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For Catriona Gray, Even the Sky Is Not the Limit

by Sofia de Aros | Mar 7, 2023

Now that she's spreading her wings beyond pageantry, Catriona talks about being an ambassador of Filipino culture, solidifying her career as a musician, and always being authentic to herself.

“For the entirety of my Miss Universe reign, I was looking forward to how I could utilize my platform as a creative. The thing is, when you’re a reigning Miss Universe, you don’t necessarily hold the reins of what you’re doing.

“You're an employee, at the end of the day. The competition is a job interview [for] the job of Miss Universe," Catriona Gray tells Preview.

She “got the job” in 2018. Her fabulous, fiery performance was an unforgettable fourth win for the Philippines—her megawatt smile and famed slow-mo twirl already geared her towards pageant stardom, but she went for the jugular anyway with her mesmerizing lava-inspired gown and iconic sun-shaped earpiece. Plus, the fact that she joined and won as an independent candidate—she formed her own team and didn’t register under an institutionalized beauty camp—proves the mettle of her instincts.

Catriona Gray for March 2023

Comments like "You're not sexy enough. You're not morena enough. You're not Filipina enough" may have aimed to set her off-course, but turbulence never bothered her anyway. “It cemented in me that I trusted my vision. I trusted my gut.” 

Five years later, Catriona is as sharp as ever, equipped with a definition of beauty she formed for and by herself.

Getting Off the Ground

After a year-long reign, Catriona officially passed the Miss Universe crown to South Africa’s Zozibini Tunzi on December 9, 2019. That was three months before the pandemic sent most of the world into crisis, inevitably throwing off her post-pageant game plan.

“I was really looking forward to the year 2020, to be able to explore, be creative, and pursue what I wasn’t able to do or materialize as Miss Universe. The challenge that presented itself was trying to pivot and not be disheartened with everything that was going on. I’ve always wanted to use my platform for others, but during the pandemic I was like, 'What can I do?'”


ON CATRIONA: Double Breasted Tuxedo Coat with Ribbon Detail, CHRIS NICK; Re-Nylon Shorts, PRADA; Green Serpenti Forever Top Handle, BULGARI

It didn’t stop her for long, though. With the help of partner organizations, she participated in feeding programs that served over 10,000 families. She teamed up with Bayanihan Musikahan for the Mask4AllPH initiative, which raised P1.15 million for 71 seamstresses. They then produced over 19,000 masks out of recycled materials, which were distributed for free among vulnerable sectors.

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Catriona also served as an ambassador for the Philippine Red Cross and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, a government agency that safeguards and uplifts Philippine heritage.

“To be a cultural ambassador, a non-negotiable is that you have to be willing to learn. I’ll never be an expert on our culture, no matter how long I’m an ambassador for. I could be doing it for 15, 20 years or whatever, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new to learn—you’re presenting it to people to admire, celebrate, and learn about further. If you’re not a student yourself, it’s hard to spark joy and interest in others.”


Born in Australia to a Bicolana mother and a Scottish father, Catriona first learned Tagalog when she moved back to the Philippines as a teenager. “I didn’t speak a word of the language. I didn't really have an in-depth perspective of what the Philippines is like, and what being a Filipina meant to me.”


Catriona is one of many beauty queens of mixed race, a circumstance that spurs complex conversation on who gets to represent the Philippines and who doesn't. But in view of the numerous ethnolinguistic groups in the nation and the massive diaspora that amounts to an estimated 10% of the population, contemporary Filipino-ness defies strict categorization, and is as archipelagic and unique as its islands.


ON CATRIONA: Polka Dots Long Dress Black/White with Red Ribbon, CAROLINA HERRERA; Straw Hat, MICH DULCE; Gold Serpentine Pouch, BULGARI

After over a decade in the country, Catriona has broadened her understanding of being Filipino, recognizing the diversity and multiculturality that defines it at the core. “My journey to learn more about my country allowed me to learn more about my cultural heritage, and to learn more about myself. And the more I fell in love with our country, the more I fell in love with myself, in a way—in embracing my identity," she waxes.


“I’ve always seen [Miss Universe] as an opportunity to allow people to learn more about my country. I’ve never really seen it as a show. Because if I saw it just as a show, I wouldn’t have joined,” she says.

“I wanted to see it as a platform to really be a spokesperson. I've always seen every public appearance or every part of the competition to continue to represent my country in a proud way.”


Stepping Out of the Wings

Catriona has long been a champion for children’s rights and education. In 2016, she volunteered as a teacher for Young Focus PH, a non-government organization operating in Tondo, Manila—her experiences with the group serving as the basis for her much-discussed winning answer to the Miss Universe Q&A round. When asked whether she thought there were advocacies yet underrepresented in the pageant scene—”Oh, a lot”—she brought the conversation to the question of authenticity. 

“Yes, there’s something to be said about not publicizing all the charity and advocacy work that you do. You don't need to show every single thing that you do, or every peso that you give or that you fundraise to prove that you're doing something. Sometimes, you do it quietly and silently.


ON CATRIONA: Embroidered Poplin Shirt, PRADA; Re-Nylon Blouson Jacket, PRADA; Full Re-Nylon Skirt with Pouch; PRADA; Blue Patent Leather Boots, FENDI; Serpenti Forever Crossbody Bag, BULGARI

“I feel like there's a tokenism in advocacy, that a girl will only pick it up for the pageantry. And as soon as the competition is done, you don't hear a peep anymore about the cause that they were so passionate about. And I think that's sad, because the platform doesn't disappear when you exit the competition.” 

