Venus Raj's fairytale-like journey to the Miss Universe 2010 pageant almost didn't happen. After winning the right to represent the Philippines in the local pageant, Raj was dethroned by the organisers, citing citizenship issues.

But the fiery beauty from Bicolandia (a region in the Philippines known for its spicy food and beautiful ladies) fought a major, major uphill battle to win her crown back. And though she didn't win the Miss Universe title, she was considered a winner nonetheless by a pageant-crazy nation, whose last best bet was first runner-up in 1999.

"It's one of the most exciting moments in my life," she told tabloid! when asked how she felt winning fourth runner-up at this year's Miss Universe pageant. "If I had to do it all over again, I would."

Her Cinderella-like story began in a poor village in Camarines Sur, a province south of Manila. She was born out of wedlock in Doha to a Filipina overseas worker and an Indian expatriate father.

When her parents separated, Raj was taken to her mother's hometown while she was still an infant.

Raj says she learnt her moves in a rice field, where her mother used to work. "I would use the rice paddy dikes as a catwalk," she recalls.

As a child, Raj had ambitions of becoming a beauty queen, inspired by the local Santacruzans (a religious procession in the Philippines where a town's patron saint is paraded around town, preceded by a long line of women in their best outfits).

The youngest of five children, Raj began participating in beauty pageants from the age of 17. With her exotic looks, she was almost always a standout… and a winner. With each win, her confidence grew. "So I decided I would join Binibining Pilipinas this year, and I was really excited when my name was called as one of the winning titlists," Raj adds.

Binibining Pilipinas is the largest beauty contest in the Philippines, and selects the country's representatives for the Miss Universe, Miss World, and Miss International beauty pageants.

Raj's dreams of competing in the Miss Universe contest were momentarily shattered when she was dethroned, due to "inconsistencies" in her citizenship records. An uproar followed in Manila, forcing the organisers and local authorities to rethink their decision.

The government decided in Raj's favour, citing the jus sanguinis principle (right of blood) — a basic right provided by the Philippine Constitution which bestows upon a person the citizenship of his father or mother regardless of where the person was born.

The rest, as they say, is history. A pre-pageant favourite, Raj practically had every Filipino on the edge of their seats when the top 14 out of the 15 semifinalists' names had been revealed.

Last spot

Raj was among the 69 remaining candidates — including Miss USA Rima Fakih (an Arab American) and Miss Venezuela Marelissa Gibson — waiting to nail the last coveted spot. Fate smiled on Raj.

The whole nation was ecstatic, as was the boisterous Filipino-American crowd in Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay hotel, where the pageant was being held.

The excitement and the tension grew more as Raj reached the top 10, and finally the top five finalists. "I was feeling the vibe of the crowd, and I was just enjoying myself. I had a good time during the swimsuit round, and felt like a winner already during the evening gown round," Raj said.

The Bicolana beauty with a 21-inch waistline romped off the stage in her purple bikini to secure a score of 8.957, which placed her third overall.

The silver metallic gown she wore — so chosen because of feng shui — got her 8.714 points and secured her the fifth place.

And then Raj's "major, major" moment happened.

"I was nervous," Raj admits, "but I answered the question to the best of my abilities. And I was being honest."

Looking back, Raj says she would have answered differently. "I would have said something like ‘I wouldn't dwell on my mistake, however major it was. I would rather focus on the lesson that mistake offered me so I can learn from it and come out of it a better person'," she says.

She received a lot of flak for her answer. Later, however, Raj returned home to a welcoming nation.

"I am humbled by the whole experience. To be an inspiration to a nation, and to little girls who dream of big things happening in their life," she says after a brief moment of silence.

The reigning Binibining Pilipinas Universe admitted her life has changed for the better.

"I get asked a lot now about beauty tips," she says laughing.

"I really have no beauty regimen except to keep my face clean and get a lot of sleep. I am naturally morena [dark] and I have no intention of using skin whiteners or having any form of cosmetic surgery to enhance my God-given beauty." Many Filipinos consider being fair-skinned an advantage, but Raj's triumph proved otherwise.

Future plans

Still ecstatic about her Miss Universe experience, Raj has no immediate plans except to fulfil her duties as a Binibining Pilipinas title-holder.

"I am excited to get involved in the charity work of the pageant. I will be travelling a lot and will be meeting a lot of people," she enthuses.

And as for decent and indecent proposals, "I guess it comes with the territory, but I am a Binibining Pilipinas beauty and a role model, so I am careful with all these things," she counters.

Raj, however, admits she wouldn't mind being paired with actors Dingdong Dantes and Coco Martin if and when she enters showbusiness, the path taken by many Pinoy beauty queens before her.

Before the pageant, Raj worked as an information officer for a local office in her community. "I wouldn't mind going back, and if I didn't become a beauty queen, I would have been working tirelessly and judiciously as a government employee and serving my community," she says.

An answer befitting a genuine beauty queen… inside and out.

Quick fire

Who did Venus Raj think were the best bets in the Miss Universe contest?

Miss Venezuela and Miss Dominican Republic. (Neither made it.)

Were there any catfights backstage?

None that I know of, but organisers said our batch was the most mabait [good-natured] of all the batches.

Do you agree with the suggestion that Filipinas should use an interpreter?

I don't mind. That will give us more time to think of an answer. The few seconds that it takes for the intrepreter... that's a lot. [Miss Mexico, the eventual winner was fluent in English; but she used an interpreter just the same].

Is it true that your mother, Ester Bayonito, was offered $60,000 by a couple in exchange for you?

Yes, it's true. My mum told me there was a couple who offered her some money, I think the equivalent of $60,000 to adopt me or something... My mom didn't give me up, and she told me she has never regretted that decision, even before I became a beauty queen.

 Did you know?

  • Raj ended an 11-year drought for the Philippines in the Miss Universe pageant. The last time a Filipina made it to the semi-finals was in 1999, when Miriam Quiambao nabbed the first runner-up spot.
  • Interestingly, Raj wore the same earrings as Miriam during the pageant. They are believed to be a lucky charm and are owned by Stella Marquez-Araneta, the Colombian beauty who is the chairperson of Binibining Pilpinas charities.
  • Raj was the only Asian to make it to the top 15. No Asian made it to the semi-finals last year.
  • Raj admits she wouldn't mind being paired with actors Dingdong Dantes (right) and Coco Martin if and when she enters showbusiness.