A Philippine Cinderella: from domestic helper to Miss Universe?
- Jessarie Dumaguing worked as domestic helper when she was 11 to help her aunt make ends meet
- Now she has set her sights on winning a crown at Binibining Pilipinas, which would propel her onto the international stage
Jessarie Dumaguing is one of several contestants preparing for the final rounds of the Binibining Pilipinas at Kagandahang Flores beauty camp. In towering heels, she sashays across the floorboards of the warehouse space: walk, pose, turn. Over and over. Back and forth.
“The one thing I want to achieve is to have a crown,” she says. “To have won the crown in Binibining Pilipinas, to be able to represent the Philippines on the international stage.”
When Jessarie was young, she went to live with her aunt after her parents separated. At age 11, she was working as a domestic helper to help make ends meet. Now 24, she’s come a long way from her hometown of Port Barton on the island province of Palawan, where she grew up on the beach. After finishing university with a degree in tourism management, she left her family behind to move to Manila one year ago, which she describes as “the most difficult thing I’ve done … I miss my hometown every day”.
“Maybe that’s how I started to be independent, working from age 11,” she says. “I’m actually very grateful because at that very young age, it made me think like that, to help my aunt … we always struggled financially.”
Yet here she is, with her sights set on becoming the next Miss Universe. It might be a Cinderella story but even as the clock strikes midnight, Jessarie continues drilling her signature strut-and-spin in the hope a crown awaits. Later, she expects to catch one of Manila’s motorised tricycles back to her flat nearby.
“It’s tiring but it’s worth it,” she says. “To win is very important – it’s not just for myself but for the people who believe in me.”
‘The art of walking’
It all happens under the watchful eye of George Garrido, known to his charges as Mummy G. The girls line up at one end of the room, with him at the other. With a cigarette in one hand, he beckons with the other, signalling them to walk.
One by one, he observes, then stops them, then points to chin, shoulders, arms and hips, issuing minute corrections of posture, balance and pacing. Then they turn and repeat, while Mummy G moves onto the next contestant.
“I train the girls in their movement, not just the walking,” he explains. “The way they move their eyes, their face. And their walk – that’s the art of pasarela. The art of moving, the art of walking. The more you practice, the more it becomes permanent on you.
“I feel that is my gift. For me, I have the ability to see if the shoulders are not good or whether the control is in other parts of your body – it’s like anatomy. I match the movement of the hips based on the personality of every girl.”
Mummy G, 39, began teaching pageant contestants in 2007, having been instructed by Rodgil Flores, who runs KF. Occasionally, Mummy G stops the procession and gathers the girls into the middle of the room. There are about 10 of them, all towering above him, but they hang on his every word.
“They should feel the competition,” he says. “When you do it one by one, you don’t feel any competition at all. When you’re with other girls, side by side, it reminds them of the competition – you need to be better than everyone.”
One particularly challenging part of the training is the “duck walk”, which involves contestants striding back and forth, combining leg lunges with a peculiar shimmying, twerking movement in between, flexing their hips as they keep their torsos upright. It’s designed to correct posture and build core strength.
“The duck walks – they are the worst, it’s horrible,” says Noelle Uy-Tuazon, 27, who became Miss Scuba Philippines 2018 and is now drawing on her pageant training to move into body building and fitness modelling.
“Duck walks in six-inch heels and you’re in your bikini. It makes your legs stronger but also shows how to hold your posture – it makes a difference on stage and in pictures. But until it hurts, you’re not doing it right, unfortunately.
“It’s like being an athlete. It’s just disguised in glamour.”
The crown is ‘payment time’
The following evening, it’s the penultimate round of Binibining Pilipinas, the country’s biggest beauty pageant, which will culminate in six contestants receiving “crowns” and being chosen to represent the Philippines in international pageants. At the last outing before the coronation on Sunday, June 9, the contestants showcase their “national costumes”: elaborate creations designed to convey something unique about their home provinces.
Jessarie pays tribute to the endangered peacocks of Palawan – her black, blue and silver gown is relatively understated but it comes with strings attached, literally. As Jessarie reaches the front of the stage, she pulls gently on two threads attached to the back of her gown and a sculpted display of peacock feathers fans out behind her. She doesn’t have the noisy cheer squads of some other contestants, but the crowd oohs and aahs appreciatively nonetheless.
At the end of the show, Jessarie is rewarded by being named in the judges’ top 10. Rodgil Flores, who has trained dozens of winners, describes her performance as “flawless” and insists she is “moving up the hot picks” of those vying for one of the six crowns on offer.
Backstage, Jessarie cannot conceal her excitement.
“It was amazing – it was wonderful,” she says. “I saw my mum and my sisters – they’re here, they’re cheering for me. I was so happy. On the runway, I felt so comfortable – I was enjoying the show. I didn’t feel nervous at all.
“The person who came from an island, a hidden place – it’s very different now.”
After the 4am starts to apply make-up, the hard work, the training, the loneliness of moving to Manila – tonight, at least, it appears to have been worth it.
“The best advice I can give the girls is that you should risk everything because there’s no tomorrow,” Mummy G says. “The last performance will be the last performance. So you give it everything and leave it all to God. The proudest moment is the moment they’re crowned: it’s like payment time. When we see the girls being crowned on stage … I get flashbacks of all the years of hardships and now finally there’s a crown on her head.”