The private world of Donna & Yong

- Ricky Lo -

CEBU CITY, Philippines -  Before I left Manila to join the Sinulog Festival here Sunday last week, I re-confirmed with Shirley Kuan my appointment with her alaga Donna Cruz and husband Dr. Potenciano “Yong” Larrazabal III (an ophthalmologist) for an interview-pictorial at their new house which looks awesome on the Christmas Card that the couple sent me last Christmas.

“I couldn’t wait to see that house,” says Raoul Tidalgo who has joined me from Bohol where he’s with his folks on an extended vacation from New York where he used to work as Entertainment Editor of The Filipino Reporter. Neither could I, I told Raoul.

Thinking that Donna and Yong will be busy since the week-long Sinulog Fest is winding up this Sunday, the first thing Raoul and I do as soon as we hook up at the Waterfront Hotel is text Donna if we can see them on Monday afternoon. No, she begs off. “The kids have classes. Let’s make it Sunday afternoon.”

The couple has three children: Belle, 11; Cian, 8; and Gio, 3. The first two attend separate exclusive schools; Belle in Grade 5 and Cian, Grade 3.

The couple beside one of the brass lions guarding the backdoor. ‘I’m a lion lover,’ says Yong. There are half a dozen of them in the house.

At quarter to four, the couple’s driver fetches us at the hotel.

We are driven on a winding road up a mountain, one of the many at the Maria Luisa Park called Millionaire’s Row for obvious reasons. It’s Cebu’s version of Makati’s Forbes Park. The Larrazabals are among the city’s elite They own the Cebu Doctors University Hospital where Yong runs a clinic.

The driver slows down at what looks like a fortress. The whole area, 2,000 square-meters Yong will tell us, is reinforced as if to protect it from erosion. As we enter the iron gate (“Larrazabal, Spain” says a sign on one side of the wall), Raoul and I could hardly believe how, as it looks on the card, “awesome” the house is. “It’s a mansion,” exclaims Raoul.

At four on the dot, Donna and Yong, together with the kids, are all set. They are all dressed in white.

Before we sit down for the interview, Donna and Yong take us on a quick tour of the house, er, mansion which occupies a floor area of 1,500 square meters, covering only the basement and the ground floor and, respecting the couple’s polite request for privacy, not the second floor where the six bedrooms are. We take pictures along the way.

At the screening room where they watch all kinds of movies except those of Donna’s. ‘Nahihiya ako, eh,’ says Donna.

We start at the Music Room which is complete with a sing-along instrument. Little Gio, who apparently inherited his mom’s singing ability, promptly gets the microphone and starts to sing, asking Donna to join him while Yong and Belle watch amused. Donna’s memorabilia adorn the walls  framed copies of Donna’s album jackets and magazine covers, plaques, etc.  and Donna’s trophies are all over the place.

“We use this room only once a month,” volunteers Yong.

Adjacent to the Music Room is the garage which houses Yong’s collection of vintage cars. Beneath the garage is a reservoir which collects rainwater use to water the plants and clean the garage floor. It was designed by Yong himself.

We proceed to the ground floor and take pictures of the family beside the giant Christmas Tree. Tandem winding staircases lead to the second floor. The interior décor is strictly French/Italian. You can easily see that it’s done with taste.

“I designed this house,” Yong is telling us. “I really wanted to be an architect.” But he had to take up medicine to please his father (Dr. Potenciano Larrazabal) who lives with Yong’s mom a stone’s throw away, also in a house just as “awesome,” just the two of them, all the children having gotten married and having families of their own.

Donna and Gio at the Music Room

The house is on top of a mountain and, according to Yong, he had to have the ground flattened before the ground-breaking. It took three years to build the house at the back of which is a swimming pool around which, Donna says, she jogs every morning as part of her workout  “Ten to 20 kilometers every time,” she says. No wonder she looks fit and fabulous, even prettier than she was in her pre-marital movies.

