Rodrigo Duterte: The celebrity in Malacañang

The Philippine President has a fandom that rivals many top celebrities – here's a look at how he has played the fame game

The man standing in the middle of the stage leans in, motioning to kiss the woman before him.

It looks like she can’t quite believe what is happening. She laughs nervously, she even squeals – whether it’s of delight or disgust is hard to distinguish. 

The man brings his face closer to hers, and the crowd’s cheers grow louder and more vigorous – reaching a shrill crescendo when the kiss finally happens. It’s a sound that’s been made for many on-stage kisses, the same kind of emotionally-charged sound that has echoed through the halls of theaters and arenas where a love team or other has come together in a much-awaited public display of affection.

In this instance, though, it’s not a blushing love team or a cherished couple that’s being cheered on. The woman is one among a crowd of overseas Filipino workers attending an event in South Korea.

The man is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

The kiss, one of 5 that happened between the President and female members of the crowd on that day, was criticized across the world and on social media.

But to Duterte’s supporters, it was just another stunt from a man who, in their eyes, could do no wrong – a move among many other crude ones, like cursing and lambasting, that made Duterte even more relatable, more accessible. This relatability is a trait that has been integral to the President’s celebrity status from the get-go.

It’s a celebrity that hasn’t waned much in the last 3 years. In March 2019, Duterte’s satisfaction ratings soared back to +66, a personal high he first achieved early on in his presidency, way back in June 2017. (READ: Duterte gets record-high satisfaction rating)

Dr Cristina Montiel, a political psychologist who teaches at the Ateneo de Manila University, explained: “He is a celebrity in the sense that he enjoys being liked by people. His decisions, his way of talking and relating, make him, in a way, liked by his audience.” 

Laughter, fear, and more

In a study of Duterte’s speeches, one of Montiel’s students found that, from 2016 until recently, the reaction most associated with every curse word in his speeches was laughter from the audience.

And while being a celebrity means being popular, it doesn’t mean he or she is correct or respected. Popularity and respect are not mutually exclusive – for instance, some celebrities are respected, some are not. Also, some people who are respected are not necessarily popular, Montiel said. 

“[Duterte] has popularity, but my sense is that he’s not exactly like a movie celebrity or a showbiz celebrity. His popularity comes from a different source,” added Montiel.

His popularity stems from his relatability, his apparent similarity to the people he leads. 

 “…one of the reasons for his cursing is that it makes the people laugh. When you laugh, you like the way you feel, and that makes you want to be around that person.”

Montiel compared Duterte’s popularity to that of the British monarchy. “They’re popular but they’re not similar. They’re very, very far from the people that like them,” she said. 

In Duterte’s case, he is popular because he emphasizes his similarity to Filipinos, and makes sure to remind people that he is just like them. “Unfortunately, it’s similarity in the misbehaviors, rather than in the respectable behaviors,” Montiel added. “But it works for him.” (READ: The Duterte Insult List

Even the way one talks is crucial in gaining trust and likeability – explaining Duterte’s choice in language, although blunt and peppered with curse words here and there. “The way he talks is like a close friend. It’s like everybody thinks he’s a close friend who can reveal his mistakes.” 

It isn’t just his charisma and the fun and games of his rule that drive fans (or supporters) closer – it must also be coupled with Tatay Digong’s iron fist.

“Yes, his administration is celebrity-heavy, which provides the light side of populism, but it’s also military-heavy, which provides the ‘shadow’ or the darker part of populism. It’s a military-backed populist government,” Montiel explained.

This brings about fear as well – “change is coming,” he says, and his spontaneous actions of killing and arrests bring to life the “bad cop” persona of his rule. To Montiel, this one-two punch of laughter and fear is what makes Duterte such a powerful force to reckon with.

It makes many Filipinos trust him even more.

“I’m not saying he’s an abusive parent, but in parent-child abuse relationships, sometimes it’s the abusive parent that the child clings to,” Montiel explained.

“There’s fear, but there’s also a strong sense of attachment. In fact, on social media, President Duterte is addressed as Tatay Digong. That’s the term – it’s a paternal attachment, but it doesn’t mean it’s fear-free.”

Strongman, weak systems

The weakness of our institutions only highlights Duterte’s perceived strength, and reinforces the emotional attachment Filipinos have for him. 

