In Her Own Words: Michelle Marquez Dee On Coming Out, Surviving The Most Difficult Year Of Her Life, And Winning The Crown 

C/MEO COLLECTIVE buttondown, BAGASAO STUDIOS midi skirt. Photographed by Jake Verzosa

“There’s so much about myself that I can show to the universe and not use my sexuality just to define me,” says the newly-crowned Miss Universe Philippines. 

Miss Universe Philippines 2023 Michelle Marquez Dee sat down with Vogue Philippines for an intimate conversation about her life. In the hour-long conversation, Dee spoke candidly about her childhood, her advocacies and future ambitions, and taking control of her narrative.

Vogue Philippines: How are you feeling now? It’s been a whirlwind few weeks.

Michelle Marquez Dee: I still feel like I’m on cloud nine. I can’t believe that I’m Miss Universe Philippines. This is so much bigger than I actually anticipated. I always see life with a very grateful heart.

I still haven’t had the time to really just sit down alone with my thoughts and just take everything in, take in how drastic this will change my life. I guess I never allowed myself to really imagine life after winning because I was just so focused on winning, so focused on what I had to do for myself to get to that point. And then, when it happened, “Oh my gosh, ano na?”

How did you feel on the day itself?

On the day of the competition, I had an insane feeling of calmness. I was so calm. I credit that to the fact that I trained hard, harder than I did in any of my previous pageants. I had the same feeling when I won my first national pageant; Last year, when I lost, it wasn’t there. But it arrived the morning of Miss Universe Philippines 2023. It’s that feeling like destiny is calling. 

I was training by myself before my Q and A coaches woke up. I was crying because I would imagine myself on stage when I answer my questions. It’s kind of like an acting technique; it’s sense memory. And I would be crying because I could really feel like, “Okay, this is your day. This is your night.” And I’ve been calling it divine intervention for sure. I prayed so hard, and I could feel that there were so many prayers around me. 

Last year, there were so many things that were distracting me from just focusing on the competition. I let that chaos get to my head and it affected my performance. This year, anything that happened against my journey before, I would not let that happen. I was just in my own zone. I knew the steps, I knew the show flow. I wasn’t rattled. I was just in my own little corner just taking in the moment.

C/MEO COLLECTIVE buttondown, BAGASAO STUDIOS midi skirt. Photographed by Jake Verzosa

And then your name was called. 

When they announced me as the winner, oh my gosh. I was so grateful. I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. It’s true pala na mapapabagsak ka. (It’s true that it can just make you fall down.) In the video, when they called “Makati!” I really bent down. I really felt it physically. 

I had such a difficult year, probably the most difficult year of my life. I didn’t know if I could actually go through another competition again, especially knowing how hard it was the previous year. But I still went for it. 

And now I’ve won. I stopped myself from ugly crying because I was about to get crowned. It was just amazing. 

Let’s dive into when you were younger. How was your childhood like?

I grew up on a ranch, in a small town in Utah. My stepfather’s business was agriculture. So, what you see in the movies, like a house surrounded by a field, that was my home. 

I have have five siblings, four brothers, two who are in the autism spectrum, and one sister. My sister and I, our personalities are distinct from each other. Like if you split my mom in two, one half would be my sister, the other half would be me. I inherited the more adrenaline junkie side, the creative side. I was very adventurous, but, also, I wasn’t a social butterfly. 

I don’t know, maybe it was because we were subject to a lot of racism. We were the only Asians in that small town. As a kid you have these questions, “Why don’t they like sitting next to me on the lunch table?” I was too young to even understand the concept of racism. 

You know, I’m blessed to have parents that really shaped my mindset and to not be so frustrated. They empowered me at such a young age. I guess I grew up a lot sooner than a lot of my peers. But I love that idea. So, every time something wrong would happen, I would always just divert to, “Okay, it’s because I’m more responsible than everybody around me,” or I just have a different mindset than my friends. 

My sister was very friendly. She had her friends and all of that. But I actually chose to just have my own little adventures. I would walk around our forest, swim alone, have these little journeys by myself, which I think contributed to my independence. I love my childhood. Of course, you have family drama here and there, but ultimately I had a lot of fun. 

