Bella Ysmael is the Swan Queen

By Marane A. Plaza

Self-love is not just about doing bubble baths, shopping your heart out, booking staycations or burning some calories on the treadmill. Yes, these are all endorphin-inducing activities you can do to feel good about yourself. But I think there is power if you can go beneath and beyond the surface of the concept of self-love. Self-love is, and should be, about being fully accepting of both the good and the bad of your whole person. It is in this equilibrium can you truly meet who you are, and finally arrive as your authentic self.

Ballet psychodrama film Black Swan starring Natalie Portman tackles this subject fantastically as we follow the story of hardworking ballerina Nina Sayers. She is vulnerable and beautiful, delicate and naive, brilliantly talented and perfect to play the lead in her company’s new ballet production Swan Lake. It is apparent she can play Princess Odette, the white swan, with ease. But she is often questioned if she could give justice to the character’s evil twin too: Odile, the black swan. 

Bella Ysmael, aside from being Miss Universe Philippines 2020 first runner-up, is also a ballerina and a mental health advocate. We could not think of anyone more fitting to interpret the movie Black Swan in this fashion editorial we’ve envisioned for The Self-Love Issue. When she arrived at the studio of fashion photographer Seven Barretto with such light and grace, it was easy to see why she’s also played the lead role in a Swan Lake production in the past in her more than a decade long career as a ballet dancer. 

“On the technical side, it was a challenge,” she shared. “Swan Lake is one of the most iconic ballets and one of the most technical too. It takes a lot as a dancer to be able to participate in this show and to portray a swan with grace and elegance, all while feeling tired and out of breath after every dance. On the creative side, it’s magical. The costumes, the music, the story. Even if you’ve danced it or heard it a million times, it’s just as breathtaking as it was the first time.”

“In one show, I played Odette – the white swan. Usually in ballets, you are cast according to your dance style and what fits you. I’m more on the soft side as a dancer, and I believe the white swan was the perfect way for me to showcase that.” 

The Making of The Queen

Before she became the queen in beauty pageantry that she is today, Bella first started learning the discipline and skill of performing arts– particularly the art of ballet. At just four years old, she started studying ballet at De La Salle Zobel. 

“I studied there, so before class or on weekends, my cousin and I would go to class. Years later when I turned 12 years old, I moved to Hampton Court Ballet. At the time, I hadn’t danced in a couple of years. But my teacher, Erica Jacinto, really guided me as I grew with the school. I continued to dance for more than 10 years with them. To this day, they still hold a special place in my heart and are like family to me. Should I decide to take class again, I know they’ll always welcome me with open arms. That’s why ballet has always been a part of me. It’s not just the lessons and the dance itself but also the people who have become family.”

Aside from having a family outside her own, it is also through ballet that Bella first learned the importance of self-love. 

“In ballet, you learn to take care of yourself because dancing is a sport and in sports, there are injuries. You learn how to pay attention to when your body can or cannot handle certain movements or steps,” she said. “This is very important because often, teachers or choreographers might not know your body’s capacities. So you need to speak up if you can’t do what is required yet.” 

“Most importantly, self-love even in ballet, is not only knowing you might not be able to do a particular step yet, but also knowing that it’s okay. Telling yourself it’s okay to sit this one out, or to make mistakes and knowing that you’ll do better next time. Self-love is a learning process in the same way ballet is.”

Understanding the Black Swan

Even when Bella was playing the white swan in their production, she had to learn some of the dance steps and the character of the black swan, too. 

“This challenged me to bring out a side of me that I don’t usually bring to the table in dancing. It was a perspective that was refreshing. Thinking about both characters, it shows me that just because dark is portrayed as bad, it doesn’t necessarily mean it truly is bad. Dark or ‘bad’ is often just misunderstood or misread.”

This mental health advocate expounded her view on people’s dark sides. “Sometimes, we have ‘dark sides’ because we don’t know how to process our emotions and we don’t know how to express them. Therefore, they come off as negative or hurtful towards others without us realizing that. In the same way that Odile, the black swan, was portrayed as manipulative and seductive, and that her actions were hurtful towards Odette, you realize that she just wanted to be loved. Sometimes, our dark sides are just cries for more self-love, so we just need to pay attention to that, and address that properly.”

