Miss Universe 1st Runner-up eyes cure for blindness

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — She's got the beauty, the brains, and is determined to finish her graduate degree and help find a cure for blindness. Is there anything Miss Universe 2016 First Runner-up Raquel Pelissier can't do?

The 25-year-old from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti said on Tuesday that she was not expecting to place second in the competition, and "now so many opportunities are opening in my way."

"But my priority right now is to finish my master's degree," Pelissier told CNN Philippines' The Source.

"I just have to present my thesis... on the regeneration of the optic nerve, the project to cure blindness that I'm working on," she added. The research is part of the Master's Degree in Scientific Research in Optometry and Vision that Pelissier is pursuing.

"We had to implant materials in the nerve. The first experiment did not go so well," said Pelissier. "But that is the life of a scientist, you fail every day... but there's going to be that one experiment that's going to be the one."

Dogged determination

Pelissier's determination springs from optimism.

"It really strengthens your brain because you know that, okay, even if you fail, you can go along tomorrow, get your energy, get your motivation, and get the work done."

Pelissier, towering at 5'11, wowed the audience and pageant fans when she emerged among the Top 3 along with Miss France Iris Mittenaere and Miss Colombia Andrea Tovar in the pageant held Monday at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay.

She said her favorite part of the pageant was answering the last question on when she felt she had failed and what she had learned, "because I felt like they discovered why I'm here."

Her heartfelt answer to the final question posed to her in which she made reference to the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 touched many. The earthquake then killed between 220,000 and 316,000 and displaced around 1.5 million in the Caribbean nation.

"I feel I was failing myself because I was not living my dreams, I was living day by day in that earthquake," Pelissier had answered. "It was a bad event, but I choose to be a very positive person and learn a great lesson from it. Because if I am here today, it's because I am living my dreams."

Growing up, Pelissier was far from the confident beauty she is now.

"Before, I was not that person you're seeing right now. I was someone very reserved, someone who was very shy," Pelissier said on The Source Tuesday.

"After the earthquake I learned that life is happening right now and probably there's no guarantee for tomorrow," she added.

She said the experience gave her the "strength to achieve (her) goals in life."

"If you want something, you just have to do it now," she added. "I've become such a stronger woman and I'm doing so many things right now and I'm just so happy."

"Speak from the heart"

Pelissier said that if given the chance, she would not change her answers.

"If I had prepared that answer, it would not have come from my heart," she said. "That's why I don't wanna change it, because it came from the moment, and I said it as it is."

During the initial question and answer segment for the Top 6, Pelissier was asked what she would have marched for during the worldwide marches last January 21. She talked about the importance of human rights and the "need to respect each other."

Pelissier also said that she was praying throughout the competition.

"Every time we lined up, I was like, 'God, if you want me to step forward, I will. But if not, I will respect it, and I will be happy with my position,'" she said.

"In Top 6, I was like 'God, if you want me, just speak for me. Answer the question for me, and I will know that you want me there," she added.

"And I answered the first question, He made me stay. So I said, 'Again, speak for me. Let me speak from my heart.'"

Pelissier said that as the competition drew to an end, she was thinking that she would be happy with any outcome.

So she said she was "happy to be the first runner-up" to Iris Mittenaere of France, with whom she shared a chaperone.

"I was happy for her. I would be happy for anyone of us, because we started this competition together," said Pelissier. "I'm sure she's going to be a great Miss Universe."

Related: Miss France is Miss Universe 2016

Filipino blood

Pelissier also revealed that she had Filipino blood from her mother's side of the family.

She said that she wants to learn more about the culture and that she wishes to return to the Philippines.

"[I want to] visit Cebu again, Baguio, because when we were there during the pageant, we were focused on the pageant, and I want to see the beauty in everything," she said.

Miss Haiti quickly became a local favorite after national bet Maxine Medina failed to make it to the Top 3. She also noted how the audience cheered her on in the stadium.

"I was not expecting so much support and so much love when I came to the Philippines. And it was something I have never seen before, anywhere in the world," she said. "I am so blessed to be here and to have experienced this amazing journey. Thank you so much. Mahal ko kayo [I love you]."

Pelissier noted that she was not raised in the pageant atmosphere, as she had only won her national crown in August.

Her advice to aspiring beauty queens: "If you have a heart, if you have a vision, if you have determination, that's all it takes to be Miss Universe," she said.

Dark horse

Pelissier said that she was not expecting to get that far, although she did aim to make it to the Top 13 after a 42-year drought for Haiti's Miss Universe candidates.

Pageant blogger Norman Tinio called her a "dark horse," to which Pelissier and another pageant expert, RL Lacanienta, agreed.

Lacanienta noted that there was a "sash factor" in international pageants.

"Some people, even if they like (a candidate), they do not actually put her in their prediction because maybe of the country," he said.

"However, it has been two years since IMG took over Miss Universe from Trump. We're having a little clue on how they choose or pick the winners," Lacanienta added, referring to the former Miss Universe franchise owner Donald Trump, now the U.S. President.

Trump, who owned the franchise since 1996, was forced to sell the organization to IMG in 2015 after the pageant's broadcast partner, NBC, dropped their partnership following criticism for his comments on Mexicans and immigration.

CNN Philippines multi-platform writer Regine Cabato contributed to this report.