For many young, fearless thought leaders, the pandemic has provided a sea of opportunities to maximize the digital space. With the political climate, too, the youth have banded together to advocate for a healthy culture of accountability, highlighting digital resources like TikTok—the video-focused platform for a new generation—to drive the change they want to see, albeit from a safe distance.
As the year draws to a close, we’re moving inwards and getting our shit together with aspiring content creator-turned-beauty queen and morena advocate, Rousanne “Ayn” Bernos. As the founder of Morena the Label and podcast host of Camp Confidence Radio, her one-of-a-kind path to self-love and acceptance seems polished, but it’s actually still an ongoing process.
This November, the breakout digital star reveals her Kwentong Moreyna and shares her bloody yet victorious journey thus far, which includes her Miss Universe Philippines story.
I met Ayn Bernos two years ago at an intimate work event. We were seated together as we learned (and agonized) about the most pressing things about being a young adult. She was positively radiant and brimming with confidence, no doubt a “people person.” At our sit down during her cover shoot, Ayn shares how much life has changed since our fateful first meeting: “It’s honestly not sinking in quite yet. Right now, it’s a lot of working and, you know, with the pandemic, I’m not really meeting a lot of people; most of my interactions have been virtual. I still feel like I’m living in a dream, and I’m waiting for myself to wake up right now, but I’m just really grateful that all of this is happening.”
With a whole day lined up, Ayn’s energy was unrelenting from start to finish. Her professionalism was evident to everyone around, and she Coco Rocha-ed her way through it, obvious how her months in the pageantry scene gave her the tools to be victorious in any photoshoot. She adds, “[This newfound fame] is a long time coming. I mean, we met two years ago, and when we met, I was a struggling aspiring content creator. Now that I get to do this full-time, [and] after everything that’s happened in 2021, I’m just really happy, and I’m trying to make the best out of it.”
The Road to Miss Universe Philippines
2021 is undoubtedly Ayn’s year, having become a household name after she joined Miss Universe Philippines, representing the City of San Juan. She immediately became a favorite in the digital space because of her prominent advocacies, even landing her a spot as a finalist. But her path wasn’t at all easy, experiencing one pressing challenge after another, which eventually led her to rise up and move forward despite it all.
Being a co-host of Camp Confidence Radio—where two self-made entrepreneurs talk about confidence, self-improvement and success—couldn’t prepare her for all the negativity that comes with being a public figure. She shares, “I would say my experience joining Miss Universe was definitely humbling because, before I started, I was doing all this work about self-esteem and self-love. I learned a lot along the way, but when I joined Miss Universe Philippines, that was another level.”
She reveals, “Thecomments section was really shocking to me, especially since I’ve always had a supportive, like-minded community online. So, to be able to get so much feedback about my body, my face—that was really difficult to endure. And honestly, lots of times throughout the two-month stint, I had to really convince myself that I have to go through with this; I need to continue this; I deserve to be here. It was really difficult, and I had to take it day by day.”
Many people online took offense that Ayn Bernos is a proud morena, a Pinay with gleaming, beautiful skin that’s kayumanggi (brown). She divulges, “Once I heard the prejudices people had against me and what I looked like, [I realized] it wasn’t about me, it was what I represented. I would often get comments like ‘you look like a common Filipina,’ as if that was a bad thing. So I kept telling myself: ‘I am the common Filipina. I look like the common Filipina. And a common Filipina better be there.’” She adds, “I kept thinking to myself, even if I don’t win, even if I don’t do well in this competition, at the very least, one day when another girl who looks like me tries, they won’t think twice about letting her in because I was already there before, and I made it to the end. I tried to make it to the end, and I did.”
Her Kwentong Moreyna
As the founder of Morena the Label, a clothing brand-turned-advocacy “celebrating brown skin and challenging colorism,” Ayn has always been outspoken about her love for her kayumanggi skin. Her locally-made merch has made rounds on social media, featuring shirts with labels like “I like my tan, Tita” and “I set my own beauty standards.”
The beauty queen’s Kwentong Moreyna began as a child, when she started spending more time in the sun as a swimmer. She would receive unsolicited comments from those dear to her, and she would even be thrown demeaning insults like uling (charcoal), something many Filipinas can relate to. She shares, “When I was growing up—well, I’m already morena—but I was also a swimmer, so I was extra dark. I would spend many afternoons under the sun training, and it got to a point where it really affected my self-esteem as a kid because I would be called names as a kid like uling, even by really good friends. I guess it affected me because it made me think of myself as less, but over the years, I guess I tried to learn more about that aspect of our culture, to be specific, and how can we move past that.”
Ayn would often be labeled as morena but as an insult, especially in family reunions and gatherings. She shares, “I would get comments like ‘O, umitim ka na naman (You got darker),’ but then over time, I’ve learned to tell people, ‘But I like my tan, tita. Let me be!’ Every time it’d happen, I’d repeat the same thing until gradually, they accepted and adjusted to that mindset, and now I guess in my little circle, I’m celebrated as the morena girl, instead of morena as an insult. I think, with enough patience and proper discussions, people can change their minds and they will.”
