Her rags-to-riches story was the stuff of dreams, a path so ridiculously improbable that even the jaded could not deny the assistance of God. Not since the 80s’ Banig Roberto has there been as big a discovery of Filipino singing talent in the United States — but with a modern twist involving viral YouTube videos, a guest appearance on Ellen, Oprah, and in a Celine Dion concert. All these in a fast-paced record of successes that could only leave the spectator open-mouthed, goose-bumped, and with a constant mental “OMG.”
Admit it. You fawned over her and watched her online, beamed with pride when talk show hosts would say “Philippines” or showed videos of her hometown. You watched her go from studio to studio, from concert to concert, posing for cameras while kissing celebrities and getting traditional LA makeovers that transformed her from a chubby-cheeked promdi to a brown-skinned beauty with a very highlighted perm.
You thought, “Wow, what if that were me? What if I was plucked from being a virtual nobody in a forgotten developing country and transformed into somebody? In a land where every other person can pretty much sing?”
We watched Charice with eager hearts and felt like we were her, that we were the ones who were suddenly no longer unknown and poor, the ones getting our tear-inducing life stories told on Oprah, and the ones having a chance to make it to a Pacquiao-level of BIG.
What we didn’t know was that there was another story that lurked behind the glittery, showbiz successes of a teenage pop idol yanked from the barangay singing contests of Cabuyao, Laguna and thrust into the unforgiving limelight of Hollywood. It was a story that secretly burned in the chests and guts of anyone with a similar heart.
It began with Ellen
Was Ellen’s introduction to Charice like a meeting between Mary and Elizabeth where the bumping of their bodies in an embrace caused a stir in Charice’s belly? Inside Ellen was a past struggle with identity, fame and deceit, a worry for her career and her audience’s expectations, a sacrifice gay celebrities often made of who they were and who they loved.
Surely Charice knew of Ellen before their meeting. She must have admired her unapologetic classy butch looks. At 15, Charice could have crushed on her, idolized her, and most of all — she could have wondered if there was also a space in the world for her young lesbian heart to be applauded in the way Ellen did, and for just the way she was.
Did Charice reject proposals by American producers to market her as a sex symbol or link her to another rising male star? Did she worry when a girl she would meet would give her the sweetest smile that was code for, “Yes I’m like you?”
Did she pass on girl crushes to protect herself and her secret? Knowing now what she has bravely revealed deepens the struggles she must have faced as an international celebrity for these past few years.
Fear despite success
The challenge brought about by sudden fame, and even the turmoil of knowing it could end, was likely nothing to Charice compared to what she’s been through. An unlikely talent in the Philippines simply for not fitting into the tall, slim mestiza mold or being connected to showbiz bigwigs by way of family or network, she was used to being insulted for her physical appearance, her lack of “breeding,” the absence of wealthy godparents, a private school education, or even a passable American twang.
She had already been through extremes in poverty, already sang her way to put food on the table, and experienced violence and familial turmoil, all at a very young age. In her early-20s, this young woman has already reached an unprecedented level of success and traveled the world more than any of us ever will.
Charice was high, high up there as a star, and yet when she appeared on The Buzz, you could feel her shaking, you felt that it was your own nose that was dripping, that it was your face that was drenched in the fever of your heart-wrenching revelation.
You were Charice with that same secret you felt no one else needed to keep: You had a heart and you knew how to love, but you were afraid to be judged for how and with whom you did.
‘Opo, tomboy po ako’
When Charice used the vernacular term for lesbian, her Cabuyao roots seeped through the more progressive, modern, Americanized girl she had become. She was nowhere near gender sensitivity classes or women’s studies lectures so even her terminology proved how basic her understanding was of her own sexuality.
Yet it was all everyone needed: Yes, I like women/Yes, I’ve had relationships with them/To me, this is not a problem/I’m sorry if it is for you/Thank you if you understand.
Suddenly she echoed the sentiment of “tomboys” everywhere — the silent ones, the ones even the Philippines’ own lesbian activists cannot reach. With her short hair and determined, honest eyes, Charice spoke for your building’s female security guard, your lesbian maid, the boyish call center employees, and all of our manly unmarried aunts. More importantly, she spoke for every single young lesbian at home who grew up feeling ashamed of their own hearts.(READ: Charice: ‘Opo, tomboy po ako’)
Whether or not we feel Charice represents us as Filipinos, whether or not her lapses in English grammar bother us, and whether or not her strong Pinoy features betray our own twisted standards for American pop stars — her courage spoke for many who would never get the chance.
Truth and freedom
Towards the end of her interview, before the cinematic song requests, a smile emerged from the nervous and fearful round face that had just spoken the truth. It was the face of freedom, of walking away from secrecy and deceit in the way only a newly outed gay person could.
It was the face of joy that never again did she have to call the love of her life just a friend, or keep the most basic yearnings of her soul a secret. After that day, she never has to pretend she’s just waiting for the right man, when she can openly say she’s with a woman.
That is lifetimes away from many other gays in showbiz and in society who, for their own very valid reasons, still need to keep everything under wraps. Others might have more to lose, or have families and lives to protect. But watching Charice break down and speak with pride opened a door for everyone else hiding behind layers of secrets, those who fold in their effeminate mannerisms or create necessary measures to distance themselves from their partners in public.
Many more of us in the Philippines hope and pray we could maintain the acceptance of our families, have successful careers, and fade out before ever having to face the question of who we truly love.
A new voice
What happens next to Charice? Will the US be able to market her as a pop star completely away from the molds of Beyonce or Rihanna, and more like a female Bieber? Does she have what it takes to be a KD Lang, or a Melissa Etheridge, or half of a Tegan and Sara?
That remains to be seen, and to Charice, all of that might even be entirely irrelevant. She has found love, and she has found the truth necessary for it to thrive. She is way, way ahead of what many of us will ever see in our lives.
Yet here we remain, scouring through online videos, still waiting for what happens next to the small girl with that big, big voice that shook the world once at 15. She shook the world again with this brand new voice, for the first time unscripted and nowhere close to the words of Whitney Houston or Celine Dion, but just in the words of Charice: “Opo, tomboy po ako.”
These words might well be her loudest and most ground-breaking of all. – Rappler.com
Shakira Andrea Sison currently works in the financial industry while dabbling in several unrelated projects and interests. She is a veterinarian by education and was managing a retail corporation in Manila before relocating to New York in 2002. Follow her on Twitter: @shakirasison.