“They feel protected by a ‘superman’ who is close to them because he can curse and he womanizes as a way of association to them. But then he can also talk of killing. That might be a comfortable zone for those that are not protected by institutional systems,” Montiel explained.

She described two different political cultures in the Philippines. 

“One is the Western democratic civic society kind of culture, which is in the upper layer, because that is the layer that was affected by American colonial influence. That is the so-called ‘Western democracy.’”

Underneath that layer, however, is something Montiel describes as more “raw” – something more attuned to humanity’s indigenous, centuries-old way of surviving, ruling, and wielding power over others.

“It’s using more raw ways – brute strength and machoism, raw emotions, and raw language,” Montiel said. In time, these ways may have grown closer to the hearts of many Filipinos, especially to those who cannot enjoy the fruits of Western democracy.

Duterte’s ruling style is similar to this – a system of immediate gratification that doesn’t prioritize sacrifices for long-term goals and gains for the country. It’s a system built on instantaneous punishment and reward, she said.

“If someone is not behaving, you kill them. If somebody is reported as being corrupt, you arrest them. That’s immediate and it doesn’t respect the process or the possibility that there’s human error in the accusation,” Montiel said.

And this system, apparently, seems to be working for many Filipinos. “In the minds of many Filipinos, systems don’t work. Judicial systems don’t work, police systems don’t work…. What actually works is connection or social capital. It’s not so much good behavior, but connections and networking,” she explained.

Underdog, top gun

Perhaps what brings Duterte even closer to the hearts of his followers is that he’s someone Filipinos have met before – on screen, in books, in films, and even in classic Filipino literature. 

The persona Duterte projects in public – brash, aggressive, unpretentious – is someone Filipinos feel they understand more, because they’ve encountered similar characters in the stories we tell. 


“I think Pinoys have always been drawn to the underdog-rising-to-power archetype. We know it from our literature and movies, from our komiks to television. Even our Christian faith has that kind of messianic narrative arc,” said Anne Frances Sangil, a literature professor and pop culture expert at De La Salle University. 

“Prior to Duterte’s election, people saw him as the antithesis to the administration back then. He represented what was perceived to be the opposite of those in power, so many people were drawn to him and elected him because of this perceived difference,” she said.

She also pointed out several big pop culture figures that Duterte has been compared to, from the sword-wielding blacksmith Panday, to other characters that fall under the strongman archetype – present in works like the epic poem Biag ni Lam-ang, the long-running teleserye Ang Probinsyano, or the biopic Asiong Salonga, where the titular gangster is portrayed by another former president, Joseph Estrada.  

“That perceived macho image taking on those in power is quite obvious,” she said.

“And then there’s the Punisher, of course. Isn’t that Duterte’s nickname? The image of an avenging individual is ever present in popular culture.”

In that way, pop culture may influence politics in the sense that it affects the way people feel about – and eventually vote for – certain politicians. But, even more, Sangil said that people often turn to pop culture to make sense of reality.

“When the movie Avengers: Infinity War came out last year, there was a ton of Duterte-Thanos jokes, even memes. Same thing with Kingsman: the Golden Circle with its drug storyline. This goes to show how we always turn to popular culture – movies, television, books, etcetera – as a way to get a handle on things that happen to us,” Sangil said. 


“The way we look at the world and how our perception is colored by our experiences, popular culture artifacts included, is part of how we function as human beings. There is logic in our narratives, in our books, in movies, in TV, and we want this logic to trickle into our own, seemingly logic-less lives,” she said.

She explained that this makes pop culture powerful, and therefore dangerous. 

“Of course this is not to say that pop culture is morally on the up and up. No. And that’s where the danger lies. We sometimes confuse what we see, and think it will easily translate into our lives. Those who know how to manipulate stories and play with popular culture may use this to their advantage, by playing with people’s expectations,” she said. 

“We do not live in a DC or a Marvel universe, though we probably wish we do. I guess that’s why all these superhero movies are a hit now more than ever. It’s a manifestation of how weak and powerless we all feel.”

The fanaticism of fandoms

Of course, a picture of Duterte’s celebrity would be incomplete without taking a look at his fans – people who prove to be as passionate about their idol as any celebrity fandom.

Stars both international and local have pointed out that Filipino fans are unlike any other, with some even going so far as to say that their supporters from this little archipelago are the best in the world.

