the question-and-answer department, was witness to Pia’s cleverness and eagerness to learn.

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“The first time I spoke to her, alam ko na na smart siya,” Nad recalls. “Kayang-kaya niyang i-express ang mga thoughts niya. Kahit ano’ng ibato mo sa kanya, masasagot. ’Tapos, ang ginagawa pa niya, halimbawa may tinatanong akong girl, magtataas siya ng kamay, kahit hindi naman niya turn.

“Sabi niya, ‘Can I give an alternative answer?’ Kasi gusto niya ma-judge namin at ma-assess kaagad kung tama ba ’yong sagot niya sa tanong. At kahit alam naman niya, gusto pa rin niya makarinig ng feedback.

“At take note, ginawa niya ito ng tatlong taon. Kahit hindi na niya kailangan, bumabalik siya dahil gusto niya matuto pa at makarinig din ng mga sagot ng ibang girls. At may notebook ’yan, ha, ng mga questions and answers, tatlong notebooks na dinala niya hanggang Miss Universe.”

Pia’s focus on achieving her goals was nothing short of laser-like. From the very start of her beauty pageant training, she wanted nothing but one title—Miss Universe Philippines. Why? Because it was the only title that would give her a chance to compete in the Miss Universe pageant.

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Pia herself confirmed this bit of info to YES! in a phone interview in December 2015, several days after winning the Miss Universe 2015 crown. “Yes, I’ve always said this before, it was Miss Universe or nothing. That’s what I told them [the Binibining Pilipinas pageant organizers]. If they’d ask me, ‘What crown do you wanna have?’, I’d always say, ‘Miss Universe.’”

In that same phone interview, Pia explained why she didn’t want any crown other than the Miss Universe: “Because that’s the first pageant I’ve ever watched. And it’s the most prestigious. It’s the one that everybody talks about. It’s the one crown that we can’t get. It’s the one that’s big everywhere in the world. It’s the crown of all crowns. Why not? Why not reach for that one?”

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Pia’s steely determination became stronger when, after two successive failed attempts in 2013 and in 2014, she finally won the Miss Universe Philippines crown in 2015. At the time, Pia was extra determined to make her body pageant-ready, especially after she was heavily ridiculed on social media for looking pudgy on TV.

“Admittedly, medyo may laman pa siya no’n, e,” Mama Ruffa recalls. “Ang daming bashing na natanggap niya, as if naman kinabukasan na ang Miss Universe! Talagang pinaghirapan naman niya ’yon. Nag-workout and nag-diet siya to death!”

For more than eight months, Pia went to the gym every day to train with her fitness coach, John Cuay, who also works with Aces & Queens.

“Araw-araw ’yon,” Mama Ruffa recalls. “Nagpupunta siya sa Gold’s Gym. E, may oras lang ’yon. Kaya no’ng naging busy na siya no’ng culmination ng training niya, nag-enroll siya sa isa pang gym na tipong 24 hours open.”

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Pia wasn’t doing it to prove her bashers wrong. She was doing it for herself. “She’s actually hard on herself,” Mama Ruffa says of his ward. “Kita mo, bago siya umalis, perfect na para sa amin ’yong fitness niya, ’yong katawan niya. Pero lagi niyang sinasabi, ‘May nararamdaman pa ako, parang may taba pa ’ko.’ Gano’n siya. Kita mo naman, fit na fit na siya.”

Pia lost 40 pounds. Bessie Besana doesn’t remember Pia’s exact weight then, but he can safely say that Pia’s waist “trimmed a lot.” He explains: “When Pia started Binibini, I think she was 27. Her waist is now 24. Nag-gain pa siya ng weight sa lagay na ’yon, ha. Pero that’s something that you can maintain. May mga dumbbells siya sa bahay, para kung wala talaga siyang time, meron pa rin siyang magagawang exercises. Masipag talaga siya.”

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All throughout her training years, Pia trusted no one but her “mamas” in Aces & Queens. Her relationship with her mentors—who proudly say that they don’t profit from training and sending girls to beauty pageants—eventually extended beyond the walls of the training camp.

“She’s been loyal to Aces & Queens,” Mama Ruffa shares, beaming with pride.

Gerry chimes in: “In one of Pia’s interviews, tinanong siya kung sino gusto niya pasalamatan. Sabi niya, ‘Aces & Queens.’ Naiiyak-iyak pa siya no’n. And I like what she said. Sabi niya, ‘Sa kanila na ako lumaki, kasi inalagaan nila ako ng tatlong taon. Since wala akong pamilya dito, sila na ’yong pamilya ko.’ So nakita ko ’yong attachment niya sa amin, ’yong gratitude niya to Aces & Queens.”

