Donning her kambal and devit (Benguet ethnic blouse and wrap around skirt), Joemay Leo stepped in the holding room full of beautiful candidates from all over the country in the hopes of becoming the next Miss Universe Philippines.
The room stirred as she enters, all the women wore modern clothes that accentuated their bodies while she wore her 15-year-old kambal and devit. For a moment she panicked, thinking that it might be a wrong choice, but it was too late to go back and change, as her name was called to face the panel of judges led by Miss Universe PH Director Shamcey Supsup.
Of the 40 candidates, there are three mothers. Among the three, Joemay-An Leo from Tuba, Benguet made it as an official candidate in the beauty pageant that promises to be more inclusive of women regardless of marital status.
Leo said her team wanted to highlight the rich cultural heritage of Benguet through the local textiles and beautiful sceneries in the province, which is why she wore her ethnic attire during the screening.
“When I came out wearing ethnic clothes, others did not get it but most of the girls and the panel appreciated it. They said it is very unique and they could really see our identity. Then they learned that I am a mother, and they were supportive, which gave me a boost of confidence,” Leo said.
She is grateful to enter the top 40 among hundreds of candidates, especially now that she is a mother to two-year-old Coukin – a combination of the word courage and kindness.
The 27-year-old 5’ 6” Ibaloy beauty is no stranger to joining beauty pageants as she won as Miss Tuba 2014, Miss Benguet 2014 first runner-up, Miss Baguio 2015 third runner-up, and Miss Cordillera 2016.
The farthest that Leo got in joining pageants was in 2018, when she represented the Cordillera in the Miss World Philippines.
In 2021, she married Wilhelm Abance, a registered nurse and current Municipal Risk Reduction and Management Officer of Tuba.
Last year, Miss Universe announced that after more than 70 years of allowing only single women to join, the beauty pageant now allowed wives and mothers, still ages 18 to 28 years old, to join the competition.
“The fact that the Miss U opened for the mothers, meaning there is inclusivity now unlike beauty pageants before, which is only focused on the glam – the body, the beauty, but now the purpose is to empower women, that is what I also liked with MU,” Leo said.
During the celebration of the Ibaloy Day on Feb. 23, Leo asked the continuous help of her kailian in her journey. She wanted to advocate cultural awareness and sensitivity about the Igorots, especially to break the misconception of the Ibaloys as shy mango.
As a youth leader since elementary, she wanted to encourage the youth to dream and aspire for more.
Her achievements as a student/youth leader include: AY Foundation National Discipline awardee, JCI Youth Leadership Excellence awardee, and Gerry Roxas Leadership awardee.
In 2019, she ran for councilor in Tuba but did not make it.
She currently serves as the Sangguniang Kabataan chair in Barangay Poblacion while juggling her motherhood duties. – Ofelia C. Empian