“This is a large order! But then we are dealing with a large and wonderful principle, the divinity of man. If you remember who you are, and keep your inward contact, you will not let yourself be drawn into experiences on another’s level of thought. You will meet them on your level for your thought is your life.”—Eric Butterworth, “Discover the Power Within You”, 1992.
“What is your definition of beautiful,” I asked.
Smiling, Nicole Ignacio Cordoves shared her perspective: “It is a woman with a good life story who rose from [her] tragedy, but you can’t trace sadness in [her face], there are no lines. And you just know this woman can just conquer anything. When I went to a women to women weekday fellowship, I even brought a friend. Hindi mo akalain may pinagdaanan (You would not think they went through challenges), you can’t believe their testimonies, you don’t just look at them, you want to be with them, everyone is glowing.”
Born in the Philippines, Nicole’s name means the people’s victory. Cordoves was a surname bought by her Chinese grandparents so that they could be naturalized and own properties in the Philippines. Her great grandfather came from Fujian, China, the southeast coast of mainland China.
Nicole granted a one-on-one interview with the Asian Journal, days after she competed in the Miss Grand International on October 25, 2016, held in Las Vegas. She became First Runner-Up.
Miss Grand International is a pageant with a mission to end war and violence: “wars exist on many layers, from full-scale confrontations between nations, to violence in the home. All of these wars must be eliminated if we are collective to achieve true happiness. In an age where we are capable of reaching out to touch the stars, we have forgotten to reach out and touch the lives around us, it is time for us to look inwards and use our combined ingenuity to make the world a better place for all humanity. Our ideal objective is an end to all forms of violence and hostility.”
During the Miss Grand International competition, she was booed during the controversial Q and A portion.
The controversial Q and A
From 75 participants around the world, the process whittled them down to five finalists: Puerto Rico, United States, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.
“Question: If you had to choose one of these two people [to] help you to stop the war and violence, who would you choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and why?”
Answer: “Promise me you would react after my first sentence. I would choose Donald Trump. [Boos were heard] If we convince Donald Trump to switch to our side, then there won’t be war and violence anymore! I will also make sure he would read my speeches to stop the war and violence because imagine someone who could bring so much madness and emotions from these people, what if we use his voice to actually do good for the world? What if we use that to our advantage? So let’s keep the peace and let Donald Trump switch to our side to stop the war and violence,” Nicole responded confidently.
Nicole’s prescient (predictive) and wise response flew over the crowds’ heads. They booed her. Her smarts were unappreciated. The crowd did not want to hear Donald Trump’s name.
Had the audience understood, perhaps her wisdom, including her compassionate view that we can change, would have been apparent. Her optimistic view on transformation fits the pageant’s mission.
But, the pageant also leaned towards women power, that women are smart and capable.
United States’ Michelle Leon chose Donald Trump, drawing louder boos. Puerto Rico’s Madison Anderson chose Hillary Clinton, as did Thailand’s Supaporn Malisorn.
Indonesia’s Ariska Putri Pertiwi chose Hillary Clinton, “So it is a very hard question for me, but I will choose. If I have a chance to choose, I will choose Hillary Clinton, because I know she is a very smart, independent woman and a brave woman. That is why I will choose her to walk together with me. I believe that if I and Madame Clinton walk together, I believe that I can stop the war and I ask the people to join us to stop the war and violence, so I choose her to stop the war and violence. Thank you.”
Her response showed decisiveness and her belief that she is a change agent. By stressing “walk” in her answer, it suggested motion and efficacy. She took home the crown.
Her reflections about inner beauty
I asked Nicole to define a woman of grace and substance. She responded with ease, suggesting intimate self-knowledge.
Woman of grace means: “When I think of grace, I think of my grandmother. I don’t know how mothers acquire the ability to raise good kids and at the same time endure what women go through as wives, mothers, as grandmothers, what they do to take care of husbands, their children, all their heartaches. I think of my grandmother who even if the family is falling apart, holds on to her values, and does not think of running away. She knows how to stay with her pain, unafraid, to keep the family name intact, not thinking of the years she might lose and she has held onto the family. You see her [journey] physically: the traces of white hair on her head, the wrinkles on her hands, [matching] the heartbreaks she has gone through, we all know that.”
Growing up, Nicole did not live in a bubble, nor with a silver spoon in her mouth — which is why she really hung on to God in those times and it is in suffering that she actually feels closest to God, one thing she would always cherish. She realized early on that she wants to be more than the circumstances given to her, “God will always catch me. I am not afraid of falling anymore.”
One key word is “ready” as that comes from one’s mindset, either we are ready to win or fail. To Nicole, her thoughts created her life.
