Catching up with Team Catriona Gray

Voltaire E. Tayag

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Catching up with Team Catriona Gray
Rappler's Voltaire Tayag sits down with the Miss Universe 2018 winner's team

MANILA, Philippines – Upon the arrival and registration of a Miss Universe candidate at their official residence, they must immediately follow the strict schedule and rules set forth by the MUO (Miss Universe Organization). The women are also assigned chaperones to escort them to their various commitments.

Gifts or personal items to be given to the candidates must go through the MUO Secretariat and cannot be delivered directly. It is both for the safety and security of the candidates as well as maintaining order.

Even relatives, friends, national directors and trainers who are present have to respect these limitations. You can just imagine how restrictive this set-up is for these empowered women – it’s possibly stressful over a period of time.

After being in this very confining scenario for two weeks, Catriona and the rest of the candidates were given a night off by the Miss Universe Organization. They would be free from the security guards and chaperones and could do as they please as long as they returned to the Dusit Thani Hotel by 10:00pm. It’s a welcome respite from the rigorous pre-pageant activities and a chance to refocus their energies the night before the Preliminary Competition.

Catriona chose to spend these precious moments with her family, friends and team who were in Bangkok last December at the Baan Khanita Restaurant. She could finally let her hair down even for just a few hours and simply be Catriona. Everyone was eager to hear Catriona’s kwentos but mostly, people were just happy to be around Catriona and everyone else.

At the end of the dinner, Catriona stood up and said a few words which was captured in a video posted on Jojo Bragais’ Facebook account.

“Thank you so much to each and everyone of you for being here. From traveling all the way from home in the Philippines and from Germany. You guys have allowed me to do what I do. This journey would not have been anywhere near what it is without each and everyone of you.”

It was a fun and relaxing evening filled with laughter. That was highly indicative of the fact that Catriona came extremely prepared. There was no cramming or panicking involved thanks to her amazing team.

But the next evening would begin the culmination of what they have been working towards for almost 9 months the preliminary competition and the finals.

I was seated with Team Catriona during the preliminary competition. Ton Lao, Harley Tan, Mak Tumang, Jojo Bragais, Brent Sales, Ardel Presentacion, Jolo Luarca and Caloy Buendia were all anxiously awaiting Catriona’s performance.

There was a lot of cheering, going crazy and lots and lots of praying.

The Team Catriona synergy was successful because each of them knew and respected their roles and responsibilities. They are selfless, dedicated, talented and passionate individuals who were doing it for the love of Catriona and the Philippines. They were very secretive of the the game plan and very strategic as to when information would be disseminated on social media.

SPOTLIGHT. Jojo Bragais, Caloy Buendia, and Justine Aliman speak to the media during Catriona's visit in Manila last December 19. File photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler


Despite their busy holiday schedules, I was able to catch up with some members of Team Catriona.

Let’s get to know them a little bit more.

CORE TEAM. Catriona takes a group with the team handling her training during a light moment.

Q: When did you first meet Catriona and what was your first impression of her?

Carlos “Caloy” Buendia Jr. (Runway Coach): I first met Catriona way back in 2014 when I was training her best friend Valerie Weigmann for Miss World Philippines 2014. I can sum up my first impression in one word…”WINNER!” I immediately told pageant friends back then that Catriona’s universal beauty, charming personality, towering height and impeccable communication skills can definitely make her an international pageant superstar.

Jojo Bragais (Shoe Designer/Entrepreneur): I met Catriona through her best friend Valerie Weigmann. It was around 2014 when Valerie was training for MWP. My first impression was that we won’t click because she was too pretty. I thought to myself, “Is she even human?” And because I’m a shy person, baka mailang ako. But I guess first impressions don’t always last. She’s become a really good friend.

