How Pia Wurtzbach’s social power could influence HIV policy

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After calling on lowering the age of consent for HIV/AIDS testing, can Miss Universe 2015 and now UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador Pia Wurtzbach blaze the trail from pageantry to political commentary? Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — After a long reign as queen of the universe, Pia Wurtzbach is on to her next big project, also universal in scale: helping end the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic by 2030.

Wurtzbach debuted as the Goodwill Ambassador of the regional branch of the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) during a launch at Rizal Library, Ateneo de Manila University, to a crowd of media, faculty, students, and fans.

At the event, she is bold without being crass, somehow maintaining her grace and poise.

“I’m pretty candid, and I’m pretty transparent, and I say it how it is,” said Wurtzbach. “I don’t try to not say the word ‘sex,’ or… ‘condoms.’ I’m not trying to sugarcoat things.”

She even shed light on a specific issue: Under present law, HIV tests are prohibited from being given to anyone under 18 without the consent or guidance of parents, a measure that prevents sexually active teenagers — especially those in urban and rural poor areas — from finding out about their status, and consequently, availing of treatment that could save their lives. Wurtzbach’s suggestion? Take the age of testing consent down to 16, even 15, years old.

“One thing that I would like to see is for the age of [testing] consent to be lowered so that more people can get themselves tested,” Wurtzbach announced. “Because right now the age is 18. Come on, realistically, we all start having sex much younger than that.”

She paused for a moment, blushing demurely, and said, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I said that.”

The room laughed, the ice broken. This is no longer a formal official speaking, but the Pia that fans know and love — one who just happens to be a new ambassador.

Wurtzbach added with a teasing grin, “Galit ba kayo sa akin? Totoo naman e. ‘Di ba?” The comment sparked applause in the hall.

“I’m gonna get bashed for what I just said. Okay lang,” she continued. “Anything for UNAIDS.”

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pia wurtzbach3.jpg “I don’t try to not say the word ‘sex,’ or… ‘condoms.’ I’m not trying to sugarcoat things," said Pia Wurtzbach, commenting on HIV awareness. Photo by JL JAVIER

Few people wield Wurzbach’s social influence. She has at once fit in and broke the beauty queen mold; she has covered magazines, but also told Vice Ganda she supported the Reproductive Health Law and family planning with no reservations, “in all forms.” She penned an op-ed on LGBT rights for Time Magazine, which was spared the backlash given to the SOGI Anti-Discrimination Bill, whose critics claimed it impinged on their rights to religious freedom. A mere month before the column was published, she was even blessed by Cardinal Chito Tagle, who gifted her with a rosary he had received from Pope Francis.

Wurtzbach’s interest in the HIV/AIDS advocacy began even before she took the crown as Miss Universe.

“I remember about halfway through my reign as Miss Philippines, we were asked to visit people living with HIV and AIDS. I was okay with doing it … but some girls who were with me were hesitant,” she said. “In the end, we did go … but then it just got me curious [as] to why the initial reaction was fear.”

“I realized that there really is, in fact, no reason for us to be scared,” Wurtzbach concluded. “To be hesitant to reach out to people living with HIV and AIDS — most especially [for] somebody who is in my position at the time, who was a beauty queen representing the Philippines, I just didn’t think it was right.”

According to UNAIDS Regional Support Team Director Steve Kraus, the Philippines has the highest rate of growing HIV cases in all of Southeast Asia, with 42,000 cases recorded and 7,000 new cases yearly. Despite the virus no longer being a death sentence, thousands still do not have access to medication and even go undiagnosed.

Kraus says they picked Wurtzbach as an ambassador because she “talks the talk, walks the walk, and knows her community.”

“One thing that I would like to see is for the age of consent to be lowered so that more people can get themselves tested,” Wurtzbach announced. “Because right now the age is 18. Come on, realistically we all start having sex much younger than that.”

Wurtzbach credits her growth to the care of her “mamas,” the beauty queen makers behind training facility Aces and Queens, and a fanbase that includes “the youth, a lot of women, and a lot of the LGBT community” — the same audiences vulnerable to the disease. She knows she is doing it for them.

“Unfortunately I do have some friends who have it, and it’s really hitting closer to home,” she shared at the launch. “I just happen to be really close to the LGBT community, too — that’s why it became easy … to talk about it, because it’s right behind me. It’s like, the big elephant in the room ... I guess that’s why I’m here. I’m the one who’s supposed to point where it is: ‘Guys, nandiyan siya.’”

This awareness is what she hopes to bring to 550,000 followers on Twitter and a whopping 4.4 million on Instagram, a following Wurtzbach says she is determined “not … to put to waste.”

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But even Pia Wurtzbach is not immune to criticism. She may have a few haters — more online bullies than actual critics. A few dissenting opinions arose when she said she “[did] not see any problem” with American bases in the Philippines during her Miss Universe 2015 Q&A, but she emerged unscathed and more loved than ever.

After a spate of comments accused her of taking on too many selfies and modelling stints and not enough advocacy work, Wurtzbach fired back to haters in November last year.

“I'm so tired of people complaining that I haven't found ‘the cure’ for HIV when clearly I said I would raise awareness. I'm not magically gonna come up with a potion that cures everything,” Wurtzbach wrote in an Instagram post.

She went on to ask her followers if they had gotten themselves tested. She added that she need not document all aspects of her advocacy because if the time called for it, she said, “I put my phone down, and I work.”

The post was caption to a photo of a Wurtzbach beaming in a swimsuit — “Oh and here's a bikini photo,” she quipped with a peace sign, “just so I get your attention.”

pia wurtzbach.jpg UNAIDS Regional Support Team Director Steve Kraus says they picked Pia Wurtzbach as an ambassador because she “talks the talk, walks the walk, and knows her community.” Photo by JL JAVIER

That year, Wurtzbach took a public HIV test to encourage the public to know their status; she also attended the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS and the UN headquarters in New York.

Today, Wurtzbach seems to have warmed to the social media campaign. In March, she plugged in a Hope 4 Change International video on her Instagram account to “change the tune a little bit.”

“I know you guys enjoy seeing more personal content on my page, but we just can't turn a blind eye on reality!” she wrote.

According to UNAIDS Regional Support Team Director Steve Kraus, the Philippines has the highest rate of growing HIV cases in all of Southeast Asia, with 42,000 cases recorded and 7,000 new cases yearly.

She tells the launch audience, “Just one post of mine reaches already millions of people, so [from] that alone, I know I’m doing my part.”

“If they get to see my posts, if they get to read about it, if they get to see a video of me urging them to get themselves tested, it’s good enough for me. One view to me counts — each view counts, because I know that I got the message out there,” she told CNN Philippines. “Now, it’s really up to that person to take initiative and get themselves tested.”

Wurtzbach also did not frame her wish for a lower age of consent as an outright urge to legislators. When she is asked if this is an appeal, she answered in the positive: “Yeah, why not?”

“If they’re gonna take interest in that, and they see that is fair and [that] they indeed should lower it, then great. That’s gonna be a big help,” she said.

Wurtzbach is in a special, strategic status that makes her both respected and revered. Her fans are sincere, unpaid, and willing to listen to the issues she raises. She has proven in word and deed that she intends to be more than a pretty face.

“I talk about this because I feel like not a lot of people are, or not a lot of people in my position,” she said at the launch. “A lot of people think that beauty queens just like to sit pretty and get glammed up … wave, kiss the babies. It’s not true. I really do think that I have a lot more to do, a lot more to say.”