Janine Tugonon had a plan: become a pharmacist, get married, have kids. Then she entered her first pageant and quickly made her way to the Miss Universe 2012 competition. Her world got bigger. So did her dreams. Tugonon, now a model with MSA, moved to New York and recently landed a coveted spot in a Victoria’s Secret Pink ad, making her the first-ever Filipino to model for the brand. The news went viral and raised the stakes. Here, she reveals the ups and downs of trying to make it in an industry where people who look like you rarely do—and a whole country hopes you succeed.
I was born and raised in the Philippines. I was studying pharmacy and someone saw me and told me to join a school pageant. I was like, “Okay?” I didn’t know anything about pageants because my family, we’re more academically inclined—they are all in the medical field. From grade school to college I graduated with honors, so I was really a very, very studious student. The original plan was to graduate then go to Guam where my family has a pharmacy and take over the business. Then, in my fourth year of university back in 2010, I joined my first pageant at the University of Santo Tomas. Every section of the class needed to have a representative, and my class pitched me in. I represented my class as “Miss Pharmacy.” That was the start.
Growing up, I knew about models; I knew about beauty queens. I’ve seen bits and pieces, billboards and TV shows of former Filipino beauty queens, but I didn’t know there was a career in that. I was ready to be a pharmacist and in your head that is your plan: You graduate, you work, get a family. Maybe go abroad and earn more money. But I felt like I was meant to take a different route.
When I won Miss Universe Philippines then joined Miss Universe in Las Vegas, that was really my first time in the U.S. After getting first runner-up, I wondered, What now?Was I supposed to go back to pharmacy? It’s not in my heart what I really wanted. I did on-the-job training in the Philippines and decided that I loved studying about pharmacy, I learned a lot, but I didn’t want to do it forever. I got endorsements in the Philippines but I kept wondering, What’s the next step? I love new challenges and I wanted to really, really try it in the U.S. I love my country, obviously, but some people are just meant to fly away, you know what I mean? I feel like I’m one of those people who are really meant to go out and try something else.
I always wanted to try living abroad in the U.S. because I grew up watching American shows. I wanted to be in those shows. My mom saw this flyer they gave us at Miss Universe for the New York Film Academy for an acting program with a scholarship. I was supposed to throw it out but I thought it was a sign. Maybe I should go to the U.S. and live life there, start acting or modeling. So after a few weeks, I flew to the U.S., got signed to my agency, MSA, got my green card, and that was it. I really risked it. For me, it’s really uncertain going into modeling and blending into this culture where there are a lot of models that are blondes with blue eyes. It’s tough, but I’m like, Let’s do that route, because that’s what I wanted. Let’s just take the risk, let’s do it.
IT’S REALLY UNCERTAIN GOING INTO MODELING…WHERE THERE ARE A LOT OF MODELS THAT ARE BLONDES WITH BLUE EYES.
I moved to New York on August 23 of this year. I was in L.A. for three years, I moved there in September 2013 to study acting for two months. The first thing I asked my agency was, “Do you send girls to Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show?” and they were like “No, they’re booked in New York.” So that’s when I decided I’m going to New York. If I’m going to pursue modeling, I want to be the best in it. I want to really get there; I wouldn’t just settle for mediocre jobs. I know you have to love the small beginnings. But in the end, you want to get there!
YOU WONDER: WHAT DID I DO WRONG? AM I TOO FAT, OR WHAT? SHOULD I EVEN BE HERE?
I got cast for the Victoria’s Secret Pink commercial when I was in L.A. I went to the first casting, first screening, then got a callback a few days later. I saw another girl that I know and I’m like “Shoot!” because we have the same ethnicity, so if she gets the job, it means I didn’t get it. After the callback, I waited for a day. There were no calls at all from my agent until around 7 P.M., which I wouldn’t expect ’cause offices close at five. “Hey, you got VS Pink!” I was like “Oh, wow!” I was so happy about working with them and with the team. It’s a foot in the door.
I didn’t expect the crazy reaction I got from the Philippines [as the “first full-blooded Filipino VS model”]. There’s this Facebook page called “NowThis” and that’s an American publication; they did a video on me in the commercial—it got 10 million views! I’m like Wait, what? I wasn’t even the lead—a lot of people were asking if I’m a VS Angel now. I got really big in the Philippines. Filipinos are supportive like that, it’s really amazing. It’s also kind of tough sometimes because you know, especially for young girls, they look at you and a lot of people are messaging me: “Oh, you inspire me so much!” I’m like, Really? I’m not really that good, guys! It’s hard.
I think a lot about the fact that I don’t look like the “typical” model you see in fashion, especially in the recent Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show casting. It was a three-day screening, then the callbacks are two-day castings. I looked around and a lot of them are blondes and brunettes. I was sitting there like, Shit. They call models from big agencies and I’m just thinking, Okay, this is really tough. There are Asians, but I’m a very different look. Plus, if I see someone that is the same ethnicity as me, then I know already for a fact that if she gets it, I won’t. I think about that all the time because being from a different country with a different look—it’s just hard. It’s hard to get in that role when you’re in the minority. Of course they wouldn’t cast as many that look like this as opposed to blondes. It’s how it is. It’s how the business is, but you got to keep going with it. Complaining is a waste of time.
NEVER COMPARE YOUR PATH OR ROUTE TO OTHERS.
I do still feel a lot of pressure from my country because that would be huge for them, but at some point you’ve just got to let that all go. Just do your best. I’m starting to get back on track again. Let’s work hard and forget about the past. Just do this now.
Of course, you still want to get there. I really want huge campaigns. Or billboards in Times Square–that level. I want Victoria’s Secret. Runway shows. For me, I believe that each and every one of us has a purpose. It’s just finding and knowing that purpose. You don’t have to do what everyone is doing; you don’t have to chase money or fame. You just have to find that one thing that you think you are really made to do. Never compare your path or route to others. You just go through your lane and keep running in your lane.