After Miriam Quiambao's impressive 1st runner-up finish in the 1999 edition of Miss Universe Pageant held in Trinidad and Tobago, the Philippines campaign of winning its third Miss Universe crown seemed to become far-stretched and elusive, as proven by a decade of non-placements in the said pageant. The question remains unanswered, "who is that girl who is bound to bring back the country in the map of pageantry?" The Filipino pageant fans remained optimistic, and so was BPCI; they have always envisioned that someday, "The Philippines!" will once again be heard when the semi-finalists are being announced during its live telecast.
Meanwhile, in a simple town of Bato, Camarines Sur, Bicol Region, a dusky Filipina beauty named Maria Venus Bayonito Raj, has been sharing the same sentiments all these years, right after watching her ultimate "idol", Sushmita Sen of India won its first Miss Universe crown for her country. Poverty has never stopped this beautiful lass in achieving her dreams of one day, representing the country in an international beauty pageant. Raj was born to an Indian father and a Filipino mother on July 7, 1988 and is the youngest of five children.
Often criticized by her classmates and playmates because of her complexion and unique appearance, this only fueled her more to prove her worth and make her dreams turn ito reality. Sooner than later, she realized to use her unique features to her advantage and treat it as something that makes her a "stand-out" among the rest everytime she joins diff. local beauty contests. Venus has also proven to be a kind and generous daughter, as she hands out most of her cash prizes from joining these pageants to her mother, to help them get through each day. Her local beauty titles include Ms.Kaogma Tourism 2007 and later that year, she decided to join Ms. Bicolandia 2007, the region's biggest local beauty pageant, where she emerged 2nd runner up to Tabetha Jo Frick. It was in 2008 when she decided to join a national beauty pageant via Miss Philippines Earth, where she bagged the Miss Eco-Tourism crown. The top plum went to eventual Miss Earth winner that year, Karla Henry. Pageant fanatics took notice of her spunk, regal bearing, whistle-bait figure and yes, her beautiful "mocha-latte" complexion. Surely, the potential was there, they said, but just like any bright diamond,it needs to be polished.
Through the scholarship that she received from the Francis Papica Foundation, Venus went on to finish her her bachelor's degree in Communication Arts, Major in journalism, at Bicol University in Albay, with honors (Cum Laude). She initially worked as an Information Assistant for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for Region V. After several months of working for the said agency, Venus then applied for a Cabin Crew post in one of the leading airlines in the country. Just when she was about to accept their job offer, a dear friend in the person of the late Bb. Pilipinas International 2009 Melody Gersbach convinced her to give Binibining Pilipinas 2010 a shot. Gersbach introduced Venus to her trainers and pageant mentors, and from whom Venus received the most intensive training and make-over for the upcoming Bb. Pilipinas 2010.
Then came Bb. Pilipinas 2010, one of the most competitive batch EVER in the history of Binibini. With the likes of TV personality Krista Kleiner, top models Gwendoline Ruais, Mary Anne Ross Misa, Nicolette Henson, pageant neophyte Selena Antonio and pageant veterans Dianne Necio and Anna Marie Morelos joining, the competition certainly couldn't get any tougher. Though heavily favored all throughout her stint at Binibini by some pageant experts as one of the contenders, Venus remained calm and focused. She became a favourite not only because of her killer body and stunning exotic features, but most importantly because of her vibrance and down to earth personality. She has always been genuinely nice to everyone since day 1 and loves spending time with her fans and supporters. All her hardwork and sacrifices paid off when she was crowned Bb. Pilipinas-Universe 2010 at the conclusion of the coronation night on March 6, 2010. Raj also bagged Best in Philippine Terno, Best in Evening Gown and Miss Friendship awards during the earlier portions of the telecast.
A few weeks after her coronation, Raj was dethroned by BPCI, citing alleged inconsistencies in her birth certificate. She was replaced by Second Runner-up Helen Nicolette Henson. A group of lawyers headed by Mr. Francis Padua Papica and a huge no. of followers and supporters, including people from her hometown, rallied behind her. They were also the same people responsible for the petition letters sent to the Miss Universe Organization. On April 10, 2010, the Binibining Pilipinas Charities, Inc. allowed Venus to reclaim her title due to "humanitarian reasons" but with the condition that she gets herself a passport. Venus eventually got herself a passport which earned her the right to represent the country in the Miss Universe 2010 held in Las Vegas, Nevada. She arrived a week earlier and headed to Los Angeles, where she, along with Jesinta Campbell of Australia, Natalia Navarro of Colombia, Sarodj Bertin of Haiti, Ximena Navarrete of Mexico (Miss Universe 2010), Mariana Vicente of Puerto Rico and Miss Universe 2009 Stefania Fernandez attended several media tours and headlined various guest appearances to promote the upcoming pageant in Vegas. On August 23, 2010, Venus made the country loud and proud when she was called as the last semi-finalist, ending the so-called Philippine's drought for a decade in the Miss Universe pageant. She placed 5th (4th runner-up) overall to Mexico's Ximena Navarrette at the culmination of the 2-hour finale, telecast by NBC to over 1 Billion viewers, worldwide.
On February 2011, she became part of ABS-CBN's morning show, "Umagang kay Ganda". She also made some recurring TV appearances as a co-host in ABS-CBN's Sunday Musical Variety show, ASAP XV and ASAP 2012. On July 2012, her inspiring life-story was featued in the longest running weekly drama anthology, MMK (Maalala Mo Kaya). On August 2012, she also starred in her first movie via Regal Films' horror film "Pridyider". Venus is currently taking up her Master’s Degree in Community Development at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. She plans to use this degree to give back to her community someday.
From the rice puddies of her hometown in Bato, Camarines Sur to the glamorous Miss Universe stage in Las Vegas, Nevada, "Venus" or "Manay" (as she is fondly called by her supporters) has definitely come a long way from her humble and sweet beginnings. Her story is an inspiration to every Filipinos worldwide; that with hardwork, determination and faith, everything and anything is possible. Now, as Natalie Morales said on Miss Universe 2010, let's put our hands together for the girl who ended the "major, major drought". Mabuhay ka, Venus!
Text by - Krisus Solera Gamutan