For Catriona, it’s not about pushing certain agendas in pageantry, or giving specific causes a bigger spotlight. “It’s more of how we can be more authentic in being advocates, because advocacy is not just for beauty queens—it's for everyone,” she says. 


“I know that there's a big perception that being a beauty queen is just like being a model. You just walk from point A to point B and smile," Catriona says. "But there's so much more than that, people just need to lean in further to actually see what goes into it. It definitely takes grit to be up there."


And, of course, there's body-shaming, which could come in different forms from a number of places: pageant trainers suggesting diets or treatments, photographers proposing certain poses or angles to make the body look a certain way, or the usual brash bullies on social media. Since joining the pageant world, Catriona said she had been called fat in so many languages.

“I was 24 when I competed. I just turned 29 now, so of course my body is changing.The way that I live my life is changing. But yet people still hold me to that same expectation that I'm supposed to look competition-ready. Maybe even 10 years from now, they're still going to make comments about my body and compare me to who I was when I was a young woman.”


“There's something so courageous about coming up on that stage. Because, again, you're choosing to put yourself at the scrutiny of literal judges. Especially because it’s not just the people who are present at the show [who will be watching]—it's thousands of people from around the world, and the Internet immortalizes everything.” 


ON CATRIONA: Taffeta Long Dress White/Black Dress, CAROLINA HERRERA; Virgule Strass Buckle Slingback Pumps in Red Satin, ROGER VIVIER; Black Serpenti Reverse Top Handle, BULGARI

Despite the known terrors of being under the spotlight, Catriona acknowledged the privilege that her win brought, and how it “opened many doors” that would have otherwise never been made available to her.  

“I feel like I had my work ethic before I entered pageantry. If anything pageantry tested it. When you get into that position of being a Miss Universe, or being flung into the limelight, people treat you really well. You're a public figure.” 


She recalled her modeling days in her late teens and early twenties, and her breakthrough foray into pageants, namely her placement in the Top 5 of the 2016 Miss World competition. “I guess if I never experienced the hardships of the long casting lines, of not being employed, or of not knowing where my next paycheck was coming from, I probably would not be as grounded as I am today.


“There's even work that I continue to do now that I don't get paid a cent for—like my roles as an ambassador. But that's because the purpose of the work is there for me. It’s not necessarily [for] monetary value, but I give myself and my voice and my platform and everything that is me to that. It becomes really fulfilling.”

Greater Heights

Despite the shifting seasons, Catriona always manages to maintain her signature spirit of carefree, grounded charisma. During our cover shoot, she pulled off stark blonde hair with stunning ease. And just like the Philippine flag-inspired ear cuff that elevated her coronation look to icon status, the Bvlgari jewelry added a touch of glamour to each layout. Whether it be with the help of a ‘60s-inspired polka dot maxi dress, razor-edged black pumps, or a luxe Serpenti Forever bracelet from the Italian house, Catriona’s style is just an outward expression of her authentic and effortless beauty. 


ON CATRIONA: Orange Jacket, CAROLINA HERRERA; Light Gold Serpenti Forever Crossbody Mini Bag, BULGARI; Blue Belt Dress, PRADA; Red Floral Silk Scarf, CAROLINA HERRERA

That said, if she never won Miss Universe, Catriona says she would be doing the same things—advocacy work, music, cultural ambassadorships—albeit on a smaller scale. All in all, the beauty queen role is pretty much aligned with her interfield interests, which makes it no surprise that she remains active in the scene today. 


Her latest appearance on a pageant stage was when she was a backstage co-host for Miss Universe last January 2023, which she says was a "dream come true." Catriona says that “it’s a space that I’ve always wanted to be able to explore, so being given that opportunity and to still have a working relationship with the Miss Universe organization going on five years was really great.” 


She also highlighted the gig’s dependence on personality and quick-wittedness: as a commentator, she was given the opportunity to put her charm on full view and speak her mind, liberated from a tight script. 

“I'd been there as a contestant, and I’ve been there as a reigning [queen]. But to be there as a host, I got to see and appreciate the work that goes into mounting such a huge competition, and how hard people work behind the scenes that usually isn't seen as well. 

I've always wanted to show how much work goes into being up on that stage, and to really document and share that with everyone through film and storytelling. So, I mean, I hope that I can continue to do that in other spaces, such as writing and music.” 


Given that Catriona has a master’s certificate in music theory from Berklee College of Music, she won’t be letting her singing career fall to the wayside. In February 2023, she made her debut as a Universal Music Group artist at the event “A New Constellation.” Prior to this point, she shares that she struggled finding the right collaborators for her music. 

"Because music is such a personal thing to me, and because I really want to be someone who writes their own music, I want someone who can take that baby and to treat it with care, and to put it out into the world in a great way. So I'm really excited to see how my journey unfolds with UMG.” 


Fans can look forward to an upcoming album or EP soon, she said. “I don’t want to box myself into a genre. I’d like to try something that sounds a bit more jazzy, to even a dark pop to something more folksy. Let’s see!” 

Produced by Reg Rodriguez and Em Enriquez

Photographed by Renzo Navarro

Photographer's Assistants: Alexis Wang and Joshua Tan

Art Direction by Bacs Arcebal

Fashion Direction and Styling by Marj Ramos-Clemente

Stylist's Assistants: Reg Rodriguez and Isha Fojas

Makeup by Anthea Bueno

Makeup Artist's Assistant: Luisa Jardinero

Hairstyling by Jan Edrosolan

Nails by Nailandia

Final Artist: Kahlil Alcala

Shot on location at Fliteline Aviation School in Plaridel, Bulacan

Special thanks to Gab Viray and Rainna Certeza of Flight Club PH, and Captain Jun of Fliteline Aviation School

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