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Blog - Understanding the Philippines with 10 Local Celebrities

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There are many ways to understand a country –  its culture and its habits. Some days ago while staring at billboards on a main road in Manila,  I think an unusual and effective way of understanding this nation came to mind: explaining the Philippinesthrough their famous local celebrities. Beyond International stars, each country has its own talents and famous people. These people can be extremely famous in their country, even though abroad,most of the time, nobody knows them. So, I’ve decided to make a short list of  which I think are some of the most explicative famous people of the Philippines, ​a country where showbiz seems to be particularly relevant: the style used in promoting movies, TV series, music and so on is very Hollywood-style (you can easily notice the United States influence) and very glamorous.

This list would be quite subjective and  is not going to be a top 10 of the most famous celebrities of the Philippines. Instead, I thought about who are those personlities  that could help me to explain the country more. The following goes in no particular order.

KRIS AQUINO

Kris Aquino cannot be out of this list, first because you see her face everywhere in the Philippines. Secondly because her career and personal life have been particularly significant for the country. Actress and TV host, she’s often defined as the Oprah Winfrey of the Philippines and has a very important surname. Kris is the daughter of Benigno Aquino, national hero and (murdered) leader of the opposition against General Marcos. The mother of Kris, Cory Aquino, was President of the Philippines from 1986 to 1992.  Kris’ brother, Benigno Aquino III,  is the current President of the Philippines.

Kris Aquino appeared in many successful movies and currently hosts several very popular TV shows, the most famous being maybe the homonymous Kris TV. She’s highly appreciated for speaking her mind and not mincing words, features that made her an opinion leader and probably one of the most influential people in the country.

Here’s the trailer of one of her most famous movies, the horror “Sukob”

NORA AUNOR

Nora Aunor is widely recognized as the most talented actress of the Philippines, or at least among the bests, and for sure the one that obtained most international success. She started her career very young in the 60s, becoming famous already as a teen-ager, starting working on television and then progressively entering the cinema industry. In the 70s and 80s, her movies, many of which she also produced, had great critical and commercial success, becoming the most famous Filipina actress.

It is widely known in the Philippines that Nora came from a humble family and was working as a water-seller in a small town before her hard-earned success. This contributed to give her a much appreciated image in the country.

In the 90s, she started to work less, acting mostly in selected critically acclaimed quality movies. Among the International Awards she won, there is a Certificate of Honor at Cannes Festival for “Bona” in 1981, a prize by independent critics at Venice Festival for her role in “Thy Womb” (2002) and an award as best actress in a foreign movie at the St. Tropez International Film Festival for “Dementia” (2015).

Many of her movies are piece of Filipino history. Even though it is not one of the most famous, you can observe the very interesting environment where the movie “Banaue” (1975) was shot, in the beautiful landscapes of Ifugao Region.

CLAUDINE BARRETTO

Claudine Barretto is a very popular cinema and TV actress, recognized among the most talented of her generation with many awards. She started to work in the showbiz when she was still a teenager and quickly became a star. As usual in local showbiz, maybe for the proverbial sense of family of Filipinos, also some of her relatives are famous: the sisters Marjorie and Gretchen are actresses too, the young nephew Julia as well. Among them, Claudine is at the moment the most successful and awarded, thanks to several roles reflecting the strong character of Filipino women. Among her most significant movies  where she played leading roles, (beside the cited above “Sukob”) are “Milan”, “Dubai” and “In your eyes”, movies describing stories of the so called Oversea Filipino Workers (in 2012, 11% of Filipino people, 10.5 million of Filipinos, worked or resided abroad for a certain period of their life).

“Milan” is particularly important because well, I’m from Milan! It was almost entirely shot in Italy, mostly in Milan, and it was useful to me to observe how my city and generally Italian society are seen by the Filipino eyes.

The trailer of the movie “Milan”.

MANNY PACQUIAO

Manny Pacquiao is known all over the world as one of the best boxers in history and, at 36 years old, he’s still fighting. He was the first professional boxer in history to win 10 world titles in 8 different weight categories. In the Philippines, his fights are important as much as Football World Cup in Italy: deserted streets, families reunited in front of the TV, screams exploding during the intense moments of the fight. In the Philippines, his life is a “success story” and he has been given unlimited esteem and respect, also thanks to a personal story of sacrifices and dedication that took him from his hometown in South Cotabato (Mindanao) to a great star fame all over the world. In the Philippines he endorses a lot of brands.

If all this wasn’t enough, in the Philippines he is also an actor, a singer, a basketball player and trainer (in the highest national league) and even a congressman!

In this video, his best shots on the ring.

ENRIQUE GIL

The Philippines is a very young country. The average age is 23 years old (compared to a 43 years old of my country, Italy!). Subsequently, many of the local stars target young people. One of the most present at the moment in movies, TV series, TV shows and commercial ads (I really see him everywhere!) is Enrique Gil, who works as an actor, TV host, dancer, singer and model: it is not unusual in the Philippines that local celebrities have this versatility. He’s truly an “idol” of today’s teen-agers and he cannot be left out of this list. His style is very “American”, especially for his trendy wardrobe and his style of music and talk, which also witness the great influence of the culture of the United States on modern Philippines.

Enrique Gil is also a popular dancer of hip hop and modern urban funk music which contributed to  a big part of his success: young Filipinos (and Asians generally) love dance performances and it is easy to find group of boys and girls rehearsing and trying choreographies in public spaces like parks.

A music video of Enrique Gil.