All it takes is to attend any concert, meet and greet, or special event that brings a fan close to their idol, for one to realize that Filipino fans, in particular, are ardent, devoted, and, at their best and worst, obsessive. 

Sangil recalled the 2016 presidential elections, and how it displayed “the kind of fanaticism you’ve probably only seen in comic conventions.” She said, “All those posters, buttons, ballers, hats, shirts, bags – they symbolize a fan’s sense of belonging.” 

“Duterte is oftentimes endearingly referred to as Tatay Digong by his fans, his DDS (Die-hard Duterte Supporters). He is the Almighty Father, and his supporters are his congregation,” Sangil said, pointing out that this deity’s church is not limited to the streets where he campaigned.

“His cathedral of the faithful has permeated social media, the 21st  Eucharistic venue of choice for his DDS,” she said.

Even during his presidential campaign in 2016, Duterte already had a frenzied fandom of supporters who set ultimatums for those who did not pledge their support to the President.

These frenzied fans show no mercy, especially to the President’s most vocal critics. A quick check online will lead you to trolls calling media outlets “presstitutes,” bots screaming out the words bayaran, dilawan, and “bias” to anyone with an opinion even slightly contrary to Duterte and his fandom, further instigating the “propaganda war” that has weaponized the internet and created larger national divides.

Rabid fans have also taken things to the extreme online, bullying and harrassing a university student for asking a mayor a question during a forum, to the point of even sending the student death threats online. 

When a UP student in 2016, for instance, said that she would not be voting for Duterte, the then-Davao mayor’s supporters went all-out in their defense of him in every possible way. Some called her uneducated, stupid. Some even wished she was raped – which led to Duterte asking his supporters to “take the moral high ground.

Not all of Duterte’s fans are violent – and some just truly believed the promises he made at the beginning of his presidency. One supporter-turned-critic said he could watch Duterte’s speeches for 4 hours straight for enjoyment. (READ: How a Duterte supporter fell out of love with the President

The fact that a fervent supporter can now admit to being a critic of the President shows that it is possible to support Duterte in a critical, rational way, as a political scientist has pointed out

Entertainment as salvation

Duterte’s apparent honesty may seem entertaining to some, and it’s no doubt that he has made this administration very entertainment-centric. His speeches, as the study of Montiel’s student proves, provide laughter. His political sorties are filled with dance numbers, performances, and stand-up jokes. Celebrities are a part of his administration. And, naturally, many Filipinos will gravitate toward that.

As a culture, we love our showbiz – we love being entertained by our “idols.”

“Filipinos like having idols – someone to look up to, to listen to. That happens when a person or a group of people doesn’t have confidence in themselves. In a way, it’s a kind of idolatry.”

This idolatry, to many, is a sign of salvation. To many Filipinos, their “idols” are their saviors. 

“The salvific message of a savior is what’s important,” Montiel said. “And this salvific message in a way was also produced by them – the massive fear of drugs and addicts.”

It’s smart, actually – these “idols” position themselves as saviors in the minds of their “fans.” 

“Savior of what? Savior of people who are very afraid. Afraid of what? Afraid of something that the savior produced,” Montiel said. 

Once the salvific message has been widespread, the process and the promise follow. 

“In Western countries, [for] the populist leaders like Trump, the fear is of immigrants. Here, it’s about the drug war. He removes the humanity of drug addicts, saying that drug addicts are not people,” Montiel said.

“Once he removes the sense of humanity of a person or a group, you can do anything to them. You position that group of people as deserving to be killed or imprisoned, because ‘they are not humans’ or lower than humans.”

The ‘Duterte effect’

It should come as no surprise that an entertainment-loving country is led by a consummate entertainer.

More than a public servant, he has proven to be an idol for many – a celebrity of sorts. His impact on the Filipino people, both positive and negative, is undeniable.

He has mastered the power combo of inciting laughter and evoking fear, and has made it work for him, building a fandom nearly blind to his faults – brash words, inappropriate jokes, broken promises, and bloodshed.

Halfway into his term and the Filipino people are still laughing at the President’s jokes and cheering on his moves, drowning out the sound of his critics’ voices, and the cries of those who are subjected to the harshest realities that his regime has brought about.

As Filipinos continue to endure systemic injustices, and the difficulties of living in this country, they are at least laughing, they are at least entertained – which is certainly not enough by any measure, even as those who don’t question any of the President’s actions seem to think it is. –