No strangers to the global stage, these modern-day Pinoy heroes step further into the light, displaying undeniable talent and tenacity to thrive in their respective fields, proving to the rest of the world that more than swelling sources of pride, they are true forces to be reckoned with.
It was December of 2017, with just two days before Christmas and the following year already planned, Aicelle Santos received an e-mail saying she landed the role of Gigi for the 2018 UK Tour of Miss Saigon. This wouldn’t have come to fruition without her will to attend the audition singing right in front of ATLANTIS founder Bobby Garcia, and Les Misérables and Miss Saigon composer Claude-Michel Schönberg himself.
By the time she played Gigi, Aicelle has already been in the theater industry for 5 years. To her, transitioning from pop singing to theater performer wasn’t that big of a challenge but it was indeed frightening. “My greatest fear was to get a comment like, “Kumanta ka na lang, hindi ka marunong umarte.” But all fears and doubts were nothing compared to the support and guidance of her theater godparents Isay Alvarez (who also played Katy in Katy! The Musical and Gigi in Miss Saigon) and Robert Seña (who played Thuy and The Engineer in the original Westend run of Miss Saigon with Alvarez). Aicelle also received guidance from her first stage director Nestor U. Torre as she landed the eponymous role of Katy.
Aicelle would recall her Miss Saigon experience a holistic journey. “When I say holistic, hindi lang siya sa stage performance. I learned a lot about myself because you’re alone—away from your comfort zone, away from your family.” In the 2018 UK Tour of Miss Saigon, Aicelle recalled having to do many things by herself but it’s not without the help of the many Filipinos who were in the production with her. “There are 11 Filipinos in the cast,” she says and having performed many times on stages beyond the orient seas, Aicelle was firm in her belief to the Filipino talent. “I’m really proud kasi kapag nasa stage ako—hindi dahil Pinoy ako, hindi dahil nagbubuhat ako ng bangko—pero kasi we’re driven by passion. So bukod sa talent—’yung talent wala ka nang masasabi pa—but ‘yung passion, it adds more, eh.” To Aicelle the fact that a lot of Filipinos leave behind their families and loved ones just to perform on stage becomes the drive for overseas performers to do more.
Emotional about the very pride that her blood gives her, Aicelle adds that being a Filipino in the global stage is something she’s proud of. “Whenever [Filipinos] are on stage, you just feel it; it’s so true.” With these recognitions, Aicelle believes that the current status of the local stage industry has become vibrant than ever and she’s looking forward towards a brighter future ahead.—Francesca Testa
Here’s a matter of fact that cannot and will not be upturned: No childhood is complete without a memory of or with Barbie.
While some girls and boys relegate it as a memory of their past on their path to adulthood, others get to live the dream of dressing up Barbie. Yes, as in actually design and decorate the iconic fashion doll for Mattel—we’re talking gowns, body types, and facial sculpts, all imagined and created to bring joy to many a child or the child at heart. Fire up a search on the Barbie website with the name: Carlyle Nuera, and you will immediately be offered countless iterations of Barbie Signature, for which the Filipino-American works as lead designer.
Almost immediately, you are taken into this fantasy world of glamour and grace, with different versions of Barbie swathed in everything from a fiery red off-the-shoulder cap-sleeved gown with multi-tiered layers and a dainty bow to cinch the waist, a frothy confection of a dress in pink that lights-up to an organza terno that references the textiles of different tribes in the Philippines, as well as the sun from the flag. You read that right, the doll, which is part of Mattel’s Global Glamour Collection is appropriately called, Mutya Barbie, inspired by no less than Carlyle Nuera’s mother, Ruby, who happened to be Miss Tacloban in 1976. “The embroidery on the hem is inspired by the Philippines national flower, the sampaguita,” he specifies.
While he didn’t intentionally set out to design it with such a specific cultural and personal reference to his heritage, Carlyle credits a choice of his subconscious to bring to life the story of his home country and his mother. “The name ‘Mutya’ means pearl or beauty or muse; it’s a girl’s name; and it is also used in the titles of beauty pageants in the Philippines,” he explains.
Standing to be many things to many people, Barbie is, as Carlyle Nuera intends to be, perhaps a showcase of a beauty that the world should know more of, a beauty that speaks to young girls who don’t feel seen or represented. Whatever she may be, a CEO, a president, or an astronaut, one of them, at least by the man who makes them, is inherently Filipina—proud and powerful.—Angelo Ramirez de Cartagena
The world, or well, the universe that is, has fallen completely head over heels in love with Catriona Gray, that is if the world is the combined reach of over 5.6 million on Instagram alone, as well as a sizeable impact on other platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube where her interviews have not only been charming, but informed and impassioned as well. However, there is no population prouder of the serious strides the Miss Universe has taken since being crowned than the 104 million Filipinos she underscored during the finals night of the competition in December 2018. “You realize that when you have the sash of the Philippines, you are representing every single person. There is a pride and there is something that you need to step up to,” she says. “It was very humbling, imagine going from being a candidate, then a Philippine representative, and now, Miss Universe.”
