Miss Universe 2020 Rabiya Mateo will be passing on her crown to her successor on Thursday, Sept. 30.
Rabiya’s days as the country’s first MUP, under a new local franchisee owned by former Ilocos Sur governor Chavit Singson, will be over this week—and the soon-to-be former beauty queen is feeling a “mix of emotions” when PhilSTAR L!fe caught up with her over Zoom for an exclusive interview.
Rabiya is raring to give showbiz a try as she sets aside, for the meantime, her earlier dream of becoming a full-time physical therapist. “I can’t share anything definite with you yet, but I might do a movie within the year,” says the 24-year-old beauty queen, who’s managed by Empire Philippines. “I’m also leaning towards hosting.”
She also confesses nursing a crush on actor Dingdong Dantes since she was in kindergarten. But before Dingdong gets offended by the seeming reference to his age, if given a chance, Rabiya wants him to become her first onscreen leading man. She also dreams of working with Marian Rivera, Dingdong’s wife, and Joshua Garcia.
“I want to work with and learn from people I look up to,” she reasons. “I feel they could enrich me professionally as well as through their life experiences.”
In preparation for her showbiz career, Rabiya has done a couple of acting workshops since her reign started almost a year ago. She credits such acting exercises for boosting her confidence in front of the cameras. To her, the best form of acting is still “no acting.” She still finds it hard to cry on cue and, if given a choice, she would much rather star in a romance-comedy.
I told myself that I should probably read comments of bashers on social media to help me cry before a scene. But you know what? I’m very much open to doing kontrabida roles. I think they’re more challenging and satisfying to do.
“I told myself that I should probably read comments of bashers on social media to help me cry before a scene,” she says with a hearty laugh. “But you know what? I’m very much open to doing kontrabida roles. I think they’re more challenging and satisfying to do.”
She’s putting off doing sexy roles for the moment. Her mother, she says, has yet to feel comfortable seeing her first-born do kissing scenes on screen. “I tried to bargain with her,” Rabiya adds with a chuckle. “I asked her if it would be okay with her if I do a quick kissing scene for, say, two to three seconds.”
With her pageant days almost behind her, a radiant-looking Rabiya also ditched her thick wavy locks in favor of a shorter, sleeker hairstyle. Smiling, even giggling, comes easy for her, as she shares with us highlights of her journey, including lessons she’s learned so far as a newly minted public figure. From dealing with bashers—“the best thing to do is not to give them power over you by simply ignoring them”—to her responsibilities as a celebrity, especially to the country’s impressionable youth, Rabiya has a lot to say.
“Yes, I can now post on social media without having to overthink about how other people will react. To tell you the truth, I don’t care anymore what they would say. At the same time though, I know my responsibilities as a public figure and role model. I’m aware of what’s proper and worth sharing with the public,” she says.
She attributes her glowing aura, which people, including us, have been noticing of late, to relief from the heavy burden she was saddled with, especially during the run-up to Miss Universe. Not only will she be relieved of her obligations, she muses, “I will soon be free to be myself again.”
Does love have something to do with that glow? Her management team requested us beforehand not to ask her about matters of the heart, but it’s public knowledge that she and her boyfriend of seven years, nurse Neil Salvacion, had broken up some time after Rabiya competed in Miss Universe.
“There are days when I’m excited for myself and the next winner,” she continues in a mix of English and Filipino. “But there are days as well when I feel a bit sentimental. Being crowned as the first Miss Universe Philippines wasn’t only historic. On a personal level, it has been a long journey for me.”
Long may seem like an understatement for Rabiya, who had to quit her regular job in Iloilo as a lecturer in a review center for aspiring physical therapists, to pursue her dream of becoming a national beauty queen. Prior to her debut on the national stage, Rabiya was crowned Miss Iloilo. No less than Miss Universe 2011 Shamcey Supsup, current MUP national director and one of the judges of the pageant, already saw Rabiya’s potential.
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“As my family’s breadwinner, quitting my regular job was a very difficult decision for me to do,” she shares. “There was a time late last year, for example, when we were headed to Baguio for the finals when I only had P7,000 left in my wallet.”
As if giving up her regular job wasn’t difficult enough, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic soon hit after she and her fellow MUP candidates were formally introduced to the public in February 2020. “It was really hard, especially as the [local] finals drew nearer,” she looks back. “None of us could risk getting infected. Once we tested positive, we’re out! Months of preparation and training would all go down the drain.”
