Tuesday, April 13, 2010

An early brush with pageantry

published April 12, 2010, MST

Last week’s schedule was impossible so I was not able to go out and do some interviews. However I rummaged through my blog and found this old piece, written maybe 14 years ago and which I posted in 2008, about my joining a pageant for little girls. This offers some respite from the worsening mudslinging among candidates and mounting fears over the automation. I had fun re-reading it; I hope you enjoy it, too.

***

I was eight years old, dressed in a yellow-gold gown which bared my shoulders and which had all kinds of sequins on the sides. I stood behind a portable rainbow which was part of RPN 9’s studio set, trying to soothe my nerves before Coney Reyes-Mumar’s squeaky voice called on Contestant Number 3.

I was Contestant Number 3. Ms. Mumar finally called my name, and I had to appear beneath the arch, between two artificial flower beds, and put on my best smile as I faced Aparri hanggang Jolo on that day’s episode of Eat Bulaga.

Joining Little Miss Philippines 1984 was not my idea; it was my mother’s. And I don’t know how she succeeded in talking me into it, either. Maybe she bribed me with a Barbie doll. Maybe, during a hearty Shakey’s meal, she spilled it between mouthfuls of skilleti. Maybe she promised me a shopping spree at National Bookstore.

It was the first few days of summer vacation. My friends from the neighborhood were either attending summer classes or vacationing with their grandparents in the province. I had finished reading my textbooks and had no new ones yet. I was bored sick.

One evening, my mother came home with a brown paper bag. A surprise, she told me, holding out a 45-rpm record of Joey Albert’s Tell Me. It was the most popular ballad then, and I often heard my mother humming it to herself. So I studied the lyrics, used my foot-long wooden ruler as mock microphone and sang along with the record.

I must have sounded terrible, because the next day, my mother ushered in Warren, her gay friend, who was to choreograph my new talent: A lip-synch of Eartha Kitt’s version of Waray Waray. I had seen some performances of the song, but they all presented the conventional Pinay tomboy in the tradition of Nida Blanca—long hair put up in a ponytail, long-sleeved checkered polo tucked into jeans, scruffy rubber shoes, compete with the tabako. But my rendition was different: My costume was a black sleeveless silk dress, with sequins, of course, and with a thigh-high slit on the left side. I was told to look as drunk as Ms. Kitt sounded.

The studio audience burst into applause after my number. In the question-and-answer portion, when Vic Sotto and Joey de Leon asked me “Dapat ba laging ibigay ng magulang ang hinihingi ng anak? (Should parents always grant their children’s requests?”) and I mumbled something about not spoiling the child, I knew I was made —at least for the day. Even the hole on the forefinger of my lace gloves, of which the hosts asked the cameraman to take a close-up shot, seemed to count as a plus, much to my opponents’ dismay. Contestant Number 1 was a wide-eyed girl who danced to What A Feeling in her leotards, while Candidate Number 2 was a majorette who chewed gum all the time and had 20 other bandmates to back her up.

So I took home a whole box of Chiclets, a big bottle of Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, and P200 in cash. I was able to pay for my own school books that enrollment season.

Two weeks later, I lost the semi-final round. My grandmother blamed it on Come Into My House—the Japanese version—where Eartha was supposed to be inviting a male friend over to her place [I recently chanced upon the English version of the song—in the opening credits of the ETC show Girls of the Playboy Mansion. Jeez.]. See, I lip-synched with a red feather scarf, a cigarette stick, and a wineglass. Warren blamed it on the stiffness of my body. Of course, Mom was wholly convinced that I was cheated. The winning contestant’s mother smiled too much, she said, and what about the roll of brazo de mercedes that the audition master took home? I got a consolation prize of fifty pesos, plus more gum and more shampoo.

But I had a secret: I was relieved at my defeat. My face felt heavy with make-up. The bright yellow lights gave me a headache, and I felt stupid grinning in front of three cameras, wondering which of them would actually transport my image to the television sets. The studio was deceivingly small, there was too much sweat and B.O. and high temper flying around the staff. I felt that the hosts, even though they asked the contestants to call them “Tito Vic” and “Tito Joey,” were just waiting for the opportunity to make fun of them. The fat guy who raised his hands to clap so that the studio audience could clap with him, as well as the recorded applause and laughter, all seemed ridiculous—artificial—to me.

That was the end of my brief and not-so-glorious television career. Classes had opened, I was finally a second grader. Only a few of my classmates knew I joined the contest, and when the teachers eventually learned about it and asked me to perform Waray Waray during Linggo ng Wika, they asked me to ditch the dress with the slit and put on something more... appropriate.

About a month ago, I came across the contest’s Betamax tape while I was clearing my knick-knack chest. I decided to play it. Sitting on the sofa, munching on Cheese Rings with my daughter, I saw myself again in my gown. My daughter stared at me blankly when I told her that the girl on the screen was me. I was taller, heavier, many years older, but there was the unmistakable big nose and the abundant freckles. Then, my right hand, with cheese powder at the tip of my thumb and forefinger, stole to scratch a portion of my back. I felt the itchiness of the gown all over again. And I was happy to just be watching, this time.

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