LITO LAPID

At 59 years old, Lito Lapid is one of the most famous action movies stars in the Philippines. Action movies, I observed, are quite liked by the Filipino audience and had a golden time in the 70s, 80s and 90s. In TVs of restaurants, buses, waiting areas and so on, I often see the face of Lito Lapid in local action movies and crime dramas. These movies probably reflect the traditional “macho” image of the Filipino men, even though local mainstream movies are nowadays switching more on romantic comedies. Lito Lapid started his career as a young stuntman and was then progressively included in several movies with characters of growing importance, until he became a true icon of Filipino action movies (his movies remind somehow the style of those of Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone or old detective stories with Clint Eastwood). Anyway, his acting career became also more varied with time.

Lito Lapid’s career then switched to politics, something not that unusual for Filipino actors. He was governor of the province of Pampanga and is currently a Senator.

In this video, Lito Lapid appears still quite fit in one of his latest performances.

NADIN LUSTRE & JAMES REID (“JADINE”)

I already described the “young” target of Filipino movies and the romantic-comedy switch of recent local movies. A tract that is common to all generations is the sweet and romantic attitude (the sweet attitude can also be observed in their local food, just to make an example). In effect, Filipino showbiz pushes on the so-called “Love teams”, made by actors that are particularly successful when forming a romantic couple in movies or TV series (think about the classic Julia Roberts and Richard Gere). Filipinos like to identify one couple and to enjoy and “support” its “love”.

Nadine Lustre and James Reid recently formed the so called “Jadine” love team, that at the moment seems to be the most popular on-screen chemistry (many other love teams preceded them) along with the “rival” couple formed by Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla (“Kathniel”). During my last flight from Milan to Manila few months ago I watched the fun and light “Diary Ng Panget” (Diary of an Ugly Girl), a romantic comedy for teen-agers which trailer you can watch below.

PIOLO PASCUAL

Piolo Pascual is an actor, model, TV host and an occasional singer who is very famous in the Philippines and particularly appreciated by the female audience. He became very popular in the 90s and 00s and was the male protagonist of the already mentioned movie “Milan”. His fame is still very high and he is probably the best example of Filipino handsomeness, at least for the locals. We can easily find commercials and endorsements of clothes, and accessories , men’s  skin and body care products with him, which tell us that he is probably the example that men like to follow about the way they want to look.

During the 2000s years, also Piolo Pascual had his own “love team”, with local actress Judy Ann Santos. The couple was named “Piolo-Juday” and had 4 movies and 3 soap operas together. The career of Piolo went on solo still with big success until now.

An interesting fact about him is that despite being 38 years old and with a son, he’s still single, which is kind of an “issue” for Filipino audience. Even on talk shows, people are always hoping that he will find “the one” and settle down. The Filipino society – if we exclude the modern metropolis of Metro Manila – is quite conservative about marriage, which is still considered a very important step to make in your life. If you are above 30 years old, still single and with no plans about getting married, you are considered very very “late”.

Here’s a trailer of one of the most recent movies with Piolo Pascual.

VICE GANDA

Vice Ganda is a TV host, singer and actress of great fame in the Philippines. She started working as stand-up comedian and after a long time rising through the ranks she started working on TV with secondary roles. Her roles became more and more significant, until achieving huge success of her recent movies as a protagonist (2 of them are the most watched Filipino movies ever). A big slice of her popularity comes from her constant presence in the popular daytime TV show “It’s showtime” and from her Sunday night show “Gandang Gabi Vice” (Good Night Vice) where she entertains the audience with interviews and games , using her biting irony. Vice Ganda is surely a good example of the integration and acceptance of the LGBT community in the Philippines. Vice Ganda and her popularity are often praised for opening views of Filipino people towards transgender people and homosexuality in general.

In this video, Vice Ganda interviews the President of the Philippines.

ALESSANDRA DE ROSSI

Alessandra De Rossi is a  Filipino-Italian actress (with double passport). She’s a multi-awarded actress, with her first acting award given at the young age of 17 in 2001 and continues to receive awards and nominations at present.  I chose her to close this list not only because she’s (also) Italian like me, but because she is a good example of the high appreciation of Filipinos towards foreigners and Filipinos with foreign blood. A big part of Filipino celebrities is what they call “mestizo” (or “mestiza” for females). Mestizo is a Spanish word (Philippines has been a Spanish colony) originally used to identify people with Spanish and Latin-American origin, then re-used to identify people with both Spanish and Filipino blood. Nowadays this word is used in the Philippines to identify Filipinos with foreign blood of any nationality and usually it has mostly an aesthetic meaning. Actually, if you think about it, “mestizo” people are spread in the Philippines, seen the big mix of people and cultures that happened during the last centuries.

Alessandra De Rossi is the younger sister of fellow actress Assunta De Rossi and I chose her also to recommend an indie Filipino movie where she has the main role. The movie, with English subtitles, is called “Bambanti” (scarecrow). The story is located in a small rural town of modern Philippines, in the Province of Isabela. The movie is quite realist and, beyond the story, the good acting and the beautiful photography, I appreciated it because it shows a piece of Filipino life in a very direct manner. It could be a good movie for you to start to familiarize with life in the Philippines.

The trailer of Bambanti.

For sure there are many other artists and celebrities that deserve attention, both in the Filipino present and past, and for sure my knowledge is not really that wide (yet!). Probably some people are more famous than those I included here, but the choice of these celebrities were mostly an excuse to let you have an imaginary trip to the nowadays Philippines, also with the help of YouTube videos. Then, we are waiting for you for the real tour!

(written on August 2015)