You have to hear it to believe it, but Catriona Gray has one of the warmest, heartiest laughs. It spills out of her when she hears something funny or remembers a silly situation. More importantly, it instantly puts everyone around her at ease.
During our 10-minute interview, she was fully present, answering questions with a certainty and confidence that belied her age. At 24, Gray is the reigning Miss Universe, and only the fourth Filipino to bring home the coveted crown.
She repeatedly describes herself as an “old soul,” one who is observant and considerate of others. If the situation calls for it, however, she does not hesitate to speak up.
In the media tour in Manhattan that followed after her historic win, interviewers remarked at how “perfect” she was but she wants to dispel that notion “because it doesn’t exist.” Instead, she sees her win as an opportunity to do more.
“I wanted to promote my advocacies, Young Focus, which involves children from Tondo, and Love Yourself Philippines, which promotes HIV/AIDS education. I’ve been afforded a platform, and now it’s my responsibility to see what more I can do as Miss Universe.”
Miss Universe Catriona Gray, in her own words.
Lifestyle: You’re very outspoken. Has it ever gotten you into trouble?
Catriona Gray: Yeah, when I was growing up… I’m actually a very aware person, very observant. I am very considerate about when to speak, when it’s appropriate to speak, and to what extent. But of course there have been learning curves.
Were you raised to speak your mind?
I think it’s really my values… about being true to yourself, knowing what I stand for, but also knowing when the position is right, to be outspoken in a certain way. If the situation calls for it, where I can actually contribute something, then I feel that’s appropriate.
If it’s a situation where you can add something but you’re going to degrade someone or put someone down in the process then I would pull away from that.
Is that like “mema” (“may masabi lang” or talking for the sake of talking)?
So do you avoid that?
What trait of yours do you deplore?
I wish I wasn’t so serious sometimes. I am an old soul… so even when I was 18, 19, I felt so serious. I really plan and I’m ambitious. I find it hard to just kick back and not feel bad about doing nothing or taking time for myself. It’s always, “wait, I don’t feel productive, what am I doing?” But it’s something I’m working on. I always try to give myself some time, just looking after myself.
But as Miss Universe, isn’t your schedule packed?
Yes, but it’s okay, there are free days scattered in between. It’s doable.
During your interview rounds in the United States, what misconceptions did you set straight?
People were like, “you’re so perfect.” I understand where the perception comes from because I am a beauty queen. I do have this kind of image but people don’t see behind, that I’m a woman that’s gone through many things. I stand for things but I am a human being. There are moments when I do have insecurities. I am in no way perfect so people shouldn’t be pushing that idea of perfection because it doesn’t exist.
How do you talk to young girls who feel that they have to fit in a mold, look a certain way, or be a certain size?
I would tell them of my own experiences. Growing up I was really, really tall.
You’re still tall.
Yes, but imagine me being 5’8” at 12 years old. Sobrang awkward, ugly duckling stage. I wanted to fit in so I would crouch down. I had braces, bad skin, I was really uncomfortable with how I was. Now I look at it and being tall is one of my greatest assets so I would tell those young girls, you haven’t even come into your own yet. That thing that sets you apart could just be what makes you unique and plays to your favor when you’re older.
Why did you choose Young Focus as one of your advocacies?
There was a time I was really frustrated with my situation. I was 21 years old, and felt like I was going through a quarter-life crisis. My career was quite stagnant, and I was the sole breadwinner of my family. I was ready to take an opportunity but they would just keep closing in my face. I was really, really down and I am naturally a very happy person, very bubbly. Seeing myself become a very sullen person made me feel very uncomfortable.
It made me turn to charity work; I just needed to focus on someone else. I found Young Focus online, got in touch with the owners, who told me to come over and see the facility. So I went, met the staff, talked to the owners, they offered to walk me around the community just to see what it was like.
I had never experienced poverty before in my life firsthand. It was my first time seeing it with my own eyes.
What made you consider charity work?
I realized that I am privileged to have the upbringing that I did. You see how I’m so outspoken and I’m able to pursue all these things. It’s because my parents really worked to give me that education. I was brought up with so many different opportunities and I know that that is a privilege. There are so many of our country’s children that never get that chance. So imagine having that kind of life (one of poverty) that’s just given to you. You didn’t even choose for it that way. That’s heartbreaking.
That’s a very mature way of dealing with your frustration.
I told you I am an old soul.
You were feeling frustrated but you turned to charity work instead of partying, and filling the void.
I’m not that kind of person, very self-aware ako.
What’s your stand on the lowered criminal liability age for children?
I feel like we need to focus on what is making those children act out and commit these crimes because having worked with children and knowing children, it’s not in their nature. Children are pure and they don’t have any drive to harm people so I really feel that as a nation, we should focus on what’s causing them to act out that way.
Is it the environment that they’re in, other pressures or people, their families? Education is one of the tools we can use: educate them, educate their parents, give them access to schooling or access to resources that can really reshape the community. That’s what we should focus on.
You’re universally liked but you have your share of detractors. How do you deal with them online and in person?
You can never please everyone. People have different likes and dislikes. We’re all unique. But what has really helped me cope with this is realizing that most of the people online have never met me and I’ve never met them. For them to cast judgment on me… they don’t know my whole story, my journey, what I stand for, and who I am so why would I let their comment define who I am?
Don’t you go through the comments?
I don’t read them. I try not to put my time into that because I feel it could be spent so much better. If there an instance when I do come across it, usually I’ll block it. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with deleting or blocking that negative comment on social media; you take away their power.
Do you think you might eventually take a break from social media?
I have a very healthy relationship with social media, which I arrived at through a process of learning. I don’t put my worth or value on social media, like the amount of likes and followers don’t greatly concern me.
I do have a lot of followers (4.7 million on her Instagram @catriona_gray) and I know that it comes with a responsibility but it shouldn’t detract from the experience of having an audience or platform.
So when you post, you don’t think about it anymore?
Yeah, I don’t, I promise. But there was a time when I was younger and social media was new to me and I would really look at the numbers.