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Why are Filipinos so starstruck?

Filipinos constantly look to the stars for clues about how the country is doing. No, not the daily horoscope or the shining firmament above; I mean the big-name celebrities who visit the Philippines. Want proof? The biggest talk over the past few weeks was not about the Davide impeachment threat or about how President Gloria Arroyo would handle new allegations of military corruption. No, the morning talk was generally about Mariah Carey and Mandy Moore.

"Did you hear how Mariah’s goons ejected the head of security at NAIA? No wonder GMA didn’t invite her to the Palace…"

"Yeah, but Mariah put on a much better show than Mandy Moore. That kid sang for less than an hour…"

"And GMA greeted her during the concert? Shouldn’t our president be backing the better performer?…"

Starstruck as always, these are the things by which Filipinos estimate how well the country is faring. Celebrity is the new barometer of self-image. Which performers deign to touch down on our tarmac? Who has the guts to brave the grinding traffic and the all-too-mundane threats of coups and terrorist bombings?

One columnist recently gushed that the "safe, uneventful" visit by US President George W. Bush a month ago had "opened the floodgates" for more celebrities (mostly pop singers) to come here and perform. (As if Mariah, Mandy and George Bush traded notes!)

The implication was that, if more foreign celebrities visit Manila, then things must be okey-dokey. Sort of like the proverbial canaries in the coalmine: if Mariah and Mandy are singing here, then the pollution can’t be choking us to death, right?

Indeed, the visit by Mr. Bush was a much-needed tonic for the country. People felt good that the US leader had penciled in a 10-hour stopover here. Yet did Filipinos turn this historic half-day visit into a serious national dialogue about where US-Philippine relations stand in the new millennium? No, the talk was more about how Mr. Bush charmed (most) members of Congress, how many arms he gripped, how casually he wore his barong.

Don’t get me wrong. According a warm welcome to guests is one of the country’s biggest strengths. But there comes a point when stargazing becomes a way of avoiding the realities down on the ground.

Remember when celebrities Kris Aquino and Joey Marquez had their big public spat? All their dirty laundry came out on TV, and people talked incessantly about STDs for about a week. Meanwhile, what was going on in the real world? Vice President Teosfisto Guingona resigned from the Lakas party; major earthquakes rocked Japan; and President George W. Bush asked for $600 million more from the US Congress to hunt for hidden chemical weapons in Baghdad (which they approved). You see my point. As a foreigner, I had a hard time understanding why everyone in the country had a strong opinion on the Kris-Joey matter. Did it really matter? I mean, I couldn’t imagine Chelsea Clinton making such a spectacle of herself (though I could easily imagine presidential daughter Jenna Bush doing so).

Why are Filipinos so starstruck?
Take a look at the billboards along EDSA showing Hollywood starlets – young women paid millions of pesos to have their images attached to local clothing brands, though it’s unclear if these women ever actually set foot in the country. For some reason, a celebrity endorsement – however long-distance – is enough to bless a local brand.

And while the mere mention that another movie action star, Fernando Poe Jr., plans to throw his hat into the presidential race is enough to give some people migraines, a larger number, I suspect, get goose pimples. Something about stardom just turns people’s heads around.

Filipinos are known to stop a celebrity in New York, Los Angeles – wherever – and ask to have their picture taken with them. Never mind that the famous person is eating lunch, sharing time with their children or innocently walking down the street. Filipinos need that Kodak moment, that Instamatic validation. And woe unto the Filipino who walks away from a celebrity encounter without photographic proof!

I’ve seen it countless times, and I can sort of understand it. But part of me also feels sympathy for the celebrity: that maybe the person in question actually wants, even deserves, a little space to him or herself. Filipinos evidently don’t subscribe to the Native-American belief that snapping someone’s picture steals a part of their souls. After all, a memento is a memento.

And sometimes infamy is as good as fame. I was in Segafredo Café the other day, and seated at a nearby table was Atty. Estelito Mendoza, the lawyer who headed Erap’s impeachment defense team. He was busily chatting with his colleagues, but I couldn’t help thinking that, whatever kind of lawyer he is on other cases, whatever good deeds he may have racked up in his career, his image will forever be connected in the public mind with a bit of televised notoriety. He was one of the contrabidas in Erap’s TV trial. Celebrity has that kind of resonance, for better or worse.

But maybe there are other imperatives besides celebrity gazing. Walking out of the restaurant, I passed a group of people lined up outside nearby Cenà. There was a spotlight set up at the restaurant entrance, and I immediately assumed there was a movie shoot going on. Or else some big-name celebrity was inside paying his tab and folks were just rubbernecking, having nothing better to do on a Monday afternoon.

But no, it turned out the 30 or so people gazing inside so eagerly had a good reason for hanging around. They were all waiting to be interviewed for jobs. It just goes to show you, there are more important things out there than celebrity.

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