With an eagle-eyed focus on compassion and creativity, Catriona Gray made sure that she represented the country in the best way possible. This meant really immersing herself in the culture, brushing up on history, and even touching base with key locales in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. A serious and valiant undertaking, this not only endeared her to the country more, but it also propped her up in her quest for the crown. Anchoring on inclusivity, Catriona Gray made sure everything and everyone was represented, as if really heaving the nation on her shoulders.
Her efforts would prove to be fruitful as she won the coveted Miss Universe title, which now elevates her causes, passions, and voice to a much larger and more dynamic platform. “To have that social platform, that is very enabling, because I do have an advocacy that is close to my heart. Being able to do that to the audience that I have, I don’t think I wouldn’t be able to do that without being a beauty queen,” she says.
There has been no doubt that the world will be taken to the stirring soul that is Catriona Gray, but for what it’s worth and where it matters, it is the heaping sense of pride that she has gifted us with that resonates more, making her a queen of and by the Filipino people.—Angelo Ramirez de Cartagena
By every indication possible, perhaps no one had a more exceptionally great year than Darren Criss.
Proving to be a first for a Filipino-American actor, he amassed a handful of acting awards for his chilling and eerily accurate depiction of Andrew Cunanan in the critically acclaimed The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, including the coveted trifecta of a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a Primetime Emmy Award. “As we’ve seen, it’s been a marvelous year for representation in Hollywood. And I’m so enormously proud to be a teeny tiny part of that as the son of a firecracker Filipina woman from Cebu that dreamed of coming to this country and getting to be invited to cool parties like this,” Darren Criss says during his Golden Globe acceptance speech. “So mom, I know you’re watching this. You are hugely responsible for all the good things in my life. I dedicate this to you.”
Having climbed the rungs of the entertainment industry on that side of the world, Darren Criss has come a very long way from co-founding StarKid Productions, a musical theater company that accorded him the opportunity to portray the bespectacled boy-who-lived in A Very Potter Musical, A Very Potter Sequel, and A Very Potter Senior Year, from which he was tipped to enter the life-changing role of Blaine Anderson in Glee. However, it was his turn in Ryan Murphy’s imagination of the news making assassination of Gianni Versace that really solidified him as a bonafide star, making him a notable figure in the continuing narrative of representation in Hollywood. “Between you and I, it’s just a wonderful thing to be able to talk about and shed light on Filipinos in entertainment,” he reflects in an interview with ABS-CBN correspondent Yong Chavez. “And that’s been a really, really fun bonus for me in this entire experience.”—Angelo Ramirez de Cartagena
“Everything just started with a dream,” Francis Libiran recalls when asked about his current stature as one of the most sought-after designers not only in the local scene but also internationally as his network grows ever bigger. “A dream of me dressing up these people,” he adds. “Every time I would think of Hollywood, I would choose an actor that I really like and then I’m going to sketch. Without any expectations that they’d actually wear it.” That dream continues to flourish in real life with his recent clients including fellow Global Pinoy awardee Darren Criss, Aladdin’s Mena Massoud, and just recently, actor-singer Billy Porter.
With the grandeur that are present in all of Francis’ designs, it’s quite a surprise to meet soft spoken, warm, and humble person. There is something so calming about the way Libiran explains the intricacies of his designs. The delicacy of his work reflects with the overall process of creating a piece. He recalls that during Holy Week, Mena’s team has contacted him to design for the actor for its red carpet premiere. “Bakasyon na nun; wala nang magtatahi. We were on our way to have a vacation, but we really called everyone up and asked if they could do it. So, I sketched about ten designs and I think six got approved.”
The hustle is probably what Francis his team lives for. “It’s an opportunity for us; let’s go full blast,” he tells himself and his team whenever the chance to dress an international celebrity comes up. With his recent work with Billy Porter’s Pose premiere ensemble, Francis recalls having to do the signature Porter train in one day. “When everything was done already, I was looking at the mannequin and I was almost to send it na. Sabi ko: May kulang eh! It’s not Billy Porter without that train. So, sabi ko, ‘Give me one day and I’ll put that dream.” And thus the dream came true. Francis wouldn’t have known that an Instagram message to his favorite Pose cast members would lead him to actually garbing one.
