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Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach at the Amato outlet in Dubai Design District Clint Egbert, Gulf News Image Credit: Clint Egbert, Gulf News

It’s been five years since Pia Wurtzbach won the Miss Universe 2015 title — becoming the third Filipina woman at the time to wear the sash. But there’s one tough lesson she had to learn the hard way when the cameras switched off.

“The thing I wish somebody told me was that, after you win, you got to work twice as hard to stay relevant,” says the 31-year-old Filipina-German model, in a candid interview with Gulf News in Dubai last week. Wurtzbach was in town to receive the Woman of the Year award from Xpedition magazine, and to continue her advocacy with cleft lip organisation Smile Train.

“Because the peak is the win, and then the reign. After that, usually, you gotta work twice as hard to keep yourself up there, to keep yourself relevant and in the public eye. I don’t do any, like, weird gimmicks to make people talk about me, but I continue with the work. I still do activities like this, where I get invited abroad, I wouldn’t miss this opportunity. Of course, I’m here. I want to personally be able to do the shoots, I want to do these looks, but I also want to do advocacy work. This was my dream. If you love what you do, it’s not difficult.”

The beauty queen passed on the baton, in a way, to 26-year-old Filipina-Australian model Catriona Gray two years ago, when Gray was crowned Miss Universe 2018 in Thailand — and Wurtzbach was far from the bitter onlooker that people claimed she would be.

“I was actually like, almost in the front row … I’ve been there as a contestant. I’ve been there as a judge. But it was my first time to be there as an audience member, where I’m literally there just to experience it,” recalled Wurtzbach.

“People would say to me before, like, ‘Oh, she’s threatened because she doesn’t want another Filipina from the Philippines to win.’ But once you’re there, all of that goes out of the window, because you just want to raise the flag. You just want Philippines to win. Everybody’s so happy. How can you be the bitter one? Like, why would you want to ruin the party?”

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Pia Wurtzbach winning the Miss Universe title in 2015 Image Credit: AP

Wurtzbach didn’t have a doubt that Gray would dazzle the judges.

“She’s one of the best ones we’ve ever had, if not the best. Because I’m a big pageant fan, and I’ve been watching Miss Universe since I was a kid, I watch all the Miss Universe editions every year up to now, so it was nice to watch it live,” she said.

“These girls have a story to tell”

Even as a huge pageant lover herself, Wurtzbach is well aware of those who criticise beauty pageants or don’t get their appeal. For her, the way that pageants have updated their formats in recent years are a crucial step forward.

“I understand where they’re coming from, especially if you don’t know much about it. If you don’t know what really goes on. Like, surface level, you only know that there is a contest on TV, they all look beautiful, whoever is the best wins, but they don’t really know what happens before that, or after that,” said Wurtzbach.

“You only see the nice, crowning moment during the show. But it’s actually years of training before that girl gets to wear that sash on that stage.

Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach waves during a news conference. Image Credit: REUTERS

“[These girls] come from different walks of life. Some of them come from really humble beginnings. Some come from professional careers. Some are lawyers, some are doctors, some come from the military. Some come from really broken families, some come from conflicted areas.

“So, like, how? How do you get there, going through all of these challenges?

“That’s why I’m really happy that pageants nowadays, especially Miss Universe, have more Q&A rounds, whereas before there was only one question … Nowadays, there’s so many interview questions, because it’s about getting to know the girl, rather than picking the most beautiful one.

“I hope that people who don’t really know much about beauty queens can take some time to just maybe watch the newer editions nowadays, maybe the one last year, or the one from Catriona’s year, or maybe my year, and then see really the difference from how it was back then. It’s really more than just a beauty contest now. Girls have a story to share — have advocacies to push for.

“What we see on TV is that a girl gets crowned, credits roll, and then that’s it. You feel like, ‘Ah yeah, she’s done now, she goes home, and she’s probably doing a modelling gig.’ No. The work starts after the crown is placed on your head. And it’s a responsibility, because you can get replaced. There’s so many people who want to be in your position.”

Nervous flyer, frequent traveller

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Pia Wurtzbach meets fans in Dubai Image Credit: GN Archives

The nature of Wurtzbach’s work is that she has to zip from country to country and continent to continent. Her schedule is hectic and the work begins as soon as she steps off the plane.

That doesn’t mean that the roar of the engine doesn’t still get to her.

“I can never travel without noise cancelling headphones,” she said. “I’m a nervous flyer, but I always fly. I need to not hear the engine of the plane … You also need an eye mask, because when you want to sleep, the lights are still on … I also always have to travel with melatonin so that I can fall asleep in the plane!”

It seems that sleep is quite important to her — something she quickly confirmed.

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2016 | Iris Mittenaere (centre R) of France is crowned by former Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach Image Credit: AFP

“On the plane, you don’t always have signal [or] internet, right? I take that opportunity to just shut everything off and rest. Because usually when I land, I start working right away. I don’t land and then, you know, spend a few days to get my body clock into the rhythm, into the time zone. I don’t have time for that …. I landed this morning, and now I’m here. So I got to be able to sleep during a flight because I need my energy.”

But she does have a secret to her positive, infectious energy, which is on full display during our interview: power naps, coffee and good company.

“The people I’m here with, they’re old friends that I’ve met a few years ago. We always have very good banter, so it doesn’t feel like work,” she said.

For her, the advocacy work is at the forefront of her responsibilities, and she’s inspired by her own experiences.

“When I talk about mental health awareness, I’ve also gone through depression and anxiety myself, and people really close to me, so I relate to it … That’s why I’m able to speak about it, it becomes easier when you have personal experiences,” she said.

“I’m such a workaholic”

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Pia Wurtzbach in Dubai Image Credit: Antonin Kelian Kallouche, Gulf News

The beauty queen has big aspirations for herself, outside of photoshoots and advocacy work.

She’s a brand ambassador for several companies in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. She has her own milk tea business back home, called Bestie.

“I enjoy being in front of the camera and doing shoots and being glammed up. But I also want to learn how to do business, I want to learn something new. I don’t know if I’m going to be an expert at it — I definitely did not go to school for it. But that’s how it is. I wasn’t a beauty queen right away. I failed a few times before I got there.”

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Pia Wurtzbach Image Credit: Clint Egbert, Gulf News

Despite her big dreams of owning her own company, she also wants to slow down and reconnect with herself next year.

“My New Year’s resolution for 2021 is to not forget all the lessons that I learnt this year. As much as we didn’t like this year, I think it taught us so many lessons, like not taking the little things for granted anymore,” she said.

“I’m such a workaholic. And I’ve been working everyday straight. I didn’t even know what a weekend was before. I realised I’ve been missing birthdays, I’ve been missing weddings, I’ve been missing real life experiences. Years have passed after Miss Universe, and I barely have any real life experiences because I’m always at work.

“I realised that’s not a way to live. I need to balance it. I need to spend more time with my loved ones and spend more time with my family, do the things that make me happy rather than just burying my mind or myself at work.

“So, next year, I want to of course continue all the projects that have been put on hold because of the pandemic. But I also want to reconnect with people. I want to reconnect with myself.

“This year kind of made forced me to think about what really makes me happy. And I think I’m slowly learning the answer.”