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Starweek Magazine

How Mega does her STAR Shine?

- Vanni de Sequera -
Imagine you are dining in your favorite restaurant, patiently detaching a steamed mussel prepared in wine and thyme from its shell, when the chatter inside the establishment abruptly congeals into a hush. Within moments, the silence is swamped by an undercurrent of murmurs as patrons begin whispering with napkin-covered, ventriloquist lips. You trace the source of the commotion, following the path of heads all cocked toward the entrance like directional arrows–Sen. Francis Pangilinan, Sharon Cuneta and KC Concepcion have just walked in.

How to act? Do you feign ignorance of their identities? Impossible–Sharon Cuneta is quite possibly the most famous living Filipino, omnipresent on TV, print, radio, cinema and the internet. The urge to ogle is simply unbearable so you simulate your finest expression of nonchalance and stare, eyebrow suitably arched. And then, to your horror, she returns your gaze and flashes the sweetest, brightest smile you’ve seen all week. As sure as you shall, before long, relate the encounter to a friend, you will smile back. It’s called star power.

In 25 years in the industry, Sharon Cuneta has seen every type of kibitzer, which is why she will undoubtedly handle the situation with more aplomb than the other party, admirer or otherwise. "99.99 percent of the people who have come up to me have been nice," she says in a voice so earnest you hope you will never belong to the wretched .01 percent.

Most prominently, there are her hardcore fans, those who monitor her every peak and trough, who feel connected to the Megastar by a never-to-be-severed umbilical cord where both shared travails of the heart and unattainable success flow to and fro. Bayani San Diego suggested seven years ago a theory for this intense devotion: "Maybe because she makes her loyal followers feel that all the fame and the success in the world could never insulate anyone from hurt and pain."

Perched further up the ladder, where oxygen is scarce, are the stalkers. "Plenty!" admits Sharon. Before she married a second time, a top executive of a large bank she had done business with climbed the critical rung where adulation crosses over to dementia. Sharon was no longer a mere celebrity crush–she now belonged to him alone. "Afterwards, it was scary! He was sending me stuff like he thought I was his girlfriend."

Another time, while she was sitting inside her car, an intruder casually opened the door and joined her in the back seat. " I didn’t know what to do and shouted, ‘Alis ka diyan!’ You never know–sometimes they’re crazy and might just pull a knife on you." Although she has done her share of movies with self-crowned Action Kings, it is unlikely the wholesome actress will ever pull the Sonny Parsons scum-elimination trick. A can of mace may even be considered use of excessive force for tenderhearted Sharon. Luckily, since her husband became a Senator, Sharon now travels with a bodyguard to supplement the already fearsome duo of her driver and yaya.

The opposite of the starstruck fan is our fictional diner at the start, the exponent of calculated indifference. "My husband was like that!" she roars. "My husband has only seen Kapantay Ay Langit, which he saw when we were dating, and the movies I did when we were already married. It was no big deal to me. I just thought ang sungit naman nito. When I come across someone like that it’s okay since you can’t please everybody.

"I actually prefer it when people let me be. If you don’t make a big deal about your celebrity, chances are other people won’t. I’m very unassuming and I like it like that–it keeps me sane. I don’t live and breathe whatever status is accorded me."

Fame came early to the niece of 60s star Helen Gamboa, who was already performing for a much smaller audience as a child. "Siyempre, all my life gaya ako ng gaya sa kanya. I would go up on top of tables and sing and dance at the drop of a hat. When I was 12, I didn’t really care about the paychecks. I just wanted to sign autographs! Every kid likes to be noticed, di ba?"

She made her first movie when she was 15 and the floodgates of fame never really shut after that. She had once analyzed her ineffable celebrity, claiming it truly reached unparalleled status when she was tagged "The Megastar" in 1995. Whoever coined that label deserves some royalty checks. Possibly influenced by Henry Sy’s dour Mandaluyong monstrosity, he or she initiated a mad scramble by other famous actresses to come up with similarly grandiose but ultimately uninspired catchwords.

