Sunny afternoons, a tape recorder, two historic queens. Let’s eavesdrop
Their crowns were won 32 years apart.
Janice Banez Minor won hers in 1984 when the competition was still known as Miss Cebu Tourism, taking her place in history as the first title holder of the storied pageant spearheaded by the Cebu City government. Two years later, she started her eponymous furniture export company with husband Paul, later on winning several Katha Awards for Product Design from Manila FAME and the prestigious Golden Shell Award for excellence in export from the Philippine government. Her pieces embody good design, incorporating her signature recycled glass with wrought iron and petrified wood, all proudly made in Cebu.
Gabrielle Raine Baljak was crowned Miss Cebu in 2016 ( the competition had been renamed in 2002), barely out of high school. Of Croatian, Spanish, and Chinese descent, her Cebuano roots are tethered to the Katipunero Abellanas. She is also the daughter of a beauty queen: Her mother Merce Abellana was Miss Mandaue in 1984 and was in the top 10 of Binibining Pilipinas in 1990.
The first and 32nd queens of a prestigious competition come together for an unprecedented discussion on how winning the title changed their lives and what it means to stand for Cebu.
Janice: So Gab, how did you like your year as Ms. Cebu? Was it fun?
Raine: It was a really busy year. I feel like I grew a lot within that span of time. A lot of different activities helped me discover not only myself but also Cebu, which is really growing and changing. There are so many people who are passionate about their careers, and everything is so fast- paced. The different sectors and groups that I got involved with helped me discover how much potential there is here, how much more the world has yet to discover about Cebu.
Janice: I really grew also. When I won the crown, I was 23 years old. I had no idea, really, what it was going to be about. I was just pushed into it by friends and teachers, but once I got into it, I enjoyed myself. “Since I’m here, I’m going to have fun.” I used it for the purpose that it was set [ for]. At the time, it really was purposeful because Cebu was struggling as far as tourism was concerned. We already had tourists, but [ we were perceived with] a wrong impression that Cebu had nothing to do with. Sex tourism was happening in other parts of the country; the Philippines was becoming a destination for that. At the time, Cebu had a number of Japanese tourists, and the province needed to break away from that wrong image. That was the purpose of [ the creation of ] Miss Cebu then. It was actually called Miss Cebu- Japan at first to directly establish a relationship with the Japanese tourism market. As a result of the first Miss Cebu Tourism contest, we became sister cities with Tokyo, and we established the first Tokyo- Cebu flights. That was cool. That started the ball rolling for Cebu to have an image [ independent from the rest of the country’s].
Raine: Similar to your experience, I worked with the Good Shepherd Foundation, a convent run by the Good Shepherd. I learned of these young ladies who came from backgrounds of physical abuse. After working with them, I learned that we haven’t moved far from that [ social problem]. But at least there are people trying to do their part to uplift people and give them hope, and at the same time give them opportunities, because a lot of these girls are brilliant. They’re scholars, and
some of them graduate from [ top Cebu] universities like the University of San Jose Recolletos and University of Cebu. They have degrees in business, medicine, and teaching, so it’s quite wonderful. [ The foundation] hit its 30th year during my reign, so it was very nice to celebrate their 30th anniversary with them. I developed a close relationship with these ladies, like younger sisters.
Janice: I really think the Miss Cebu experience did not only affect us but the public— the Cebuanos. We began to appreciate what we’re about, because that’s what the queens would talk about: what’s in Cebu [ and] what to love in Cebu. That really worked. We can be proud about that because we made a difference. But having said that, I don’t think you [ and] I should ever think of it as the end. [ It was] just a season in our lives where we were able to do this. [ Then] we move on and explore things.
Raine: But it’s still with you. You carry the etiquette, the manners, and the knowledge you gained about history and culture. You bring it with you everywhere you go. You’re always somehow still an ambassador because whenever someone asks you what’s there to do in Cebu, you always have an answer.
Janice: You’re ready! ( Snaps fingers) Don’t get me started or I won’t stop! ( Laughs)
Raine: Because the excitement is still there, no matter where we go.
