Photo by Armand Flores

As I wait for the next flight, I look back at how my journey from an OFW – Overseas Foreign Worker, to a New York fashion model took place. It seems like a fantasy.

When I was young, my family was very poor. I knew that the only way to change my status in life was to leave my country and take a gamble in another country. The kind of job didn’t matter as long as it is legal and pays a good salary so that I can build a better future for myself. I knew then that going to a different country is what will change my life and my family’s life. It’s difficult to accept this but it’s a fact.

After I had graduated from university in the Philippines, I was accepted as a manager in a fast-food restaurant. I work for two years. Then I realized I’m just working to survive and to get by each day. I lived paycheck to paycheck. What if something happens that I don’t expect such as getting sick or losing a job. I knew something had to change.

An agency found me a job in the UK, but I needed to pay a placement fee of three hundred thousand pesos. I only had 15 thousand pesos in my bank account. I borrowed money from people, but many turned me down. Maybe because they couldn’t accept the opportunity I have to change my life. Or maybe it was the Filipino “crab mentality.”

Just to be able to leave the country, I went to a “5 – 6” lending business – that’s when you borrow five hundred, you have to pay six hundred after a week. For many Filipinos I know, this is one way to meet their needs, but they pay a very high price for it. I am very thankful to the people who supported my financial needs and trusted me. With determination and braveness, I left the Philippines and headed for the UK as a fast-food helper. I was in my early twenties.

I worked very hard to pay off my debts and to show to people back in the Philippines that leaving the country was the right choice. However, I felt I was looked down upon because I was doing a job that three people would be doing.


While in the U.K. I was lonely. It was difficult, and at many times I felt depressed. However, I didn’t dwell on that. What’s important was to work hard to achieve my dreams for my family and me. There were times where I just surrendered and all I could do was pray. The only motivation I had was my family and my dream.

My life consists of going to work then back to my apartment. There were times when I was alone that tears would just flow out from my eyes. On those times, I wish my family called me. I know there are a lot of OFW’s who are remembered by their family only when they need money or when there’s a problem.

Many families back home think that OFW’s pick-up money from the streets. They believe that it’s easy to earn money.

When I ended my two years contract, I had become a supervisor. However, my job renewal was denied. But what’s important was that I was able to give my father a “Jeepney” so he could earn money, and I was able to put my sister, Mary Grace, to school.

As I expected, some of my “kababayans” encourage me to stay in the UK illegally. But I decided to go back to the Philippines to start all over again. I had some savings for my daily needs.

After several months in the province, many asked why I haven’t left. I felt like a failure. I could hear people saying, “That’s what happens when you’re too ambitious.” While I waited for the next opportunity, I work on my body. I went to the gym and got into shape.

I applied again to go to the UK but I was denied. I was restless because I wasn’t making as much money and I couldn’t help my family. Then someone saw me and suggested I should be a model. I thought to myself this is an opportunity to bring back some self-respect. I pursued it and went to a national modeling contest. I didn’t win, but I was discovered by a person who was working at a television network and told me to apply at the network. The job was to be a “tour guide” for the network.

I was told during the interview that I was over qualified. I said, “To serve people, there’s no qualification as long as you know how to go above and beyond when serving customers.” I was hired, and I worked at the network for two years, working at different shows.

My friend in Canada, who I worked with in the UK told me to go to Canada. He said he would help me financially because I helped him before. My family didn’t know that I applied to go to Canada.


I went to Canada with very little expectation. After my UK experience, I didn’t want to put too much hope that I could stay. I thought to myself that this is my last chance.

When I arrived, I experienced firsthand how it’s like to be an OFW. Two or three-hour bus rides in freezing weather. It was lonely, and many days, I was sad.

Every day, the routine was going to work, go home, sleep, and the same thing again the next day. There’s no expectation of becoming someone or achieving something significant.

I thought about how to break out of my situation. I stayed extra hours without pay to learn as much as I can about the company I work for so I can become a manager. I learned every part of the business, including becoming a manager until the manager trusted me with the restaurant. After that. I was promoted to a supervisor, then to an assistant manager, and then to general manager.

My hard work paid off. I was given an award as number one general manager in Canada by the fast-food chain. I always led with my heart. I said if I want to become a successful manager, I had to have a multicultural mindset. This was embraced by my staff.

I wanted to challenge myself and decided to follow my dream- to be in the airline industry. My dream was to become a flight attendant. In my interview as a flight attendant, I said I would bring a bucket of KFC to the job – Knowledge, Faith and Confidence. WestJet hired me. I felt proud for obtaining my dream job.

Then I said I wanted to be a part of the Filipino-Canadian community and represent it a good way. I joined a local male pageant contest. I was appointed Mr. Philippines Alberta 2015, then Mr. Philippines Canada 2015 (I won the title in Toronto), then I was Mr. Pacific World Philippines 2016 representative, and then Mr. Copper World 2016 in Peru. This led to a community award as the Most Beautiful Filipino in Canada 2016.



I was given the Most Outstanding Pinoy as Ambassador of Goodwill. I want to use my awards to inspire people. I was bullied when I was young because I was skinny. I was looked down on. I want to use my influence in the community to give hope back to others who are experiencing hard times. I also want to represent my country proudly.

Now, I shifted my focus on modeling. I want to work with fashion designers to showcase their masterpiece. I was given an opportunity to model and be on the runway in New York in 2015 by John Ablaza. He is an international designer who is a Filipino. He helps a lot of people in the Philippines. He inspired me, and I wanted to work with him.

Being a model is not easy. As a model, I was given a spotlight and acknowledgment. I was able to connect with different designers, and they got to know me.

In February this year, I was given an opportunity to be on a runway in New York for the New York fashion week. But this opportunity did not come easy. I had to fight for it. One particular designer turned me down two times. But I persisted. I came back the third time to get a spot in his collection. He said, “Don’t come back. It’s my final decision. No.” I was hurt.

Luckily, I met with Miss Tourism USA. I asked her, “Can you help me out?” Sometimes when you can’t do it on your own, you need to call on someone to help you. She helped convince the designer to give me a chance to wear his collection and be on the runway.

After the show, on the fashion blog, they said that one of the models that stood out was me. I showed my pictures of the show to the designer. He said he felt sorry for turning me down earlier and that he learned a lot from me.

I learned that day that even if you’re discouraged and have been turned down several times, you just need to be courageous and keep trying.

Now I’m very close with the designer, and he’s helped me to connect with other designers. This paved the way for other opportunities to be on the runway.

Fashion is about life. It’s always changing. It’s always adapting. It’s always moving forward.

My advice to my fellow Filipinos:

If others reject you for the first, second, third, and fourth times, remember you are inspiring the person who is rejecting you not to give up. You have your own challenges and runway in life. Be prepared and be fearless.

Limuel Vilela
New York fashion model


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