In victory and adversity, courageous Catriona Gray knows no other direction—onward and upward is the only way to go.
Intentional—this is how I came to know the young Catriona Gray. Then a model and aspiring singer, she easily became a favorite muse in many editorials. Beyond that angelic face, peering through those cat eyes is a goddess-like gaze. She has this ethereal and fiery quality about her, an ability to bring out both intensity and vulnerability in front of the camera. Soon enough, modeling and music would be two artistic modalities she would pursue. She was fully present, focused, and all in—a pro from the very beginning.
After a spirited catch-up, I jumped to our interview. I then tell her how we would proceed. I mention all my questions are based on what I call her mission statements—known to many during her reign, as an advocate, and echoed in many of her platforms.
I start off in 2019, during her last walk and message as Miss Universe, “To everyone with a dream, know that your dreams are valid, and on your path, you are never denied, only redirected.” I ask if any of her career milestones stemmed from diversions or redirections. She responds, “We all have an idea of how life is supposed to turn out and what our timeline is, and it never ever ends up that way. And I think that’s the whole point.”
Catriona admits she was close-minded about joining pageants at first. It was only while she was actively doing volunteer work, and simultaneously supporting close friend and fellow model Valerie Weigmann on her Miss World preparations, did she actually reconsider.
Witnessing a pageant up close through Valerie, while witnessing poverty with her own eyes through volunteer work, pageantry suddenly piqued her interest. Seeing how women were given a platform to speak, and how influential beauty queens are in the country, inspired her to join. “It was a defining moment for me because it sent me to this course towards pageantry. If not for my volunteer work, I don’t think I would’ve been seeking a larger platform to put that cause on.”
Just by looking back at Catriona’s career and her win in the Miss Universe 2018 competition— tireless preparations, passion, and compassion—you could tell she is always intentional and purposeful in everything she does. She is a force, relentless to a fault.
When you want to understand how someone came to be who they are, one can’t help but probe about their childhood: it’s the nature versus nurture premise. Catriona Gray grew up in a home where she was trusted, celebrated, and more importantly, allowed to fail. “My parents trusted me and I felt that they equipped me with the tools when I was growing up, but then allowed me space to actually put them into action myself. At a very young age, they encouraged me to find myself, and my voice.”
Becoming an advocate happened naturally for Catriona Gray. Something she attributes to having been empowered by her family. With such an upbringing, it was second nature for this beauty queen to turn her title into an opportunity to help the underprivileged, displaced, and discriminated. To her, it’s not about special privileges, but providing equal rights. “There are just so many things in our society that are not allowing us to be on equal footing.”
For many years now, she has worked with Young Focus Philippines, a non-profit organization that helps educate the poorest children in the country. Education was the very first cause she worked on, one she rallied for before and after her reign.
“I really believe in the power of mentorship and in giving people the opportunity to have the chance to choose what they want to be. I’m very passionate about education, and building the pride of the Filipino.”
This cause in fact grew and evolved to help out more people during this pandemic, all under her “Pass The Kindness” campaign. They have just finished feeding 10,000 people through the “No Work, No Rice” project. Currently, they are busy working on reaching out to others in need.
“We are segueing to a new initiative to raise funds for putting up community computer centers. For a lot of Filipino families and Filipino youth, online schooling is just not possible and it would be such an injustice for them to be left behind.”
Call To Action
Looking for more ways to create and spread awareness, Catriona thought it was perfect timing to do a remake of her single, We’re In This Together. She shares, “Music is one of the mediums I really love to use since it not only uplifts people, but also connects people to a message.”
Released two years ago, the now acoustic and updated version comes with a new music video too, where all proceeds go to her cause. The video highlights not only Catriona’s singing prowess but also a rare on-cam sighting of her and beau, Sam Milby, who played the role of producer and guitarist. She expresses her appreciation for his constant support throughout all her Young Focus projects.
Catriona Gray continues to work under her raise-the- flag banner through efforts that showcase Pinoy pride. As appointed Arts Ambassador for 2020 by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), her light-hearted, educational digital series (Kultura 101 with Cat), aims to spark new-found interest and appreciation in the younger generation.
Recently conferred as the Department of Trade and Industry’s One-Town-One-Product ambassador, she is also leading a movement to support local by going to different provinces and discovering local businesses, highlighting the weaving community. “I just feel so deeply for all of our provincial craftsmen, all these small businesses that have been so deeply affected by what’s happened over the last few months. I really want to help support in any way that I can.”
Even with her own business, Catriona seeks to support local. Magnayon, her new jewelry line featuring iconic designs similar to what she designed and wore for Miss Universe, supports homegrown talent. “I am putting up my own jewelry brand, but the launch has been postponed just because I don’t think the time is quite right yet. And of course, I’m working with local artisans for that. I want to ensure they are in the right space and time for them to go back to work. I also want to make sure the health guidelines are being followed first and foremost.”
No Cat Fights
Pre-pageantry, during the competition, and post-win, Catriona Gray had experienced bullying, body-shaming, as people pitted her against other girls. She continued on with her work and kept her focus—something she has carried on long after winning the title. Instead of engaging and fueling a fight, she pivots by instead putting the spotlight on the underlying issue, bringing a positive spin to it. A class act.
