Mariel de Leon is not your average beauty queen

Mariel de Leon definitely has the traditional good looks that would make every loving Tita say, “Alam mo, sumali ka ng Binibining Pilipinas.” The spawn of showbiz royalty, born unto ridiculously good-looking parents Christopher de Leon and Sandy Andolong, Mariel de Leon is beautiful even without makeup. She is tall and moves gracefully; her skin is perfect and her hair mesmerizing. Everything about her physical appearance reads more like the head cheerleader than the traditional misfit sitting in the fourth row, but Mariel constantly asserts that she is, in fact, a weirdo.

She recounts a story from her childhood, where she excitedly shared with her friends that her favorite genre of music was classical. Her announcement was met swiftly with, “What’s wrong with you?” Mariel explains with a laugh, “I have three older brothers: one’s into gypsy jazz, one’s into classical music, and one’s a rocker. So growing up, it’s what shaped me into, like, a… weirdo, I guess.” She also talks about how she’s a bit of a goth, which might surprise most people to know. She enjoys watching horror and gory films, and she has a special place in her heart for Quentin Tarantino’s work, especially Kill Bill. As she discloses this, she lifts her hand to her face and laughs, wondering if it’s unbecoming of the reigning Binibining Pilipinas International to admit that her ultimate jam is slasher flicks.

White shirt, Uniqlo; Jodhpurs, Sfera; Earrings and hair clip both from SM Accessories; Black loafers, Charles & Keith

Outspoken and Unapologetic

It’s funny to think that this is something she’d even worry about, given that since her win, Mariel has been vocal on social media about current events and political issues. Her stated opinions thus far have been extremely firm, which is pleasantly surprising. For instance, in an interview with Boy Abunda, Mariel boldly stated her position against the return of the death penalty, saying that there is too high a risk of wrongful conviction and that the justice system needs to be reformed into something trustworthy and incorruptible. Likewise, when the TRO on contraceptives was recently brought up, Mariel expressed disappointment, saying, “You’re not ‘pro life’ if you deprive women of something that’s good for our health and our future.”

As far as we know, beauty queens stand for world peace, give diplomatic answers, and know how to navigate a sandstorm without a strand of hair moving out of place. It seems, however, Mariel is the next in a burgeoning pack of celebrities who want the platform the crown comes with to stand for something and to contribute more in a world that seems to be hit by ever-troubling shifts. Her drive doesn’t seem to be political necessarily, but rather just genuine.

When Mariel first joined Binibining Pilipinas in 2013, she was 19. She came from a very sheltered existence and had been convinced to just give it a try. It was absolute culture shock, especially as Mariel describes herself as more of an introvert, preferring to stay at home more than going out to “tugs tugs places, which I don’t really like” and constantly being mistaken for being suplada because she’s quite shy. Suddenly, she was thrust into a world of daily hair and makeup, and people freely examining her body in a bikini as she sashayed across a large, glittering stage. The pressure of the pageant got to Mariel, and she suddenly felt that she had to starve herself and that she had to be a little less herself to win a crown. “I realized that this was something that I wanted, but that it was something that I still had to prepare for,” says Mariel.

Red suit, Araw the Line; Clip-on earrings, Matthew & Melka by Ken Samudio
Red striped tee, Support Your Friends; Navy trousers, Mango; Tan belt and printed scarf both from SM Accessories; Clip-on earrings, Matthew & Melka by Ken Samudio

A few years later, when Pia Wurtzbach took the 2015 Miss Universe crown in probably one of the most exciting crowning ceremonies in beauty pageant history, Mariel admitted that seeing someone who was feisty, fierce, strong, but still regal take the crown resonated with her. She decided to try again, but she vowed that this time she would be every inch herself. “Some mornings I would just go to McDonald’s for breakfast, because it was right beside (the venue),” Mariel shares with a laugh. She said she wasn’t as stressed about her appearance and that she was focused on having fun, getting to know the other girls, and establishing a sort of camaraderie. (Mariel said the 2017 group of Binibining Pilipinas was a lot more “chill,” in that although it was a competition, there was a clear overtone of sisterly support and no one was out to get anyone else.) It doesn’t surprise, then, that it would be in this setting that a decided outlier like Mariel — at least in this milieu — would shine the most. Watching the actual pageant, many remarked that she didn’t seem hungry enough, unlike the other girls. What stood out, though, was that she was relaxed, and she was genuinely enjoying herself, which gave her a certain “cool girl” appeal that not many of the others had.

Even coming up to the win, Mariel was somewhat peculiar, saying, “I felt that International was the one I wanted, but I couldn’t say it out loud.” No one comes to Binibining Pilipinas and asks to be a runner-up; everyone is in it to get the Universe title. But the clear difference is that between the two, Universe is a high-octane, largely celebrity, quite Hollywood-oriented pageant that requires a certain amount of spunk, sexiness, and fierce attitude. International is slightly more regal, more reserved, and requires its participants, instead of braving the dreaded Q&A, to compose a minute-long speech that touches on international affairs and cultural values. In short, it is a much more introvert-friendly pageant, and is definitely more Mariel’s speed. One could say that it’s almost as if she was made for it.

Navy short-sleeved shirt, white knit top,  and navy trousers, all from Mango; Tan belt, SM Accessories

‘In times like these where there’s war, and the news is always terrible, it’s nice to be able to inspire hope even in some little way,’ Mariel says.

Stay Weird

It’s quite a cool thing, to see someone who is equally strange and regal making waves in a circuit that has been repeatedly called out for the weight it puts on the superficial. When Mariel discusses her responsibilities as a reigning queen, her eyes light up with excitement as she talks about charity work. “When we go to poorer areas, you can see how happy people are to see us. And it seems like a small thing, but in times like these where there’s war in so many places and the news is always terrible, it’s nice to be able to inspire hope even in some little way.” She adds that her advocacy is to bring back theater arts and music programs to less fortunate communities, to allow children who may not be as sports-inclined (as many youth programs are sports-centric) to find another outlet. She believes it’s important for the youth and the disadvantaged to know not only the power of music, but that there is so much of its kind that is different to what they know, and how it can elevate them from their daily grief.

Once her reign is over, the question of whether she would enter show business looms. Mariel, true to form, says she would like to go back to school and pursue music as a classically-trained performer. But having gone to culinary school years before, her other dream is to open up a café that serves recipes dreamed up by her and her mom. She talks about their homemade Spanish sardines that are cooked overnight and are so soft that you bite through the bones without even realizing it, and pastas that she feels most people would enjoy. She also would like to include an element of music in the café, preferably jazz. She laughs and says, “Everything these days is tugs tugs. Since I don’t like tugs tugs, I’ll just make my own place, even if it’s a little weird.”

But if our journey with Mariel so far has showed us anything, it’s that “weird” is her best asset, and that we could all use a little more strange.

Photos by Cenon Norial III
Produced by Maine Manalansan and Marga Buenaventura
Styled  by Andrea Ang
Makeup by Don de Jesus
Hair by Raymund Defeo for Phyto
Shot on location at The Theatre at Solaire
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