There’s no doubt that at some point, we’ve fallen victim to skin-lightening products, holding on to the promise that lighter is better, more superior. We eventually unlearn these damaging cultural norms by educating ourselves and celebrating diversity. For her undergrad thesis at the University of Santo Tomas, Ayn explored colorism in the country, which eventually made her want to challenge it in a very public setting. She notes, “My Kwentong Moreyna really evolved when I started learning more about [colorism] through my undergrad thesis. It was about colorism in skin whitening ads in the Philippines. Once I was armed with that information, I was able to understand it from a more objective perspective. Now, when I think about colorism, it’s no longer just a personal struggle I have. I realize that it really is beyond me; it’s a very common experience among Filipinos that’s why we try to talk more about it. I think a lot more people are aware and a lot more people are challenging it, too.”
Colorism is still evidently something many Filipinos and Filipinas struggle with. For Ayn, there are actionable ways to confront and challenge it, especially with our own social circles. She points out, “I guess starting small within our circle is a really good step forward. For example, one of the things that we don’t notice sometimes is how people react and talk about skin color and, usually, when we talk about dark skin, it’s as a joke between friends. Friends would say ‘hindi ka makita sa dilim (I can’t see you in the dark)’ or ‘you look like coffee or dirt or uling (charcoal),’ stuff like that.”
She zeroes in on how important it is to be firm, “For me, one of the things that I tell people is don’t laugh. Let people know that you’re not okay with this. Let people know you’re uncomfortable because unless we have that conversation with people close to us, it’s never really gonna change. And I understand, too, that it’s just so deeply embedded in our culture, but if you take a stand enough, people will adjust. And if people around you, especially loved ones, respect you, they will try to understand where you’re coming from, as opposed to labeling you as pikon (sensitive). Have that conversation, especially with those who are near you.”
As Filipinas, we can’t help but encounter familiar stereotypes and tropes perpetrated against us. Navigating through a society designed to be in favor of males, is delicate and risky. For Ayn, she hopes Pinays could advocate more for themselves and take up space. She notes, “I would say [I’d like to eradicate] the meek, submissive Filipino stereotype. We definitely have that especially when we talk about external perceptions. I would often see descriptions saying Filipinas are very caring, to a fault, because we’re supposed to be submissive or something like that. But it translates not just in relationships but also in the way we stand up for ourselves—whether it’s setting our own beauty standards, acknowledging and celebrating our own beauty, being able to choose our career over what’s expected of us at home or being able to exercise a right and being able to lead.”
She adds, “Filipinas are strong; we’re strong-willed. I do think that when we want to, we can make our own choices—and we can stand up for those choices.”
The Voice of A Generation
There’s no doubt that TikTok is the platform for a new generation of thought leaders. Through the years, it’s grown exponentially, becoming a key player in the digital ecosystem. With the national 2022 elections coming up, it’s become an essential platform for a generation, which recognizes that their collective voices can pave the way for change they want to see.
Through her digital channels, it’s evident that Ayn doesn’t want to preach to people who think differently from her; instead, she wants to create dialogue and empower those who care to speak up and listen. She shares, “This is something I’m still trying to figure out. I’ve tried to use my platform to have this conversation and not really to, I guess, educate about my vote or my opinions. I realized that we need to be more open about it, in the sense that it’s not that we are educating; it’s that we’re having a proper conversation, we’re listening.”
For Ayn, having this humility and openness stops us from alienating people. We need to let people in, instead of calling them out. She notes, “My platform, anyone’s platform, is useless if we alienate whoever has the chance to listen. That’s still in the works, I’m still trying to figure out how to use my platform to bring people [together] instead of calling people out.”
To get out of our own echo chambers to inspire change is an imperfect process, but with patience and empathy, it’s possible. Ayn reveals, “I guess the first step is to understand where the other party is coming from, ‘cause I realize, you know, when we talk to people who have the same opinions as us, obviously they’re gonna agree, obviously they’re gonna validate what we think. And even if we do have factual sources, sometimes we don’t know what it’s like for other people who don’t necessarily agree with us.”
She highlights, “I guess patience is key, empathy is key, then patience again. I need to circle back to patience because that’s one thing we’re slowly running out of in a lot of heated debates online, a lot of heated arguments even with our friends and families. But I think if we approach these situations with understanding, we’ll go a long way. At the end of the day, we still have months pa naman (left) until the elections. We still have a way to improve how we communicate, and hopefully, I can do that as well.”
Having stood on the Miss Universe Philippines stage was a victory in itself for Ayn Bernos. She dreamt and conquered, constantly being empowered by her support system that never doubted how much she wanted to be on that stage. She stood on that stage as the Ayn that she knows she is, even if many thought differently.
This beauty queen and creator has won the hearts of many, especially with her advocacies that put self-love and acceptance front and center. Through her journey to herself, she has discovered along the way that it isn’t just about her; it’s a collective effort towards celebrating the things that make us uniquely Pinoy.
This has been a long time coming, yet it still feels like it’s just the beginning of her reign.
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