Each of Francis’ designs, everything starts with a line. Having graduated from Architecture, the designer has always had a thing for structure and the science of creating a piece. To add a Filipino touch to it, Francis would often use local fabrics or intricate embroidery specific to our culture just like the Barong that he made for Darren Criss on his wedding. With the local industry thriving with the use of local textiles, Francis sees an opportunity to further improve our products. “I hope the textile industry can innovate the type of weaving that we have; I hope it’s softer. With the technology that we have, nothing is impossible.”—Francesca Testa
Big hair, big sunglasses, and big dreams. H.E.R. made a choice to keep her identity unknown, never fully revealing her face. “I’m not hiding,” she muses. “Concealing my identity came from me trying to find ways to be super honest in my music and for people to hear the music for what it is and not have any judgment or make any assumptions,” Gabrielle ‘Gabi’ Wilson shares in an interview with The Recording Academy. Ironically, H.E.R. stands for Having Everything Revealed, a moniker she decided to take on when she was going through heartbreak while creating her first self-titled E.P., described as a full of soul, a post-breakup gift brimming with vulnerability, and self-assurance all at once.
What many people don’t know is the fact that Gabi has been performing since the age of 6. Raised by a Filipina mother and a black father, she would always identify with both cultures. At home as a kid, shoes would come off at the door and she’d belt her heart out at karaoke. Growing up with instruments, mainly because of her father’s influence, she learned to play the guitar, piano, drums and bass. Deemed as a child prodigy, Gabi’s first brush with fame came when she performed a cover of Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got You on The Today Show at the age of 10 along with publishing her poetry book entitled, Anything on Earth Poems. Soon after, she joined Radio Disney’s Next Big Thing, and landed a deal with RCA at the age of 14.
H.E.R. rose to fame when she mysteriously dropped a cover of rapper Drake’s Jungle in 2017 and fellow musicians like Rihanna, Alicia Keys and Usher to name a few became part of her following. She then went on to forge her own path all while wearing a veil of mystery where some of her biggest triumphs to date was nabbing five Grammy nominations and winning Best R&B Performance and R&B Album of the Year, as well as headlining this year’s Coachella shortly. “I do this because I know I’m meant for something greater. I know I have a purpose and I’m trying to fulfill that.” And the rest they say, is history—her story.—Lyn Alumno
Filipinos know how to have a good time, and perhaps no one knows this more than Manila Luzon at a more recent performance in the Philippines last year. “It was thrilling to be in the Philippines. I was wearing Filipino designer clothes, I was performing with whole bunch of performers in the Philippines, it was really great. I felt really welcome,” she recalls. “I felt like the long lost cousin that’s coming home and everyone was so amazing. We laid out the tables for a boodle fight, and I ate balut for the first time, that was disgustingly good. And yeah, I just had the great time, it was really fun.”
Manila Luzon needs no introduction, and we mean that in a non-geographical sense. Even for those who aren’t caught up to speed with the RuPaul’s Drag Race universe, the striking name has for sure been thrown around in some fleeting conversation or for the more rabid of fans, heated discourse on the latest happenings on the Emmy award winning reality TV show. While she wasn’t the first, nor will she stand to be the last, Manila Luzon sure is one of the more popular Filipino drag queens to hit global acclaim.
Known for her unapologetic aesthetic of quirk, kitsch, and camp, Manila Luzon has amassed a following that hangs on to every hot couture she will saunter in or a statement to society she will address through fashion and drag. As a Drag Race alum and all-star (double, of course), the Filipino drag personality has always sought to use her character to represent a gap where not so many have filled in. Representing Asian gay boys in the spectrum of the wildly vivid and spirited LGBTQ+ spectrum, Manila Luzon has in her own way, time, and space, shed light and conversation to issues that matter the most. More than just the name and heritage, Manila Luzon is a true realization of pride in both the exaggerated self, and as an active soldier in the plight of the community—and that makes her a winner, baby. Finally.—Angelo Ramirez de Cartagena
Influence is a word aimlessly thrown around these days as if it were currency of the loose change sort, easily attaching it to a name with a significant social media following and reach. But for a world still making sense of the foreseen relenting of the analog to its twilight, where the decidedly diverse and dynamic digital plane is reigning supreme, influence compels so much more than just cumulative numbers and heightened engagement. In the realest sense of the word, it demands respect, as it does tangible efforts that affect a wave of inspiring change for the greater good of the world.
Even without the recent recognitions from Time (Person of the Year in 2018 and 100 Influential People in 2019), Maria Ressa, undeterred journalist and protector of the truth from threats of suppressing human rights and press freedom, is influential. This prominence is a result of over 33 years of journalistic integrity, one that has spanned war zones in and out of the Philippine shores, all of which she has covered and stood her ground on.
Despite an overwhelming threat to curtailing human liberties, Maria Ressa continues to persist and persevere. “Press freedom is not just about journalists. Press freedom is the foundation of every single right of every Filipino to the truth so that we can hold power to account,” she says, encouraging the nation to speak up. It doesn’t take a great deal, you know. All it takes is an active hand to enact a ripple of discourse, because eventually, all this would lead to the clearing and salvation that this country needs and deserves at this point, and Maria Ressa continues to do just that, reporting and reacting as is her journalistic duty. “I always said, when I look back a decade from now, I want to make sure that I have done all I can,” Ressa concludes. “We will not duck, we will not hide, we will hold the line.”—Angelo Ramirez de Cartagena