On the day of the finals, I arrived to see muscled men gyrating topless on stage.
I glanced at the sandwich in my hands – carbs – and thought to myself: “I’m so glad my clothes will stay on tonight.”
A colleague had nominated me for the CLEO Most Eligible Bachelors competition and I somehow made it to the finals on May 18. I first found out through a message I received a few months back from a journalist at the magazine.
I was in shock.
Who nominated me? No comment.
What will I have to do? No big commitments, just pose . Oh, and post on Instagram.
Will my clothes come off? Not if you don’t want them to.
I was in two minds about the battle of bachelors.
On one hand, I planned photos for my CLEO Instagram account (which I rarely posted on), I advertised the fact that I was an eligible bachelor on Facebook (to cheers, most of which I think were not malicious), and I participated in whatever activities I could (a lovely morning spent watching Avengers: Infinity War with CLEO readers).
On the other, I cringed when my friends changed the icon of our Facebook Messenger group to my studio mugshot, and laughed nervously every time someone sent me shots of myself published in the magazine.
I wanted to finish this alone, and let it sink into the background of my life. But the lead-up to the finals changed that.
We were told that we could invite up to 10 guests for the finals night, but I did not expect the response I got when I asked my social circle if they wanted to go.
One group of friends replied to say eight of them wanted to attend. I had colleagues who wanted to come. My brother bugged one of my best friends to snag him an invite. I had to ask the organisers to expand my guest list.
On the night of the finals, my friends crowded in front of the stage. When I came on to introduce myself, they drowned out my voice with their cheers.
I played a stage game, I paraded a bit, I most pointedly did not do the striptease. [Ed’s note: there’s a video. Watch it here]
There were several categories of awards and whenever the emcee came up to announce: “And the winner is…”
My friends would scream so loudly that though I was backstage, I heard the emcee quizzically repeat: “Jose?”
I felt loved.
After the winner was announced, we all gathered outside to walk to dinner, a disparate group comprising colleagues, family and friends.
There was Lihong, who screamed my name so much that she lost her voice. There was Leon, who was not allowed inside the venue after arriving late, but who still stayed outside to wait for us. There was my brother Juaquin, who came despite not knowing almost anyone else in the group.
It was a strange gathering. And they had all come for me.
Loneliness is a modern epidemic, one that is paradoxically growing despite the increasingly connected lives we live.
A 2015 study that pooled data from 3.4 million people showed that those who are lonely had a 30 per cent greater risk of dying in the next seven years.
Just recently, the BBC reported that general practitioners in the United Kingdom called loneliness a “public health epidemic”. The article added ominously that loneliness increases the risk of an early death by 50 per cent.
As a kid I was a bit of a loner, and some of that has manifested in my adulthood, especially when I eat lunch alone at my office desk.
But on the night of the Cleo Bachelors contest finals, my groupies and I had dinner till 1am, and against my protests I was later dragged to a bar for “just one drink”.
It was 4am by the time I returned to my bed.
The ancient Greeks had many words for love, of which I list only a few.
Eros – For the romantic desire that consumes lovers in fits of passion.
Storge – For the family ties that bond mother and son, father and daughter.
Agape – For the care extended unconditionally to all in the universe.
Philia – for the friendships that last through thick and thin.
Philia. It was that which stood out to me.
Philia brought those who cared for me out on a Saturday night to cheer me on and to stay till the early hours of the morning.
The CLEO experience showed me that people genuinely want to see me do well, and will support me in whatever silly thing I did.
CLEO showed me that I need to continue nurturing these relationships, because they make me glad and healthy.
CLEO reminded me that as we busy ourselves in the 21st century lives we lead, what truly counts is not the money we earn or the promotions we receive, but the people we meet along the way.
As I prepare to delete the Instagram account I created specially for this competition, I realise it does not matter that I did not emerge the champion.
I did not need to. I had already won.
Text: Jose Hong / The Straits Times / May 2018
For similar stories, visit straitstimes.com.
For more stories about CLEO Most Eligible Bachelors 2018, read The Sexiest And Funniest Moments At CLEO Bachelors Finals Party and All The Things You Missed At CLEO Bachelors Finals Party 2018.