“I might get to interview Donny, Loisa, and Ronnie,” I tell my friend on the phone. I'm inside the elevator on my way to meet the three, my knees teetering like a bad game of Jenga. “What should I ask them?”
“Hmm. Wala eh. Parang alam ko naman na lahat.”
“Ay, true ba?” I say with defeat.
“Oo, besh,” she laughs. "May Twitter naman na eh."
This conversation rolls around my head as I push past a couple of studio doors (one of many inside ABS-CBN), about to meet, in person, three people that aren't really people. To me, at least.
As far I'm concerned, Donny Pangilinan, Loisa Andalio, and Ronnie Alonte (and every single celebrity for that matter) are myths: beautiful, but uncertain if true.
Their names are words on a screen, their picture-perfect glam lives pixels on a display, their private intimacies filtered by artifice—a grand abstraction. They are people who are augmented and packaged for the fandom, their porcelain skin awash in halogen lamps and studio lighting, their mouths guarded by lapel mics: image and voice ready for public consumption. Where is the person?
In very rare chances, the person is close by, and this is one such chance. Loisa is inside a tiny studio, flanked by a skeleton crew of promotional staff, and when I enter I catch her in front of the camera, gesticulating with distressingly high verve. She's in the middle of filming a digital short to promote "James and Pat and Dave," her first lead role in a film. The vibe of the room is a bizarre blend of funeral silence and cola-fizz energy, the latter radiating from Andalio who, despite the room's barbaric primness, is able to conjure a genuinely funny and affecting personality.
After placing fifth on “Pinoy Big Brother: All In,” Loisa would go on to land a string of notable gigs, including a stint on “Nasaan Ka Nang Kailangan Kita” and supporting roles on films like “Crazy Beautiful You,” “Gandarrapiddo: The Revenger Squad,” and “Fantastica.” Most recently, she played Claire in “The General’s Daughter.” At just 20 years old, to call her career decorated would be an understatement. She tries not to let these laurels get into her head.
“I feel blessed,” she says, in a separate sit-down. “Sobrang nararamdaman ko na, grabe bini-bless ako ni Lord dahil sa movie na ito at sa mga nangyayari sa amin ng pamilya ko. Na okay kami—nakakakain kami araw-araw.”
She seems unfazed. She knows this movie is a big deal, and she is making every moment count, never phoning a performance despite how silly the premise of a segment is. And then it ends. Loisa retreats to a corner with a small group of people, and their gleeful chatter fills the room’s mechanical silence.
Most of us don’t really see stars waiting, and it’s a bizarre thing to witness firsthand. To us, stars are shiny trinkets always headed to the next big party when they're not on a film set or TV studio. They’re in faraway places dripped in glamour and opulence, feeding on an infinite syrup of the high life.
There is a democratizing effect to seeing celebrities behave like normal people. I’d been expecting a shift in personality right as the shoot ends. Any minute now, the real Loisa will leap out in stark contrast to the bubbly girl grinning underneath the blinding key light. But there is no shift. As she sits and waits for the two boys, her legs toss back and forth, like a child would on a swing.
I realize we are at a rare moment: the empty, applause-less intervening silence between one frantic thing and the next. This is the after-dizzy not everyone gets to see. This is the small pocket of time during which they are utterly themselves. This is one of those tiny, human moments when they’re not stars. This is something that’s not always on Twitter.
And in this moment, Loisa oozes a strong wave of wacky confidence. There’s a graciousness to the way she navigates around people and situations, a kind of profound uplift. She is a ball of energy who wants to make everybody laugh. It’s just the way she is, even when there’s no audience to impress. “Kung paano ako dati, sa pamilya ko [at] sa kaibigan ko, hanggang ngayon binabatukan nila ako, minumura nila ako—mga gano’n—hindi iyon nawala sa aming mga magkakaibigan [at] sa pamilya.”
Those qualities don’t appear on Pat, her character in the film. There, she’s funny but morose and hard-to-access; a once-idealistic girl drowned surly by heartache. She deals with, among other burdens, an escapee mother, a dependent brother, a mentally deteriorating grandfather, and a jerkwad ex-lover—played by Pangilinan—who had summarily jilted her without explanation. But the core of the movie is making tough decisions as the breadwinner. As different as Loisa and Pat may seem, it’s because of this that she identifies with her on a molecular level.
“Sobrang nakaka-relate ako sa kanya: kung paano niya itanataguyod iyong pamilya niya, kung paano siya lumalaban kahit nasasaktan siya. ‘Yun ang hinahangaan ko sa character ni Pat.”
To remain oneself in a place where everyone has an idea of who you should be is a radical thing. And that’s to say nothing of the unforgiving hours. Or the atrocious demands of fame. And, most especially, the dizzying gymnastics of sustaining a public persona yet being asked to remain authentic.
I am at another one of ABS-CBN’s production rooms several days later. It is late in the evening and the three are still shooting individual segments for their film’s promo. They have been filming the entire day and are pretty exhausted. I hear no groans, though. Not a single complaint from them. They are still game for anything despite the tolls of today’s activities.