When I moved back here [to the Philippines], there was a stark difference in lifestyle. Laking wilderness, biglang city living. (Having grown up in the wilderness, I was suddenly city living.) But, if anything, I’ve always been creative. Because I followed my mom everywhere, I was exposed to all of these cameras, the creative process of her shooting. I fell in love with it. I got my first camera, a DLSR, at the age of, siguro, eleven. It was a gift from my dad. And I wanted to be one of the photographers in our school newspaper so I could have a front row seat in all of the events. It turned into a big passion of mine.

The eight slip dress available at CUL-DE-SAC. Photographed by Jake Verzosa

But you also went in front of the camera.

I actually never liked being in front of the camera. I didn’t like the spotlight. But what my mom noticed was, whenever I was on stage, I was too scared to look like a fool that the talent comes out and I actually can perform. Grace under pressure is what she would call it. I’ve always been very good at performing and using that pressure to elevate my performance. It always worked in my favor. I don’t think it’s something that was taught to me. I guess I got that from my mom. It was very innate, natural.

I’ve always been comfortable being the unique one. I call myself the shepherd, not the sheep. And my mom said that was okay. She was a trend setter also. And in her own way, she kind of made me accept that about myself at a very young age also. 

It seems like you’ve always been sure of who you are.

I was always sure about what I could offer. I might not have the same qualities as everyone, but I know that I can learn it if I put in the work. Also, I was very sure that if somebody wasn’t okay with who I was, then I just let go, whether that’s hard or easy. There have been instances where I’ve had to let go of people in the most painful way, but just because I would acknowledge that they’re not good for me.

You really find your greatest strengths through weakness. I’m not saying that I’ve had a perfect life; I’ve had so many struggles, like one too many, that you can actually create a movie. I’m more grateful that all of that happened because, if I was sheltered, if I grew up in the comfort of yayas (nannies) and everything, then I might turn out into a totally different woman. With all those difficulties comes strength.

At what age did you think did you start thinking about your gender and orientation?

At a very young age, I think I was Grade 3 maybe, I noticed that I was more interested in doing the things that the boys were doing. Like, I was an adrenaline junkie. When I moved here, I studied in an all-girls school. If there was role play, I liked playing the prince, the bodyguard, the maangas (badass) one—not because I wanted to be a guy or anything, but because it resonated with my personality more. I was never kikay (girly) or anything. 

In terms of attraction, I would say I became more aware of it around high school. But I’ve never felt uncomfortable about queerness because my mom is like the queen of the gays. And I was always with her. She never made me feel like there was anything wrong with it. Sure, she would notice that, “Okay, she’s a little bit boyish,” “Okay, her wardrobe is not like her sister’s.” I wore baggy pants, denim—whatever. That was my style. I dressed more like my dad than anything. But my mom would be like, “Anak, when I was younger, I had five girlfriends at a time.” She would tell me stories that basically normalized it in my head. And, of course, I looked up to both my mom and my dad. 

So, when it did happen, when I first got attracted to the same sex, it didn’t feel like there was anything wrong with it. And growing up, it felt like I was getting so much positive feedback just by being who I was. In a sense, I didn’t feel the need to change because I was being validated by my peers.

I was just being myself. It just so happens that I am attractive to both men and women.

So labels don’t matter to you?

Labels didn’t matter at all. I remember my grandmother was the one who had a talk with me and said that, “You know, I know you never talked to us about your sexual orientation, but I think it’s also very important that you decide how you want to represent yourself to the world because you’re not just in high school anymore, you’re actually going into college. So, how do you want people to see you? How do you want to leave your mark?”

I mean, no pressure at all. She just sat me down in her meditation room and said, ‘You know, no judgment here with whatever you decide, but just really think about how you want to represent yourself to the world.” And then, with some careful thought, I was like, “You know what, let’s do a rebranding.” I basically went through this whole rebranding of myself, like I archived all of my photos, all the photos that I felt weren’t representing me the way I wanted to be remembered. I grew out my hair. People used to call me Dee. It turned into Michelle. And then, I became a model, really utilized my assets. And then, fast forward, here we are. 

Honestly, it’s always been an open secret throughout the industry. “Oh yeah, Michelle is bisexual.” But they would never get confirmation from me. Like, “Okay, what you see is what you get. Whatever chismis (gossip) you have, that’s for your own interpretation.” So, I see this whole thing more as just a confirmation more than a revelation. 

