Style Weekend: R’Bonney Gabriel on pageantry, sustainable fashion, and being a Filipina

The former Miss Universe brings her bright personality and passion for purposeful designs as she rediscovers the Philippines

R’Bonney Gabriel is like a ray of sunshine. Her smile is infectious. People cannot help but be in awe by how elegantly she walks, says a gentle hello, and strikes a pose for a photo. She glows, not just because of her beautiful facade, but also because of her humility. She can easily make everyone giggle with her notes detailing her recent experience in the Philippines. She jots down Tagalog words, phrases, and sentences about the islands she visited, must-know Filipino banters, and even how to cook her favorite Filipino dishes.

That’s how R’bonney spends her days after she passed on her crown—exploring the beauty of the Philippines. Though this is not the first time she visited the archipelago, her return has given her more time to dive deep into Filipino culture, mingle with the people, and see things through a different lens. Since she arrived, the Texan beauty has seen the best of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao—Bohol, Sultan Kudarat, Boracay, and even Divisoria, to be exact. Everything has been great so far, but the Filipino-American beauty queen confessed that she still wants to see more.

R'Bonney Gabriel dons a piece by Rob Ortega for Style Weekend's June 14, 2024 digital cover

Inside the stunning halls of Lanson Place Mall of Asia, the former Miss Universe sits down with Style Weekend as she looks back on her pageant journey, her mission as a designer mastering the art of sustainable fashion, and the things she discovered about the Philippines and being a Filipina.

Hello, R’Bonney, and welcome back to the Philippines. How was the experience so far? How are you adjusting to Manila’s heat?

I know it's hot in the Philippines already. I grew up in Houston, Texas, and it's just as hot. I'm kind of used to that. But in Texas, we only get it in a certain part of the year. In the Philippines, it's always hot. I got here earlier in April and I have been so busy. I have been having so much fun. The week I got here, I just felt so inspired and motivated to get to work. So it's been great.

You have been to many places in a short amount of time. What are the things that you have discovered, the things that you like and you don't like?

The Philippines has the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I love that you can experience different lifestyles and fly to the islands just for a couple of days. That to me is so cool. There are so many things I like about the Philippines. I love the people and the work ethic that Filipinos have. The community that the fashion industry has is just so collaborative and I feel like everybody wants to help everybody. I could go on and on about the things that I like. The food, I have been eating so many different foods. I have adjusted to sinigang and tortang talong. I love where I’m staying in Bonifacio Global City, and how I can walk everywhere.

MODEL MUSE: R'Bonney's passion for designing eco-conscious clothing started with her mother 

You’ve been part of two editions of Miss Universe Philippines, right? The first was during the crowning of Michelle Dee. The last one, you were one of the hosts. Did that bring you back to the days when you were competing in pageants?

It brought me back because it was not too long ago that I was Miss Universe. It just reminded me of my journey just seeing the girls working so hard. I know what goes into it and what goes behind the scenes and all the sacrifice, the dedication, the ups and downs. Sometimes, you feel confident. Sometimes, something happens and you feel so vulnerable because you have this goal. I have to say, it is somewhat of a relief that I’m not competing anymore because it's a day in and day out process. I missed the journey but it was nice to come back as a host. For me, that's a full circle moment and it was one of the biggest hosting opportunities I had so far. So, I am very thankful for it.

Looking back, when did you realize that you wanted to join beauty pageants? 

It was in 2020. That was my first beauty pageant and I competed during the COVID-19 pandemic. I remember it because we were wearing masks. Honestly, it wasn’t a childhood dream of mine. I always knew I wanted to be a fashion designer, a model, and somehow use my talents to give back but I didn't know quite how I would do so. This woman basically found me in Texas and I almost got recruited by her. She said, “You would do good in beauty pageants because of what you're already doing now.” I was not so exposed to pageants in Texas. I didn't know what went into it. But this woman was very persistent and she would ask me all the time. I would see her in photo shoots. She would do my hair and we had this working relationship we were building. About a year in, I think this woman is onto something and I had this intuition, this gut feeling and I felt like God was telling me to go for it. So, I had my first pageant in 2020 and I placed first runner-up. When you're that close to winning, you’re going to have this need to go again. So I was a runner-up a couple of times in a row before I finally won Miss Texas. Then went on to Miss USA. Months later, I became Miss Universe 2022.

MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE: After her successful reign as Miss Universe 2022, R'Bonney Gabriel returns to the Philippines.

You were first a fashion designer before competing in beauty pageants. When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in the fashion industry? 

I was age 15, I was in high school and I grew up seeing my Mom sew different pieces. She would go to the vintage store and take dresses and reconstruct them on the sewing machine for my brother and me. She would make us clothes and I would see this idea of taking something and reconstructing it and making it your own. I thought that process was cool. That’s when I first made my own dress at the age of 15. I can still remember it. It's a red dress with little white heart polka dots. After creating my first dress, it clicked with me, and I discovered I love doing this. I wanted to pursue this and I hit the ground running. I was making dresses for my high school prom. I was doing fashion shows in high school. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to study fashion in college.

You have your clothing brand which centers on eco-conscious designs. When did the interest in sustainable fashion start?

That came later when I was studying in college. I’m kind of wondering what is my purpose in the fashion industry and how can I make a difference and contribute back to society besides just making beautiful clothes. I learned that there’s an issue of pollution in the fashion industry. I've been reconstructing clothing already from pieces I found in vintage stores and thrift shops. I can use my craft as a way to cut down on pollution in the industry if I’m using old materials that people are throwing away. That was kind of an aha moment for me. I can push sustainability forward as a fashion designer.

READY FOR THE SPOTLIGHT: R'Bonney poses in front of the camera wearing a piece by Debbie Co

As a fashion designer, what do you think hinders people or other brands from fully embracing an eco-friendly or a more circular business model?

The fashion industry is already so competitive. For a designer, it’s hard to start a business because there’s so much talent. You have this creative mind but you also need the business mind to move forward. On top of, that being sustainable, it’s just more expensive. I’ve learned to source materials that are eco-friendly or sustainable. For me, my battle as a sustainable fashion designer is that I make one-of-a-kind pieces. You can’t mass produce it so it makes it more expensive and more time-consuming. But that's just what I choose to do because I feel like this is the ethical way to go about things.

For you, do you think pageants continue to celebrate or empower women?

Absolutely. Beauty pageants have changed my life. They have taught me to champion who I am. I used to be shy about telling the world about my strength. Pageantry changed my perspective on that. Through it, my life changed from night to day and my confidence grew. I think, every woman or every person, in general, needs that in life.

QUEEN WITH A PURPOSE: While R'Bonney believes that beauty pageants continue to empower women, she still thinks there is more to be done when it comes to inclusivity and diversity 

Do you believe that pageants should be more inclusive?

I think the entertainment industry, fashion industry, and beauty industry should be more inclusive. There’s no one look, one size, one skin color, or one hair texture. There are beautiful people all over the world that are so diverse. I think that’s what makes this world so beautiful. The fashion industry, entertainment industry, beauty industry, and pageant industry should continue to be more inclusive. We're heading in that direction, but we still have room to improve.

How would you describe a Filipina?

A Filipino woman is beautiful in so many different ways. But one thing we have in common is that we are ambitious. We love a challenge. We are hard-working, and we are very goal-driven. I think we have some sense of warmth and sincerity in our hearts that people feel when they meet Filipino women.

Photographer: Dookie Ducay
Styling: Perry Tabora
Makeup: Mickey See
Hairstyling: Jerry Javier
Sitting editor: Jerico Villamonte
Words: John Legaspi
Videography: Ariana Maralit
Shot on location at Lanson Place Mall of Asia
R'Bonney is wearing pieces from Rob Ortega and Debbie Co
Special thanks to Rochelle Tabino of Lanson Place Mall of Asia and Mau De Leon of Empire/Mercator Talent Agency

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