You wouldn’t think by looking at Ronnie or Donny that they’d be warm. The first time I saw Ronnie he was wearing a tracksuit and had a tough-yet-cheeky personality that recalled Robin Padilla, if Robin were a clean-shaven lanky boy with spiky frosted tips. He exuded an air of swagger, a confident kanto boy ease. Donny, on the other hand, is like the antithesis of Ronnie. I first saw him at the press conference for this film, and he was styled for the Gods: cinched in a Gucci belt, donning a leather jacket, his head cut with a slick mullet. He has puppy-dog eyes and bee-stung lips, opposite Ronnie’s sharp-jawed intimidating look. Ronnie was pogi and had bad-boy grit; Donny was posh and prince-like. They’re both on the far ends of the hateable people spectrum; template, cookie-cutter assholes. And yet.
In the same way I expected Loisa to change character, I half-assumed both Ronnie and Donny would be aloof celebrities who can’t be bothered to interact with simpletons. But neither of them exhibited any ounce of arrogance. In fact, in between shots they ate non-fancy Chinese takeout and was cordial with everyone. Politeness and humility don’t seem like especially remarkable traits. But you have to understand that it’s incredibly easy to lose sense of oneself inside the confusing carnival that is fame. Especially if you’re beautiful (which they are) and everyone wants a piece of you (which we do).
Ronnie’s humility roots from a time when his family lost everything they had, a staggering event that sidetracked his studies and stunted his growth as a person. He had to work his way up from ground zero. In 2015, he joined Hashtags, an all-male dance group, on “It’s Showtime”, a variety show seen by millions of people six days a week. Then, in 2016, he was cast as James in “Vince and Kath and James” opposite Julia Barretto and Joshua Garcia. He is less enamoured about the fact that he starred in a major film (it was Star Cinema’s entry to the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival) and more in that he starred opposite acting heavyweights. “Kinilig ako siyempre!” he says. He is steadily recovering, and is often hailed as one of the most promising talents of this generation.
But he admits that, after rapidly moving from the bleachers to showbiz’s center court, his friends called him out when they noticed his head had become inflated. Ronnie would invite them to fancy restaurants, thinking it was the new protocol. “Syempre artista tayo, ganyan-ganyan.” But he had a rude awakening. “Uy, medyo umaangat ka sa lupa, bumaba ka naman. Relax ka lang. Hindi ka ganito dati,” they told him. “Iba na pala ako. Hindi ko na nakilala iyong sarili ko. Hindi ko na alam ang ginagawa ko sa buhay. Hanggang sa naisip ko na tama nga kayo, hindi pala dapat magbago.”
Sometimes, it's the small things, often done in passing, that most define who we are. Case in point: Donny. It would be easy for him, with his dapper poster-boy charm and sheer tallness (which elicit screams from an army of fans), to think of himself as always wantable, important, above. But during a photoshoot with his castmates, Donny volunteered to remove his shoes to get their heights levelled evenly for the shot. This is not notable in and of itself. But think of Hollywood actress Minnie Driver’s story about that time a leading actor who, being shorter than her, asked the production team to dig a ditch so she could be lowered and get to his level. Donny’s gesture may be small, but it speaks of his character. Perhaps this is the effect of his friends, who keep him in check.
Donny understands the importance of choosing the right people to be surrounded with. “I learned if you're gonna choose friends kailangan ‘yung mga magmo-motivate talaga sa iyo na maging mas mabuting tao.” To him, self-reflection is key. “Magre-reflect ka rin sa sarili mo na, ‘Ako pa ba ‘to?’ Kailangang magreflect ka na tama ang mga tao na [nasa] paligid mo.”
For Loisa, family is still the most important. “Sila talaga iyong lagi kong kasama bukod sa mga kaibigan ko,” she says. Her faith plays a big part in keeping her humbled despite being a celebrity, and her father makes sure to remind her of staying grounded. “‘Yung Papa ko lagi niya akong pinapaalalahan na, ‘Magdadasal ka palagi, huwag kang makakalimot sa Diyos—kasi siya ang nagbigay sa iyo lahat.’” She has no illusions about the instability of this lifestyle. Rather than lament the fact that this, her life, her fame, her success, can dissolve any day, she is thankful. “Bigay ito sa iyo ng Diyos, hiram lang ito sa iyo. Hindi ka panghabang-buhay na artista kaya huwag kang makakalimot kung ano ang pinanggalingan mo. ‘Yun ang laging sinasabi [ng Papa ko].”
Stardom affords the highest risk of whiplash. When it hits, it hits crazy fast. Once it stops, it could be deadly. You have to know yourself before going into this business or you can come out warped and mangled. “Huwag niyong kakalimutan iyong mga pinagsasabi ng mga tropa niyo na kasama niyo noon pa. Sobrang malaking tulong iyon,” says Ronnie, who has brought along his posse—a mix of friends from childhood, high school, and college. Donny agrees. “Sila ‘yung mga hindi takot na magsabi ng totoo kahit masakit. Kasi alam nila ang magiging mas mabuti para sa iyo,” he says.
