From glam fashion maven to... OMG, a brave new life
Malu Francisco was head of marketing communications for Stores Specialists, Inc. from 2001-2017, and advertising and manager of Rustan’s from 1998-2001.

From glam fashion maven to... OMG, a brave new life

MY TURN - Malu Francisco (The Philippine Star) - May 29, 2019 - 12:00am

After crying myself to sleep the first few nights, I soon learned to revel in my new persona — that of a superhero on a mission to eradicate shoplifters.

Hockey player Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” The fact that he was from Canada is incidental and had no bearing on the unbelievable decision I made when I moved there two years ago. I felt life was, indeed, a sport, and so, armed with Mr. Gretzky’s wisdom, I took a deep breath and went for the shot.

Not many people would, at midlife, uproot themselves from an already comfortable environment, not to mention a highly successful career and reasonable standing in Manila society, and attempt to create a new life from scratch. Never mind that the target destination was a First World country. The operative word here is “midlife” — when ways are set, habits formed and learning new tricks is a painful process. I was working for the biggest lifestyle specialty retailer in the Philippines as head of their marketing communications division. Being at the forefront of trends and luxury and drum beating for almost a hundred international fashion and lifestyle brands, I had power, influence and endless invitations to glamour-filled events. I was, by all accounts, at the top of my game. Why I chose to do what I did borders on the irrational. Armed with guts, an almost illogical sense of adventure, a very weird ambition to reinvent myself and assume a new identity, and the clinginess of a single mom not quite ready to say goodbye to my adult children who had flown ahead months earlier, I said goodbye to my secure, wonderful world and boldly ventured into the unknown — and migrated. Little knowing that I would become a child myself. Who would bawl like a baby. Every night.

More than two years have passed and I now speak on the tears and regrets as well as the epiphanies and joys of migrating or making life-changing decisions, for that matter, in one’s midlife or golden years. It was a journey excruciatingly difficult for me, emotionally and psychologically, but one which I now see has a lighter and even humorous side.

Waking up to a maid-less apartment and knowing meals would not magically appear on the table was a sudden, painful reality. There was not a single domestic bone in my body, as I had devoted all those bones to carving out a career while hiring excellent help to keep house and cook. But I bravely entered the kitchen, befriending objects that had been strangers to me my entire life — pots, pans and all their cohorts. I desperately read everything related to homemaking, from the coffeemaker manual to the vacuum cleaner warranty, even up to the literature on the bubble packaging of the can opener. Holding a kitchen knife in my hands for the first time was a pivotal moment. From attending balls, fashion galas and red carpet events, I morphed into somebody wearing leggings the whole day, boiling meat, chopping carrots and keeping house. The rewards came. One was as embarrassingly simple as finally telling the difference between pork and beef in the supermarket freezer. Another was perfecting the skill of chopping whole raw chicken apart. But the best was having my adult kids come home every night to a charming domestic scene they had never experienced growing up: kitchen — and Mom — smelling of onions and boiled pork; Mom — not the maid — stirring the stew while chirping, “Hi, kids!” and excited kids asking, “What’s for dinner, Ma?” The comely person in jogging pants bent over the stove was a far cry from the party-going, non-cooking, maid-hiring executive they knew. The metamorphosis was complete. She was, simply and finally, a mom who could cook.

Time to smell the flowers in Vancouver, Canada, where Malu is now administrative assistant at the Ministry of Children and Family Development

But the great reimaging I had imagined when I abandoned my former life wasn’t going to happen just by acquiring culinary skills. I also wanted to tell people back home that I could sing.

Call it menopause, therapy or just plain lunacy, I nurtured fantasies of becoming a torch singer in some swanky hotel lounge. The world was my stage, I thought, especially in a country where nobody knew me. Surprisingly, I actually did find myself onstage a few months into my voice lessons — not in a five-star hotel but at an open-air night market, dressed in black and crooning old classics like Moon River and L.O.V.E. in front of a throng of bargain shoppers. My voice coach, Juliet, had close ties with the Richmond Night Market and would regularly be asked to provide weekend entertainment. So what better way to do this than to shove her students up on that stage for exposure and have the middle-aged Filipino woman in a cocktail dress belt out her fantasies? But all too soon, what I thought was my calling screeched to a halt when I rocketed off-key one traumatic summer evening. Unsuccessful attempts to climb back to that elusive note made me panic, and with lyrics forgotten, I started swaying to the piano music. In front of a very polite Canadian audience, I gyrated away and gave a whole new meaning to the Tagalog word “nagkalat.” 

I soon found myself saying goodbye to Juliet and enrolling at the Richmond Academy of Dance where I tapped, shuffled, jetéd and chasséd myself into the studio several times a week for my chosen crafts — tap dance and adult ballet. I also volunteered at the Vancouver Opera, wanting to help backstage with shows that season. Neither led to any great strides in the performing arts, though. It was obviously too late for me to dance like a swan, dying or otherwise. As for the opera, I sold lottery tickets in the lobby.

Before long I concluded that, in order to feel useful and less melancholy in this new land, I had to do what ordinary folk all over the world do and that was to seek employment. Setting aside my grandiose dreams of singing and dancing stardom, I zeroed in on familiar grounds. Surely, with more than two decades working for the Philippines’ top luxury retailer, I could be doing something similar for one of the world’s top luxury department store chains. However, “doing something similar” was not quite on point. Let me explain the situation 99 percent of immigrants to North America are faced with when interviewing for jobs, especially middle-aged immigrants who have achieved a high level of success and authority back home. They. Are. Overqualified. Yet they persevere in working at entry-level positions if only to be able to gain experience and latch on to the corporate ladder, even at its lowest rung. And that is why you hear heartbreaking stories of former bank vice presidents working as tellers, CFOs as accounting clerks, doctors as caregivers and one head of marketing communications as… store security.