She may not be one to start a fight, but she is not one to turn a blind eye from current issues. Catriona’s causes (boy are there many!) are always at the forefront. She raises awareness and at the same time, does the work behind it.
During these times, she encourages people to stay engaged and not tune out.
“I felt so inclined to speak up on issues because I was affected, and I just wanted to allow people to hopefully think for themselves. We are at an age of misinformation, an age of being swayed so easily by headlines. I just want to encourage my audience to really source more information and encourage discussion. It forces people to look deeper into the subject and that’s what I hope people will do. Make up their own minds and their own beliefs by the information that they themselves have procured.”
But as someone who’s been a victim of online shaming and bashing herself, you can’t help but wonder how she is able to handle it. “Just being progressively in the public eye, I also saw how progressively, people started to feel like they had the ability to comment on every single statement or thing that I do, and really pick apart however they want. The backlash I receive for taking a stand or airing my beliefs is something that’s been a learning process for me,” she explains.
Catriona Gray understands it’s all noise and what matters is that her family, friends, and the people who support and truly know her, will drown out any hurt or self-doubt. “At a certain point, I just got to a realization that they can’t possibly know me. Their perception of me is very limited. If they really knew me and would have a conversation with me, then they would not say these things to my face. And that’s just something I really comfort myself with to this day.”
As an ambassador and influencer, I mention that there are many other influencers being criticized for not speaking out about certain political issues, saying it’s better to stay positive and only post content that makes people happy. Catriona weighs in, “It’s a very precarious position to be in. Not everyone can handle the social commentary that comes with speaking out your opinion. I just want people to understand that some people cannot take that. And that’s completely okay because that’s an act of self-love and self-preservation.”
She goes on to explain the human psyche—that out of a hundred positive comments, it only takes one negative to bring you down. “With a huge following and with a lot of people that love you and support you, come to a lot of people that don’t agree with you, hate on you, or just want to bring you down. Putting your opinion out there is definitely a personal choice.”
In a time where posting hashtags have become the norm for supporting causes, Catriona understands that people take a stand in different ways, some outside of social media, and in their smaller circles. “The truth of the matter is, yes, a platform is there to be utilized, but if someone does not say something on social media, does not insinuate that they do not care. It does not mean that they are not doing anything about it.”
In Hot Water
For Catriona Gray, speaking up openly has always been about encouraging conversations and healthy discussions. “I feel I’m very blessed because I’m not triggered very easily when it comes to these things. I have a very lengthy buffer. I’m never motivated by revenge or having a clap-back moment and I hope it never will be— because I feel then I will lose the essence of what I’m trying to achieve on my platforms.”
But recently, Catriona has been in hot water for a controversy involving her personal life, which later unfolded into a move to discredit her. “It was a very challenging time for me because in many ways it was my first experience to have this type of narrative being spoken about me. More so that I have never even spoken my side, and yet so many are willing to paint me in a certain way.”
Seeing her parents hurt, especially her mom, was the most difficult for her to bear.
“Wanting to say these baseless things that are untrue is a very hurtful thing. But I hope that my actions—the way I’ve carried myself through the situation, how I’ll continue to carry myself in the new situations that ever do arise, standing up and protecting myself—speak for any other woman that has ever been victimized or degraded in such a way.”
Although Catriona wouldn’t usually engage haters, let it be known that she wouldn’t condone malicious behavior either. She sought legal action and worked with authorities to put a stop once and for all to the smear campaign.
To people who spread false narratives about her, she has this to say: “I hope that the message I am sending is that it is not right to just sit by and take it. That is not to say, that I’m going to put out a lengthy statement, but I am speaking with my actions. I am also speaking up for every other woman who’s ever found themselves degraded, bullied, and hurt that way.
Catriona The Great
When asked what keeps her hopeful and makes her heart sing nowadays, Catriona immediately pointed out her faith, gratitude, and doing her outreach. “What has been giving me joy is magnifying the good. It is a choice at the end of the day.”
Experts say helping others actually eases the anxiety we are experiencing during crisis or uncertainty. And Catriona is doing exactly that. “I think being able to feel that I am contributing in whatever small way to the community makes me feel I’m doing something to help this big problem. It’s not to say I’m solving it, but lending a hand allows me to banish this feeling of hopelessness. We need to take off the limitations we place on ourselves in order to help other people.”
Conquer fears with faith is not just a statement Catriona Gray has shared time and time again. Now more than ever, it seems like a personal mantra for the queen who remains grounded and steadfast amid several challenges. “A lesson that I learned when all this happened was that how the world sees you is never constant. One moment they love you, next they don’t. I could never base my worth and happiness on that or else it will be like the tide—I’ll lose it, gain it, then lose it again. I place my happiness and my worth in my faith and my family.”
Catriona was excited to have her dream shoot finally happen. As a self-confessed water baby, she moves and flows gracefully underwater—despite the depth, pressure, and breathlessness. Clearly, a metaphor for this season in her life.
As with any challenge, like stormy seas, in time the current will become calm, peaceful, remarkably placid. And as always, Catriona Gray is unfazed. Because no matter how deep or turbulent the water turns out to be, her choice—then and now—will always be, to swim up.