Because, again, my parents really just never made me feel like there was anything wrong. I think it’s just society that really depicts that, which is unfortunate. But it was never a secret to the people closest to me. That was the important thing, that my family knew, my best friends knew, my core people knew. The opinion of people that don’t know didn’t really matter further down my life.

Actually, I think one of the hardest things that I struggle with is showing vulnerability, and to talk to my parents about heartbreak and painful experiences. I always chose to just keep that to myself. My biggest confidant is actually my sister. My sister knew everything. She is that person that knows everything since day one. 

APARA-STUDIO tank top, CALVIN KELIN jeans (SSI), DIAGOLD rings. Photographed by Jake Verzosa

I guess the question on a lot of people’s minds is, why confirm now?

Actually, I was being urged by some key advisers around my career and life to come out sooner, come out before the pageant, come out during the pageant. And I just felt like it wasn’t something that I needed to do to help my journey. I joined the pageant on a mission to advocate for the things that are really important to me, like autism awareness, autism acceptance, inclusivity. That was my mission. But to come out at that time, I felt, would have distracted my main mission because there’s so much about myself that I can show to the universe and not use my sexuality just to define me. 

I just felt like it wasn’t the right time, or it wasn’t the right moment. To just use it for marketing, clout, or attention, it didn’t feel right. If anything, I’ve always wanted it to come out organically or on my own terms because that’s how anyone in the LGBTQIA+ community should be allowed to do. They should have the right to determine when they feel like they’re ready. 

And then, right now, there are some photos that resurfaced from my past. It was spread with malicious intent, to kind of distract me, to invalidate my win. Little do they know, it was actually a more empowering move. 

What I’d like to show people is that when you’re put in a situation where somebody’s taking away your voice, you can always switch the narrative around and use it to empower you. It’s not something I’m ashamed of. So, this is me actually taking control over my narrative, over the story, and not letting all of these naysayers have the right to control that. This is my story. It’s for anyone that can relate to it.

Did you feel it was necessary? 

I’ve always promised myself that as soon as I get the platform, have a positive influence, then I’ll always take that opportunity to empower as many people as I can. That’s how I saw this opportunity to empower a community that is tolerated, but not fully accepted. We have a big, big, LGBTQIA+ community here but, still, we’re still subject to bullying, we’re still subject to hate, hate speech, and that’s just unfortunate.

Do I think it’s always necessary to come out? No. Like I said, you need to respect each other’s situation and timeline. But if it will help anyone feel empowered then they can do it. I don’t think you have to make a public announcement. For me, what was important was that my family knew, the people closest to me knew. Those are the only opinions that should matter. 

You mentioned that you had a difficult year. Can you tell us more about it? 

When I lost the crown last year, I had to battle with a lot of self-doubt, a lot of regret and frustration. I knew I lost the crown because of my performance. Celeste [Cortesi, Miss Universe Philippines 2022] was the most deserving. I saw that right away. I saw the commitment she had, the training she put in, and she shined the brightest that night. 

But that was painful on my end also as somebody who’s naturally competitive. Then two months after, my mom got into an accident. The day after, my dad also got into an accident. My parents are divorced so it’s two separate households. I had to take on the role of heading two families, taking on the financial burden of two families. I had to make sure that everything was running normally without them knowing that they either got into accidents. 

I also became the primary caregiver of my two autistic siblings, all while juggling my own businesses, my own career, my own life. There was just a lot of chaos happening throughout that period. 

You know, I’m grateful for the people that helped me through. I’ve always believed that every struggle that you go through in your life is there because kaya mo (you can take it). And it was also scary because, however difficult it is, it’s preparing you for something harder that’s about to happen in your life. I was like, “Lord, what is this?”

C/MEO COLLECTIVE buttondown, BAGASAO STUDIOS midi skirt. Photographed by Jake Verzosa

Come next year, near the application date, I had this internal struggle because I had just gotten offered one of my dream characters with GMA, but at the same time I had to make a decision for Miss Universe Philippines. The organization focuses so much on advocacy now, which is one of the main reasons I wanted to join. Autism awareness and autism acceptance is my lifelong mission. So, any chance that I can highlight that and to really bring it to a global stage, I’ll take it. 

But, of course, now I was battling with this decision between this and a dream role—and I was juggling to maintain three households at this time. Do I have the time for everything all at once? 

