Basilio Jr. Falisong adjusts his opening outfit and perfects the final touches of his look at the Vivere hotel in Manila, smiling as he takes to the stage.
He is a finalist in the first Man of the Philippines pageant, in Manila, and is representing his local province. He has been followed from his hometown by local fans, bearing banners of his chiseled and brooding portrait.
For Basilio also known as R-Jay, spending hours in blinding Manila traffic to perform in a luxury hotel is a stark contrast to life in his hometown of Belwang.
Belwang is nestled into majestic, rice terraced mountains in the province of Sadanga. There is no road access, and goods of rice and legumes are carried on shoulders and heads.
The 28-year-old is the youngest sibling in a tight knit family of seven and is a proud Igorot, fully descended from the indigenous people of the region. He spent his childhood working as the official porter for his family's shop, hauling goods from the village centre, a challenging five kilometre uphill trail.
“When I was nine years old, I used to haul half a case of beer or a carton of San Miguel after class hours,” he says.
“My people are hospitable and industrious, we are grateful for whatever we have because it is always enough to meet our basic needs. Despite the poverty, our place is endowed with amazing waterfalls, caves that were instrumental in the survival of our ancestors.”
R-Jay only came to know about beauty pageants when his father bought home a television.
“We didn't have electricity until 1999, at that time, my father bought a television and an amazing world opened before my eyes. Most of the time, I watched and dreamed of being seen in the television one day.”
R-Jay’s potential for pageantry was discovered by his chemistry professor, after he moved to Baguio City to study nursing. After a road accident forced him to take a year off studying, he returned to complete his degree and entered the ‘Miss and Mr Nursing,’ competitions at the university.
While R-Jay doesn't win Man of The Philippines pageant he takes home the ‘Man of the Philippines Ambassador’. He says he wants to raise awareness of indigenous knowledge and eco-tourism.
When he returns back to his village, the Mayor of Sadanga hosts a homecoming and victory party, where the community gathers in proud celebration.
Pageant blogger Drew Francisco says pageants for men are becoming more popular.
“I think pageants have been ingrained in the Filipino culture since time immemorial. It started from the pre- World War II Carnival Queens competitions... we have pageants to celebrate every festival,” he says.
Entering a three-year old daughter in a ‘toddlers in tiaras’ pageant like ‘Little Miss Philippines,’ or going to support the local primary school’s events is a normal past-time in the Philippines.
There are ‘Mr and Miss Deaf,’ pageants, competitions for the LGBTQ community, and even pageants exclusively for countries that produce bananas.
Some contestants attend pageant training camps up to a year in advance in preparation.
Carina Carino, a judge at the Man of the Philippines finals and first runner up for Miss Millennial, says for many contestants pageants are seen as a way to a better life.
“There are girls who see this as an opportunity, first to feed their family, to get out of wherever they are in life,” she says.
“In the Philippines, or at least for me, pageants are the building blocks for where you want to go in the future."
The author travelled to the Philippines as part of The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour, a University of Technology Sydney (UTS) programme supported by the New Colombo Plan (NCP) mobility grants.
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