MANILA, Philippines - There’s a bit of a commotion during our shoot with cover girl du jour, Sarah Lahbati. Her frustrated helper, having sifted through the contents of her Cath Kidston luggage repeatedly, finally turns to Sarah’s mother and says, “Hindi ko mahanap yung bra ni Sarah.” Slightly alarmed, she sits down on a beanbag chair right next to the luggage and asks, “Ano? Eh, ano yung suot niya ngayon? Wala ba diyan?” Unbeknownst to this minor crisis, Sarah calmly saunters over barefoot in a black tank top and harem pants. Her mother turns to her and speaks in fluent Filipino-accented French, which, intriguingly, is a first for me to hear. Failing at my pathetic attempt to keep up with the conversation (I’ve all but lost the French I learned in college), the only part that I caught from eavesdropping is when Sarah replied, “Ça va,” which means, “It’s fine.”
With that, Sarah walked over to the stool propped up in front of photographer Gabby Cantero’s camera. I sit there for a little while, wondering what it’s like to be an ordinary Eurasian kid growing up in Switzerland, then moving to the Philippines to become a teenage actress and have other people worry about your own undergarments. Having won the fifth cycle of Starstruck back when she was just 16 — the show’s youngest contestant — things were looking up for the beguiling half-Moroccan beauty. Everyone fawned over the exotic mix of her sultry eyes and pouty lips, her engaging personality, and oohed and aahed over her ability to speak fluent French, English, a bit of Arabic, and most impressively, accent-free Tagalog.
However not everything went her way. Since Starstruck, the Ultimate Female Survivor was given a steady stream of projects, but never her own lead role. After playing supporting character Paula Estrella in Little Star, Sarah found herself mostly doing regional shows. Things were beginning to look up, it seemed, when she was asked to audition for the lead in Blusang Itim. Although there was talk that she was the initial choice to reprise Snooky Serna’s iconic role, the lead ultimately went to showbiz scion, Kylie Padilla. While the biggest let-down for most girls her age was having their crushes ask other girls to the prom, Sarah faced the disappointment of having narrowly missed the primetime opportunity to fully launch her career.
Fortunately, redemption presented itself a few months later on her 18th birthday: the lead role of Kara in Ruben Marcelino’s Kokak. Finally, after just two years of being in the biz, Sarah was being given the reins without having changed a single thing about her image. Based on an Eighties comic series, Kokak was adapted by Seiko films into a slightly risqué feature starring Gabby Concepcion and Rachel Lobangco. Early on, her director, veteran actor Ricky Davao, asked her not to view the film in order to keep her perspective on her role fresh and original. “Actually, choice ko din na hindi panoorin para hindi ko gayahin and para fresh yung attack ko,” the budding talent explains.Taking this advice to heart, Sarah ended up making a significant impression on the venerated actor.
After taping a mere three episodes with her, Ricky boldly stated during a press conference that she was the next star of her generation. Upon hearing this while at that same press con, tears began to well up in Sarah’s eyes. “First time ko noon na maramdaman yung tears of joy. And talagang natuwa ako sa sinabi niya dahil, siyempre, Ricky Davao, sabihan ka ba naman ng ganoon. Sobrang nakakataba ng puso.” Even as she tells me this, her eyes start to get a little red and watery, but what she said is true. If an actor as accomplished as Ricky Davao praises your acting ability, a good bawl is in order.
From barely scratching the surface of A-list status, Sarah is finally coming into her own in the industry. By all accounts, she’s made the transition from unassuming newbie who just happened to be on vacation when the reality talent search was holding auditions to an up-and-comer on the rise. At such a young age, Sarah is luckier than most of her peers wallowing in uncertainty because a good future in show business appears to be in the works for her. Time, the right choices, and a little bit more experience will determine if she can fulfil Ricky Davao’s prediction for her. As we wait for Sarah to fully hone those skills of hers so that she can confidently unleash the fury of her acting prowess upon all of us, she has the luxury of sitting tight while letting that talent ferment, maybe even get her degree in Digital Filmmaking from the College of St. Benilde. Till then, everything will be fine, or as Sarah might say, “ça va.”