By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City
When I suffered from excruciating back pain on the first week of the rehearsals, I said that was it for me, goodbye pageantry. This was due to wearing six inches stiletto for the first time in my life. The medical term for it was unusual exertion of effort, hence creating a back ache. I was scolded by my doctor for being stubborn and prescribed to me two of the most powerful painkillers and anti-inflammation medicines.
I sent a mass text message to the ladies: Lyne, Heide, Cherry, Grace, Belinda, and Annie, saying I’m quitting, I will miss you all. And guess what they all said? NO.
I exclaimed, Jesus Christ!
Cherry Marmes Smyth, now crowned Mrs. Philippines America 2013, said in our dialect in the text message: “Ayaw resign resign diha!” (This is lost in translation, but in essence it implies: don’t even think about it).
Lyne and Grace were one in saying, we will back you up if you needed to wear platform shoes, not stiletto. “It’s not worth it if you break your back for anything,” said Grace in closing.
So our relentless shopping for six inch shoes began in the thick of winter.
Flashback: a little over a year ago, Nena Kaufman, the indomitable chairperson and founder of the Philippine Hearts and Hopes Society (PHHOSO) invited me to join the beauty contest. She never stopped asking everytime we met! Finally, like the proverbial slow, persistent drops of water that could break the hardest of rocks, I gave in to her prodding. In the back of my mind, I asked myself this constantly: what am I getting into?
I became contestant no. 2 among the seven magnificent ladies – Belinda Aquino Cervas from Maryland, Lyne Simpson from New Jersey, Annie Copo, Grace Cornachiullo, and Heide Briffa, all from New York, and Cherry from Connecticut. I garnered the Best in Personal Interview Award.
The journey towards the contest proved to be challenging, exhilarating, and most of all, it created a wonderful friendship among all of us.
We did not only become ambassadors of goodwill and humanitarian causes, we all became good friends. To me, the friendship shared by seven lovely women, in a single place and time, and in the oddest of circumstances (a beauty contest where most women normally become bitches and claw each other in competition) was the best gift in my life in New York.
I must say that our search for comfortable high heeled shoes and gowns, up to the last week of rehearsals, has helped strengthen our bond.
We decided that the Mrs. Philippines Green Earth Ambassador is also the friendliest among us all. Our Miss Congeniality is warm, crazy and upbeat. Not a hint of a broken heart or bitterness, after surviving a failed marriage and receiving the reward of a divorce order just weeks before we pulled off stage for the contest.
Belinda served booze for us (which Grace brought in) during our lengthy make-up session at the backstage. In between quick rehearsals, magical hair styling and make up, fast meals, and self-practice for the dreaded talent portion, we sipped alcohol to embolden us and conquer our fear.
In reckoning, Bee said she earned her self-respect, after going through her harrowing divorce, during the entire process of the pageant. “After an abusive relationship, I earned respect for myself and found my self-worth through the pageant. New friends, networking and new dresses were the bonus part of it.”
Bee will focus her good will work with military service people.
“I’d like to promote and help the military services and their family here in USA and our home country Philippines. For me, the sacrifices of the men and women of armed forces are most of the time under seen and not recognized. I’d like to help out the forces by means of giving to their family support and help as much as they needed. Being able to send care kit packets to the military services that are deployed overseas, would be one of these efforts I have in mind.”
Currently working as administrative secretary in a school in Maryland, Bee was raised a city girl in Quezon City, but nonetheless loved the country life in her mother’s hometown in Pangasinan.
Lyne, the dusky, voluptuous beauty from Biliran drives from Princeton, New Jersey to the heart of the city for rehearsals. Six beautiful weeks into perfecting our dance and catwalk, Lyne was the ever supportive lady to all of us.
Bee aptly calls her ‘the boss’ because she naturally emerges as the initiator leader, managing discussions of meetings and things to do as a group. I think she is instinctively maternal. She would guide us what to do during rehearsals, like an impromptu director.
A mother to twin daughters Mary and Felisa, Lyne proudly flaunted her belly while we were shopping for gowns. My twins stretched my belly, she said laughing. One could care less about flabs looking at Lyne and her twin daughters, as we were seeing triplets of lovely women.
Miss Talent (Taekwondo and Ballroom Dancing rolled into one) and Second Runner Up thinks she is not a pageant material (she always smiles big at that!) but she earned beautiful friends from the pageant, which to her was the greatest gain from joining the contest.
Pressure motivated Lyne to join the contest. “I wanted to stop my friends from bugging me to join. They have been asking me to join for a long time.”
The larger reason was, of course, to be able to reach out to people some more. “I wanted to go back to my hometown to continue helping my old elementary school. In the past, I built a playground for the school children and a butterfly garden. I donated children’s encyclopedia and books and helped renovate a two-classroom building. I feel like I should do more.”
She has recently raised money to help in the surgery of children with cleft lips and palates.
Lyne, a certified substitute teacher, is likewise the consummate wife and mother. And add to her cap of this beauty titlist some feathers now, a silver and bronze out of 15 competitors in a Taekwondo Tournament a week after our beauty contest.
Seriously now, hilarious Heide Briffa joined the contest because she wanted to do something extraordinary in her lifetime. “This was in my bucket list,” she wrote to me while catching her flight to the Philippines in Atlanta.
Heide is a freelance entrepreneur who engages in events organizing and paralegal services in New York.