Brent Sales (Hairstylist): First time ko nakilala si Catriona was when she was 14 years pa lang. It was for a Nescafe commercial and I was the one assigned to do her hair. Kasi bata pa siya, sobrang tahimik pa siya back then pero maganda na talaga. Una kong tanong sa kanya was ano ang lahi niya. (The first time I met Catriona was when she was 14 years old. It was for a Nescafe commercial and I was assigned to do her hair. She was young, so she was still quiet, but she was very beautiful. My first question was what was her roots.)

Justine Aliman (Stylist): It was only during her Bb. Pilipinas 2018 preparations that I met Catriona through Mamang Brent. I helped with her styling needs along with other stylists. First impression ko of Cat was that she’s very vavaihan (very gorgeous). Ganda talaga. (She’s beautiful) Aside from that she was artisitic and had visions of what kind of outfits she likes. Above all, she seemed like a very loving person with a heart. Totoo pala yun first impression ko sa kanya. (My first impression about her was true.)

Q: Who is the most makulit in your Whatsapp group thread?

Caloy: Everyone! We all have our makulit moments in the thread, including Catriona.

Jojo: Feeling ko si Justine ang pinakamakulit. Yun lahat ng sinasabi kasi niya pwedeng maging viral. Pero she’s very babaihan and emotional also. But always has a sweet way of talking. (I feel it’s Justine. Everything she says would become viral. But she’s also very girly and emotional. But always has sweet way of talking.)

Brent: We have two chat groups. One is the entire team group and the other is the Glam group only. I usually talk to Cat in the Glam group chat along with Jelly Eugenio. Lalo na nung nasa Bangkok na si Cat, kami ni Jelly ang makulit sa chat (Especially in Bangkok when Cat was already there, Jelly and I were active in the chat group).

We always make sure that after she does her hair and makeup, she has to send us a photo so that we can give her suggestions on whether to add more makeup or make adjustments with the hair. We wanted to ensure that she was picture perfect everytime she would go out to an event.

Justine Aliman: Actually, lahat may kanya kanyang trip ng kakulitan. Yun importante kasi is that we positive at encouraging kami sa isa’t isa. (Actually, we all have our makulit moments. What’s important is that we are positive and encouraging to one another.)

MINDANAO BOUND. Jojo Bragais and the team during Catriona's shoot in Cotabato for her Mindanao video.


Q: Who was the most nervous or emotional among the group in Bangkok?

Caloy: I think our hairstylist, Mamang Brent Sales was the most nervous. He held on very tightly to a rosary and I can see that he was so tense.

But when Steve Harvey announced “PHILIPPINES,” I fell on my knees and cried. So, maybe it was a tie between Mamang Brent and myself. I really couldn’t see the others since Mamang Brent and I we’re not seated beside them. But seeing the videos after Jojo, Jolo, Justine and Ardel cried like babies also.

Jojo: All of us were nervous but I got very emotional when Catriona was announced as Miss Universe. (Author’s note: In a video of their reaction, Jojo had an audible cry which was both of joy and relief.)

Justine: I think all of us were nervous until that she was announced as Miss Universe.


On their training experiences with Catriona

Q: How often did you train with Catriona?

Caloy: We would train once or twice a week even before she won Binibining Pilipinas 2018. She is very consistent in attendance and wholeheartedly respected my training process.

Q: Did Cat have bad runway habits that you had to correct?

Caloy: There was a time wherein we focused on the “synching” of arms and feet movements but it is not something bad in my opinion. It was a matter of polishing and perfecting her runway.


FUN TIME. Catriona, Justine, and Caloy during one of the trainings.

Q: What was Catriona’s skill level when she started training?

Caloy: Her walk is very modelesque during our early stages of training but she already has natural grace and musicality that enabled her to move effortlessly.

Q: What was the most challenging part of the runway training with Cat?

Caloy: Apart from the theater and dance workshops that served as an introduction to Catriona’s official runway training, the most challenging parts are the days wherein I made her try different Miss Universe Swimsuit and Evening Gown formulas/choreography (from year 2000-2017) only because it’s very tiring but it is very fulfilling because she never gave up. She picked up the lessons quite easily.

Q: How did you decide on the slow motion turn? What inspired it?

