Bad girl gone good

Anna Canlas - The Philippine Star

How a raucous, panda-eyed fashion editor partied down in, of all places, New York.

MANILA, Philippines - When my classmate from grad school tried to friend me on Facebook, she gawked at my profile pic. “Is that really you?” she asked, squinting at the pouty lips and smoky eyes staring back at her. Uh-huh, nodded a barefaced me, squirming in my cheap jeans and geeky New Balance trainers as I stood by a computer in the journalism department at New York University. “I used to work in a fashion magazine,” I said weakly.

Just a year ago, I was a beauty and fashion editor back in my home in the Philippines. It was my dream come true. As a child, I wrote fairy tales and fables on 5x8 index cards, which I proudly waved at my mother, a retired magazine editor. Eventually, she says, my princess tendencies and penchant for dress-up got the best of me. Fifteen years later when I graduated from college, I took a job as an editorial assistant at a fashion magazine. Working my way up to fashion assistant (read: hauling suitcases, steaming clothes and lacing up the straps on a model’s sandaled feet), I eventually rose to helm two sections of the “style bible” of Filipinas, Preview magazine. The dream job had me rubbing elbows with fashion designers and actresses, sitting in the front row at Fashion Week in Manila, wining and dining in bars and bistros and swanning into the office two hours late to attend to a trifecta of morning duties that I dubbed as “research”: blowouts, facials and manicures.

Though my tiny salary barely paid the rent (my father subsidized the mortgage on the apartment I shared with my sisters), the freebies from my job helped tip the scales. Clothes, skincare and makeup samples, show passes, name it. My boudoir overflowed with caviar face creams and every new hue of MAC lipstick. Local couturiers loaned me outfits, like a sequined silicone dress that I wore to our magazine’s annual ball a year before Lady Gaga borrowed it for her Born This Way tour. I flew to Paris for Fashion Week and stayed in a boutique hotel near the Eiffel with my own butler, a Daniel Craig look-alike costumed in Sherlock’s poncho. The special treatment extended to my after-hours escapades at clubs in Manila. “Always let men pay for your drinks,” I told my clique, while passing down a round of Goldschlager shots garnished with green apple slices dipped in cinnamon sugar.

And then at the sweet and fizzy height of it all, I quit. After four years of hard work, just one rung away from being an Anna Wintour, I went back to being just Anna Canlas.

The decision happened very slowly. Like outgrowing a favorite sweater, or crinkling your nose at a fad you thought was super chic but is now, ugh, so last season, I lost my taste for things that once excited me. The cover girls, when you talk to them, don’t really have much to say to you. The parties and the drinking made me too tired to write in the day. And spending all that time writing about, trying on and being around clothes made my tastes grow ever more extravagant—except I couldn’t pay for it. I maxed out my credit card and took on side gigs styling celebrities. Once, I had to leave in the middle of styling a fashion show and drive across town just so I could zip up my ward into her dress. Like other pretty little actresses and TV presenters, she somehow always needed to be reassured that she didn’t look fat.

I was a rich little poor girl.

When I sat down to write at the office, my desk was buried behind mountains of shopping bags and discarded makeup testers. If I were Carrie Bradshaw, I would’ve typed out a trite summary on my computer. Maybe I shouldn’t go out telling girls what to buy, when I can’t even afford the half of it.

And so, at 25, I decided to go back to school, and learn how to become a proper journalist, rather than a beauty junkie or a clothes whore. I thought if I’m draining my bank account anyway, why don’t I just deposit the funds (ahem, my father’s) into something more productive like tuition? I always dreamed of studying abroad and by this time, felt like I’d forgotten to write anything more than a graf or a caption. I wanted to go back to being that little girl who dreamed up storylines with enchanting characters. Maybe grad school would help me cross over to a less toxic beat and lifestyle. Still wanting to stay within journalism, I applied to “Magazine Writing” at NYU, which taught “in-depth reporting” and “stylish writing” according to the program literature.When I got news of my acceptance, I was holed up in a dingy hotel room in Pigalle in fitting tribute to my rich girl-poor girl act. I had decided to extend on that press junket that put me up in a charming boutique hotel in the 16th arrondissement (Paris’ Upper East Side) and had to transfer to a cheap hostel with a small, hard bed. With no breakfast and the noise of a family spilling through the walls, I was thumbing through my smart phone when I read the admissions email that made me shriek. “Dear Anna, we have recommended that you be accepted for admission at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, in the magazine concentration.”

Flying halfway around the world, I came to New York. It’s ironic, but here, in one of the world’s centers of fashion and nightlife, I feel so far away from the editor and party girl I once was. I used to take two hours to primp in the morning; now about 30 minutes before leaving for school. The extra time goes to my one-hour subway ride from Queens, where I live with my brother, who immigrated several years ago to be a doctor on Long Island. Now my favorite places to shop are Gap and Muji and I haven’t worn a high heel in months. I’m always hitting the pavement like a junior reporter, covering parks, skating rinks and okay, the occasional rooftop bar. And while I still have sleepless nights, they’re spent at home, reading books or typing 1,500-word oeuvres on my laptop, far away from all the alcohol and other, um, anti-prescribed substances. Part of the program is finding an internship and I scored one at the weekly newspaper famous for launching one Candace Bushnell’s career with its Sex and the City column, later spun off into the zeitgeist of an HBO show. Fledgling writer comes to New York with meager salary and an addiction to expensive shoes? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to work for a fashion magazine again, but it’s satisfying to think that I can climb my way up that or any other ladder better equipped. It should be faster without the heels.











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