The day after she was crowned the first Mrs. American Pinoy and Mrs. Philippine Hearts and Hopes 2013, she flew to Las Vegas to pay a long overdue visit to her son, enroute to the Philippines for a home visit. The unstoppable Heide was bringing her crown and sash to begin fulfilling her ambassadorial work in our homeland.
“I would start in Bukidnon where I was born and raised. And not only that, I am also going to participate in events and activities that would benefit the Filipino community here in the U.S. I will use my title and popularity to spread awareness about violence against women within the Filipino community. I believe that this is one of the problems among Filipino women here that needs to be addressed. That’s it for now, darling. I will PM you again,” she said on Facebook private message.
As I write, I am sure Heide, the graceful toughie, is basking in the no-nonsense limelight.
Annie floats like an enchantress, especially in her evening gown. I wonder if she knows it, but we all see that. Pageant coach and director Erno Hormillosa says it all the time.
“I learned in this pageant, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose. Everybody has her own beauty and different lovely ways,” she said.
Annie, a sales representative for a giant telecommunications company, said she will focus her ambassadorial work on providing educational support to children in her home province.
She spoke highly of her colleagues turned friends: Heide, the straight-forward and real person, Grace, the sweetest girl, Belinda, the friendliest, Marivir, the intelligent and funny, Cherry, the entrepreneurial one, and Lyne, the ever charitable.
Annie has her huge share of personal problems. At one time, she said she was going to quit as well. Everyone said NO, again. So she stayed on.
This lovely lass from Quezon City isn’t the type who wears her heart out on her sleeve. Miss Charming awardee and Mrs. Philippines USA Heritage and Culture never fails to crack a joke, and whisper to me never to slouch.
Grace Eclipse Cornacchiulo
Behind the beautiful smile of Miss Photogenic and First Runner Up, Grace is a truly lovely person, inside and out.
Currently working as a Nurse Case Manager at the Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC advocating primarily for brain injured patients, Grace was born in the US to Filipino parents, hailing from the provinces of Tarlac and Rizal.
She joined the contest to reconnect with Filipina contemporaries and make new friends and to do and excel something out of her comfort zone.
Grace made the right decision.
“I gained an enormous amount of self-confidence by participating in the pageant. It took an event like this to step back and look at what I’ve accomplished in my life, personally and professionally, to write my profile and realize I’ve done more with my life than I thought. Winning 1st runner up was a wonderful lesson for my two children as well. Teaching them that the true gain of joining the pageant was making new friends and trying new things.”
She intends to work on a project in the Philippines with The Moncadanian Association of North America, Inc. with the goal of raising funds to build a school for the children in Moncada. In the US, she will continue fundraising for various medical research organizations, including the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
The pageant meant wonderful memories for Grace.
“My most memorable experience before the pageant was during the rehearsals when all of the lovely ladies were being ourselves, being silly and making each other laugh. There was no sense of competition, just fun and camaraderie.”
The talent portion was a favorite too, because she was dancing with her husband.
“During the pageant my favorite memory was dancing the hustle with my husband. By then, I was completely relaxed and having fun, dancing like no one was watching! What a sense of freedom, knowing that even if I made a mistake, it didn’t matter. Just getting out there was an accomplishment for me,” she beamed.
Cherry is the charming health buff and ever inspired entrepreneur for a natural health drink company. She is helpful and fun, just like all the other ladies.
Ravishing in her red mermaid-styled gown, she bagged the highest award that night, being crowned as Mrs. Philippines America 2013, and was also named Mrs. Philippines America Tourism and Best in Sexy Wear.
During the Question and Answer Portion of the contest, Cherry was asked: What was the one big mistake that you did in life that, if you can, you’d make it right?
She was unbending in her answer: “We all make mistakes, we are human beings. Nobody in this world is perfect. If I could go back in time to fix those mistakes I made, I would not, because I learned great lessons from those mistakes and they made me the better person I am today – a good loving wife, a good friend and a good daughter.”
Cherry has decided to make the Philippine Red Cross as her beneficiary charity and will join the 8th Ambassadors, Consul Generals and Tourism Directors Tour of the Philippines on July 9-15 this year.
The girl from Tubod, Lanao del Norte, whose entourage always included her beloved husband Pete and father Douglas, was grateful for being adjudged as the winner that night, but feels very much that we all won anyway.
The PHHOSO Tradition
The 2013 batch of the pageant coincided with the 10th year of existence of the PHHOSO in the eastern seaboard. This fundraiser organization meant to provide humanitarian help to select provinces or groups in the Philippines through the ambassadorship of the beauty title holders. It prides itself with the distinction of being a beauty and brain contest among married women while instituting their ambassador of goodwill status.
The organizers thought that this batch is so far the most awesome, always supporting each other and laughing all the time. Make-up artist Joel Adrianov and hairstylist Oscar Duenas, who did a fabulous job on our faces and hairs, could not help but comment how gracious and easy we ladies have been.
As for this writer, I shall look back to March 16, 2013 at the Astoria World Manor as the day when I walked and danced on a pair of six-inch platform shoes, wobbled but didn’t fall while wearing my ruffled cream evening gown, and had tremendous fun with my lovely friends. I know someday I can brag about this to my grandchildren. (Photos by Joy Chavez Abraham and Greta Libiano de Guzman)