Caloy: After numerous theater and dance workshops, Cat is already equipped with different skills that I can further develop and the slow-motion turn is one of those skills. I was inspired by the movement of “LAVA” that comes out from a volcano hence the “Lava Walk.” It’s very slow at first but becomes so powerful everytime it changes direction. Basic ballet training and contemporary dance movements helped her achieve the trick.

Q: Did you think that the slow mo would be received extremely positively?

Caloy: Absolutely not. Cat and I just thought of signature moves and we didn’t expect the recognition it received worldwide. It still feels surreal.

Q: What was the most memorable part of the training?

Caloy: I had so much fun and I couldn’t single out the most memorable part. I would always remember the day wherein she perfectly achieved my “prelims” and “finals night” vision but then a simple chikahan while we are on break and her last strides during our last training are also very memorable. Every second is memorable and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

HAIR SESSIONS. Brent Sales does Catriona's hair during a taping for ABS-CBN's OBB for Miss Universe.

Q: How ofter did you train Catriona?

Brent: It would depend on Catriona’s availability. But it was usually 2 times or 3 times a week.

Q: Did Catriona have a bad hairstyling habit that you had to correct?

Brent:  It’s not necessarily a bad habit. But it was something she needed to move away from. Mahilig siyang mag bun hairstyle. Sabi ko as much as possible wag na niyang gawin because yun na yung look niya sa Miss World. For Binibini and Miss Universe, it has to be fresh and different. (She loved to do the bun hairstyle. I told her as much as possible to move away from it since she did it in Miss World. For Binibini and Miss Universe, it has to be fresh and different.)

Q: What was Catriona’s level when she started training?

Brent: She already knew a lot about hairstyling. The most important thing was to create totally new and fresh looks. She had to master these new styles so that she could do them quickly when she’s already in competition. Kailangan niyang ma achieve yun mga looks on her own (She needed to achieve the looks on her own quickly).

Q: What was the most challenging part of the hairstyle training with Catriona?

Brent:  Because I knew that the Miss Universe program pacing is very fast, Catriona really had to learn to achieve the looks given the time limit. Pero yun achieve pa rin kahit mabilis. Yun time management pinaka challenging. (You have to do it well even if you’re pressed for time. Time management is difficult.)

 TRIAL. Brent and Justine makes adjustments on hair and Catriona's dress during a fitting session.

Q: Did she pick up easily? What hairstyle did she struggle with?

Brent: Yes, si Catriona kasi mabilis matuto sa mga tinuturo namin kasi talagang nag e-effort siya sa lahat. (Yes, Catriona learned fast because she really put effort into it.)

My instruction to Catriona for the introduction to the swimsuit portion was big hair parted in the middle. Then for the evening gown competition, she should keep the big, wavy hair but make it side part. Very Veronica Lake. This was very challenging to do given the time limit. She wasn’t able to retouch yung hair niya because super bilis nga yun pacing (because the pacing was so fast) and they were being told to go on stage na by the staff. That’s why people noticed she was fixing her hair on stage several times. In the end, she won the crown and that’s what matters. 

 BTS. Justine makes some adjustments on Catriona's dress for the Miss Universe OBB airing on ABS-CBN.

Q: What was Cat’s style when you first met her?

Justine: Catriona was very casual chic. She’s a beautiful woman and it’s hard to make her look bad.

Q: Was there something in her styling that you wanted to correct?

Justine: Actually, I didn’t see anything wrong with her styling. She’s tall and gorgeous. So all she needed to be sure of was the fit of the clothes.

Q: Can you describe the overall styling you wanted for Catriona during the pre-pageant and finals?

Justine: Modern Millenial Filipina. Catriona was fine with the outfits as long as there was a touch of Filipiniana or symbolisms in everything she wore.

TIME OFF. Justine and Catriona take a break in one of their bonding moments.

Q: Were you in charge of the everyday styling?