Janice: I’d like to think that everyone who became Miss Cebu really became a good ambassador, not only for that one year— one year is too short. [ The experience] molds you and propels you to a lifetime of promoting Cebu. I never thought when I was in the contest that I would ever be in manufacturing, but when I got into it with my husband who, of course, taught me everything [ I know] about the industry, it gave me a platform to talk about Cebu [ whenever I went to] international shows, bringing people here to see the craft and to meet the artisans. Raine: We’re a creative hub. Janice: Yes! During my time, 1984, it was really a hub of the export industry. Jewelry, rattan, stones, shells, a lot of export was coming out of Cebu.
Raine: I was 18 when I applied to compete so I really grew [ with] the
I really think the Miss Cebu experience did not only affect us but the public— the Cebuanos. We began to appreciate what we’re about, because that’s what the queens would talk about: what’s in Cebu [ and] what to love in Cebu.
experience. A month after the coronation, I joined Creative Cebu, an organization built on cultivating, promoting, and shaping the arts scene. They work with Qube gallery and HoliCOW ( Holistic Coalition of the Willing), a sustainable furniture and homeware company; so I got to immerse myself in the trade that you pioneered, in that sense. To see the weaving, the craftsmanship, the visual arts, the aesthetic, and also the meaning of everything and how people from the outskirts get their jobs and opportunities from all the trade that goes on in the city— it’s incredible. It’s really a community collaboration. The creativity that happens here is really out of the box and the materials we have are so unique. I was just in Medellin ( in Northern Cebu) and there, they make jars out of banana leaves that have this glossy glass finish. They’re beautiful. And here in the BusayBalamban area, they do abaca weaving, which holds a lot of potential. You kind of pioneered that, so now, younger generations carry on what was started and find new ways to share it with everyone.
Janice: There are a lot of communities involved in each product, and at every level there is expertise. And there is someone who puts it together, takes it abroad, and markets it. I really fell in love with this business. It was an immediate departure from [ serving] economic needs to just loving what I do. It’s very fulfilling.
Raine: That’s the amazing part of living in Cebu now, because even [ for those] in industries like fashion, makeup, cinematography, and photography, they are able to do what they love and survive on it. It’s nice that we have these markets and opportunities now. During my mom’s time, artists were struggling; it was more difficult for them. But it has changed with all the travel opportunities for people to come here. During my reign, I was able to host Air Asia’s launch from Cebu to Taiwan, and PAL also launched direct flights to LA [ at the same time]. These sorts of opportunities, plus social media as a platform, allow us and the world to discover what really is here.
Janice: It’s a tiny island in the middle of the archipelago, but our exposure to the world is direct. It’s a wide gate. That’s one thing very unique about Cebu.
Raine: Even with connecting flights, everyone goes through the heart of the Philippines which is right here. It’s easy to go to Siargao or Palawan [ from Cebu].
Janice: More power to the ones who are organizing the new Miss Cebu. I hope it will go with the flow and in fact, continue and expand the opportunities more. But we had a good run, didn’t we?
Raine: Absolutely. In our own way, the things we were able to do really shaped us to be the women we are now.
Janice: And somehow, we influenced others. We’re grateful to be put in that position.
Raine: And blessed, with the Sto. Niño really guiding us. I feel like history is something that keeps us connected to our roots and allows us to discover ourselves more. Before the coronation, for two or three months, we [ the candidates] immersed ourselves in Cebu’s history, the tourism, the different sectors of trade, communication, etiquette— much more than modeling and fashion. I learned a lot about our place that I had never learned
in school, and it was a very life- changing experience. It’s what kind of pushed me. After the coronation, I made it a point to help develop the youth by sharing what I learned about the Cebuano community. I got involved with Create Cebu and Dreamfestival of Global Shapers, I did a TED talk at USJR, and worked with the Good Shepherd Convent and the Rise Above Foundation. I worked with the Batang Pinangga in Carmen. The Miss Cebu title allows me to connect with groups and connect people [ who] all have a passion centered on wanting to help Cebu grow and flourish. Having this opportunity to grow with the title is special. It has shaped me so much and allowed me to discover more, and hopefully, I made an impact on the people I met along the way.
