Bright Young Thing: Catriona Gray’s Rising Star

From underwear singer to pageant royalty, the Miss Universe hopeful has come a long way all on her own—just because she can.

by Petra Magno, photo by Mark Nicdao

 

Catriona was alone in the Philippines. Her parents were in Australia and she missed them. For Mother’s Day, she uploaded a few cover songs onto Soundcloud. The Philippines took notice, as only a celebrity-obsessed all-singing-all-dancing nation could do. “My first gig was in Saguijo, my second gig was at Privé. The third was at Bench Universe, [the fashion show.] In my underwear.” Her voice, that fine contralto, rises in panic. “I was shitting myself!”

 

Cat, a professional model, all five feet ten inches of her, is still seized by a childlike disbelief at both her luck and her situation. To sing in front of 25,000 people for two nights in a row was an “awesome thing to put on a resumé,” even as she punctuates the story with an accented yet colloquial ‘Da fuck?!’

 

Bench Universe was her first underwear fashion show, and her inclusion in it confused her. “I’m a toothpick. I don’t have curves and I don’t have a shape, and I was going to sing in front of so many people in my underwear?” It wasn’t even just underwear—it was a bikini with a mesh bottom through which 25,000 people could see her “bum hanging out.” She had begged her then-manager for an alternative before finally grabbing an enormous black cape. This teenager, who wore bare the seat of her mother’s overalls while “dragging [her] bum” through caves in Australia, whose face graced Pond’s beauty cream commercials as well as the now world-famous Pantene #WhipIt TVC, was self-conscious about putting her derriere on view. “I don’t mind if I’m modeling,” she says about her self-proclaimed toothpick body, “but if I’m singing, that’s a whole different thing.”

 

Yet, for all that power, no one knew who she was. “I was getting tagged on YouTube as Georgina Wilson,” she laughs, embarrassed for Georgina, embarrassed for the general burden of beauty, knowing that her presence at a microphone can’t be justified by her face alone.

 

 

The cut from her Bench performance is on her Soundcloud account; it’s a glitchy darkwave version of Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts.” Cat’s voice is lower than Perri’s, much stronger, turning the pop song into a choral anthem, an accusation.

 

She speaks dreamily of gigs “where you can do where you want to do.” Beset by requests for Zedd’s “Clarity” at Hyve, she admits that “No, I can’t sing that, not even if I wanted to.” She did, however, perform Florence and The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” at Republiq, simply because—with her steady range and full round vocals—she can.

 

What Catriona can and cannot do, however, depends less on the situation than on her own steam. “I didn’t want to be a model,” she says bluntly, “but I told myself, ‘I can.’” Raised as an only child in Cairns, the port of the Great Barrier Reef, by a doting mother and a father who bristled with survival skills from the Vietnam War, Cat was outdoorsy in a manner only Australian children can be. Despite being terribly uncoordinated with sports, she uses three reallys when measuring how great it was to grow up in the bush, and ticks off the classes she took in her outdoor recreation course: kayaking, canoeing, rock climbing, abseiling, navigation. “I conquered a lot of my fears and pushed a lot of my boundaries,” she says, adding sadly, “I hate the city. I feel very lethargic here.”

 

Traffic, smog, and unending noise weren’t the only elements working against her in Metro Manila. She had to leave behind her first love, and move into an apartment with three male models. Her friends back in Australia thought it was an opportunity. “How you could not be attracted to them?” Cat mimics. “They’re walking around in their fucking boxers and shit!” But for Cat her heartbreak was pure and her living situation full of disillusionment. “It was so bad,” she says, launching into a story how “one time, they broke the front door, so we had no security in our apartment.”

 

 

She found herself becoming obsessed with thoughts of going back to Australia to study at a university. She had always loved school, and the difference between her planned path and her current one was suddenly thrown into sharp relief. “Modeling,” she sighs, “you can’t put that kind of energy into it.” The chaos of Manila inspired in her an intense craving for the routine of education, and she found herself coming up against everyone who wanted her to keep pursuing work, even her own parents.

 

“I felt so unstable,” she says, and here, to mark her turning point, the crescendo of a song, her voice rises to a gleeful fevered pitch: “But then! I realized! I could study here and work here too!” The relief at her revelation flooded her. It floods her even now, as she tips her head back happily. “I felt like I saw God.”

 

 

Cat moved out of the model apartment to live on her own. Frustrated with the slowness of working under an agency, she went freelance and her career sped up accordingly, and while she had a heartbreak playlist (“I’d feel sad and I’d want to feel worse, so I’d listen to fucking Taylor Swift and everything.”) she decided that “once I felt shit enough I’d have the momentum to feel better.”

 

She did begin to feel better, but it was a slow burn. She ditched Swift for Ella Fitzgerald and continued to cover songs with the instrumentation of Brigada’s percussionist and musical jack-of-all-trades Enrique de Dios. “He has a keyboard, a guitar, and he uses a loop,” Cat says matter-of-factly. “He’s brilliant.” On her Soundcloud, she covers Rihanna right next to Sara Bareilles, and her take on Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” is gracefully darkened by its musical bed: Daft Punk’s “Something About Us.”

 

As unconventional as Cat’s choices have been, some of her decisions have surprised even herself. “I swore I’d never date a male model,” she laughs, discussing her current beau, “but our first kiss was at [a TVC] casting.” More than a model, however, her boyfriend is a health buff. Their dates are to the gym, which Cat initially hated. “He said, ‘I’ll train you,’ and I said, ‘May the Lord be with you.’” Yet surviving weights and water fasts was nothing compared to all Cat had already been through, and she soon found herself calling him her life coach.

 

 

Thus run Catriona Gray’s days: trips to the gym, home-cooked meals, modeling jobs that won’t let her leave the country, and a masters certificate in Music Theory from Berklee. “Childhood living is easy to do,” she croons on a Rolling Stones cover, even as she proves herself wrong. “I feel very grandma,” she says, indicating her tame social life, seemingly unaware of how far she’s come on her own gumption and gall. Where, though, is she headed?

 

“Hawaii,” Cat says happily. There she’ll meet up with her family—Breaking Bad recaps and her parents plus a gaggle of “cackling Filipinas” she counts herself part of. Without irony or guile, the 19-year-old turns to me and says, “I’m excited to feel like a kid again.

 

This article was originally published in the January – February 2014 issue of Rogue.

Photographed by Mark Nicdao

Styled by Pam Quiñones

Makeup by Robbie Piñera

Hair by Celeste Tuviera

Photographer Assisted by James Bautista, Philip Nicdao, Chris Soco and Egoy

Stylist Assisted by Cath Sobrevega and Mel Sy