At the Araneta Coliseum on March 15, 2015, Pia Wurtzbach was crowned as Binibining Pilipinas Universe. Her supporters in the crowd were absolutely livid, roaring with glee as they held up letter signs that spelled out her name. Among the audience members present was Ian Mendajar, who couldn't have been more joyous to see his bet win the top crown of the night.
Ian remained a fervent pageant fan after Pia's win, tuning in to annual pageants and crossing his fingers for his favorite queens. Though, in more recent years, these bets of his actually have him to thank for the walks they present on stage. Think Hannah Arnold, Rabiya Mateo, Kisses Delavin, Maureen Wroblewitz, Bea Gomez, and more—all of these successful queens' pasarela walks were honed by the Samar native.
A certified mama (a.k.a. pageant coach) of beauty camp Aces & Queens, Ian has served as a stepping stone to the triumph of many of our beloved gown-clad candidates. He never thought his life would ever be what it is now, and going as far as to say it was "a Cinderella story" still undersells it a bit. In an exclusive interview with Preview, Ian shares how he strutted from stormy beginnings to the fulfilling career he has now: training girls for the stage and beyond.
How Ian Mendajar went from pageant fan to beauty queen runway coach
Shooting his shot
Ian, like many Filipinos, was enthralled by beauty pageants, and was a fan of Pia Wurtzbach in particular. "I saw this group of pageant fans ni Pia [on Facebook], tapos na-amaze [ako] sa thought [of] supporting beauty queens [like her]," he recalls. Newly relocated to Metro Manila with a job at the time, he used to gaze at the Araneta Coliseum, swearing he would one day get to watch his favorite queens do their thing in the flesh.
Persistent as ever, Ian actually sent a message to Pia herself, recounting his story of being a typhoon Yolanda survivor who just really wanted to watch her live. While the eventual Miss Universe 2015 wasn't the one who responded to him, her team loved his story and enthusiasm to support Queen P, so much so that they gave him free tickets to the Binibining Pilipinas Coronation Night that year.
He eventually met the beauty queen, and the two actually became close friends (they call each other "mars" now). After Pia brought home the Miss Universe crown, Ian designed a doll in her honor, which caught the attention of not just Filipinos, but even of the international pageant's organization.
It was a dream come true, but it was only the first tipped domino in a series of dreams that would come into fruition for Ian. "Because of that, na-introduce ako to people na close kay Pia, specifically to Bessie Besana, a fashion designer. Si Bessie, meron siyang friend, si Bing Cristobal, who was a stylist," Ian details. Bing apparently held pageants during his birthdays, and Ian participated in the one held that year.
Impressed by his runway walk, which he won an award for, an attendee approached him about joining more contests. "Sayang naman yung pasarela [skills] mo," Ian remembers that person saying. Since he wasn't keen on joining pageants himself, it was only then that the thought of teaching other girls how to walk first crossed his mind.
Fast forward to 2017 and Ian was confident that his stint as a pageant fanatic has seen its end—up until a friend had an interesting offer for him. "One day [I was contacted by my friend], tinawagan nya ako. [Sabi nya,] why not i-try natin sa isang girl who needs your help [yung training skills mo,]" he recalls their conversation.
The girl in question was Asia's Next Top Model Season 2 finalist Katarina Rodriguez. Ian's eyes bulged out at the name drop, but his friend explained that Katarina's modelling experience didn't necesarrily translate to effective ramp walking. After watching her performance in the preliminary round, Ian decided to take her under his wing. Eventually, Katarina was crowned as Binibining Pilipinas Intercontinental that year, and later on finished as a runner-up at Miss Intercontinental 2017.
"While training for Miss Intercontinental, maraming nakaalam, maraming girls nagre-reach out sa akin. Nag-reach out sa akin si Michele Gumabao, si Sandra Lemonon," he giddily shares to Preview.
