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Ready for the Universe

Philippine bet Maxine Medina feels empowered and deadsure of a back-to-back win for the country. But do others feel the same way?


By Alex Y. Vergara
Portrait by Noel B. Pabalate

A supposedly new and improved Maxine Medina faced the media last Tuesday during a sendoff party organized for her by Binibining Pilipinas Charities, Inc. (BPCI) at Novotel Hotel in Quezon City. Soon after getting hold of the microphone to field questions from reporters, the lovely Medina began lapsing into a number of key words like “empowered,” “back-to-back,” and “wala.”

For a Miss Universe Philippines whom observers initially said would have been the total package if only she could fully express herself, Medina today feels like an “empowered” woman who’s confident of scoring a “back-to-back” win following Pia Wurtzbach’s victory last year. Asked to name her closest rivals for the crown, the interior design graduate from De La Salle-College of St. Benilde broke into an impish smile before declaring to everyone in the room, “Wala, eh.”

Miss Universe Philippines Maxine Medina

Miss Universe Philippines Maxine Medina

None? Some people may dismiss it as wishful thinking. Others may see it as pure bluster. For this writer, however, it was a carefully rehearsed answer designed perhaps to keep Medina out of trouble and stop further questions on who her real rivals for the crown are. But rather than come up with such a lame answer, it would have been more believable and charming had she said “all of them.”

Medina said she wouldn’t need a Filipino interpreter should she be fortunate enough to land a spot in the finals because “we Filipinos are proud of our ability to speak in English fluently. I’m making sure that I’d be great on stage.”

Soon after winning the crown, Medina took personality development courses and one-on-one coaching with Dale Carnegie and her mentors at Aces and Queens. She also devoured books and read up on current events.

Asked how she’d be able to juggle the demands of being a gracious host to 86 other girls and at the same time a fierce competitor, the 5’8” looker “will be sharing our hospitality, our culture and our values, and, of course, I will share with them the best cuisine in the world, which is Filipino food. The boodle fight, I would like them to try, to eat with their hands. That’s very challenging.”

Yes, certain grammatical lapses—from wrong tenses to misuse and absent prepositions—were still evident as she spoke, but for a shy model whose friends and family say hardly opened up to strangers, Medina’s performance was light years away from what she was before winning the coveted Miss Universe Philippines crown some time last year. What she lacked in substance and the finer points of diction, she tried to make up for by turning on the charm.

In a way, she reminds us of a better, more polished version of Melanie Marquez whose malapropisms then and now are the stuff of legend. Like Marquez, Medina is far from being self-conscious. Wala lang. And that’s a good thing. Her confidence and seeming imperviousness while facing tough questions could serve her well in her empowered quest for a back-to-back win.

“What you see now is a total transformation,” said Medina’s equally gorgeous mother Marife Medina. “I can see it [in her] physically, emotionally, the way she acts, the way she talks. She was very shy and soft-spoken. Now she communicates more openly.”

“Recently, Maxine has appeared on TV and in print interviews where she has shown a measurable improvement in her communication skills,” said writer and etiquette guru Conchitina Sevilla-Bernardo, part of BPCI’s inner circle. “At this point, we believe that she’s ready and it’s important for her to simply enjoy every minute of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in Miss Universe in our homeland. Having a good time and acting naturally will bring out the best in her.”

With two weeks to go before the finals, there’s very little Medina and her handlers can do now. Pressuring her to do more, said Bernardo, might add unnecessary stress on Medina and that’s the last thing she needs.

“Maxine will surprise all the candidates with her natural charm. Her easy smile is just so warm and pleasant. She’s just like an old friend,” she added.

Stylist Monika Ravanera, who has known Maxine since she began modeling, also attests to her sincerity, easy, and soft-spoken ways. Having worked with her several times, Ravanera observes that “she’s sweet offstage yet can be fierce onstage.”

“The perfect balance of sweetness and fierceness will help her win for the country a Miss Universe back-to-back crown,” Ravanera said. “As a gracious host, we need her to stay sweet. But she also has to be fierce on the ramp when she does her part as Miss Philippines. Her communication skills have improved a lot. She’s now more confident during interviews. But she needs to practice more. There’s no room for complacency.”

Having also worked occasionally with Medina before, designer Noel Crisostomo agrees. After having seen her interview with Boy Abunda, Crisostomo noticed how Medina exuded confidence and class. She talked with conviction sprinkled with a bit                of wit.

“She has a great body and posture,” Crisostomo added. “Her gym routine obviously worked for her. In the beginning, I wasn’t happy with her transformation because I like her sweet and innocent charm soon after she won Binibini. But when I saw her lately, she looks like a winner. Now, I can confidently say we can have a back-to-back win. It will really depend on how she will shine that night. Her biggest competition is herself.”

“Honestly, her looks are perfect already,” said businessman and beauty contest aficionado Oni Razon. “The face, the body, the walk, and the over-all aura are beauty pageant-ready. Based on what I’ve seen on TV, my greatest fear for her is still the level of her confidence and wit in answering questions.  Since we’re hosting Miss Universe, I hope it helps her stand out.”

Director Jeffrey Jeturian, a close friend of beauty queen maker Jonas Gaffud, is confident that Medina “after her transformation into the new Maxine, is a shoo-in for the top five.”

“She’s queenly and elegant. She has regal bearing,” he said. “But her sweetness might come off as timid and lacking in confidence. But I believe that was offset by months of training with her mentors. She’s in fighting form these days.”

Writer River Rosal, managing director and editor at large of Profiles Asia, who witnessed Medina answer questions during her send-off party, doesn’t mind if a beauty queen resorts to “stock” answers, which Medina did. What Rosal wants to hear, which Medina seemed to lack was a sense of “ownership” to her answers.

After all, she added, Sushmita Sen’s “essence of a woman” answer in 1994, which beauty pageant fans of a certain age continue to quote to this day, was far from original. But because Sen said it with so much clarity and conviction through the careful use of words, she was able to come up with a fresh and heartfelt answer, which enabled her to win the crown.

“When Maxine was asked how she could be an ideal host and strong competitor at the same time, that would have been a great way to come up with a more in-depth answer. It might have invited more questions,” she said.

Medina’s answers, she added, were far from being cringe-inducing. But they were far from brilliant and nuanced either. She sometimes tended to cut her answers short or answer them in an off-tangent way that left little room for follow-up questions. It left Rosal and perhaps other journalists wanting to hear more.

As a writer, she’s also a stickler for proper grammar. “If you can’t speak English properly, then don’t,” she said. “That’s why I encourage people, including her [Maxine], to speak in a language they’re comfortable with. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

But since our beauty queens adhere to a tradition of speaking in English during beauty pageants, it could limit them from further articulating their thoughts because they might lack the facility to speak well or even spontaneously in a foreign tongue. That’s where the need for a Filipino interpreter comes in. But resorting to it is not a fail-safe guarantee, said Rosal. At the end of the day, it would still boil down to the essence, that word again, of your answer.

What if a candidate gets her wish to have an interpreter and still manages to come up with a lame or incoherent answer? “Then she no longer has any excuse for not answering the question properly,” she said.

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