What’s next for Jessica Sanchez?

The 'American Idol' runner-up refuses to let 'AI' be the peak of her career. She transitions now from a 'reality show' star to simply a star and talks about how being bullied has shaped her

By Meryll Yan

Makeup: Denika Bedrossian/ Hair: Madison Blue/ Styling: Julie Matos/ Photography: Danilo Hess
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For all intents and purposes, Jessica Sanchez is just a regular 19-year-old girl.

She is shy but takes selfies, is afraid of spiders and loves cats, and counts Denny’s and Jollibee as comfort food. She breaks out when she’s stressed. She likes to have her nails done. She pokes fun at her brother, Zach, but cannot live without him.

The difference? She has 1.4 million Twitter followers, was runner-up in American Idol’s season 11, and counts Jennifer Lopez, Apl de Ap and Manny Pacquiao as her friends. Oh, and that voice.

Jessica Now

Outside 1902 studios in downtown Los Angeles, Jessica waits with her mom Editha for the door to open. We surprise her by arriving a few seconds after her. We say hello and play a little bit of catch-up on the elevator ride up.

It’s already been 3 years since Jessica first auditioned and emerged runner-up in American Idol. Back then she was just a 15-year-old thrust into the stage, subject to the attention of the world and Simon Cowell, and yet night after night, she emerged victorious. Except for an almost-elimination that was thwarted by the judges’ unanimous save, Jessica was on the high road to success. But where has she been since Ryan Seacrest called out the name of Phillip Phillips as American Idol instead of hers?

Today the half-Mexican, half-Filipina American is bleached blonde, all of 19 years old (she celebrated her birthday last August 4 but at the time of the shoot, she was 18) and working with musical producer Mark J. Feist on her next project.

Clothing credits: CURRENT ELLIOT denim jumpsuit. STACY ADAMS gold and silver stackable rings and thin bracelets. ANTONINI ring. PLUMA white leather and silver neckpiece.

She’s still shy as ever – a great irony for someone who has such a powerful voice and stage presence. However, she beams when she sees her family – manager Kristin Collin and glam team of Denika Bedrossian and Madison Blue.

“It’s a hard business!” Jessica admits. Considering that most American Idol alumni have relatively been flash in the (season) pan, she still counts herself lucky. She guested in the hit show Glee. Her last single “Tonight,” in collaboration with R&B star Ne-Yo, has 11.8 million views on Youtube and received a lot of radio airtime here in the Philippines. And she continues to perform.

There’s been such a long wait but Jessica replies with optimism, “I've been super busy working on new music and I am so excited for everyone to hear it. For the first time, I've been collaborating with different producers and I've been writing which is very exciting as I did not have the chance to do that on the last album. The process of songwriting and being creative and starting music from scratch can be a lengthy process. I know my fans are waiting but this will take some time. I've grown up a lot since the last album and American Idol so I want to take my time with this and not rush anything. I've also been doing various TV performances and appearances so I am very busy!”

Aside from the new music, Jessica has been performing for various organizations. Topmost on her agenda – giving back to the Blujay Manila fans who propelled her to the finals of American Idol and still support her.

Clothing credits: MARC JACOBS varsity jacket, BAILEY 44 white perforated cropped top, MAJE distressed jeans with patch detail; STACY ADAMS gold and silver rings and bracelets

From an American to a proud Filipina

Her first time to visit the Philippines was right after the AI season wrapped up. It was back in September 2012. The Jessica then was all-Americana, her experience of the Philippines mostly limited to eating lumpia and pancit (her two favorite dishes), what she knew from her mother, and little else. When asked what she thought of the country, she could only say a few things, repeatedly apologizing that it was her first time.

"One of my biggest hopes is to have great global success as an entertainer. I want to represent the Philippines well."

Since then, she has come to the Philippines at least 6 times, and the narrative has completely changed. Jessica says about the Philippines, “It's really becoming a second home to me and the support and love I feel when I visit is like nothing I've ever experienced before. I don't take that lightly and I feel an obligation to make the people proud of me and and to be someone that represents them in the best ways possible. It's hard at times because I'm only a teenager and sometimes I feel like no matter what I do it will never be enough for some people. The truth is any little bit helps and if everyone did a little something, this world would be a much better place so I remind myself to be proud of all things I have done."

She has become a one-woman singing ambassador for the country, using her voice to raise funds and awareness for the causes she’s adopted. “I really love working with the Starkey Foundation and I hope to do another Philippine mission with them at the end of the year. One of the reasons I love working with them is you get to see immediate results. You can help someone hear for the first time in a matter of minutes and seeing them react is priceless. Traveling with them around the Philippines has been one of the highlights of my life and such an incredibly rewarding experience. I've enjoyed singing and raising money for Pinoy Relief and Red Cross as well. I would love to be able to go and visit the areas affected by the Typhoon. That would be amazing!”