Nad Bronce gets emotional when he talks about Pia’s gratitude to them. “Meron siyang binanggit sa Instagram niya dati. Sabi niya, she found her confidence when we found her potential. Napakaganda no’n.”

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It’s Pia’s respect and trust for her mentors that endeared her to her “mamas.”

Mama Ruffa says: “’Yong relationship na na-build namin through the years, iba, e. ’Yong ibang girls kasi, pagkatapos ng pageant, mawawala na. Pero si Pia, even after the beauty pageant, nakakasama namin siya. It’s a very big factor if you trust your trainer.”

Nad chimes in: “Puwede namin siyang mayayang mag-movie. At saka, dahil sobra ang trust ni Pia sa kanila, pag gayong may sasabihin sila, masama man or maganda, naniniwala siya.”

LIFE IN THE BIG APPLE

Before she left in November 2015 to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, Pia made a promise (or revealed her premonition?) to her “mamas.”

Bessie still remembers that moment clearly in his head. “Pia told us, ‘I’m going to live in the Miss Universe apartment.”

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As we all know, Pia fulfilled that promise one month later.

Since December 2015, Pia has been living in the stylish New York apartment where YES! meets up with her for an interview and a photo shoot. She will be living in New York until her reign as Miss Universe is over and until she crowns her successor.

“I love the city!” Pia says during the house shoot for YES! “There’s always something to do. I feel like one year won’t be enough, and this is what Lea Salonga actually told me: ‘I don’t think one year is going to be enough for you to experience or explore the whole city, because there really is so much going on and a lot of things happening. There’s so much to do and so much to see.’”

However, it was not the fast-paced way of life in New York that Pia had difficulty adjusting to. It was the weather. The dusky beauty queen arrived in winter, when the temperature in the city dipped way below the freezing point.

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“To me, it really was the weather,” she says. “But now it’s getting warmer, so that means I have the chance to explore the city more and walk around. That’s the whole point. You can’t really enjoy the place if you don’t walk around and feel the city yourself, right?

“Ako pa naman, I always put my phone down. People would always tell me, ‘Take lots of photos so that you’d have lots of memories as Miss Universe.’ Ako kasi, I don’t like doing that, walking around with my phone up, taking pictures. I’d like to see it with my own eyes, not through my camera.”

Since moving to the Big Apple, Pia’s life has been a dizzying blur of activity. On her “official” first day as Miss Universe, she did more than eight interviews on TV and radio stations in New York City alone. Beauty-pageant fanatics note that none of the previous winners had ever done that on their first day as Miss Universe.

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On the third week of January 2016, Pia flew to Indonesia to shoot a TV commercial for a vitamin C brand. Two days later, she jetted off to Manila for her week-long homecoming, which included courtesy calls on Malacañang Palace, the House of Representatives, and the Senate.

On the first day of February, she flew to San Francisco to do her stint as an Inside Edition special correspondent at the Super Bowl 50 football game. In mid-February, she walked the runway for designers Carmen Marc Valvo and Sherri Hill at the New York Fashion Week.

A few days after Valentine’s Day, Pia partied with the volunteers of Project Sunshine at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. Project Sunshine is a nonprofit organization that provides free educational and social programs to kids with medical needs.

At the end of February, she went to Toronto, Canada, where she spoke against bullying at the Speakers Forum for the International Students of the Language Academy of Canada.

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Last April 12, she went back to the Philippines to relinquish her Miss Universe Philippines title and to crown her successor, Maxine Medina.

On April 21, Pia went to Peru—her first visit to a Latin American country—to judge the Miss Peru pageant. While she was in Peru, Pia was recognized as “A Distinguished Guest of Lima” by Lima City Mayor Luis Castañeda.

Pia has been leveraging on her celebrity to bring awareness to Miss Universe’s partner charitable institutions and her personal advocacies, specifically cyberbullying and HIV/AIDS awareness.

One look at the Facebook page of the Miss Universe Organization—whose followers, by the way, jumped from several hundred thousands to more than five million after Pia took over—and you’d know that Pia has also been actively promoting Philippine tourism as well.

“Being a Miss Universe is a very busy job,” Pia tells YES! in her New York apartment. “It’s a 24/7 job. I don’t think a lot of people really know this. They think I just lounge around at home and be glamorous. But there’s a lot of work put into it.”

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Yes, there is the glamorous side, but there is also another side to Miss Universe that not many people realize.

“There’s this glamorous side when we do photo shoots and events, but there is also a balance between the celebrity side and the philanthropic side to it. Like, for tomorrow, I have another charity event. In the next coming days, I have training for HIV/AIDS awareness.”

What kind of training is this?

