Everything is interconnected. Talk about replanting trees on hillside watershed areas and the issues of overdevelopment and climate change arise. Recall a seminal childhood experience and conversation touches upon the poor public educational system we have. Look for an exemplary environmental advocate willing to tackle the grim and grimy details among the grassroots and you uncover a gorgeous beauty queen.
The Miss Earth Pageant proves that no degree of separation removes divinely gorgeous beauty queens from the world and its troubles. We all share the same planet, the pageant highlights. Sultry allure, regal composure, keen intellect, disarming candidness, down-to-earth humility and genuine conviction can coexist in the same woman. So proves 22-year-old Karla Paula Ginteroy Henry, newly crowned Miss Earth 2008.
Well beyond putting a pretty face on environmentalism and lending her name to projects, Miss Earth wants to be directly involved in programs. She wants to get her hands dirty, be it with planting trees, cleaning up shores or educating youths in depressed areas. Speaking on an audacious plan to plant 20,000 trees, “If we get others to help it should be very easy. But what my group and I are talking about is that the point is that we do it ourselves. We represent. I don’t mind the sun.”
Beyond the initial excitement of starting projects and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, Henry demonstrates concern for the long-term perpetuation of her various projects. “That’s what we ask from the government. We’ll do that. But in return, they have to make sure that the trees will not be chopped down.”
The land on which the 20,000 trees are to be planted has yet to be decided. Though she hopes for public land, she is open to the idea of a reforestation effort in private property. Her preference for location highlights her roots: “The mountain areas of Cebu.” The island she fondly calls home has been almost completely denuded and overpopulated, rendering the island dry and hot. Ironically, it is those same hillsides—the island’s watershed that is vital to all—that are being bulldozed and developed as luxury residences today to benefit the few. “That’s why we have our work cut out for us,” she says.
Henry is aware of the issues that surround the seemingly uncomplicated effort of planting trees. She insists on planting only indigenous tree species. Imported fast-growing trees such as gemelina do not support local wildlife. She has learned much about the environment since her entry as a contestant to this year’s pageant.
Asked if she had prior involvement in any environmental advocacy before the beauty contest, she confesses, “To be really honest with you, no. I didn’t. Actually, since I joined this, I really have become aware. I don’t just talk about it. We have been doing a lot for the environment.”
Such candor is refreshing most especially for a beauty queen, the stereotype for which has been less than intellectual or sincere. When Miss Earth talks, it’s definitely not some canned spiel about world peace.
She recalls how the pageant awakened her passion: “When I joined Miss Philippines, there was a very funny story about the first day I saw the other girls, the contract-signing day with Carousel [pageant organizer]. Ms. [Cathy] Untalan [executive director of environmental projects] warned me, ‘If you’re here for the fame and glamour of being a beauty queen, then you’re in the wrong pageant. Here, we’re really serious about our advocacy. We really do get down and dirty with the activities that we do.’ I said, these guys are really serious. I should really join this. I pursued it and I have no regrets.”
“As I went through the pageant, the schools and barangays we visited and the environmental activities we did as a candidate, it awoke something in me,” she reveals.
Back to school
“The one thing that I would like to pursue even after the pageant is the school course [Miss Earth Foundation’s I Love My Planet Earth School Tour]. They really matter. It doesn’t take a lot of your time even after your reign. We go around public school once a week a teach grade-school kids,” she says.
Despite living in the rarified atmosphere of beauty queens she is free from any of airs. Her voice, free from the petty bourgeois (kikay) inflection so common in other candidates, allows her to connect and disarm. This half-Canadian Cebuana is quite comfortable speaking in Tagalog. Though conspicuously stunning, she does not allow vanity to mar her beauty.
More than just an outreach, Henry’s involvement with public-school children is a return of sorts. She studied in a public school in Cebu as a 14-year-old for one year upon her family’s return from Canada. “My dad thought public schools here were the same as those abroad. My father travels a lot, and I really had to transfer school most of the time,” she explains. Her father, Dennis Henry, is in the business of exporting handicrafts to Canada. Her mother Nanette Ginteroy is a Filipina.
Her year at a public school was a formative experience. She confides, “It was uncomfortable at first. To my classmates, I was more white than Filipino. It was more of curiosity than anything. But it turned to be my funnest year in high school. I made a lot of friends there. We still keep in touch even now. They knew me before all the fame and attention of being a beauty queen.”
