MANILA, Philippines - As a scrawny girl living in war-torn North Cotabato, she saw people being killed in front of her.
Her heart and soul, however, fortified her that despite witnessing the escalating differences between the military and the insurgents in Mindanao, she survived without the trauma.
Who would have ever thought that the girl who had front-row seats to violence would one day land onstage as the country’s bet for Miss Universe?
“It’s a miracle that I just remember the events but I don’t remember being traumatized by them,” begins Mary Jean “MJ” Lastimosa, now 26, and the reigning Binibining Pilipinas-Universe. In 2014, with her 5’7.5” height and 35-22-36 figure, she bagged the title.
Her experiences — including the fact that her Filipino mother and Saudi father left her and her sister Maricar when they were barely in grade school to the loving care of their maternal uncle Sergio Lastimosa in Cotabato — are circumstances that she just accepted as matters of fact. Instead of lounging in the drama of life, MJ built her fortification. She learned it the hard way but looking back, “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am thankful for those experiences that made me tough.”
MJ recognizes that her sister Maricar remains to be her greatest inspiration. “She taught me to be focused on my studies. She taught me how not to be affected by the violence that happened around me in North Cotabato. She’s always there to guide me.”
MJ keeps a grateful heart for her parents who had to leave Manila in the mid-‘90s to take care of their business in Saudi Arabia. “We used to live in Manila where my mom, while studying in Lyceum, met my father, who had a recruitment agency. My mom’s family is originally from Sultan Kudarat,” she says. When her parents decided to leave for Saudi Arabia, MJ and her sister Maricar grew up in the care of their uncle Sergio who married someone from North Cotabato.
“My dad taught me that it is still possible to love despite the distance. I may never have bonding moments with him but we know we love each other,” she informs with misty eyes.
She continues, “I learned from my mom how to dream.”
“I get to talk to my parents from time to time, even to my three younger siblings who live with them. They were happy that I won the Binibining Pilipinas-Universe crown. I want to be successful one day so I can take care of them,” says MJ, a BS Computer Engineering scholar from the University of Mindanao in Davao, where she was hailed as the campus’ beauty queen in 2006, the first time the university’s male-dominated College of Engineering had a titleholder in the yearly beauty search. She went on to win Miss Davao in 2008.
A few months after graduation, MJ came to Manila to apply as a flight attendant for Emirates Airlines. While taking her snacks at Krispy Kreme at Gateway in Cubao, she was spotted by film director Jeffrey Jeturian who coaxed her to join Binibining Pilipinas.
It was when she joined the national search that she showed all the more the tenacity of her spirit. She was second runner-up to Shamcey Supsup in 2011, a finalist to Janine Tugonon in 2012.
Resolute is MJ’s will to bring home the Miss Universe crown. Her courage will see her through.