Pia replies: “Well, just educating myself with the statistics around the world and in the Philippines, because by default, we work with organizations. So even if my advocacy was not HIV/AIDS awareness, I’d still be working with them because they’re tied with the Miss Universe. There’s still a lot to do, because I have to go to each one of these groups. I don’t do just courtesy calls. I walk in, shake hands, do photo ops. We actually sit down and listen to the talks, and sometimes I even get to interact with people living with HIV or AIDS.”

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As for her fight against cyberbullying, Pia deals with it in the best arena: social media. She believes that since cyberbullying begins on social media, it must also end there. “The thing about cyberbullying is that people don’t take it seriously,” Pia laments. “They take it seriously only when it starts happening to them.”

Being a victim of cyberbullying herself, Pia knows how hurtful and insensitive people’s comments can get. Who can ever forget the backlash that Pia got after she posted that now-famous tweet—“Kalma lang guys. Ako bahala. Babawi tayo sa Miss Universe!!”—as her reaction to Manny Pacquiao’s defeat at the hands of American boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr.? Pia meant it as a joke, but netizens took it as a sign of arrogance.

“Most of the bullying happens online because almost everyone is online these days,” Pia says. “But not everyone is strong and mature enough to deal with negativity.”

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Pia has nothing to worry about, because, as she puts it, she is now “bulletproof, with nothing to hide and nothing to be guilty of.” But her heart goes out to the young people who feel helpless and hopeless when they’re bashed by cyberbullies.

“To some extent, you can’t really control what is going to be said or written or posted against you. But you can control how you react to it. That’s why I would tell people that when you’re being threatened or when someone crosses the line, that’s when you start consulting other people, like an authority figure, or your parents or guardians. It’s how you handle it.”

Pia is happy that the good feedback about her now outweighs the bad. She knows that people are beginning to see her as she really is: someone who just wants to make a difference.

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“Mas marami namang positive na. A lot of people now understand what the job entails and what Miss Universe is all about and what I’ve been doing. Naging masunurin naman ako. I think everything has been going smoothly. When it comes to the kind of work that we do, okey na naman, pati how the public perceives me and the pageant.”

Making sure she does a good job as Miss Universe is Pia’s daily concern and challenge. She doesn’t want to let Filipinos down.

“I’ve gone through the other challenges before and that’s over and done with. I’m thinking about what’s happening now, what’s gonna happen in the next few months, and making the most of the time that I have left as Miss Universe. To me, that’s the latest challenge, and it’s not a bad thing because I always like a good challenge.”

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But when does Pia get out of her Miss Universe persona? When is she not Miss Universe?

“I am not Miss Universe when I’m with my really close friends in Manila or when I’m with my family,” Pia answers, breaking into a laugh. “When I’m with them, I’m just Pia. Pia their best friend, Pia their classmate, Pia their daughter, Pia their sister. That’s when I’m not Miss Universe.”

In the company of her loved ones, when there are no members of media watching her every move, Pia is transparent, candid, and, more often than not, goofy.

“I don’t put up a front. I don’t act a certain way because that’s exhausting. Even when I’m in the office, people know me as really goofy and funny. Actually, there’s no Miss Universe persona. I’m Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach and I just happen to be Miss Universe. That’s it.”

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Even if she has a schedule packed with interviews, shoots, trips, and appearances, Pia is not worried that she might be spreading herself too thin.

“I wouldn’t say I don’t have time for myself,” she says. “Although this is much busier than Binibini, I’ve gotten used to it. I know when to squeeze in me-time.”

If she does get a rest day, Pia spends it at home, which for the moment is the New York apartment that she shares with Miss USA. She either catches up on sleep or video-calls her friends in the Philippines or her family in London.

“I talk to my family back home,” she says, smiling. “I Skype with them or FaceTime, or I catch up with people at home. That’s a good stress reliever, especially when I to talk to friends and make jokes in Tagalog.”

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Pia also uses the downtime to recharge and reflect.

“I use the time to stay in my room and just absorb everything that just happened, because everything is happening so fast you need to sit down and take some time to reflect.”

Writing has become a creative outlet for her.

“I’m obsessed with notebooks, and I love writing stuff down. I love making lists of things that I wanna do. I have a to-do list of the things that I want to achieve short-term, or long-term. Sometimes I list down the places I want to visit. I cherish those little moments.”

Published in PEP.ph April 2019
Adapted for PEP.ph by Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon

Originally published in YES! June 2016
Text & Interview: Gabby Reyes Libarios
Editor in Chief: Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon
Executive Editor: Jose F. Lacaba

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At 14, becoming a beauty queen was the farthest thing from Pia Wurtzbach's mind. She had to earn for the family.
PHOTO/S: Roy Macam for YES! magazine
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