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Samantha Bernardo: A grand twist of fate

Pia Wurtzbach, Catriona Gray, Kylie Versoza, Bea Rose Santiago, Karen Gallman – many Filipinos remember their crowning moment in their international pageants that gave pride and honor to the country. But what many don’t see are the life-changing decisions, stress, and difficulties they endured to get there.

In today’s pageant arena, being a candidate entails as much dedication and hard work as an athlete. They don’t just wake-up, brush their teeth, pick a gown, and then win. Although many of these women are born beautiful, the skills, the body, and the mental fortitude it takes to win require passion and grit.

Samantha Bernardo’s appointment as Binibining Pilipinas Grand International 2020 is a mixture of determination and destiny. 

Bernardo first entered Bb. Pilipinas in 2018 and emerged as 2nd Runner-up. It was an extremely tough batch that produced a Miss Universe (Catriona Gray), a 1st Runner-up in Miss International (Ahtisa Manalo), and the country’s first-ever Miss Intercontinental (Karen Gallman). It was a result that she could be very proud of.

In her second attempt, Bernardo comes in as a veteran along with her fellow runner-up Vickie Rushton. Both were touted by most pageant watchers as sure crown contenders. But fate relegated Bernardo to 2nd runner-up a second time. Many questioned if Bernardo would keep the placement because she was not seen in the initial weeks after the coronation. But she was gracious and demonstrated her sportsmanship by fulfilling her role without contest or question.

To have the support and confidence of people in pushing her to try for the third time is both flattering and stressful. In Bernardo’s case, the decision wasn’t easy. There were many doubts and realities of life that she had to confront. (IN PHOTOS: Samantha Bernardo's journey to the Miss Grand International Philippines crown)

Photo from Bb Pilipinas

Photo from Bb Pilipinas

Photo By Voltaire Tayag

At one point, Bernardo kept convincing herself that her pageant life was over and she needed to make different life decisions. Pageant aspirants, of course, are just like most people who need to make a living; they do not just sit around and post OOTDs (outfit of the day) on their social media while waiting for the next pageant. They have to make money to support themselves and, in some cases, their families as well.

Bernardo dabbled in being an insurance broker in one of the top insurance companies in the Philippines. She was setting her career path and was being very practical and realistic in her approach. She felt she was getting older and her contemporaries now had two to three years of work experience ahead of her. Would she forego work opportunities once more in pursuit of a dream? Bernardo wondered if joining a third time would be wise when the previous attempts were unsuccessful. 

One of her proud achievements after the pageant was being awarded Philippine Elite Belle 2019 by Hollywood Weekly Magazine and JPP Dreamworld Productions. Bernardo said that beyond her pageant career, being recognized for her work in Salinlahi “A Malaria Benefit Concert” and all her efforts with the Philippine Movement Against Malaria are her proudest achievements.

But the passion and heart to be a beauty queen were at the core of Bernardo’s being, beckoning her to reconsider. With the wise advice of her mentor, Rodgil Flores of the Kagandahang Flores camp, Bernardo would put aside her career temporarily one last time. During the Bb Pilipinas 2020 Official Screening, Bernardo told the media: "I feel like I'm already me from all what happened from last year and I hope really this year, Bb Pilipinas will acknowledge that and will reward me from all my hard work and my passion.”

Bernardo’s Bb. Pilipinas journey was so promising at the start of 2020... until the pandemic happened. Once again, she was tested with so many challenges to overcome in a very uncertain world. With both career and pageant life at a seeming standstill, Bernardo took this opportunity to focus on herself and did a lot of meditation and yoga. Her inner strength pushed her to keep going.

