Pilar up close
STARBYTES - Butch Francisco () - October 13, 2001 - 12:00am
In the entertainment industry, beautiful women are dime a dozen. However, it is not that often that we come across a film star who possesses this rare combination of extraordinary beauty and talent – plus the ability to deliver fine, if not excellent performances on the big screen. Pilar Pilapil is one of the few local actresses who belong to this category.

A lovelier version of Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery, she had always been acknowledged as one of the most beautiful women in this country.

Genetically, she is fortunate in the sense that – in spite of the Occidental blood running her veins (she’s of Irish descent) – she doesn’t have those hard and sharp mestiza features that are the curse of most half-breeds.

Even that famous cleft chin of hers had proved to be a blessing. While a cleft chin is generally considered to be an abnormality, on Pilar Pilapil, it is a beauty mark.

As an actress, she is also highly-accomplished – having won the Best Actress trophies in the 1970 Manila Film Festival for Imelda: Ang Uliran and in the 1986 Gawad Urian for Napakasakit, Kuya Eddie.

Tomorrow, Pilar turns a year older and wiser. But at 51, she’s still far lovelier than most of the young stars being discovered for the movies today.

Born Pilar Delilah Veloso Pilapil in the town of Liloan (which is famous for its rosquillos, otap and hojaldres) in Cebu, she was raised by a spinster aunt right next door to her parents’ home. She was then known by her nickname Lailing and had the most number of suitors by the time she went to high school at the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepcion.

In 1967, the Philippine Jaycees chapter in Cebu sponsored her candidacy to the Binibining Pilipinas Pageant. She was only 16-going-on-17, but the Jaycees people tried to pass her off as 18 which was the minimum age requirement for contestants.

Pilar was crowned Binibining Pilipinas that year and was sent to Miami, Florida for the Miss Universe Pageant. (Newshen Lina Flor was her official chaperone.) During the interview portion, one question that host Bob Barker asked her was: "Miss Philippines, are you really 18?" Since she didn’t want to lie in front of millions of people watching the pageant, she cleverly shot back, "What do you think?"

The members of the board of judges, however, were no fools and must have sensed that she was really quite too young to carry the Miss Universe title and gave the crown to American bet, Sylvia Hitchcock.

After she relinquished her throne as Miss Philippines, Pilar was swamped with offers to join the movies. Her first film was the action picture El Niño with Andy Poe as her leading man and Fernando Poe, Jr. as her director.

She did several other movies after El Niño and had to give up her Psychology course at the St. Joseph’s College.

Aside from movies, she also did television. She was Maribubut in the sitcom Tisoy (with Jimmy Morato in the title role) and had her own musical show, This Girl Pilar, on ABS-CBN.

Around this time – when travel was still relatively cheap – the trend in local movies was to bring the actors abroad and shoot on foreign shores (with world-famous landmarks serving as backdrop).

While shooting Up, Up and Away in Europe, she was wooed and won by co-star Dolphy. (By sheer coincidence, one of Pilar’s runners-up in Binibining Pilipinas, Lotis Key, later also romanced Dolphy.) By the time she and the ace comedian went to Madrid to film El Pinoy Matador (which was a huge blockbuster hit), their love affair was already in full swing.

Dolphy was all set to marry Pilar, but her father intervened. Worldly-wise himself, Carlos Pilapil didn’t exactly welcome the idea of having another Lothario for a son-in-law. She had his daughter guarded by older siblings until she had shaken Dolphy out of her system and out of her heart and life.

Later, Pilar would plunge into a more serious romantic affair – this time with a famous politician who would be the father of only daughter Pia, who is now married to former model Gerry Gonzalo. (Pilar is fondly called Lola Pretty by Gerry and Pia’s kids.)

The 1970s was the peak of Pilar Pilapil’s career. She had a Thursday night drama anthology for ABS-CBN Channel 4 called Ala-ala which was cut short by the proclamation of Martial Law in 1972.

On the big screen, she was paired with some of the country’s top leading men: Chiquito in Inday ng Buhay Ko (a 1973 Manila Filmfest entry), Dindo Fernando in May Langit ang Bawa’t Nilikha (1976), Robert Arevalo in Divorce: Pinoy Style (1976) and in Marupok, Mapusok, Maharot (1978) and Joseph Estrada in Arrest the Nurse Killers which was shot in the US as JE Productions’ entry to the 1976 Metro Manila Film Festival. Her most memorable movie during this period, however, was Ang Mahiwagang Daigdig ni Salvacion which was directed by Celso Ad. Castillo.

Around this time, she also became quite controversial because she was the first – and so far the only – actress to have grown hair in her armpits. Back then, whenever she was interviewed on television about her armpit hair, she would say that she forgot to shave them one day and decided to just let it all grow. But now, she openly admits that she did it to accede to the strange fetish of the man in her life then.

In 1977, she hit the headlines after figuring in a drug overdose. She was suffering from insomnia then and had to take Semicon. One day, she swallowed one too many pills after she had trouble getting to sleep and "maybe because I wanted to make an exit because of what was going on in my life then."

By the mid-’80s, Pilar agreed to do mother roles and was amply rewarded for her efforts. In 1986, she and Aga Muhlach played mother and son in the Lino Brocka film Napakasakit Kuya Eddie and were declared Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor the following year in the Urian. She also played mother to Lorna Tolentino in 1989 in another Brocka film, Kailan Mahuhugasan ang Kasalanan, and received an acting nomination from the Manunuri. (In 1997, she was excellent in her portrayal of a Mrs. Robinson type of character in Star Drama Theater Presents Diether).

During the time she was doing Napakasakit, she took a break to walk down the aisle with a good-looking Spaniard named Michel Ponti at the Manila Cathedral. (She fainted in the middle of the ceremony.) She now describes the marriage as happy and romantic, but at the same time, turbulent and – on some occasions – violent. It was over in less than a year.

Today, Pilar admits to being celibate and has totally embraced the Lord. Although she has essayed various characters in the more than a hundred films she has done in the past, nothing compares to the role she now plays – as an Evangelist spreading the Word of God.

At 51, she claims that she’s not afraid of growing old. She fights off age by having a healthy lifestyle though.

But she need not worry. She may grow lines and wrinkles in the coming years, but in the heart of every Pinoy moviegoer, she will always be the legendary beauty and great actress who has contributed so much life, color and even glamor to the silver screen.

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