Prestigious luxury department store X in downtown Vancouver gave me the title “Service Ambassador.” I became an elegantly dressed greeter providing customer service while stationed at strategic spots like entrances, escalator landings and other high-traffic areas. But what the public didn’t know (and this included my friends and family back home) was that the title in luxury department store X’s jargon actually meant… security. We, the well-dressed greeters, belonged to what is commonly known in North America as the Loss Prevention Department. After crying myself to sleep the first few nights, I soon learned to appreciate the novelty and to revel in my new persona — that of a superhero on a mission to eradicate shoplifters. In fact, by some stretch of imagination I was also a female David Budd from the recent Bodyguard series on Netflix. Watch for that point when the camera zooms in on Richard Madden’s upper back collar to reveal a clip attached to a cable and coil connected to his earpiece and hidden mic. That was exactly the set of gadgets I used every day, together with a vocabulary of radio and security codes. I mastered the art of subtly speaking into my hidden mic, eyes darting back and forth while reporting a suspicious sighting in hushed staccato monotone: “Seventy-nine male wearing black hoodie, grey pants entering through Robson Howe door, now on hard aisle between cosmetics and jewelry acting very nine four. Agents, do you copy…?” (Codes have been changed.)

Gretzky-inspired shots part 2

I lasted 11 months in this unbelievable job, after which I took stock of my life, awestruck at how different it had become and how unrecognizable this former socialite/party-goer/top marketing executive  — now expert cook/domestic diva/failed singer-dancer/hardworking service ambassador a.k.a. security guard — was. Interestingly (and stubbornly) enough, I still had that yearning to regain my former PR and marketing glory. Following an incredible amount of soul and Google searching, I decided to go back to school.

Being in a closed environment of millennials and interacting with them as classmates every single day for three months was yet another case of my so-called reimaging. The learnings were priceless, but I also acquired little nuances of millennial speak as an added bonus. I learned how to expertly insert words like “totally,” “awesome” and “major” every three to four sentences and could put on a cute Valley Girl accent at whim. As our cohort of 10 strove towards acquiring the prized Certificate in Public Relations at prestigious university X, we religiously did our homework, burning the night oil to beat deadlines. At the end of three months — awesome!— I felt ready to conquer the world. Totally. But I completely forgot about the 99 percent statistic when I went on my interviews. Major.

I don’t know if she noticed my deer-caught-in-the-headlights look but I was genuinely stumped and groping for words when asked by the millennial-looking interviewer and VP/co-founder of prestigious PR agency X about my greatest achievement. Was I to downplay everything I had achieved the past two decades? For, after all, I wasn’t looking to take over her position or intimidate her. (The job opening was for entry-level account associate.) Or would I go ahead and tell the truth about spearheading the phenomenal Philippine launches and seasonal events of global brands like Gucci, Zara, Tod’s, Lacoste, Polo Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Salvatore Ferragamo, Charriol and Muji, to name a few? I chose the latter and never heard from them again. To this day I wonder if the panel thought I was lying.

Thinking about my old life is like peering through an inverted telescope where the images get smaller and more distant each day. When I finally changed my profile across social media last month, it was like the bang of a judge’s gavel. “Marketing practitioner in a previous life. Now quietly settled in B.C. Mother of two.” It was official. After two years I had finally come to terms with the fact that when I made that bold Gretzky-inspired shot, it was dividing my life into two parts, each so distinctly different from the other. Impulse and an adventurous spirit made me board that plane then, but now I realize the wisdom behind such a move was a providential force that must have been lurking in the background all along. The self-discovery that comes after moving out of your comfort zone this late in life — all that pummeling, shaping and humbling that had to happen for new versions of self to emerge — was the end goal.  After I landed, I was waiting and waiting for midlife’s so-called “second wind” to propel me forward but it was actually the tiny gusts and breaths of unusual and humbling experiences that made, and are making, my life colorful now with every turn.  

Learning to bike again, crochet, hike, write poetry.

As I write this, I do so in yet another role I’ve undertaken apart from the interesting trail of personas I’ve put on during the past two years. Doing quiet administrative work in a government office means tasks which, a lifetime ago, I would have let layers of clerks and assistants around me do. I used to have a formidable cordon sanitaire screen all my phone calls and visitors, but now I answer phones and serve as the public’s first point of contact. And I’ve discovered there is something intensely therapeutic about the mundane task of “filing” while quietly humming the alphabet song as mental guide. But having your foot out the door at exactly 4:30 in the afternoon means the chance to create yet another kind of life. It means perfecting those culinary capabilities. It means learning to bike again, crochet, hike, write poetry. It means pumping iron, putting on boxing gloves and possibly attempting voice and dance lessons again. It also means my Instagram photos are now shots of trees and nature instead of glamorous L-R group shots taken at a high-profile launch or gala.

It is when you realize how swiftly time flies and how the twilight of your years could be just around the corner that you find the impetus to extend your wings once more just like in your younger days, only slower, and find out: what else is there? And surprisingly, while slowing down, there is still a myriad of new selves to discover, but you must be willing to humble yourself and let go of outward trappings that could be holding you back from experiencing these uncomplicated joys.

A third wind in the offing, perhaps? Possibly. At this point I only know that life, even at this late stage, is still full of surprises if you will only open your eyes and mind to possibilities that can run contrary to what you’ve been conditioned by life’s experiences to think and do. Another wind may propel me back to my homeland — which I am not at all averse to doing. In the words of novelist Terry Pratchett, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Till then, and even after my golden years and beyond, I will go on with this business we call life and opening myself to as many possibilities — or Gretzky-inspired shots — as I can fit into one lifetime.

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