Indonesian beauty pageant contestant Janicel Lubina (center)
Indonesian beauty pageant contestant Janicel Lubina (center)
Jofelle Tesorio and Ariel Carlos

PALAWAN — It's the middle of a grueling practice for young women competing in a local beauty pageant. They sashay back and forth in high heels to perfect their walk without tripping.

Their trainer, Thom Avila, explains the rigors of his beauty boot camp. "When the girls wake up, we start the day with jogging," he says. "After jogging, we have breakfast, followed by walking exercises. After that, we teach them how to put on makeup and that is followed by question and answer exercises."

Most of his students come from impoverished backgrounds. One of them is Janicel Lubina, 20, who represented the Philippines in the Miss International pageant in Japan last December. Janicel, the 2013 runner up in the Miss World-Philippines contest, was a finalist for last year's Miss Universe-Philippines title. The crown instead went to Pia Wurtzbach, who then became Miss Universe.

Janicel is often referred to as a Filipina Cinderella. "When I was in my third year of high school, my father had a stroke. I started farming and worked as a housemaid because my mother was also a housemaid," she says. "I'm proud of where I came from. I think I have inspired a lot of girls who also come from poor backgrounds."

The rising star was spotted when she was 16 by a local talent scout in a farming village in Palawan. Joining the beauty contest world, says Janciel, was her way of escaping poverty and helping her family. "It helps a lot," she says. "I have started to have a house built for my family. My priority also is to provide the family with education. I am sending my two brothers to school."

A national pastime

From small villages to the biggest cities, beauty pageants are huge across the Philippines, where people know the names of their beauty queens like Brazilians know their soccer heroes.

The love affair began in 1969, when 19-year-old Gloria Diaz became the country's first Miss Universe. Others followed — Margie Moran in 1973 and Pia Wurtzbach last year. The country has also won four Miss International pageants, one Miss World, two Miss Earth, and dozens of smaller international beauty contests.

Wurtzbach's success has brought the passion for pageants to an even more fevered pitch. During her homecoming in Manila, traffic was completely halted and life momentarily stopped.

Psychology professor Vincent Quevada explains why Filipinos are addicted to beauty contests, even when interest in the events is dwindling in other countries. "Filipinos are rooting for someone to epitomize their wants to become somebody, someday. Most likely it's because of poverty," he says. "Filipinos love to see Cinderella-like stories."

Careful grooming

People love the happy endings to those fairy tales, but aren't always aware of the difficult journeys Janicel Lubina and others take to get there. Janicel spent more than three years in beauty boot camp and fared poorly in several beauty contests before finally finding success.

Preparations are rigorous: six days a week, 12 hours a day — with makeup and catwalk training, and what they call "personality development." Some girls fainted during the first day of training, says Janicel. Others quit after a few days.

Here at this local beauty pageant for Miss Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, candidates are being introduced. One of them, Sheerah Dalisay, 23, looks up to Janicel. But unlike Janicel, Sheerah is from the middle class, a college graduate and an English teacher.

"Janicel Lubina is a very, very strong person because she endured all the negative comments thrown at her by the public because she's very poor," says Dalisay. "Most people doubted her qualities and capabilities. But Janicel is very strong. She faced it all."

Another candidate, Mia Bianca Dantes, 24, thinks she has a real chance at the crown. A registered nurse, Bianca is studying for her master's degree. "I really wanted to join to pursue my dreams, to boost my confidence and of course to empower, educate and inspire the new generations of today," she says.

Back at the boot camp, talent scout Thom Favila says he is grooming another candidate who could win him the Miss Universe title. The young woman is from a remote island and stands almost 6 feet tall. A long-shot perhaps. But after all, Filipinos like beautiful underdogs, Thom says.

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