When compelled, Sharon dissects her fame more precisely. "Of course I’ve looked back at my career and I would say that Mr. DJ, my second single, really started the ball rolling. Also Dear Heart, my first movie. Parang it was all planned out for me–God has been so good and generous. Most of the things I have been blessed with no human being could have planned."

Initially, she thought her father, the late Mayor Pablo Cuneta, former kutsero and absolute ruler of Pasay City for 37 years, would allow her to wrap up a couple of movies, after which she would return to school and fulfill her small-town dreams–put up a small café or restaurant then get married and live happily ever after. After a secret wedding to Gabby Concepcion, who will be the eternal heel for daring to break the Megastar’s heart, Sharon was advised by her Vice Principal to discreetly return to her studies when she was no longer in the family way.

"I was in 11th Grade in International School when I got (secretly) married–contrary to popular belief I wasn’t pregnant (before I married)! Then we had a church wedding. I was in junior high and went up to the Vice Principal, Señor Ramon Lauchengco, and asked him if I could still go on with my schooling. He was like my mentor–I think I got into the honor roll despite my schedule because he pushed me. He said it might not look so nice walking down the hallway pregnant, maganak ka nalang muna and then take the high school equivalency exam to see if you had retained enough to go to college. I passed it. I finally attended more than a term in Business Management at the adult night school of Boston College, when Kiko went to Harvard."

She vows to complete a degree someday, although more likely one connected to literature ("I love literature–it’s that side of my brain that I’m good at, not numbers") or perhaps architecture or interior decorating.

Unknown to some, she possesses a vast collection of foreign films and is miffed when unable to procure copies, especially of Japanese and Thai films, with English subtitles. Among her favorites is Zhang Yimou’s sublime Raise the Red Lantern. Sharon is no fool, and she realizes that local cinema’s generally formulaic offerings pale in comparison. She herself has been accused of indulging the masa’s unquenchable thirst for movies that lack the subtlety of those found in her collection. It must be acknowledged, though, that the actress has successfully gambled on roles that could have alienated audiences.

"The audience has become more intelligent. It’s no longer like it was 15 to 20 years ago when they really relied a lot on love teams and formula movies. I think that’s why Madrasta and Magkapatid did well–they kinda veered away from my usual formula but not so much as to alienate the audience. For me, I’m grateful when I have a hit but now I really want to try other things and just experiment.

"I loved Magkapatid but Madrasta was a turning point. When I started shooting that movie, I was single for the second time. In the middle of the movie, I got married, went on my honeymoon, went back to work, and finished the movie. A little less than a year later, it gave me a grand slam! It was the first movie I accepted outside of my home studio. It was the first movie I decided to do without the advice of the people I grew up with. Whether or not it makes money, I just knew that if this movie is brought to the big screen the way it is on the script, I would be proud to watch it 20 years from now."

As a singer with an astounding 42 albums, movie soundtracks, singles, video CDs, and even videokes to her name, Sharon is an equally successful recording artist. Hers is not an exquisite voice, oftentimes it mirrors the unrelenting syrupiness of her personality and tragic melodrama of her life, but Ryan Cayabyab has described her singing as intuitive. Her last major concert at the 12,000-seat Hong Kong Coliseum this year was a sold-out triumph. She was a basket case before she went on stage–ten years ago, her concert at the same venue was an unmitigated flop.

"When I came out (on stage), it was so overwhelming," she recalls. "If you’re watching in the audience and you don’t really know my career or what I’m like as a person, and you see me teary-eyed, you might think napaka-OA naman nito. But I’m very emotional. I’m so nervous (before concerts) that I’m in and out of the bathroom, my tension coming out of all the holes in my body. I make suka. Each concert is a different kind of pressure. But I look at the list of concerts I’ve done on my website and realize ang dami na pala. So I must be doing something right!" she continues, with perhaps a touch too much detail.