As more and more girls started to tap Ian due to his budding reputation, Aces & Queens were eager to have him formally join the camp. It was an offer that Ian, as a bona fide pageant enthusiast, gladly accepted. Iconic queens such as Patch Magtanong and Rabiya Mateo were only some of the girls who've been under his tutelage since then.
From the ground up
With any girl he takes on, Ian makes sure that they are "international pageant ready." Utilizing the techniques he's honed as a ballet dancer, every step, turn, and facial expression his trainees make are polished as thoroughly as possible. "Parang muscle memory kasi ang pasarela. That's why it [needs] training kasi 'pag sinabi ni direk na, 'Okay, walk,' alam mo na yung gagawin mo," he says. Ian adds that, "if you really attend training and if you work on [your] routine, then kahit kakagising mo lang, alam mo na yung gagawin mo."
In Ian's book, being a successful beauty queen entails being dedicated to the training process. This is a common thread Ian's observed in the contestants who've went on to bag titles. He recalls his experience training girls for the Miss Universe 2020 pageant, sharing that, "yung girls talaga na very proactive, very dedicated, it was really Rabiya, Pauline Amelincx, Michelle Gumabao at tsaka si Billie Hakenson. Si Rabiya would send me videos [of her practicing] nung nagka-pandemic, minsan nasa streets, minsan kung saan naka-park yung kotse niya."
Along the years, Ian's developed a method on how to guide his queens. He detalls, "I will start sa paa [since] pasarela is really about footwork. Tataas kami nang konti [sa] knees naman, and then pupunta na kami sa hips, so kembot na yung next step. [Afterwhich is] shoulders, and then arms." "Paa papunta sa ulo hanggat magka-crown ka," Ian enthusiastically puts it.
The trainer shares that since the girls auditioned to be part of the Aces & Queens camp, they are actually trained for free, with each walk being personalized to each of them. "Walang girls sa amin na magkaparehong walk. There are alot of aspects talaga na kailangan mong i-consider," he states. He professes that he feels giddy when pageant fans name the walks of his trainees, since it goes to show how effective he was in helping them brand themselves.
Beyond the technicalities, a constant reminder he gives his girls is that "it's not really about being famous [on social media], it's more on being proactive and learning your oppurtunities and working on [them]." On his end of the deal, he ensures that the distinct beauty of each queen is highlighted. "I always make sure [that the girls' walks] will showcase yung main factor of pure performance, [which is their] face. Yung face yung [magpapakita] ng aura sa judges. Yun yung [magpapakita] na you are the beauty queen [they] are looking for."
Mama knows best
Being referred to as "mama" by a slew of beauty queens means much more to Ian than just being their trainer. "You also need to know them kasi if you understand them, they will feel that they are being valued, that you're not [just] after winning a crown. Siguro yun yong nakita ng girls, na I don't focus on winning," he tells Preview, "hindi rin maganda na i-BFF mo sila. You really need to become a 'mama' to them so that they will believe in you, they will respect you and that they will not forget you."
He reminisces about all the queens he's interacted with, sharing, "I'm also lucky that I'm destined to meet these very sweet girls. I always support the right queens, 'yan lagi sinasabi ko. Si Pia napakabait nyan, di yan nakakalimot even though she's really busy. And [ganoon din] yung [mga] girls ngayon, sina Hannah, Rabiya at Bea. Wala pa ata akong na-train na girl na nakalimot. "
This sentiment just goes to show how Ian treats his unexpected career as a labor of love. He considers it a gift that achieving his dream also helps young and promising women achieve theirs. Every time a queen he's taught struts down the stage, his heart flutters. Just six years ago, he was just a fan rooting for his favorite girls, and now, in a serendipitous turn of events, he helps a new crop of queens win titles.
To any dreamers out there, Ian has this to say: "May mga beking bagets diyan [na] natatakot mag-dream high because napre-pressure sila [ng] society. I was there. But I really had a dream and [it] redirected [me] to be here in Manila [as] a runway coach. Ganun dapat, walang [tigil] sa pag-reach ng dreams!" Hear, hear!