Gemma fondly remembers her mom, iconic writer Chitang Nakpil

A lesson for Gemma

When she joined the search for Miss Philippines, she played it in the competition’s talent portion.

Gemma joined the Miss Philippines search upon the suggestion of her friends, Bert Pedrosa and Erehwon Bookstore owner Tony Abaya.

“The two submitted my name to the search committee. The City Hall of Manila held the franchise, and they used it to raise funds for Boys’ Town and Girls’ Town.

“The requirement was to look for a candidate who looked like a Filipina,” Gemma shared.

“And then, the two gave me the details. They said they already paid the fee of P100. And that I had to go to Manila Fashion to have my clothes measured. I also needed what looked like a pair of shorts, instead of a bathing suit. The final judging was at the Alba Restaurant on Roxas Boulevard where many fine restaurants were located.”

Her mom Chitang’s reaction was, “Ikaw ang bahala, kung gusto mong gumastos.”

“Since my name had been submitted already, they could not do anything about it. Besides, they felt it was going to be more of a lesson for me, parang sige na nga, let’s see what you’ll get out of this, you’ll regret it, parang ganoon.”

Her family did not exhibit any optimistic reaction. “No one taught me how to move, or walk, or pose. Or how to apply my make-up to suit the spotlight. None of those. So, ano ‘yun, I was going to join, and what you saw was what you got.”

Since she didn’t have high-heeled shoes. The requirement was a pair of white ones, but her mom had black, so she was the only one who wore black high heeled shoes.

Well-informed contestant

It was a one-night event in which they contestants were interviewed by the panel of judges that included couturier Ramon Valera, socialite politician Carmen Planas and John Nance, who was the foreign correspondent of the Associated Press.

But first, the beauties, 13 of them, had to walk around wearing their swimsuits (more of play suits that looked like short pants).

Then came the question portion, in which the candidates were asked about the acting secretary of foreign affairs. Gemma received the nod of the judges when she showed her knowledge of current events by pointing out that “he was the acting secretary,” which, to the judges, made a difference. If at all, it showed she was well-informed.

Shocked faces

She next wore a beautiful Slim’s terno which her mother, Chitang, lent to her. At some point, Chitang just gave her approval, but not really expecting her to win. It was more of a mother who felt obliged, but not hopeful for her daughter to win the prize.

Gemma then stood out when she played the nose flute. “My picture was taken while I was playing it. All the faces of the other contestants looked shocked.” She was the runaway winner.

Center of Attention

“I didn’t know that I was going to make it but I wanted to make it,” Gemma shared. “Bert Pedroza and Tony Abaya said I would be the center of attention because I was tall and I looked like a Filipina so we better win.

“Anyway, noong nakita ko yung ibang girls sabi ko wow ang gaganda nila sabi ni mommy siguro dapat umuwi na tayo.” (When I saw the other girls, they were all beautiful. So, mommy said maybe we should go home instead.)

It wasn’t just that the other girls were beautiful. Her own relatives were raising a howl. To them, it was as though she had entered the stupidest contest.

Mapping out Gemma’s victory plan

“The Guerreros were angry,” her mother told me in another interview when I recalled that the Guerreros did not want her daughter to join the Miss International tilt. “Her Tito Leony sent a cablegram to Long Beach, where the pageant was being held. ‘Basta de barbaridades,’ or ‘Stop this foolishness.’ ‘Stop this barbarism.’ (My relatives) were offended. That’s a cheap thing.”

What they didn’t know was it was Chitang who mapped out Gemma’s intended conquest of Long Beach.

“I would tell her, ‘You should powder here, you should powder there. You should wear this.’ She was wearing my clothes. One of her gowns was mine. And I had a Ramon Valera terno. Ginamit niya. When she won, it was a Slim’s. I had it made for her. We were not allowed to go near them while they had their activities, but when they had a break, we would see each other in the lobby. And that was when I would tell her in Tagalog, ‘Yung powder mo, masyadong maputi.’”

Still, backing out of the international beauty tilt might have been easier, but going home was out of the question. Back home, before flying to Long Beach, she had already won a scholarship grant to Mexico, because it was Philippine-Mexican Friendship year. She was recommended by the Philippine’s National Museum and the National Historical Institute.

“I was granted scholarship to study Museology in Mexico. Actually, I had extra two suitcases with clothes to bring to Mexico because in my other suitcases were my competition gowns. So ang sabi ng mommy anyway you’re not going to win, were going directly to Mexico.

Unlike in the Miss Philippines tilt, the Miss International Pageant did not have a talent portion.

Winning for Boys’ Town

Gemma related, “We were asked to make a speech which we were going to record, and this would be delivered as we were walking. The audience would then see you walking while they would also hear your voice delivering your speech.”

Years later, when she went out to lunch with one of the former organizers, the lady said, “’Remember Gemma when we asked the candidates to write a speech and that we could help write your own speech but just tell us what you wanted to say, I was surprised when you said you’d write my own speech.’ When she read my speech, she found it okay.

“All I said in that speech was that I wanted to win. Siyempre walang nagsabi noon (of course, no one said that). I said I wanted to win not for me but for my country. If I win I would give the prize money to Boys’ Town and Girls Towns, the home for children who sleep in the streets.

“My mommy was pleased. Naku, marunong ka talaga (You really are smart). You know how it is with Americans. They always want to know what you would do with the money that they will give you. I replied that I really wanted to donate it to Boys Town and she was very amused. I guess my speech gave me points.

Not only was Gemma happy to win. The Filipino nation cheered for her. Young and old, rich and poor, the intelligentsia and the man on the street all welcomed her with a ticker tape parade in Escolta.

“I was glad that I won because I knew that the Filipinos were so obsessed with international beauty contests. A year earlier, they felt disappointed when Lalaine Bennet did not get the top prize in the Miss Universe Contest. In 1955. Bessie Ocampo went as far as semi-finalist in the Miss Universe Contest. The Filipinos were praying and hoping she would make it as Miss Universe.

But other than hoping and wanting to make it, Gemma said, “very sincerely I wanted to donate my money to the Boys’ Town, because it was a fund-raising project for the Boys’ Town and besides, I thought that if I won I wanted to make my victory meaningful.”

Ostrich hats

Finally, I reminded Gemma about the “straw hats” that women began to wear after she won and arrived at the airport in that attractive-looking hat.

She corrected me. “It wasn’t straw. It was ostrich feathers. That was my mother’s idea.

“How come everybody was wearing it?” I asked

“Because they were stimulating it, but that was my mother’s idea because she found out that Mayor Villegas had planned this parade all over the city so she said, ‘you will be exposed in the sun, you have to wear a hat. So we went out. She dragged me along and we shopped for that hat.”

She was very young when she brought home the crown to the country. She was only 20.

Years later, when we became friends, I asked her how she felt about winning. Was she overwhelmed by all the attention, the glory and the honor?

“No,” she said. “My mom used to say, “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.” In English, “Thus passes the glory of the world.”

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