Then her days in the United States to compete in Miss Universe last May, her first-ever trip outside the Philippines, also had its share of peaks and valleys.
While it was a trip of a lifetime, enabling the probinsiyana Rabiya, as she describes herself, to travel to five states and 13 US cities after the pageant, her earlier experience during the run-up to the contest itself was fraught with tension and disappointments, including, of course, her failure to go beyond the Top 21.
Since she handily won Miss Iloilo and MUP back in the country, Rabiya says, “I initially felt like a failure in Florida” after being unable to advance beyond the first cut in Miss Universe.
“My goal was to bring home the crown and make Filipinos proud of me,” she says. “But it soon dawned on me that winning is not always for you. It doesn’t mean I was a failure just because I wasn’t able to penetrate the Top 10. I’ve sacrificed a lot. I really did my best. Nilaban ko talaga ng buong puso at isip ko hanggang sa dulo, but I soon realized na hanggang doon na lang talaga. When you encounter such moments, you yourself would be the best person to give yourself a much-needed pep talk.”
I initially felt like a failure in Florida. My goal was to bring home the crown and make Filipinos proud of me. But it soon dawned on me that winning is not always for you. Nilaban ko talaga ng buong puso at isip ko hanggang sa dulo, but I soon realized na hanggang doon na lang talaga.
Although recovering from her loss wasn’t as easy and as quick as changing from swimsuit to evening gown, she gradually bounced back from it, no small thanks to MJ Lastimosa. Having competed in Miss Universe herself in 2014, MJ, who eventually became like a big sister to Rabiya, knows how it is to carry the entire weight of the country’s expectations on her shoulders and come up short.
“She came to Florida to watch and cheer me on,” she says. “After I lost, we got to talk.”
Apart from the usual words of commiseration, what MJ said to Rabiya soon weaned her from her disappointment. Losing in Miss Universe, although painful doesn’t mean the end of your life, says Rabiya, quoting MJ. Actually, it’s just the beginning of a lot of wonderful things in store for you.
“And it’s proving to be true,” Rabiya gushes. “That’s why thankful ako kahit hindi ako nanalo. There are a number of upcoming projects as soon as I turn over my crown.”
In hindsight though, she admits to mulling over plenty of what ifs, fueled in no small way by a deluge of both well-meaning and nasty online criticisms that came her way before and soon after the finals—from her makeup, to the color of her gown, down to her walk, national costume and hairstyle.
“If there’s one thing I would have changed if given the chance to go back in time, I would have probably deactivated my social media accounts,” she says. Since social media has now become an extension of a beauty queen’s battleground to create buzz and win over fans both for herself and the pageant, it was impossible for Rabiya to do so.
“It would be good if they could hire a social media manager instead of isolating our next queen from all the basher-and-fan wars.”
Bashers, she explains, now transcend race and nationality, as fans fight over social media trying to promote their respective bets at their rivals’ expense.
“It was consoling in a way when I got to talk to the other delegates like Miss South Africa and Miss Chile,” Rabiya discloses. “Hindi lang pala ako ang umiyak because of what I’ve read on social media. Many girls also had their share of bashers.”
But after having experienced life under the limelight, Rabiya wouldn’t have it any other way. Her life is now a far cry from what it was before. “There was a time na halos wala na kaming makain,” Rabiya, who has been estranged from her Indian-American father since she was five shares. “We were also deep in debt. If not for my mother who was very ambitious in a good way and had the vision to inspire and give us the best education, I don’t know what would have happened to us.”
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Rabiya, who was a scholar in college, has a younger brother who also recently finished Physical Therapy. She and her mother are now based in Manila, while her brother is still in Iloilo reviewing for the board exams.
She’s also not completely turning her back on teaching, she says. And since most schools these days, including review centers, still conduct classes online, Rabiya is confident that she could manage teaching future physical therapists a few hours each week to help them ace their board exams.
“I also want to share with you my dream of trying to fulfill the requirements to practice Physical Therapy in the US,” she concludes. “Hindi rin siya madali gawin because it takes five to seven years to do that. I’m working on it little by little. By that time, I’d probably be married and raising my own family. When that happens, I want to retreat to a more private life.”
The Miss Universe Philippines 2021 coronation night will be held on Thursday, Sept. 30, in Bohol.
Banner photo courtesy of Rabiya Mateo