At 232 pounds, who would ever think she would win in a beauty contest?
But Gerribenzi Pangilinan-Tubil felt like a queen on coronation night as she went up the stage to generous applause.
“I am the reigning Bilbiling Mandaluyong,” says the 29-year-old mother of one, whenever she proudly introduces herself.
“Bilbiling” is a play on the Filipino term for someone with a flabby girth (mabilbil), as well as the vernacular for “miss” (binibini).
Benzi, as she is fondly called by family and friends, bested 20 other women who also weighed more than 200 pounds, that one trait that qualified them for a unique beauty and talent contest held every February at the Mandaluyong City gymnasium.
Now on its fourth year, the contest is organized by the city government and, ironically, is sponsored by a popular fitness club, which explains why it comes with a twist. Of the Top 5 finalists, whoever loses more pounds after a year gets a separate cash prize.
Before Benzi won the crown that night, being on the portly side had been a source of frustration whenever she pursued her real passion: Singing.
Raising a 7-year-old daughter with her husband who works as a warehouse assistant, Benzi had tried her luck earlier by joining amateur singing contests. One of her goals then was to win enough money to buy a memorial park lot where she could transfer the remains of her grandmother who died in a car crash in 1997.
She would easily beat the other singers in the early rounds but was often eliminated “because of my weight,” she recalled in an interview at her house in Barangay Barangka Ibaba.
Once, during an audition for a television singing contest, she was asked to stop at the second stanza of her song and was immediately shown the door.
“It was disheartening. They had judged me before they could even hear me sing the entire song,” she said.
A different opportunity, however, presented itself earlier this month.
“I was hesitant at first because, from the title alone, the contest seemed to be a mockery,” Benzi said of the Bilbiling tilt. But friends were able to persuade her to join the contest “just for fun.”
She gamely took up the dare. “I thought: This is it. I’m going to prove that I’m not a loser.”
The young mother said she also wanted to send a message to other plus-size women that the true measure of beauty was not found in one’s waistline.
On stage, dressed in a clingy gown, Benzi wowed the judges and the crowd this time and clinched the talent portion as she belted songs of pop divas Whitney Houston and Jennifer Lopez.
“Everyone inside the Mandaluyong gymnasium listened intently as I sang. They also applauded and laughed when I cracked jokes during the question-and-answer portion. I felt very proud,” she said.
Benzi’s Miss Bilbiling Mandaluyong title came with a P100,000 cash prize and a one-year membership in a fitness club.
“This is actually a fight against obesity. But at the same time, we make these women feel good about themselves,” said Leo Urmeneta, the pageant coordinator. “Why is it that only skinny women can join beauty pageants? Our contestants can be just as charming and attractive.”
Benzi and the other finalists in the Top 5 now have a new incentive to slim down. Whoever loses the most pounds after a year will receive P50,000 from the office of City Mayor Benhur Abalos, whose wife Menchie spearheads the contest.
Since its launch, the contest has attracted the city’s generously endowed women from ages 18 to 50. “The only requirement for them to qualify is to be obese and to have a fat belly,” Urmeneta said.
He maintained that the women get treated like any other beauty title contender. “The only difference is they are dressed in plus-size outfits,” he said.