Bea Rose Santiago of the Philippines walks on stage after being crowned Miss International 2013 in Tokyo Photo by Yuya Shino, Reuters
MANILA -- Before winning the Miss International crown on Tuesday, Filipina Bea Rose Santiago had to overcome several challenges, including her first heartbreak and being rejected in her initial bids to join the national competition.
Speaking with ABS-CBN News' Ginger Conejero via Skype on Wednesday, the 23-year-old beauty queen recalled entering her first relationship "when I was almost 20."
Noting this to be a late age to have a first boyfriend, Santiago explained she had been somewhat of a "man-hater" due to her father leaving her family when she was only 10.
But even her first try at accepting a man into her life left her with a painful experience. "I was dumped before by my first boyfriend. It was my first heartbreak."
This, according to Santiago, motivated her to "jump into exploring more about the world."
At the time based in Toronto, Canada -- her family moved there from Masbate when she was 15 -- Santiago got encouragement to pursue her "destiny" in their hometown.
She was setting sights on becoming a beauty queen.
"My mom told me, 'You know, I discovered life after three kids.' It was my mom who inspired me to do risky things," Santiago said. "She told me, 'Make mistakes now, so that you'll learn from [them]. Don't be afraid to explore life.'"
Although she enjoyed the steady income from being a "dark-skinned" professional model in Canada -- she was in-demand for her "Eurasian" features -- Santiago said she quickly got bored, and felt wanting more out of life.
She recalled that as a 9-year-old, she would get encouragement from neighbors in Masbate to join pageants. Noting the "hype" that surrounded Miriam Quiambao's first runner-up finish in Miss Universe in 1999, Santiago said people started to notice her "tall and skinny" physique.
Even in her childhood, when her grandmother would constantly doll her up, Santiago already displayed potential as a beauty queen. She said she would go around town with her hair in braids, tied with ribbons on the ends. "And you know the socks with ribbons on the ankles? I wore that!"
"I was always the girly girl!"
Going back to the Philippines at 22, a move she admitted was "very risky," Santiago brought her mother's encouragement and her memories as a girl in Masbate.
This optimism, however, was initially met with a disappointing reality. "Before Binibining Pilipinas, it was so hard for me," she said. "I've been rejected by so many people, saying, 'Why are you joining? You shouldn't join.'"
Santiago recalled it was especially difficult to enlist the help of the local government of Masbate, which she noted had never sent a candidate to the national competition.
"In Masbate, they've never had a delegate for Binibini. And the first time, I asked our governor, she just rejected me. It was painful. It was very painful," she said.
"She actually gave me P20 as a mock donation. Because, you know, every delegate asks for support from their city, and that's what she did to me. I was shocked at first. I had no idea what happened."
What followed, Santiago recounted, were several more disappointments. "Even my dad, they weren't as supportive as I thought they would be. There were a lot of people saying, 'You shouldn't join.'"
At one point, she said she reconsidered staying in the Philippines.
But with sheer persistence, Santiago managed to submit her application to join Binibining Pilipinas 2013. The would-be Miss International winner found a support system in the Rodgil Flores-led Kagandahang Flores talent firm, which trained several other candidates in the national competition.
"They're like family to me," she said.
On April 14, 2013, Santiago joined the long list of winners of Binibining Pilipinas, along with Ariella Arida, Mutya Datul, Cindy Miranda, and Pia Wurtzbach.
This "gold" batch of beauties -- the name from the pageant celebrating its 50th year -- achieved a winning streak for the Philippines with their respective performances in international competitions.
Arida placed 3rd runner-up in Miss Universe, Datul won Miss Supranational, and Miranda finished in the semifinals of Miss Tourism Queen International.
"I'm thankful for everything that's happened," said Santiago, "because I wouldn't be as strong as I am now [if it weren't my experiences]. I'm thankful for everything, kahit naging masakit man, duguan man."
A day after her historic win, being the fifth Filipino Miss International winner since 1964, Santiago said she is still in disbelief over having brought pride to her country.
"I had no idea that I'm going to win. It's a dream. I'm just floating right now. I can't believe it," she said. "Before I was just sitting there in my class in Canada, bored out of my mind, and now I'm here. I have a crown. A furry crown! And a bow!"
"It's amazing what life can give you."