There are many little bits of this archipelago in Henry. Born in Limay, Bataan, she was raised by her grandparents until the age of four when her family went to reside in Tsawwassen, Canada until she was 14. Even then, she would visit the Philippines every summer and Christmas. Upon her family’s return to the country, they first lived in Albay, Bicol for a year before residing permanently in Cebu City.
Nonetheless, it is advocacy and not fondness for her roots that has led to her preference for environmental values formation for public-school children. “There is a lack of awareness about climate change and global warming even in some private schools,” she notes, adding, “It’s all about promoting the green lifestyle. Of course the children aren’t the ones buying for the family. But they are innocent voices that can influence parents.”
Children can insist that their parents buy products in bulk; doing so means less packaging that ends up as post- consumer waste. They can also insist on products certified as eco-friendly such as tuna that was caught without injury to dolphins or organic vegetables raised without artificial pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer. And as Henry notes children themselves can collectively make great reductions in waste. She examples: “They can choose not to get plastic straws for their drinks, unless they’re drinking them in the car. Miss Earth promotes practical ways to minimize our impact on the environment.”
The Miss Earth Pageant has transformed Henry’s own lifestyle as well. “The greatest change I’ve had is realizing the need for not using plastics. It’s amazing how when you buy even the smallest items in a mall, they have to put it all in plastic bags. Now I’m more conscious about these and say, ‘No, I don’t need those.’ Little things like that really matter.”
As the first Philippine candidate to win the Miss Earth pageant, Henry has not only brought honor to the country, she has also highlighted a new assertive multicultural generation.
She has a global outlook. She began studying for a degree in Tourism at the University of Cebu in 2005 and was working with Marco Polo Plaza Hotel when she was invited to join the Miss Earth pageant. She recently studied the Spanish language. Her closest friend among this year’s top four runner-up winners—named after the four elements—is Miriam Odemba, Miss Earth-Air from Tanzania. She plans to visit Odemba’s homeland soon. “We plan to climb Mount Kilimanjaro,” she reveals.
Tellingly, her winning answer to the pageant’s final question touched upon another icon of the multicultural generation: Barack Obama.
The finalists were asked, “What would you tell US President-elect Barack Obama about the state of the global environment if ever you were to meet him?”
Henry answered, “Environmental knowledge is something that all of us must share, but most importantly we must teach the youth that this is something that we should instill in them so that in the near future they will be the ones to take care of our mother Earth.” Fittingly, Henry’s statement is backed up by her actions.
“It’s been surreal. All I ever wanted was to compete on the international stage. To win against 85 beautiful women from across the globe—I thought it wasn’t possible,” she says.
Her first foray into the world of beauty pageants was as a student representing her school for Miss Intramurals and Miss Milo Olympics. She joined her first professional beauty contest at age 17 in October 2003. However, her next foray would not be until 2006 when she placed second runner-up in the Miss Cebu pageant.
Henry’s win is also a personal vindication. She has achieved all this success despite many heartaches.
Her parents’ marriage fell apart a few months after they returned to the Philippines when she was but 13 years old. She confides, “I stayed with my father after they separated. I was given a choice and I opted to stay with my dad.”
In March 2008, she competed for the title of Miss Philippines but failed to place. “After Binibining Pilipinas, a lot of people were telling me not to join pageants anymore,” she reveals. Undaunted, she enters Miss Earth despite her father’s disapproval—the same reason for the long pause between her win at Miss Cebu and her forays this year.
“I did not get his blessing for Miss Philippines, Binibining Pilipinas or any other pageant before that. He never watched a single pageant, not even Miss Earth,” she reveals. Further angering her father was the fact that her busy schedule as a beauty contestant took away from their time together during his brief stays in the country.
Nonetheless, after her coronation, she received a call from her father congratulating her. “I am very proud you did what you wanted to do and you didn’t listen to anybody else,” he said. She declares, “The one thing I learned from my dad is to think for myself. He’s stubborn sometimes. He goes his own way and that’s something I really admire.”
It will take a strong will and willingness to go against the tide to heal this planet. It is with her character and independent spirit that Karla Paula Ginteroy Henry best exemplifies Earth’s best hope: a new generation with a new way of thinking and living.
By: Rome Jorge, Lifestyle Editor of Manila Times