Justine: Yes, I was the head stylist of the group. But we already have it pre-styled by my co-stylist Vhee Co, Francis Chee, Patrick Henry Mergano and Macky Combe.

Q: What was the most challenging part of the styling process with Cat?

Justine: The most challenging part were the fittings and gathering all the clothes from the different designers. Logistics talaga [is] important. Also, she’s a very tall girl, so finding outfits that would be long enough or had the right proportions was key.

For her prelims and finals gown, Mak made 4 prototypes and 4 styles and different shades to make sure she was comfortable and it was the best for the look for Catriona.

Q: Did Cat collaborate with you or did you get to style her completely?

Justine: Catriona told us the looks and the fabrics that she wanted to incorporate in her wardrobe. We gave our input and suggestions and came up with her wardrobe. I suggested some trends, colors and shared my years styling experiences. As much as possible, I wanted her vision to become a reality so that she could feel her most beautiful.

Q: Who decided on the looks that we saw from day 1 in Bangkok up to the finals?

Justine: I decided for departure outfit and the daily looks. I made sure everything is appropriate for the event and weather. We made sure it would look good from every angle.

Q: Which of her everyday looks was your favorite?

Justine: All of the outfits that she wore during Miss Universe pageant. But If I have to pick, it would be her departure look. The modern interpretation of a Thai-inspired outfit by Anthony Ramirez. That emerald green top with drape detail and black pants looked so regal and classy

KUYA. Jojo clowns for the camera as he, Catriona and Justine shoot in Cotabato for Catriona's Mindanao video.

Q: What was your role in Catriona’s team aside from being her shoe designer?

Jojo: Aside from being her shoe designer, I am like her kuya (older brother), making sure everything is okay. If I need to fund something I will. I just want her to not stress about anything and focus on the competition. I accompanied her in the trips making the videos in Bangkok, Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao along with Jolo Luarca.

Q: I learned that you were mainly responsible for transporting/shipping the massive national costume from Manila to Bangkok. How much did it cost to ship it and do you feel it was worth it?

Jojo: Shipment cost alot. I don’t want to say how much. But, it is all worth it because the national costume by Jearson Demavivas and vision by Carlos Buendia Jr. was well received and is being exhibited at the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).  This is a priceless result because no other Philippine national costume has gained the attention of such an organization that is beyond a fashion perspective.

LUZVIMINDA. Catriona Gray's national costume has been displayed after arriving in Manila last December. Photo from the Miss Universe Organization

Q: How many pairs of Bragais shoes did you give Catriona?

Jojo: Pairs of Bragais shoes? Maybe 8. Aside from the daily wear, she also has competition pageant shoes. I also brought 3 more replicas of the pageant shoes. So, if something went wrong, I got her covered.

Q: Was there a particular pair of Bragais shoes that were her favorite?

Jojo: Usually the Maxine Tribute design and Rachel designs. Ito yun training shoes niya kasi. (These were her training shoes).

But for her pageant itself everything was designed and made for her since she got bit longer toes than the usual person.

Q:  You travelled alot with Catriona, what is your fondest memory of your travels?

Jojo: ZIPLINING! It was my very first first and I’m super afraid of heights. But she really pushed me to do it. Like non stop until I did it. I will never forget that day where I thought I was going to pass out and die!


The most beautiful thing about Team Catriona is that there are no egos, no labels or positions. They are a group of dedicated Filipinos with a deep desire to help Miss Philippines win Miss Universe. They were given that opportunity by a most deserving, genuine and kind woman who showed the world that she can conquer the Universe with a little help from her friends.

They can look back on this journey with so much fondness, a deeper sense of pride in being Filipino and  lots of beautiful memories of friendship that money or a crown cannot buy. –

Voltaire has 10 years experience in the fashion industry. He previously worked with a luxury clothing and accessories brand in Los Angeles, CA. He graduated magna cum laude from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, major in Fashion Design. He also holds a BS in Applied Economics and BS in Marketing from DLSU. He is now doing real estate but finds ample spare time to pursue his passions.

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