Sharon has an unexpectedly eclectic CD collection, ranging from Anita Baker to Thai Northern classical music. She is also partial to music suffused with the serene sounds of the flute and electric harp. She draws the line, though, with songs that contain ponderous New Age ocean sounds and will not, quite wisely, indulge her love of classical music inside her car "because my driver might fall asleep on me".

Perhaps the most well-paid Filipino celebrity endorser of all time and the recipient of mind-boggling, million-peso TV and movie talent fees, her perceived wealth is the stuff of legend. Once an ardent investor of jewelry, she is also known to be a big player in real estate throughout the country, a product of conservative advice received from her self-made father. She is careful with her money and likes to relate the story of how her father would walk to school, wearing his slippers only every other day to extend their lifespan.

Unfortunately, her caution has not prevented her from suffering at the hands of swindlers, most famously from an old friend of her father who deceitfully attached her famous name to his condominium properties. "One thing I’ve learned is that no matter how decent or honest you are, someone will really screw it up for you! I’ve been had," she admits. There have also been instances of extortion, offers to extricate her from failed real estate deals if she would only agree to joint ventures. Her good friend Perry Pe, husband of Robina Gokongwei, pulled her out of one such hole when she and Sen. Pangilinan were newly married.

Explaining her philosophy, "My mother has instilled in me that money is something that’s on loan to you. I’m a Christian and a certain percentage of my paycheck will go to my church (World Community Church) and a percentage is readily available for those that need it and who I don’t know at all.

"Cash is king but I don’t have much of it right now. I have a lot of money tied up in property that I used to earn from (before the economic slump). Like a couple of condominium units expats used to rent from me. There used to be a long line but now they’ve been empty for a couple of years…If you knew (the size) of my utang you’d fall off your seat! But it’s like chasing a butterfly that’s so pretty. If you start chasing money because it’s your obsession, it really evades you."

It’s the subject of much conjecture, but Sharon insists that Sen. Pangilinan was adamant about signing a prenuptial agreement before their marriage. About the rumor that she spent a fortune during his senatorial campaign–there is persistent talk that she is reeling from campaign-related debts–she maintains, "I was so big, about 180 lbs. after giving birth. We needed money. Even my husband running for the Senate was by sheer faith. That is one thing I’ll always respect about him. Whenever I offered–I did insist on giving a certain amount–he would always say, ‘Kaya pa. Kaya pa.’ I probably offered him about five times. We had all these people who came out and supported him, not just financially but with products and services."

She gently bemoans the tribulations of being a celebrity. Her current weight problems elicit nearly as much interest as an election result, and it amuses but does not offend her. Her body clock has become so confused that when KC was younger, her insomniac mom would sleep only after seeing her child off to school in the morning. But few would argue she hasn’t led a charmed life and that her life is even more fulfilled nowadays.

"My husband has really brought a lot of balance into my life and my daughter’s life. I’m just really grateful because, having been through what I have, I know a good marriage is not readily given. I know there’s no guarantee that it will last forever so I’m grateful for every moment I’m in the middle of a very happy family."

Even more gravy on an already big, succulent steak is her current standing as undisputed quiz show celebrity champion–she has won millions (the money went to charity) in two leading game shows. Her final Game Ka Na Ba question: "Sino ang sikat na male singer ngayon na lumabas sa Fress commercial?" Her final Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? question: "What was the documentary film Robert J. Flaherty shot in 1922?"

Give up? Consider that Sharon even knew the answer to the alternate final Game Ka Na Ba question, "What chocolate bar was named after the daughter of a former American president?"

Watch Sharon Cuneta’s The Mega Event, a concert at the Araneta Coliseum commemorating her 25th anniversary as an entertainer on August 16 and 17, 2002–who knows, she may just repeat the answers during a lull between songs, while she’s having one of her famously intimate chats with an audience she adores, an audience that will once again unconditionally proclaim that the feeling is entirely mutual.
* * *
E-mail the writer at [email protected].

ACTION KINGS

BUT I

GAME KA NA BA

MEGASTAR

MOVIE

REALLY

SHARON

SHARON CUNETA

VICE PRINCIPAL

WHEN I

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