One day, I was like, “You know what, let’s do it. I’ll just keep doing everything at the same time until I drop dead, basically.” 

The show was actually delayed in their timeline. So, it actually started right when the competition started. We were supposed to be done shooting around the first or second week of the competition, but the timeline changed. I was really doing things side by side. I was going on with one to two hours of sleep. Then, finally, on my birthday, it took a toll on my body. 

What’s important is to just go through life full of gratitude, full of love and kindness. And, honestly, if every single person went through that mantra, then we would live in a peaceful world. But we should always start with ourselves.

I had to get rushed to the hospital. I was bleeding. I was hemorrhaging. I lost four liters of blood. I had to go through an emergency surgery. I was actually on the way to a Miss Universe shoot, actually, and then I just got rushed to the hospital. I was experiencing abnormal bleeding days prior. 

It was on my birthday, that I asked to take the medicine to stop the bleeding. I took it and unfortunately, it had an adverse effect on me. Instead of stopping it, it made me bleed even more. 

I lost so much blood that I needed a transfusion and everything. I was just free bleeding from 9 A.M. until 6 P.M., which was the next availability of the O.R. They saw that my uterine lining was full of polyps. They were all stress-induced but thankfully, they were non-cancerous.

I’m very good at looking very calm, composed; the chaos is usually in my head and I just try not to show the struggles. I requested for the outpatient procedure as I had to get back to work the next day. I mean, if anything, it’s the power of will, your willpower. I knew I was on a mission. I knew that I didn’t want to accept any reason for me to stop. So, the question wasn’t “Can I take a break? I need to rest.” It was, “When can I get back to work?” 

Are you fine now?

I’m okay now. But my doctors are always scolding me. They’re like, “Can you stop working for a bit?” But I can’t. I feel useless if I don’t get something done.

What a year!

I guess that’s a glimpse of my mindset throughout life. Like, if I go through something negative, I’ll always find something positive about it. I’ll always find the lesson or the blessing within every struggle. I think I’ve been through so much in my life that to deal with a few bashers that have something bad to say about my gender identity isn’t the worst of it. 

Life has thrown boulders at me already for me to be fazed by bashing or hate comments. It’s just a product of constantly finding things that make me confident about myself in the woman that my very empowered parent figures have given me. You can find that strength within your best friends, within your mentors, within your parents, or even within yourself. You just have to acknowledge that, when you’re weak, you can always find strength. 

Ultimately, that’s my objective for coming out with this story, it isn’t to defend myself but to really empower the community as a whole. I’ve always been a very vocal ally, but I’m now officially part of it. It’s a confirmation, not a revelation.

Looking forward to El Salvador, how are you approaching the competition?

I don’t see myself as perfect. I’ve always believed that there is something that I can improve on, something that I can polish. So, the usuals would be making sure I train hard for Q and A, my walk, my overall packaging. I, of course, trust my personal team and also Miss Universe Philippines to really give me the necessary tools to succeed and represent the country well. 

Miss Universe is a different animal. You’re going up against the crème de la crème of dozens of countries. So, everyone can expect a more elevated and polished performance from me. My focus is to really represent and bring back the crown, raise my flag proudly. And, hopefully, destiny aligns with me again in El Salvador.

I still have plans to pursue other things later on in my life. I want to be a psychiatrist. I studied psychology because, ultimately, that’s how I want to be remembered, as somebody that helps other people, somebody with empathy. 

APARA-STUDIO tank top, CALVIN KELIN jeans (SSI), DIAGOLD rings. Photographed by Jake Verzosa

Do you look forward to a time when “coming out” is no longer a headline?

We can only hope for a perfect world. We can only hope for a time where we don’t have to come out, where whatever you are, however you identify yourself as is just accepted, in a perfect world. 

But, sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. And we can only use these stories to push us toward the right direction because the more we talk about it, the more we accept it, the more people realize that it should be normalized, it should be accepted. And the more we start these conversations, then, at least, we’re doing our part to contribute to a very inclusive world. 

I can do that through my own actions and through example through the advocacies that I bring on the global stage also. Hopefully, people realize that they can also contribute to that in their own little way, in how they treat other people. 

What’s important is to just go through life full of gratitude, full of love and kindness. And, honestly, if every single person went through that mantra, then we would live in a peaceful world. But we should always start with ourselves.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


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