From an interview I had with Bernardo along with all 39 other delegates last February 2020, it is now very interesting to listen to her answer when asked to say something that people probably don’t know about her, she said: “I joined Bb. Pilipinas first time out of curiosity, out of just trying. Because after my Dad died, I realized life is really too short. I have so many regrets from the past that I didn’t do. And I feel that one of those was not joining Binibini. So I just tried during Catriona Gray's [time]. And then when I got to the Top 14, I was like ‘I can win this.' My only prayer that night was ‘God, hopefully, I would be in the Top 8 and I will get a crown. And God gave it to me. For the first time in history, 55 years, it’s the first time that runners-up have a crown.”

She went on to say, “Maybe it’s all about timing and so I joined again. Yes, some things are not meant to be. To all the people who believed in me, that paved the way for me to join again. I just want to enjoy the journey, I just want to maximize everything that I can be. Maybe win.”

Photo by Dyowi Contreras

With the pandemic still raging and major pageants being canceled or postponed, the question of age eligibility started to factor into the fates of pageant hopefuls. Even though the pageant delays were through no fault of their own, a candidate who aged out during this period would sadly become ineligible for certain titles. Her fellow 2018 runner-up Vickie Rushton would no longer be eligible for Miss International, the very crown she came back to compete for. 

Samantha and Vickie Rushton during the 2020 screening.

Photo by Voltaire Tayag

Early January 2020, Bernardo’s friend and Bb. Pilipinas 2019 1st Runner-up Aya Abesamis was appointed Bb. Pilipinas Grand International 2019. But even back then, according to an interview with Manila Bulletin, she said wasn't sure if she'd still be able to compete in an international pageant: "Yun ang hindi ako sure. Hindi po namin napag-usapan ‘yung part na iyon but as of now, I just have to do my duties.” (That I am not sure. We haven't talked about it yet.)

Bernardo was officially Miss Grand Philippines on the official Miss Grand International Facebook Page and the Official Bb. Pilipinas FB page, alongside a photo of a Samantha Bernardo doing a wai. 

Sources say that BPCI exerted all efforts in giving Abesamis the right to compete in Miss Grand International. However, the age requirements stand, regardless of the pandemic. It can be surmised that Samantha Bernardo, being the previous 2nd runner-up and being eligible to compete, was the first choice of the organization. Like with all pageant franchises, the national franchise holder must abide by the rules and regulations set forth in the contract with the international franchise holder. 

Despite her busy schedule, Bernardo was gracious enough to answer a few questions I asked her.

Q: How did you find out that you would be Miss Grand Philippines?

Samantha: I found out when Sir Gines from Bb. Pilipinas called me over the phone while I was in Boracay. My team and I have been waiting for this opportunity since last year and they are more than happy for me. I know that I can't do this alone so I immediately share the good news with my #AweSam Team! I'm blessed that I found not only friends but family in them too.

Q: What was your first thought after finding out?

Samantha: Oh my gosh! This is it, I'm officially Miss Grand Philippines 2020!

Q: What are you looking forward to in MGI?

Samantha: Aside from meeting the MGI Family, my co-candidates, and exploring Thailand, I am looking forward to adding more value to the organization as a Ms. Grand International Philippines 2020. I know that our past queens did an amazing job but I want to STOP THE WAR by creating sustainable peace which can be only achieved through kind communication, proper education, and cultural understanding.

Q: Does this change your life/career plans?

Samantha: None at all. I am so thankful that despite the pandemic that happened last year, I was able to pivot to something better and adapted easily. I still got my promotion as a Manager Candidate in Sun Life Philippines and I was able to build my own business named DreamQueen Apparel. I also still got modeling jobs and was invited to different seminars as a motivational speaker. I feel like everything is aligned, and I thank God for everything. That's why my in Bb. Pilipinas video title before is, "Let Go and Let God" because that's what I always feel. As I always trust and lift everything to him.

Bernardo has gone through a whirlwind of activities in preparation for the upcoming competition. Miss Grand International 2019 Valentina Figuera of Venezuela will crown her successor on March 27, 2021, in Thailand. The last 2 Filipinas to place in the pageant were Nicole Cordoves (1st runner-up 2016) and Elizabeth Clenci (2nd runner-up 2017).