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Meet The Filipino Pageant Pro Who Coached Miss Universe Vietnam 2021

The Philippines is the most pageant-obsessed country in the world and it always finds a reason to celebrate — win or lose. On Monday, the world — or the universe, rather — watched as Miss India took home one of the most coveted crowns in pageantry: Miss Universe. But the Filipino pride goes far beyond the glitz and glamor on stage — unknown to most, some of the candidates from other nations were trained and managed by Filipinos. 

To name a few: In 2018, Anjo Santos mentored Miss Universe Vietnam 2018 H'Hen Nie, Romyr Libo-on is the National Director of Miss Universe Cambodia, Makoy Manlapaz trained Miss Romania this year and Miss Nepal in 2018. This year, Vietnam has AJ Sumampong Bation — who mentored and stood by, albeit virtually, Miss Universe Vietnam Nguyen Huynh Kim Duyen throughout her journey. 

When Bation received the offer from the Miss Universe Vietnam Organization (MUVO) to train Duyen in acing the interview and Q&A portions, he just thought of it as a normal teaching opportunity. Not until Vietnam’s bet became one of the most promising candidates that he felt the pressure.

Bation was one of the judges on VTV7’s The Debaters, the first debating show for high school students. | Source: AJ Bation

Originally from Tangub City, Misamis Oriental, a province located in Northern Mindanao in the Philippines, Bation has been based in Hanoi, teaching English for almost seven years now. Apart from teaching, Bation also had a stint in Vietnamese TV last year as one of the judges on VTV7’s The Debaters, the first debating show for high school students where he had his first public speaking exposure. Thanks to the show, he was given a lot of opportunities to start public speaking and debate classes. 

Not having the prior experience handling beauty queens didn’t stop Bation from taking this chance. His Miss Universe mentorship journey started when Thien Ly, the national director of Miss Universe in Vietnam, enrolled in his class for public speaking. After a few sessions, the national director got tied to other commitments and let Duyen attend the class instead. 

“Kim did the trial class for three consecutive sessions, and then the Miss Universe Vietnam Organization told me she liked it and that they want to continue,” Bation shared. “After a week, they gave me the official offer to train Miss Vietnam in the interview and Q&A portions.” 

First impression of Miss Universe Vietnam

Because of the pandemic and lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City, where Duyen is based, virtual training was the only option for Bation. From the get-go, he saw the potential in her. “My impression of Kim is she’s really promising and although her journey of representing Vietnam was a rollercoaster ride, she remained hopeful and positive in her attitude,” the Filipino mentor said.

Duyen didn’t receive that much support from the Vietnamese audience in the initial stages because she was just “appointed” to represent the country. In Vietnam, they host Miss Universe pageants only once every two years, says Bation. Nguyen Tran Khanh Van bagged the Miss Universe Vietnam 2019 title and represented the country to the 69th Miss Universe in 2020.  Duyen was her first runner-up and Vietnam's bet to the recently concluded 70th Miss Universe pageant. 

“At first, I was told to not post anything on social media because I might get bashed for supporting her but when the MUVO aired the first episode of Kim’s Road to Miss Universe series, that’s when the Vietnamese pageant fans changed their mindset and showered Kim with support and love.”

Whenever Duyen felt skeptical or upset, Bation kept telling her to remember that she only had to listen and hold on to the people who believed in her and not mind all the negativities around. Bation added that Duyen’s genuine personality helped her overcome all the challenges she faced.

The training began in September this year. During the first two months, they met at least twice a week for 1.5 hours and a month before Duyen flew to Israel, their training happened randomly, depending on Duyen’s schedule. 

“She was super busy before her flight to Israel, but she still managed to find time to talk to me. In between her breaks and even while she’s doing her make-up, she called me to talk and get input,” Bation revealed. 