A Psychology graduate of De La Salle University, Bella has always been interested in understanding the human mind (both its good and bad sides), and in the discussion of mental health– which is the apparent theme in the movie Black Swan. 

“My general interest with mental health and wellbeing started when I was in college. I was introduced to the discipline of psychology and how we can understand people better. This caught my attention so naturally because it opened my mind to what I felt was obvious yet discrete – human behavior.” 

She shared that her favorite subjects like Abnormal Psychology taught her about different disorders and their types and classifications, while Developmental Psychology exposed her to the study of human behavior at different stages in a person’s life.”Spending years studying more about body language, coping mechanisms, mental health disorders, and so much more made me realize that it started to become a passion. Because I just wanted to learn more and more.” 

After college, Bella decided to pursue mental health as an advocacy. She noted that in the years she worked after graduation, she was able to apply the knowledge she gained in college to help other people– from her colleagues to friends. “It was then that I came to understand my love for helping others, especially when it comes to their mental health,” she said.

“One of the lessons that still sticks with me to this day is that every single person is different. No matter how similar to another person they may seem, each person has a personal journey that we can never completely understand. However, this is what makes us unique and what allows us to connect with one another and tell each other our stories,” she said. 

“Knowing this, and knowing that there is stigma against those who suffer from mental health issues, is what motivates me to continue speaking up. In my own little way, by talking about what I know of psychology and mental health, by sharing my knowledge and experiences, by doing my best to understand other people, and by simply being kind, is my way of breaking the stigma.”

She understands such stigma, as well as various mental struggles just like of Nina Sayers’ in Black Swan. 

“It takes a lot to go for our dreams, and in Nina’s case, she gave her all. In the movie, you can see how when something is so important to you, it can become addictive when you don’t handle it healthily,” she said. “In my personal opinion, she was misguided and lacked self-value that led her to prioritizing ballet over herself. She overworked herself, she saw everyone as competition even when they were being supportive, and she let go of self-love by giving in to her insecurities that were coming from her toxic environment. When you are in an environment of toxicity, where people care more about their body image than eating properly, or where people care more about what others see than what they feel, it is easy to fall into the spiral of negativity. But that is why you have to hold on to self-love, and self-love is a process.”

“Just like what Nina struggles with in the movie Black Swan, we need to embrace both sides of ourselves – the good and the bad – in order to reach our full potential,” she said. “There’s no need to hide who you are or be ashamed of the bad side. Just be honest and open, and then improve as you learn. You’d be surprised how accepting all sides of yourself will help you grasp a better understanding of who you are.”

Nina’s strong need to please other people and her obsession with perfection are very much like the insanity of today’s social media culture. “There are many ways that provide us with the tools to alter ourselves to what we believe is ‘acceptable’ in society. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve ourselves, but we should not seek for perfection when the root cause of the problem is insecurity. The way to improve ourselves is by loving ourselves– mind, body, and soul. Because this is what we have been blessed with. The only ‘perfect’ we should strive for is our own perfect selves where we are genuinely happy and at peace with our lives.”

“We need to watch ourselves as we go down the road of dream-catching. We need to be careful as we enjoy the journey. Appreciate yourself like you would appreciate an artwork because that is what you are too: an artwork, no matter where you end up.” 

From Swan Queen to Beauty Queen

Bella made headlines last year even before the Miss Universe Philippines 2020 coronation night because she’s always been considered as one of the strongest contenders from day one. 

She acknowledged the difficult part of it all early on too. “It was undoubtedly a challenge. There are many expectations and opinions when you’re competing in a pageant like Miss Universe Philippines. Mixing it in with this pandemic made it more challenging too. It took me a while to figure it out, but I discovered that the secret to getting through the pressure is to enjoy. For me, the way to enjoy it was to be myself. I was honest with who I was, what my purpose was, what my opinions were, my ideal look and even my choice of words. I made it my goal to get through the pageant completely myself and to be able to reach 1st Runner-Up as myself made me extra proud.”