She and Yong are runners. They have joined marathons, almost 20 so far, not only in the Philippines but also abroad.

On top of other mountains yonder, Raoul and I see equally big houses, one of them owned by the Lhuilliers (Monique’s parents), and some by other prominent Cebuanos. The Larrazabals move in that uppity circle. Donna has nicely blended into it, never mind if she is not sociable. “I’m still a homebody,” she confirms.

There are two dining rooms downstairs, one for formal dinners with guests (Donna’s cousin Sunshine Cruz and husband Cesar Montano have been here) and one where the family ordinarily have meals together. Yong saw to it that Donna’s kitchen is spic-and-span. Asked what she usually cooks, Donna says, “Lasagna. It’s the kids’ favorite.” She and Yong are not big eaters. “All we take for breakfast is one piece each of Nature Healthy Granola Bar,” the organic food they are endorsing. “We have only light lunch. At night, konting meal lang or none at all.” That’s why they are fit.

The tour ends at the sala. We ask Donna to play on the piano, the last piece of furniture put in place, Your Love (The Greatest Gift of All), her and Yong’s theme song which she sang on S.O.P. before they got married. Donna obliges but begs off after playing a few notes. “Hindi ako masyadong marunong mag-piano,” she blushes.

For effect, Raoul and I let Donna pose beside two portraits of her done by Bencab.

Donna is in perfect harmony with the world she has always dreamed of, even if, she claims, “It’s okay if we just live in a condo unit,” which they did before they moved to this mansion on top of a mountain that commands a sweeping view of the city below. “What matters is that I am with my family.”

Donna at her spic-and-span kitchen where she cooks lasagna, the family favorite

How’s life here in Cebu?

“Okey naman. Simple. This is the kind of life that I’d been dreaming of. This is my ultimate dream  to have a happy family.”

Your 13th wedding anniversary is on Sept. 19. Do you still celebrate your wedding anniversary? How?

“Yes, of course! Simple lang. We just have dinner by candlelight, usually at Shangri-La (Mactan). With Yong and me, every day is Valentine’s Day.”

How are you as a mom?

“I’m more of parang kabarkada lang ng mga anak namin. It’s Yong who is more of a disciplinarian. Ako ‘yung tipong madaling maawa.”

You don’t seem to know how to get angry.

“It takes a while for me to get angry. But the kids will know when I’m angry already  umaalis na lang ako. Then, I leave it to Yong to do the scolding. Hindi namin pinapalo ang mga bata. We punish them just by letting them stand in the corner. But I’m soft-hearted. Madali nga akong maawa, kaya umaalis na lang ako.”

at the dining room where the family usually takes meals together

Are you the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child type of parents?

“Not really. We used to try that before…pinapalo namin ng konti ang mga bata. Not too hard, ha. But it didn’t work. Parang tinatawanan lang nila, so we stopped doing it. We just point it out to them when they make mistakes and explain why they are being punished  you know, that we are doing it because we love them. They are actually nice kids, mababait sila, kaya we seldom punish them.”

Describe a typical day in your life.

“Basically, I’m a plain housewife. My career now is as a wife and as a mother. Yong is busy at the hospital every day, maraming inooperahan sa mata. My routine is the same every day; inaasikaso ko ang bahay, si Yong at ang mga bata. Ang time ko lang for myself is pagtakbo.”

Don’t you socialize?

“No. I’m not fond of going out.”

the other dining room for formal dinners with guests (among the latest were Donna’s cousin Sunshine Cruz and husband Cesar Montano)

Yong and you met in a blind date arranged by your mutual friends. It seems to be only yesterday!

(Laughs) “I was scared at that time. I wanted to back out! Hindi ako sanay, eh. Yong was my first boyfriend.” (Asked how many girlfriends he had before he married Donna, Yong blushed, “Four.” I asked around and learned that one of Yong’s “exes” is Monique Lhuillier, now happily married to somebody else and based in Beverly Hills where she caters to an A-list clientele that includes Hollywood celebrities.)

