Pia Wurtzbach is perhaps more famous for not winning Miss Universe 2016 than actually winning it; the pageant’s presenter, Steve Harvey famously wrongly announced Miss Columbia as the 2016 winner when it was, in fact Pia, Miss Philippines, who had won the title. But despite having to take the Manhattan skyline-inspired crown from her rival in an awkward exchange, the 27-year-old half-Filipino, half-German beauty queen has never let the calamities of her big night get her down and has taken her year as Miss Universe in her stride. Since winning the title in January, Pia moved to New York – a city she had never visited before – and began life on the road as Miss Universe. In the past 11 months, Pia has travelled the world, made hundreds of personal appearances, worked with international charities and starred in more photo shoots than she can remember. We were lucky enough to get some time with Pia on her visit to Dubai in November, during which she was thronged by loving fans at an appearance at Dragon Mart 2.

Top, Dh600, Whistles; Skirt, Dh1,250, BCBG Max Azria; Shoes,Dh749, Kurt Geiger

The humble beauty arrived at the Gulf News studio looking stunning; she was dressed and in the zone ready for our shoot in minutes. Afterwards, she sat down to tell us about life as the world’s number one beauty queen.

How has your life changed since you became Miss Universe?

During the pageant they always say, “Tonight one lucky girl is going to win and her life will be changed forever.” They are not kidding – it really is true. There has been a lot of changes – all good of course – I’m living my childhood dream, but everything has changed. It has definitely been more than I expected.

What happened the morning after you became Miss Universe?

I woke up the next day and was still in competition mode. I was so used to waking up early and doing my hair and make-up so I just started doing that and then suddenly I realised, “hang on a minute, I can sleep a bit longer today!” So I went back to bed and rested until the crazy schedule began.

Can you tell us about some of the charity work you’ve been doing since you became Miss Universe?

There are a few charities that I have been particularly passionate about since I first entered Miss Universe. They are anti-cyber bullying, relief operations for destinations that are hit by natural disasters – this is something that happens quite often in the Philippines – and my main focus; raising awareness of HIV and Aids. This is especially focused on Asia and the Philippines where there is a stigma around it. My main aim is to raise awareness and get people talking about the disease.

Have you visited many places where HIV is a big problem since becoming Miss Universe?

Yes, I’ve been invited to a number of places to speak about my experience of the disease and the things that I would like to see change. I have been privileged enough to be invited and to be considered an ambassador for HIV and Aids awareness and this is something I would like to continue even after my time as Miss Universe.

You mentioned the Philippines – this is your heritage. Do you have a strong focus on helping it as a country?

Of course. I don’t want to overwhelm myself by saying I want to fix the whole country but of course the Philippines is close to my heart and I would love to make a start there and do whatever I can. I am particularly focused on the LGBT community and raising awareness of the problems they have in the country. I’ll start from there and see where that leads me.

The Miss Universe 2017 competition will be held in the Philippines – how does this make you feel?

It is a huge deal to have the Miss Universe competition in the Philippines. We haven’t had the competition there since 1994, and we haven’t had a Filipino Miss Universe in 42 years, so I may not have had my nice first walk… but at least I’ll have a good final walk in my home country.

How have you found your time in Dubai?

It’s been great I wish I could stay for longer. I know that there is so much more to do and see here but I haven’t had time. I want to come back here with my girlfriends and next time I really want to try skydiving.

Dress, Dh9,000, Givenchy at Bloomingdale’s – Dubai; Shoes, Dh4,810, Giuseppe Zanotti

Do you feel that people judge you because you are a beauty queen? How do you deal with that?

I see it as a challenge. I don’t think being a beauty queen is anything to be ashamed of but I guess the challenge is proving the critics wrong. 
I know some people think that my looks are all there is to me and so it’s really nice when I can show people that there is substance to my personality and purpose to what I do. It’s really not just a pageant that you watch once on TV, it’s something that continues all year round and I think people are starting to be aware of that.

Your time as Miss Universe will be coming to an end in January – what’s the plan for you once you no longer hold your title?

I was acting in the Philippines before I became Miss Universe so I will most probably go back to that. I also have a lot of other interests but I really can’t imagine myself being behind the camera now. It’s something that I really enjoy doing, something that I love and want to do while I’m young and I’ll see where it goes from there. Life has a way of surprising me.

There is a huge Filipino community in the UAE. What would be your message to those who dream of being a beauty queen one day?

I never thought that this could actually happen to me. Of course as a kid, I had a dream to become Miss Universe, but at the time I thought it was far-fetched. You have to take baby steps to get to where you want to go. I come from very humble beginnings – I was the breadwinner of my family, taking care of my mum and my sisters, so it was a struggle growing up – but it gave me a great perspective on life and a real appreciation of what I have now. If this kind of transition can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

What has been your best moment since becoming Miss Universe?

There are so many. I definitely enjoy the travelling and it’s always nice to go back home and see everyone in the Philippines. One of the biggest highlights was my homecoming parade when I went home for the first time. It was like the whole country was uniting to celebrate Miss Universe. It’s really more than just a beauty pageant there – to Filipinos they see it as a symbol of hope. If someone like me can do it then why can’t they? I really appreciate that they see me as an inspiration, and vice versa actually – they are my inspiration, too.

How do you manage to travel all the time and still always look amazing?

Well I have an awesome glam team – just kidding! Plenty of sleep is the key, I sleep as much as I can. I have no problem sleeping on the airplane – that’s a talent of mine. Also making sure I use the right skincare. You can have all the make-up in the world but if you have bad skin it will always show.

What do you do on your days off?

Well on the lucky days when my manager tells me I have a day free I hang out with my Filipino friends from home, watch movies, relax at their places and chat about life in New York.

After becoming Miss Universe you travelled to New York for the first time – do you love living there?

I really do. I know that New York is a very fast-paced city and I feel like that’s my pace as well, I love living in the there. I would like to stay in New York after my Miss Universe reign is up.