When she was crowned Miss Universe 2007, Riyo Mori’s life underwent a big change. “I had worked so hard to become Miss Universe, and it was a dream coming true,” says Mori, who turns 22 on Christmas Eve. It has since been a whirlwind 18 months for Mori, and even though she is no longer the current Miss Universe, she keeps up a busy schedule of appearances at charity and promotional events.
“I thought life would be more relaxed but I am still busy,” says Mori who now speaks excellent English. “Last year when I won, Japan went crazy. Everywhere I went, people would recognize me and I felt like I had no life anymore. I was based in New York and visited many countries. I think I came back to Japan only three or four times.”
Born in Aoi, Shizuoka Prefecture, Mori studied jazz dancing from the age of four (her mother runs a dance school). At 16, she went to Canada where she studied at the Quinte Ballet School in Ontario. Her host mother was hearing impaired and Mori learned a little sign language and helped with deaf students sometimes. Before she was 19, she had a stint at the Radio City Rockettes Summer Intensive and was subsequently offered a place at the Broadway Dance Center in New York but had to decline after being accepted in the finals of Miss Universe Japan.
By the time she was crowned Miss Universe Japan, the confident Mori was referring to herself as a “modern-day female samurai.” She underwent further training on walking, talking and dressing under the tutelage of Miss Universe Japan director Ines Ligron before winning the crown on May 28, 2007. She recalls those heady days. “Looking back on it all, I was such a child. I can’t believe I said this or made that face.”
Mori says she matured in a hurry. “In New York, I took English lessons daily and had a tutor on how to speak to media. I got a shock one day when I was in Indonesia during my first month as Miss Universe. I was suddenly told I had to speak at a press conference. Well, I managed to talk for 10 minutes. I went through that sort of experience many times.”
Mori’s duties as Miss Universe 2007 took her all over the world, giving her the chance to meet many celebrities and world leaders. “I was most impressed by Jennifer Lopez. She was pregnant at the time and she had this aura. She is so professional.” And how about Donald Trump, who owns the Miss Universe pageant? “He was like a big daddy and very nice to me,” Mori says.
As a representative of the “new Japanese woman,” Mori had the challenge of correcting many misconceptions that people abroad have of Japanese. “There are still people who don’t know the difference between Japanese, Chinese and Koreans. I would tell them that we are all different and all special. We each have a beautiful culture. I am an ambassador for Japanese women and Japanese culture and that means more than geisha and sushi.”
Now that she is back in Japan, Mori finds herself a role model for thousands of young Japanese women. Indeed, the Miss Universe Japan competition has jumped in prestige since Kurara Chibana was named first runner-up in 2006. Mori, Chibana and this year’s Miss Universe Japan, Hiroko Mima, are inspiring a generation of young girls, with nearly 4,000 applications coming in for next year’s contest.
“Only one girl can be Miss Universe Japan, so my advice to them is: Even if you don’t win, you get so much out of it by just trying. You don’t have to be famous to make something out of your life. Young people are always looking for role models. It can be a singer or actress, but you should never forget who you are. Maybe some people think they want to be like me and that it is an honor. However, I don’t want them to forget who they are.”
Naturally, Mori receives a lot of comments on her blog. “I get many questions, usually about how to be beautiful. Younger women ask me how to be beautiful outside, what cosmetic products to use, how I do my makeup, and so on. Older women tend to ask about how I got my confidence, what mental preparation I do, that sort of thing.”
Mori says she doesn’t get recognized very often when she is out and about in Tokyo, “probably because I look very different when I have a day off. Many people think I got millions of dollars and lots of gorgeous clothes and accessories when I was Miss Universe but I don’t get to keep them. Interesting though, foreigners tend to know me more than Japanese. I was walking in Omotesando one day and a huge group from the Philippines recognized me.”
Although she is sought after to promote various cases, Mori says she wants to concentrate on raising awareness for HIV/AIDS charities. “When I was in New York, every weekend I went to a hospital for AIDS children to play with them. Traveling to many countries, I saw a lot of suffering in orphanages. It was very sad, but I was prepared mentally for that. It just reinforced my desire to do something to help. Nobody talks about this issue in Japan.”
Her other ambition is to open an international dancing school, and maybe one day become a Broadway dancer. “I still dance and I love teaching,” she says. For relaxation, Mori has started hot yoga. She also likes redecorating (“not that I get many chances to do it,” she jokes).
Mori says one of the best legacies of her reign as Miss Universe are the many friends she has made. She even had a memorable reunion with her homestay family in Ontario. “They had been so surprised when they saw that I won Miss Universe. It was a really fun time when I went back.”© Japan Today