Ito Ba Ang Iyong Gusto?
Collectively, Donny, Loisa, and Ronnie have six million followers on Twitter alone. For perspective, that’s 363 full-capacity Araneta Coliseums or 109 Philippine Arenas. It is an insane number. By contrast, I already feel stressed out being part of my own family’s group chat. Six million followers is something I can’t fathom. Making mistakes as a normal person is taxing enough, but what about a faux pas with an audience tuned in?
Donny knows a thing or two about fame. His mother, Maricel Laxa, is an award-winning actress that was in the limelight—still is—for a very long time. Just recently he signed with ABS-CBN and ABS-CBN Films, essentially guaranteeing him a stack of projects down the line. For someone who’s always been rich, you’d expect Donny to look at hardscrabble showbiz meanderings to be beneath him. But, like a gentleman, he knows the value of hard work.
When not in front of the camera, Donny is quiet and reserved. But in a game of “Act Normal,” which I briefed him on, he doesn’t balk at any challenge. He works swiftly, but is unafraid to ask questions when he doesn’t understand a challenge. And after the segment, when I thank him for his time, he replies with “Thank you,” not, “You’re welcome.”
Work ethic, then, is not the challenge for any of these three.
Donny, despite his wealthy background, is a humble learner, a student. He’s expressed once before that he wants to be “the next Brillante Mendoza,” and in 2018 he got accepted into the University of the Philippines Open University’s Multimedia Studies program. Loisa, despite her atmospheric ascendance, is fiercely grounded, buoyed by her strong faith and family values. Ronnie Alonte, despite his charm and multipronged talents, remains aware of his privilege and how fast any of this can disappear.
Then there is “fame,” which is separate from work. Aside from being actors, they are full-time public personalities. It is something that can’t be avoided in this industry. Social media drums up hype and anticipation, which in turn grows the fanbase, thus making it crucial for staying relevant.
“May good and bad [ang social media],” Loisa says. “[Ito ang way] para magkaroon ka ng connection sa kanila, kaya good naman siya.” But she laments how easy it is for anyone to make an account and bash people. Twitter is breeding ground for toxicity, having spawned the horrendous cancel culture in which someone can get dragged mercilessly. Loisa says she reminds her fans not to participate in this witch hunt. “Kahit ako makakita ng mga fans ko na nangba-bash ng iba, dini-DM (direct message) ko sila na, ‘Huwag kayong nakikipagaway, hindi tayo ganyan, masama iyan.’”
Donny has gotten used to it, having accepted he can’t make everyone happy. “‘Yung mindset ko, parang lahat naman ng gagawin mo hindi mo mape-please lahat ng tao eh.” He would rather direct his focus to more important things, especially to fans who support them. “Why would we put our focus on negative things for people that put us down? And andiyan naman ang mga fans na mahal kami and mahal din namin sila. So doon dapat ang focus mo. ‘Yung mga taong totoo, ‘yung mga taong andoon para sa iyo.”
I have no idea how difficult it is to grow up under the keen monitor of rabid fans. I have no idea how fame warps one’s decision-making, one’s perception of the world, how cynical it can render a person. This is a terrifying landscape, even more so now when digital is the new currency of intimacy. But online, you can’t expect anything. The same mouths who cheer for you can be the same set of mouths who shout for your demise. Yet even under the austerity of public surveillance, Donny, Loisa, and Ronnie are unafraid to just live their lives, which includes making mistakes like any normal person.
The trick is to learn forgiveness, Loisa says, which is perhaps the purest of all humilities. “Kapag meron kang kapatawaran, napakagaan ng buhay, wala kang iniiwasan, wala kang problema,” a thing she learned from her “James and Pat and Dave” character.
Ronnie believes in doing your own thing, as long as you cause no menace to anyone. “Gawin niyo lang kung anong gusto niyo basta hindi kayo nakakaapak ng tao,” he says.
Donny looks at mistakes differently. “It's either you win or you learn.” People shouldn’t be stunted from pursuing what they want because of fear, he says. “Wala namang losing kasi everytime may opportunity to get better. Don’t let the fear of losing stop you from chasing what you love.”
It is striking that even at their inchoate age, these three are able to pull out these compelling homilies about remaining one’s own person amidst a sea of clamor. It’s strange: I’d imagine that pretty soon it’ll be hard to distinguish which voice is public acclaim, and which one is your own self-worth. Not to catastrophize, but what happens when it all gets too much? When fame demands much more? No doubt these three are going to get farther in their careers, but who knows what social media looks like in that time?
For now, though, the important thing is that these three are learning, as they go, the importance of sitting down, keeping their feet firmly placed on the ground, and staying humble. Stars, by virtue of physics, aren’t supposed to be down here on Earth. But by the looks of it, these three already are.