Behind every strong woman is herself, but it doesn’t hurt to receive expert guidance from someone who has proved to produce success. For beauty queens of the Philippines, that someone is Jonas Gaffud, or Mama J, as he’s called in the industry.

Last November 28, beauty queen fans, pageant enthusiasts, and proud Filipinos alike lined up outside of O Skin Care Med Spa in Cerritos, California to meet Gaffud and get a signed copy of his recently released book.

By his side were Miss Universe 2015 winner Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, and Miss Universe 2013 3rd Runner Up Ariella “Ara” Hernandez Arida, who fans also anticipated to meet.

Gaffud’s book titled “The Crown: The Essential Guide to Becoming a Beauty Queen”, was released in August of this year and has been described as a “crash course into the world of pageantry.” In it are personal stories, industry insights, tried and tested makeup, fitness, and posture tips, and much more — but we shouldn’t give away any spoilers.

The Philippines has long been caught up in pageant-fever. Aside from the major pageants like Binibining Pilipinas, many Filipinos participate in smaller localized pageants, and even smaller pageants are held in schools and workplaces. Then, there are the different pageants for groups like grandparents or the LGBTQ community for example.

As further testament to the popularity, the country holds an impressive track record in placing beauty queens in the top international pageants.

The Philippines has continuously placed in the Miss Universe pageants for the last seven years, and in the 16 years that the Miss Earth pageant has been held, the country has only been absent in the top 10 for three of those years.

Gaffud and his Aces & Queens squad — which started in the halls of UP Diliman where he got his geography degree — has become an institution in the world of pageantry. His first batch of trainees included the then law student Zorayda Ruth Andam, who won Bb. Pilipinas Universe in 2001.

Since then, Gaffud and his squad have helped over 30 beauty queens become winners. His most recent trainees include Miss International 2016 Kylie Verzosa, Miss World 2013 Megan Young, Arida who was third in Miss Universe 2013, and of course, Wurtzbach who took home the Miss Universe crown in 2015 in a highly-publicized win.

For the seasoned beauty queen trainer, his interest in the world of pageantry started when he was a kid, and it wasn’t just for the beauty. Gaffud said the stories of the women were a big pull for his interest.

Reading his mother’s magazines during those years is what got him thinking of what he wanted to do in the future, and after temporarily working in research after university, he decided to pursue his passion of creating beauty queens full time.

So what makes a queen?

“Come to me!” Gaffud told the Asian Journal while laughing. “Get a queen maker!”

Laughs aside, anyone familiar with the industry would indeed agree that beauty pageants are more than just about looking pretty. They entail a lot of hard work which Gaffud details in his book.

“There’s so much work before joining a beauty pageant, and then there’s so much work after winning a beauty pageant,” said Gaffud, encouraging people to look at the beauty queens’ duties after their wins.

Wurtzbach, who was first taken under Gaffud’s coaching in 2012, advocated on HIV awareness after taking the 2015 Miss Universe crown — something she promised to do in her title-winning answer.

“He’s very strict,” the model, actress, chef, and UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador told the Asian Journalabout Gaffud.

“He’ll make you cry, but it will all be worth it anyways,” she added.

In the age of social media, beauty queens are also not exempt from the bashing and bullying. Gaffud’s advice is to brush it off, and focus on being happy.

But in all the years of watching the beauty queens work their way to the top, Gaffud maintains that not much has changed.

“We’ve had strong, classy women, ever since,” said Gaffud.

On answering why beauty pageants and queens are especially big in the Philippines, both Gaffud and Wurtzbach agreed that it was the young women’s journeys that made them special.

“I think they’re a symbol of hope, especially in the Philippines,” explained Gaffud.

While Gaffud admits that beauty pageants are a form of entertainment, he said that it’s more than just glitz and glamour. Pageants offer a glimpse into something that while fantastical, is still possibly attainable.

“We like to see the girls’ journies right?,” said Wurtzbach whose own personal story is in the book. She added that those stories are one of her favorite parts of Gaffud’s tell-all.

Pageant viewers may agree that watching the inspiring contestant stories is one of the most memorable parts of the night.

This year, the most highlighted moments included contestants speaking out against sexual harassment, and Miss Iraq Sara Eden’s story of joining Miss Universe and being a pageant queen despite discouragements — Iraq had been absent from the pageant for 45 years prior. Eden was joined by pageant queens from Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal whose countries were being represented in Miss Universe for the first time.

“From start to finish, we get to know her background, what her life story is, and then how she’ll go through the challenges of winning the local pageant first, which is Binibining Pilipinas, and then hopefully or eventually making it to the international pageants,” said Wurtzbach.

“I think it’s because we see inspiration through that. If a girl can do it, then so can we,” she added. “You see that we’re all different. Some of us had it easier, and some of us had it harder.”

“And then I also like that it’s a guide,” she added.

Yet despite being subtitled “the essential guide to becoming a beauty queen,” Gaffud said that the book contains content anyone can immerse themselves in.

“It’s a story of struggle and evolving,” said Gaffud. “It’s a story of everybody.”

“You know, you evolve. In life, you should not be stuck to where you are. You read books, you experience life, and then you change your perception — for the better,” he added.

Regarding the Miss Universe 2017 pageant on November 26, Gaffud said he once saw Philippine contestant Rachel Peters during a birthday party for Maxine Medina, but that is the only time their paths have crossed so far.

As for Miss Universe 2017 winner Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters of South Africa?

“I love her!” exclaimed Gaffud, adding that he predicted her to win.

“From the very start, I knew that she would win,” he said. “A lot people really predicted her to win — a lot of pageant experts.”

While Gaffud’s trainees have notably been Filipina, he said he was open to the idea of training international beauty queens. He reportedly worked with Miss Universe Indonesia Kezia Warouw which generated mixed reactions from Philippine fans, but Gaffud said his guidance is for all.

“We’re here to help women. Not Filipino women alone, but women all over the world,” he said.

“And if given an opportunity, I would do it over and over again.”

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