Clothing credits: A.L.C. striped bandage cropped top and striped bandage skirt. STACY ADAMS jewelry

From American Idol to YouTube Sensation

Jessica’s run on American Idol had her belt out diva anthems like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” “The Prayer,” and Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman.” These songs are familiar staples, karaoke favorites, of many Filipinos. And while those moments and their accompanying standing ovations from the judges, millions of views via telecast, and screaming fans are past, Jessica still marches to the beat of her own drum.

She confesses, “I still have so many dreams left that I would love to see happen! I want to see more success as a singer, I want to do a world tour and I want to win a Grammy! I want to experience new things and travel the world and I want to do my part and give back. This last year I spent a significant amount of time working with some amazing foundations and it's something that I'm really proud of. I want to be able to continue that.”

Those AI performances might have been her shining moments but they are certainly not yet her defining moments. Jessica would like to continue singing, whether on or offstage, and she has even taken to YouTube with home-made mash-ups recorded from her bedroom.

From the beginning: a kid

Jessica grew up onstage – or as her mom Editha likes to joke, “She was singing as soon as she could open her mouth.” She performed in Showtime at Apollo at age 10 and was already competing in America's Got Talent at the age of 11.

However, there is one little-discussed fact. Bullied as a child, Jessica had to be homeschooled. She was too frail. Too short. Too petite. Too brown. But somehow, she always had a voice.

For once, Jessica talks about the pain: “I think being bullied affects you in many, many ways and honestly shapes the person you become. You can let the negativity affect your confidence and the choices you make in life or you can use those experiences to better yourself as a person and move on from the haters. I've tried to do that but it's really hard at times. It's prepared me in many ways for life as an entertainer.”

"I feel an obligation. I want to be someone that represents Filipinos in the best ways possible."

During American Idol, glimpses of the bullied child could be seen, as Jessica was subjected to sometimes scathing criticism. She says, “People are constantly scrutinizing your every move and everyone has an opinion on what you say, what you do and how you look. It's HARD! I've learned to try and ignore all the negative comments and keep my chin up and move forward.”

But even if the child never leaves, the lady has evolved. Jessica continues, “I was very shy and introverted for a long time because of it, but I have really grown in the last two years and I am proud of my accomplishments and who I have become as a person. I think people need to realize the power of being mean and how much damage it can really do to a person.

It's way too easy to sit on your computer or phone and rip someone to shreds. It's really sad! It takes more effort to put someone down than it does to compliment them and wish them best. I really don't understand why people do that and I feel sorry for them because you can't live a happy life when your focus is to bring others down.”

Becoming the new Jessica

As the shoot progresses, there are snatches of the unsure Jessica, and of the young Jessica, and of the child Jessica. Yet the one who appears in the most frames, laughing as her hair artfully fans out, is a young woman who is growing into herself and is no longer apologetic.

Jessica says of her new mindset, “The best thing is when I make people proud. When they are proud of my singing, or proud of the way that I treat people from my family to people I work with, to fans, and strangers. I always do my best to treat people with respect and kindness and I always try to say thank you. That's very important to me.”

It was never easy, and she ponders aloud, “The worst... when people say that I'm arrogant or don't care about my fans or have forgotten where I come from. That hurts the most because it couldn't be further from the truth. I'm super, super shy and quiet by nature. I think that can get misinterpreted sometimes and I am so thankful for every opportunity I have been given. It's hard to have to say 'no' to things because you know you are inevitably disappointing someone. It's impossible to say 'yes' to every request that comes my way and even harder to not feel guilty about it.”

And as she sang in her duet with Jennifer Holliday, this girl is still saying, “And I am telling you, I am not going.”

Clothing credits: MLV sequined silk camisole.

Labels as Bullies

Honey, please. You’re getting fat. You’re too much of a smart ass. Stick to what you know.

Bullies are not an uncommon phenomenon but the internet, and the anonymity that it offers, have put it on steroids. The comments section of Youtube offers enough proof of this new reality. There are now little repercussions to bullying, and under the safety of fake accounts, it has become a no-holds-barred arena. Curse all you want. Hit where it hurts. Even women can attack other women.

In her story “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” for Pacific Standard, author Amanda Hess wrote, “‘Ignore the barrage of violent threats and harassing messages that confront you online every day.’ That’s what women are told. But these relentless messages are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, and their freedom to live online. We have been thinking about Internet harassment all wrong.”

As we spend more and more time online, we are also making ourselves more available to bullies. So how do we stop this tide, or better yet, how do we fight it? How can women #ShineStrong and be defiant against faceless detractors? Tell us in the comments section below.