The Miss Universe Vietnam Organization said Duyen has really grown maturely and she speaks from the heart and genuinely. | Source: Miss Universe Vietnam's Facebook page

Miss Universe performance

When Duyen arrived in Israel, Bation said they used to talk every day. She called him every once in a while to share about everything that’s happening there. “Kim just calls me and says she’s shy because she can’t speak English really well and all the other candidates are only talking in either Spanish or English.”

According to Bation, Duyen is the kind of person who would say she doesn’t know anything but when you give her the opportunity to speak up and voice out her thoughts, she can really do well. "In an interview with the MUVO, they told Kim she has really grown maturely and she speaks from the heart and genuinely."

Bation was impressed when Duyen spoke English during the preliminary interviews, despite the fact that she had an interpreter with her. “I asked her if she spoke in English and she said yes! Kim said the interpreter tried to explain it in Vietnamese, but her brain just couldn’t process whatever the interpreter was saying, so she did it her way and used English. That made me really, really proud. It’s an amazing thing that she’s working really hard to use the English language even if she has an interpreter.”

Duyen emerged to be one of the crowd favorites; blogs and pageant fans were rooting for her, Bation said, based on the preliminary performance. “I would tell her she’s got a lot of fans from other countries because she has no idea and is just so down to earth, no pressure at all, and I think she’s enjoying every moment.”

When she wasn’t called among the first ten candidates for the top 16, Bation felt nervous and worried, but then she made it to the 11th spot and was able to have a quick chat with Steve Harvey, with so much confidence and grace. 

A fast learner

The MUVO gave Bation the independence to train Duyen the best way possible. Even if Vietnam’s candidate didn’t make it to the top five, her mentor revealed they prepared for the final questions and discussed topics like women leadership, climate change, politics, vaccine passport and current events. 

“I tried to apply to Kim the debate way of answering questions and if she made it that far, she surely could make it on top.”

Bation shared some of the details in their training sessions. “Whenever we discuss something, we start with the macro-level issues, then we go down to specific ones so she won’t get overwhelmed. I did not tell her to memorize things. Even if I gave her my answers, I did not advise her to memorize it.”

Per Bation, the key to acing the Q&A portion is not long answers. It has to be simple and easy to comprehend by the audience and the judges. “I needed to guide her not to have a lot of things in mind, taught her generic principles so, at the end of the day, she will be able to explain and express her ideas on her own.”

Their process for every question was, each of them would give their opinion and after a while, Bation let Duyen speak her mind and let her repeat it two times for consistency. “She’s a fast learner!” the mentor said.

Vietnam's Kim Duyen made it to the Top 16. | Source: Miss Universe Vietnam's Facebook page

Challenge for Vietnam

When asked what advice he would give for the aspiring beauty queens, Bation said, “It’s really important that candidates now should be well-spoken because it’s not just about beauty and brains anymore, it’s all about expressing their advocacies and themselves.” 

The mentor also said that he told the MUVO national director before that Vietnam should be proud that they made it to the semi-final round for four consecutive years. It’s already a huge achievement and Vietnam is trying to build its name on the international pageant stage.

“If you look at the top 5 this year, all of them are excellent communicators. So the challenge now for Vietnam is to look for those candidates who can really communicate well and impactful women who can address issues.”

Is he still open to training the Miss Universe Vietnam candidate in 2022? Bation happily nodded and said he didn’t expect this chance, but if Vietnam would give him another chance to mold next year’s Miss Universe candidate, it would be an honor. 

This year’s final question was, “What advice would you give to young women watching on how to deal with the pressures they face today?” Since Miss Universe Vietnam Kim Duyen didn’t make it to the final round, we asked Bation what his answer would be for the final question. 

“We live in a competitive world where people really look into us and we want to be successful as much as they want us to be. However, we should take note that life is a process and that we don’t have to pressure ourselves to be whoever they want us to be,” Bation says. “We should take it lightly so we would never compromise our ideologies in life and our relationship with other people. At the end of the day, we are the ones who know ourselves better and that’s where we value success when we try to understand that as human beings, we’re able to do it at the pace of our own without any pressure from other people. That’s where real success becomes an immeasurable thing.” 

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