A woman of substance is “one who has fought to be relevant in the world. She looked for and found that role. She has set her mind and heart to perform her purpose. No one is born of substance or grace, you choose to become it. You need to wake up every morning and decide what kind of woman you want to become.”
She excuses herself to check on laundry, washing the bed linens and towels she used at her hosts’ home, that of Hydee Ursolino-Abrahan and Akima Abrahan.
Her thoughts became her life
She graduated from Makati Hope Christian School. Failing math in the first-year high school, she tutored herself and became the most improved student, even an honor student. That gave her the realization of her self-worth and her potentials.
She played badminton, patintero and basketball games with the neighborhood boys, sell them my toys, including drinks made of black gelatin (in cans) with sago [boba], sugar and water, including the passersby.
“I earned a lot,“ not realizing she pioneered recycling.
“I was always the head of the group, organizing trick or treating, my own birthday parties, including bible studies. I remember even giving them quizzes about biblical passages, including King Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Neo-Babylonian period.”
She took up economics, so she can look at the world trends to help others. She took a minor in development management and “got obsessed including, photocopying the Asian Development Bank’s book on rural farming as well as the underground economies, just like Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh.”
Her thesis was on how information technology affects economic growth. Her thesis uncovered “the use of information communications technology (ICT) appropriately in developed countries, e.g. Singapore, where they build institutions to regulate ICT and to develop programs for its productive use. In the Philippines, ICT is misused, as there are no institutions to encourage exploration, proper productive use, and improperly utilized as social media trolls,” she said.
In Ateneo de Manila, she obtained her economics degree but also, on how to be a woman for others.
“In Tondo, we had a small room where we held bible studies. I remember Kuya Rey, the only man amongst 8 women who slept in corrugated metal and thought of suicide until he met a missionary, Ben from Hongkong. Ben decided to live in Tondo and became a pastor. Ben offered Rey lodging and now, Rey is a minister, a strong man who speaks with confidence,” she continued.
After college, she worked as a speech writer for Secretary Cesar Purisima. She remembers doing her first draft, for Hong Kong to invest in the Philippines, “I made three to four speeches with dramatic prose and the feedback was that the boss likes data points, loves anecdotes and [he is] not a dramatic person. He is very functional, gives the best jokes, all that I learned from him.”
It was during this period that she got recruited by Aces and Queens. After rigorous weekend training, she joined the Bb. Pilipinas pageant and won the title, Bb.Pilipinas-Grand International, and later competed to become First Runner-Up.
Nicole reflected on her journey and growth, from being Miss Chinatown, a college student in Ateneo, to her exposure to bible studies in Tondo: “When I became Miss Chinatown, I wanted to set up STROKES, a Filipino-Chinese organization for high school students, an umbrella philanthropy group that would allow students to share about their advocacies and together, implement them and do outreach. I wanted a curriculum on social enterprise and the ethics of serving others. People are always looking to help, but children do not know how. In Ateneo, I had a ‘terror professor’ in Fr. Dacanay, who gave me 3.5 out of 4.0, for my oral exam. I was studying very hard. I went from home to school back to home. I took LRT 1, LRT 2 (subways), then a tricycle.”
“Do you consider yourself a beautiful woman of grace and substance?” I asked. With certainty, Nicole replied in soft hushed tones, “I do, I do. That realization changed my life.”
During the pageant, she gave a head-turning speech, excerpted here: “Tonight I will tell you a story about our world. One day I was conducting a storytelling session in Tondo, which is an area in the Philippines where the poorest of the poor live. So I asked the kids to fold their papers into half and then inside it, I asked them to draw who they want to be when they grow up and where they want to go, like a dream destination. But out of the ten kids sitting on the floor, only three of them knew what they wanted to be when they grow up and only two of them knew where they wanted to go. These kids – They do no need us to win wars for them. They need us to build a world for them that will allow them to grow, to dream, to live. Let’s build a world where children do not have to wake up to the sounds of bullets and bombs…where women and children do not have to face a battle the moment they take one step out of the door. I stand here tonight refusing to tell the same story to our next generation. Children do not need to risk their lives in war for us. They need to fight for their dreams, not their lives so I ask all of you tonight, let’s all write a new book about our world and our common humanity – one that could finally give the next generation the happy ending they deserve.”
She now works for Manila Bulletin Rundown and MB Discussion, a recap of breaking news stories each week and select guests’ interviews on human interest stories.
As a good friend said to me, “Not all beauty queens are empty heads. Nicole is interestingly a triad of beauty, smarts and gentle positive spirit.”