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‘I became anorexic. I was self-harming. I was pulling my hair’: Pia Wurtzbach bares mental health struggles even before Miss Universe reign

By NICK GARCIA Published Dec 12, 2021 12:45 pm

Trigger warning: self-harm, abuse, depression

"I want to paint a picture not of a perfect beauty queen, but of a real person with real-life experiences."

Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach, the third Filipino to win the title and the first one to do so in 42 years, went public with her mental health struggles for the very first time.

In her TED Talk debut, Wurtzbach said she has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depression following multiple sessions with medical experts after winning the much-coveted Miss Universe crown.

"From the outside, it looked like a fairy-tale ending," Wurtzbach said on TEDxSingapore uploaded on her YouTube channel Dec. 10. "Girl joins a beauty pageant, wins it—almost didn't," in reference to Steve Harvey's Miss Colombia announcement gaffe.

"(She then) moves on with her life doing amazing things," she added, all while receiving thousands of death threats after the fact.

Wurtzbach also recalled her heart-rending years even before her Miss Universe stint.

She said her father left their family when she was nine years old. Upon turning 11, she took her stab at modeling in order to help her single mother put food on the table.

Wurtzbach also narrated how her family used to live in a shanty by the riverside, and the harrowing experience of chest-level floodwaters entering their humble abode during typhoons.

During her 20s, Wurtzbach, who went by the screen name Pia Romero, said she had been a "struggling actress" who only made do with "paycheck to paycheck."

Wurtzbach also recalled her Binibining Pilipinas days, in which she won the title in 2015 after a third attempt. She said some fellow contestants have mocked her for being a "failed actress," and was thus only settling for pageants.

She also talked about her "first serious relationship" that had been, apparently, an abusive one.

"I was psychologically manipulated," Wurtzbach said. "He made me quit my job. I stopped seeing my friends. I stopped making my own money."

All of this, Wurtzbach said, caught up to her "and manifested itself in an ugly, self-destructive way," especially that she's never acknowledged her sadness off of it.

I wasn't missing a beat at all. Nobody saw it. I was always on time. I never missed a day of work and I just kept going.

Yet despite her inner battles, the Miss Universe 2015 has never been remiss of her duties, saying she's "working nonstop and traveling to different countries and working with different organizations."

"I wasn't missing a beat at all. Nobody saw it," she said. "I was always on time. I never missed a day of work and I just kept going."

But when the doors of her room close, Wurtzbach said she's a different person altogether.

She, then, bared her "unhealthy coping habits," noting that they're "plural."

Wurtzbach said the worry in her head were "louder than the cheers" she's been receiving from millions of supporters.

She was harming herself by pulling her hair, a condition called trichotillomania, and by turning to alcohol abuse, she said.

She also suffered from anorexia, an eating disorder in which one overly starves the self due to intense fear of becoming fat.

"You'd think that the crown and the title would be the bandage to all of that. You'd think it would be enough to make sense of all the pain and rejection, but it didn't," she said.

"I realized that all of the things that I didn't address when I was younger came back to me in a big and harmful way," she noted.

But Wurtzbach said that even if she's "slowly deteriorating inside," she decided to hide her struggles to avoid disappointing the Philippines.

“All my life my purpose was to please others, to fit in, to be the Miss Universe everybody wanted me to be," she said. "Imagine being celebrated as a strong, resilient, determined woman, but deep inside you're going through that."

That's why Wurtzbach said she was so lucky that the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) came to her rescue and treated her "like family."

She also acknowledged her "privilege," noting that in her country, the problem lies deep within the system. Citing ballpark figures, Wurtzbach said there are 800 registered psychiatrists vis-à-vis the 110 million Filipinos.

The MUO itself, she said, arranged for her therapy sessions in New York and Los Angeles.

Wurtzbach noted that the organization gave privacy during the difficult time and did not force her into healing. She was also grateful that they didn't replace her as queen.

I wanted to face my demons and finally take care of my heart. Something I didn't do or never cared to do.

“I was determined to stay strong, to continue my mission, my purpose, and to turn things around," she said. "I wanted to face my demons and finally take care of my heart. Something I didn't do or never cared to do."

Moving forward, Wurtzbach said that in this "next chapter" of her life, she feels that she's finally "breaking free from all of the things that everybody thought I should be."

In the last few minutes of her TED Talk, Wurtzbach recited in full her already-iconic answer in the final Q&A portion of the 2015 pageant.

"To be a Miss Universe is both an honor and responsibility. If I were to be Miss Universe, I will use my voice to influence the youth, and I would raise awareness to certain causes like HIV awareness that is timely and relevant to my country which is the Philippines. I want to show the world, the universe rather, that I am confidently beautiful with a heart," she said.

Reflecting on her "confidently beautiful with a heart" remark, Wurtzbach posed this question: "How do you show the world, the universe rather, that you are confidently beautiful with a heart?"

In her note-to-self answer to her very own million-dollar question, Wurtzbach said, "In this next chapter of your life, choose you this time. That regardless of your struggles, that regardless of your imperfections, that regardless of your missteps, it's what's in here that matters," as she points at her heart.

"I want to remind you to stay true to yourself and to your purpose. And I hope you do it with all your heart. Thank you," she ended.

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If you or your loved ones need help, the National Center for Mental Health's Crisis Hotline is available at 1553, 0917-899-8727, and (02) 7-989-8727.