Janice: After your reign, what do you plan
Raine: I went to Medellin because I was looking to start a tour company to help integrate Cebu City tours with [ the northern provinces] because that’s a little underdeveloped; most tourists still go south. I’m looking to assist with that. I’ll also pursue my education because I have not been to university; I graduated high school on the year that I competed. Now, I’m ready to go to school. Janice: Where do you plan to go to school? Raine: Because I’m starting something here, I’d like to have my education here. If I’d like to transfer... we’ll see. But I’d like to start here because Cebu is so close to my heart. The education system here ( is so good) that many foreigners come to Cebu to get their education. There are Americans, Indians, and people from Papua New Guinea. We have a lot of brilliant professors.
Janice: Have you thought of what course you’re going to take?
Raine: Throughout my reign, I was able to [ dabble] a bit in education, talk to people, and teach kids. Education is something I’m thinking of, but my passion really is music. If I could pursue that and minor in psychology or education, that would be very nice.
Janice: So much is happening in Cebu! Are you excited about [ the third] bridge? It’s going to end practically where my factory is. How exciting! This is something we never expected. There’s also the central highway that will connect the ( northern and southern) ends of Cebu.
Raine: And the bridge that connects Bohol to Cebu.
Janice: Yes, from SRP to Cordova and then Cordova to Bohol in the next five years. If they can do that, they should easily connect Negros to Cebu and Santander to Dumaguete.
Raine: How would you describe Cebu to someone who has never been here?
Janice: Aside from being the hub of education, business, creativity, and the arts, there’s so much potential for the future here. We’re also fast becoming the top choice of retirees. People prefer to come here because we have peace and order, and a good balance between creativity and business.
That’s one way I seized the moment: I used the beauty title as a platform to develop myself and help the community, develop an industry and take it with me to tell people about Cebu abroad. I don’t think I will ever stop doing that.
Raine: You can easily get to the beaches. Even with the traffic, you can easily access the best of both worlds.
Janice: One can develop a very, very good lifestyle here. Plus, we have this exposure to all kinds of culture because there is so much diversity.
Raine: And Filipinos can speak English, so it makes it very convenient for any English speaker from outside of Cebu to immerse themselves here. It’s so easy to communicate, which is the one thing that’s necessary for any tourism economy to build.
Janice: There are also a lot of opportunities if we just seize them. We need to show our people how to seize the opportunity. Raine: How did you seize yours? Janice: Oh my. When I was reigning as Miss Cebu, at first, I thought I was doing it for fun. Then I realized I had a platform and people behind me. They were going to Japan with me to promote Cebu, so I had to take it seriously. I capitalized on that, and had a blast. Even after my term ended, I could not stop promoting Cebu. It became a part of me, because I was made aware of the place that I come from. I developed a love for the place and cannot help but speak about it to people. Like I said, I had no idea I was going to become a manufacturer, and when I did, it was fun! I can go abroad and tell everyone what we can do and make in Cebu. The craftsmen and the history behind each piece are why we are good at iron- making. That’s one way I seized the moment: I used the beauty title as a platform to develop myself and help the community, develop an industry and take it with me to tell people about Cebu abroad. I don’t think I will ever stop doing that.
NUDE TUNIC, ARCY GAYATIN, ARCYGAYATIN.COM,
SHEER TUNIC (ON RAINE) AND EMBROIDERED NUDE TOP (ON JANICE), BOTH ARCY GAYATIN,
ON JANICE: DRESS, JUN ESCARIO, JUNESCARIO.COM,
233-1172 ON RAINE: DRESS, ARCY GAYATIN,
EMBROIDERED LACE VARSITY JACKET, LACE BUSTIER, AND PLEATED SKIRT, ALL PHILIP RODRIGUEZ, PHILIPRODRIGUEZ.COM, 253-6569
STRIPED TOP, JUN ESCARIO, JUNESCARIO.COM,