Miriam Quiambao-Roberto: On Rising, Falling, And Rising Again (Part 1)
Miriam Quiambao-Roberto shot up to international prominence at Miss Universe 1999, where she took the prize of first runner up for the Philippines despite her unfortunate slip and fall. But what captured everyone’s attention was the way she got back up even after falling down. Her graceful recovery from this setback drew the applause of the audience and won her fans the world over.
Who knew that this would become a metaphor for her life? After her meteoric rise, she also suffered a series of setbacks, from divorce to career downturns to being scammed out of her investments. But just like that night in 1999, Miriam got back up again after each setback, and found happiness and security in God and her new family.
In part one of this two-part exclusive interview, Miriam Quiambao-Roberto opens up about the challenges she’s faced, how in an alternate timeline she would have been a physical therapist in Indiana instead of a beauty queen, and why she suddenly left showbiz for a life of luxury in Hong Kong.
Miriam Quiambao-Roberto in childhood.
When you were growing up, what was your attitude towards money?
My parents taught me to be a saver. At seven or eight years old I already had a bank account. Whenever we received money for helping around the house, or during Christmas when we sang and danced and we got cash rewards from family members for that, I put it all in there.
But in our immature minds we didn’t really understand where we found money or its value. In fact my mom always told me “Money doesn’t grow on trees! I can’t keep on buying the stuff you want me to buy!”
It was only when I grew up and got my own job that I realized that it really wasn’t all that easy to make my own money.
So what was your first job?
At my first job as a part-time gym instructor, I was only making P2,000 a month. So buti na lang I was still living with my parents so I wasn’t totally pressured to live on just P2,000 a month. But no matter how little I was making, I didn’t want to depend on my parents. They worked hard to send me to school, and now that I was making my own money, I thought it was a good idea to set a goal to try to earn enough so I didn’t have to depend on them.
P2,000 is such a small amount. How did you live on it?
I slowly realized that it wasn’t enough for all the things I wanted to buy. So I tried to save money. To get to my place of work, I had to take public transportation, but I would hitch with my dad on his way to work as much as I could to save. On the days where I had to take public transportation, I’d take the jeep or the non-air conditioned bus instead. This was back in 1997 – 1999. I spent P5 per ride to take the tricycle to the gym I worked at. So in order to save that money instead, I would just walk to the gym. That would be my warm-up.
To save even more, I’d walk to the nearest carinderia, and instead of pork or beef, I’d eat vegetables because they were a lot cheaper, tapos isang damakmak na kanin, and that would be my lunch.
Did you find other ways to grow your income?
I got my friend to train me to be an aerobics instructor. When you teach aerobics, you can earn up to P500 extra per session. I got him to train me, then eventually I developed my own routine. So when we were lacking aerobics instructors, they’d get me to teach at our gym. Then I realized that if you teach privately for a company, you can earn more because you get P1,000 per session! So I offered to teach at nearby banks.
And I knew someone at an insurance company in United Nations Avenue so I would gladly commute that distance to earn P1,000 per hour. And on Saturday morning I had a physical therapy patient, a multiple stroke patient I’d visit at home once a week. With all these rackets I grew that P2,000 a month to P12,000 in a matter of a few months.
Miriam at the Binibining Pilipinas coronation night with her parents.
You sound like you had a really busy schedule. How did you make time for the pageant circuit?
I had to ask for a leave from work. I was actually discovered in another gym; they called me in to fill in for another instructor, and there was a make-up artist there in the gym. ‘Are you a model?’ he asked me. ‘Ay, hindi,’ I said, because I was all sweaty, I’d just finished my workout, I didn’t have any makeup on.He said “You know, puwede kang maging model. You want me to help you? I’m a make-up artist, and I have connections.”
Then I thought, “Hmm, puwede yan, racket rin yun!”. So he introduced me to another make-up artist who suggested I join Binibining Pilipinas, which was holding its last day of auditions that Saturday.
I was discovered that Monday, so I made the decision to join the pageant within the week.
Wow, that was fast. Was it easy to make the decision to become a model/beauty queen?
Actually, I was at a crossroads. When I learned that February 20 was the night of the coronation, that same week I was supposed to take my physical therapist licensure exams in Guam for licensure in the US, in the state of Indiana. During the time, I was active in a charismatic community and they encouraged us to pray over decisions, small or big. I felt like it was a decision beyond my limited capacity of foresight.