As stunning and intelligent as she is, this beauty queen keeps it real that she sometimes struggles with confidence too. “My self-confidence wasn’t always stable, and it is quite difficult to keep it stable too. But I was blessed to have had my family, friends, team, and supporters to keep me going. Their words of encouragement really pushed me to keep going,” she said.It’s quite surreal actually. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined it to be like this. That’s why it is an honor to carry the name of Miss Universe Philippines in my title, and to represent it. I’d like to think that I make my fellow Filipinos proud to have someone like me in our large Filipino family. To be able to show them who I am, to be able to represent our arts and our culture, has given me so much more purpose.”

Aside from being Miss Universe Philippines 2020 first runner-up, Ysmael has been named as Ambassador for Arts and Culture. 

“I love that performing arts give me an outlet of self-expression that doesn’t need words. I believe there is no single word to describe who I am or how I feel, so I need to move and show it in my movement. Sometimes, my body tells me how I can love myself in a given moment by moving. There are no words that pop up in my mind, there is just movement that speaks to me and guides me,” she said. “Being called the ambassador for arts and culture is something I never thought would be associated with me until I had the chance to look at my life and see exactly how relevant it is. That’s why this is something I’m very proud of because I resonate deeply with arts and culture.”

“These days, I have been blessed to work with many different artists in different creative industries. Almost every day I get to work with artists such as fashion designers, stylists, makeup artists, hair stylists, photographers and videographers, directors and writers who work to create beautiful photos, stories and looks. Being able to express their art, to express and model it for it to be shown to the world, is a blessing in itself.”

The Art of Self-Love

For Bella, learning how to understand and to listen to yourself the way that you do towards others is already a big help towards self-love. 

“Self-love is self-respect, knowing when to put yourself first in a non-selfish way,” Bella expressed. “Self-love to me is giving yourself priority the same way you would give priority to your other half, or to your best friend, to your mom, or even your boss. It is being able to listen to what your mind and body are telling you, and acting on that by nurturing yourself with healthy thinking and living. Simply talking to yourself in a kind manner already makes a difference. Self-love is important because it is what will keep you stable if you find yourself in an unstable situation. It will keep you afloat when it seems like everything is drowning.”

Just like Nina Sayers needed to learn to love her own Odette and Odile in Black Swan, Bella values the importance of loving herself completely. “It is important to accept both my good and bad sides because the entirety of who I am is both bright and dark, both good and bad. When I try to disregard the side of me that I am not proud of, I feel incomplete and fake,” she said. 

“As I actively continue to go down the road of self-love, I have discovered that being open to my dark side– my insecurities, fears, imperfections–can help me understand myself deeper and feel better about who I am. It makes me proud to know that I am me, myself– and that nobody on this Earth could ever be me.” 

“It makes me realize how special I am and just how much the world deserves to see who Bella is. I know I’ll always be the ballerina queen you’ve all come to know. I know I’ll always be constantly changing, evolving and expressing the art that is me in different ways I come across in my life. But one thing’s for sure, you can count on me to always be real– flaws and all.”

Indeed, Bella Ysmael’s authentic self has arrived.

Words & Concept: Marane Plaza

Photography & Creative Direction: Seven Barretto

Photography Assistance & Art Direction: Gillian Claude Hermosa & Erwin Botin

Fashion Direction: Marane Plaza

Styling: Kathrina Vapor

Beauty Direction: Marane Plaza

Makeup: Guillano Valenzuela

Hair: Jeff Valenzuela

Layout Art Direction: Fatsen Amano & Sean Angelo

Location: Studio 7 Manila

Special thanks to brilliant Filipino fashion designers Pat Trinidad, Genille Velasquez, Yeye Pantaleon, Veeh Begaso, and Job Dacon for the couture pieces; ELVN, Karutora and Boho Manila for the accessories; and Rock & Rose and Strut for the heels and sandals.

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