Don’t you miss showbiz?

“Well, I haven’t totally cut myself off from showbiz. Every now and then, I guest on TV. I also have endorsements, the latest is Nature Valley which got us because they wanted runners as endorsers. Yong and I love the granola bars from Nature Valley. We take one bar each for breakfast.”

Talking about running…Who got you interested in that sport?

...and in front of a painting of her done by Bencab

‘It’s Yong. Before, naiinis ako sa running, medyo nagseselos ako, because Yong was so busy with work and yet he would still run for one hour when he came home every night. I was curious, ‘What does he see in running which is so tiring?’ Nakakapagod, di ba? So I told myself, ‘I might as well try it and find out for myself. Now, I love running; now, I can eat anything and not gain weight. No more diet-diet. The last time I got pregnant, I gained more than 90 pounds and I lost them all just by dieting and running.”

Do you and Yong ever fight…over what?

“We do. Tampo-tampuhan. I get irked when he comes home late, even if I know that it’s because of his work. If he says that he’ll come home at 7 o’clock and he isn’t home by 7:15, naiinis na ako.” (Adding with a laugh) “Ganyan ako! We do fight, but not an ugly fight, not something that we don’t sort out before the day is over.”

Nagdududa ka ba?

“A, no. Not really. Takot lang n’ya.” (Then she laughs and laughs again) “He can’t find somebody like me.”

And you can’t find somebody like him.

“Yes! You know, may takot kami sa Diyos, we are a God-fearing couple. We love each other and our kids so much, kaya I don’t think maiisip n’ya ang ganoon. We are bringing up our children the way we were brought up by our parents, very traditionally Filipino…respect for elders, prayerful, hearing Mass together on Sundays.”

If not at the main sala (inset), the family usually relaxes at the back of the house near the swimming pool

How do you make up after a fight?

“It’s always Yong who says, ‘Sorry!’ Kasi mabait naman ako, eh…mabait akong asawa. Hindi ako palaban.”

Are you a martyr?

“No naman. I don’t give Yong cause for worry. I don’t even like to go out; hindi ako palalabas. I even seldom go to Manila to visit my folks. The last time I was there was during my Lola’s birthday. It’s my mom who comes to visit often. If I leave the kids behind, I easily miss them. Maski isang araw lang ako mawala, nalulungkot ako, sobrang miserable ako. I’m so attached to the kids at ganoon din sila sa akin.”

Among the Cruz cousins, your marriage is the most stable. Sheryl has broken up with Norman John Bustos (a sheriff with the San Francisco Police Department) while Geneva has two failed marriages (first to Paco Arespacochaga by whom she has a teenage son and the second to KC Montero). Sunshine and Cesar (by whom she has three daughters) are, thankfully, still together. Don’t you cousins talk about your personal lives?

“We communicate via the Facebook or text-messaging, pero bihira kami magtawagan. And we don’t talk about our private lives. At saka, I’m not the type who makes pakialam; ayokong magtanong tungkol sa buhay-buhay nila. If they call and ask for my advice, that’s the only time I listen. But to ask, ‘O, kumusta na ang ganito, ang ganoon?,’ I never do that. Before, ginagawan kami ng tsismis na nag-aaway-away daw kaming magpipinsan. It wasn’t true. Ayokong makisali sa away-away. I’m not like that.” (Asked how he and Donna keep their marriage stable and happy, Yong said, “First of all, we respect ourselves. I try not to control her; I let her be. I want her to be happy. If you love yourself kasi, you love your partner as well.”)

If you were to turn back the hands of time, would you make the same decisions and live a life like this?

“Yes, I will. I will marry the same man, have the same children and won’t have any second thoughts about putting family above everything else. As I’ve said, this is the kind of life na gusto ko. I won’t have it any other way.”

(E-mail reactions at [email protected] or at [email protected])

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