I saw two great opportunities: pursuing physical therapy in the US, for which my parents worked hard to send me to school, or accept this offer to pursue becoming a beauty queen which was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and, to be honest, my childhood dream.
At first, I thought I could do both, but pasabay sila ng schedule, which one should I choose? So I prayed about the decision and the answer I got from my prayer was to accept the offer to join the pageant.
That couldn’t have been an easy decision.
Well, actually, during the course of the 3-week preparation for the pageant, I learned that my exam was moved to another month. So I ended up winning Binibining Pilipinas World on the night of the coronation, and the following month I went to Guam and passed my licensure exam. So in the end I got to do them both!
And then, when I got home from Guam, Binibining Pilipinas called me and told me that the Philippines’s Miss Universe bet was disqualified because of passport issues and they’re going to send me instead. So I went, brought home the 1st runner up title, and that opened up doors for me to work in show business.
With Donald Trump at Miss Universe 1999.
Things were happening really quickly for you! Did you ever see yourself getting into showbiz before all this started?
When I was 8 I remember watching Lunch Date, a noontime show on channel 7. One of the hosts there, Randy Santiago, was interviewing Dante Varona, a popular 80s action star, and it was then that I just had this feeling in my heart that one day I would work for TV. It wasn’t a dream I had, it was not something I had planned, but I felt like it was something that God had planned for me.
How did you deal with the transition from part-time gym instructor to world-famous beauty queen?
It was a big adjustment for sure because before I could walk in the streets and I wouldn’t be mobbed by the public. When I won, people would stop me for pictures and autographs, I’d be met with mobs or stopped in the malls and all that. It still happens now, but it’s much more manageable than before.
What kind of opportunities opened up for you?
I first started with Unang Hirit then Extra Extra then I started getting into sitcoms and movies. When I was first starting as a host, I didn’t know much. I knew how to read scripts but voice modulation, reading a prompter, all those broadcasting skills, I wasn’t prepared for. I had mentors like Arnold Clavio, Suzi Abrera, Lyn Ching, and Paolo Bediones, who was with me in my first two shows. They would give me tips and I would learn along the way.
Miriam on a field interview for Extra Extra.
How did you deal with all the extra money you were earning at that time?
I was making so much more money so I was happy but I kept my habits of saving and living way below my means. When I finally looked at my savings and saw that I had six figures I thought, I can’t just keep this in a bank, I have to invest this!
During that time when I was looking out for investments I came across the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and after reading that and other books I started investing in real estate.
But then you left showbiz. Why?
I wasn’t feeling fulfilled any more with work. Even though work was fun I needed to have more meaning in my life. Also around that time I met an Italian based in Hong Kong and I wanted to have a family already. So when we got married I left behind everything, my career, my family, my country, to move to Hong Kong to be with my husband, and I was a housewife then.
But I still had my investments back here, my partner was still managing our investment well. Eventually she scammed me but during that time she was still depositing the passive income our investments earned in my account.
I also gave a share of the management to my mom, who was a CFO of a pharmaceutical. Even though the partner was already showing signs of non-integrity my mom was the one who protected me, my property, and that investment.
What was life in Hong Kong like?
I didn’t have work so most of my own money I kept in my savings account and in my investment. But when I suddenly got married, I didn’t realize my first husband could provide so much. He was quite wealthy and he provided for all my needs and so much more.
I lived a life of luxury when I was with him and I lost all sense of frugality! He would shower me with all these gifts and I was like “OK, I guess we can afford it!” He would give me an allowance and I’d use that for my own personal spending, supermarket expenses, so that’s what I did. I also used his credit card for my own luxury shopping. And I was just shopping away with his permission.
Admittedly after our first year and he saw how our bills were piling up, going in the millions of Hong Kong dollars, and he didn’t have much plans on how to manage his finances because he was suddenly making all this money. At some point he decided “Why don’t we invest some of this?” and he reprimanded me for my spending so I had to curb it.
Unfortunately our relationship really didn’t work after two and a half years. We lacked the relational skills in order to manage ourselves and our relationship so we separated and I moved back here.