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Charice Pempengco: Her Challenge!


This isn’t so much about Charice Pempengco herself, as it is about an audience in this country that’s overly critical of her by default, that obviously doesn’t care much for her. And it has to be said that it’s class, social and otherwise, that allows for this double standard when it comes to national pride, which disallows Charice from being properly celebrated as a high point in Philippine popular culture history.

Even when she’s had the song “Pyramid” on the Billboard charts for a while now. Behind her she’s got David Foster, American icon, music producer and star, who has put her onstage with international superstars. She has Oprah Winfrey as manager and modern fairy godmother. She’s got Hollywood contracts for singing and acting, has done duets with Celine Dion and Andreas Bocelli, and will be in the second season of Glee.

You’d have to be in denial to think all these to be unimportant; you’d be wrong to think that just because there’s little of Charice on TV and in the papers, she isn’t as big a star as Oprah imagines. Because whether we like it or not, Charice’s international stardom doesn’t seem like a one-time deal. In fact, it looks like she’s in it for the long haul. The world has got Charice Mania to prove it. It’s also a response to you, critical Pinoy non-fan.

Memories of failure

I remember clearly Charice as the little girl in a singing contest, she with a big voice, who was unique because she didn’t have the look that’s generally preferred for these contests – she was morena, had a wide face, and wore the wrong outfits. Against a boy with Gary Valenciano moves and perfect English, Charice would suffer a horrible loss: she had the best voice there, but how she looked, what she was wearing, how she pronounced song lyrics were more important to this network in search of stars. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re looking for talent.

Third runner-up Charice would then appear less and less on television, and when she did it would be to sing second fiddle to performers she could undoubtedly outdo. But South Koreans would see something in her and she’d begin her international career by guesting on their talent show Star King. This performance was the one video of Charice posted on You Tube that would get her on American and British talk shows in quick succession.

The rest would be history were it not riddled with too many questions about Charice’s particular stardom and for the truth that there isn’t enough pride in her going around in third world Philippines. That is, Venus Raj and Manny Pacquiao would easily be on the front page of newspapers, would be featured on magazine covers, be first pick for product endorsements. But Charice and her achievements generally don’t make the news, and when it does, it’s relegated to a short article in the entertainment section. This is telling really, of how pride in her isn’t at all national, at least not national enough to be carried as news on the level of a boxing match.

The question is, why? The answer seems to be in her rise to fame, which could only be seen as a product of our times, and the kind of audience(s) it has created.

Technological stardom

Charice’s story of fame is borne of our ubiquitous consumption of the Internet. A fan who thought that Charice was infinitely better than an America’s Got Talent contestant uploaded the video of her performance in Star King as a point of comparison. As more videos of her appeared on You Tube and she gained a modest online following, Ellen Degeneres would invite Charice to make her first trip to the US. It was December 2007.

She would come home with nary a celebration. Arnel Pineda had just been announced as the new front man of iconic American band Journey. He was discovered via his You Tube videos, too, and Charice’s story was suddenly not new. Add to this the fact that Pineda was entering a career – that of being Journey’s lead singer – and wasn’t starting from scratch. With Pinoy notions of beauty, talent and stardom all in the way of an appreciation of Charice, she was obviously far from being this lucky.

Slow, steady, snubbed

There was a clear ambivalence about Charice at this point, because it seemed important to talk about her, and yet she didn’t seem newsworthy: her image was too clean-cut, her age too innocent at 15.

She’d leave to perform in the Paul O’ Grady show in London and again in Star King, but would generally go unnoticed. Charice got token treatment from a TV network that was now claiming her as theirs, and which produced an ill-promoted album for her with forgetful songs. She’d have a music video or two, both neither here nor there. She’d be forced to perform live with better dressed singers, highlighting her difference even more given a standardized Pinoy TV aesthetic. This is the aesthetic that two years later would make her imagine that she needed less of her cheeks and could go under the needle for it, something that should be blamed more on the TV network’s imposition of what looks normal.

In May 2008, five months after the Ellen guesting, Charice with her then cheeks, sings on the Oprah show, and is praised by Oprah for having a “voice that’s bigger than yourself” and for “bringing your full game” to the show despite a 15-hour flight. Charice would go on to be part of a Foster-produced Las Vegas concert, and Andrea Bocelli would invite her to go to Italy to sing for a private audience in Tuscany. It wouldn’t be long before You Tube began to be filled with videos of her performances.

In September, Charice would again appear on Oprah’s show as “the most talented child in the world” and is surprised with an invite from Celine Dion: days later, Charice goes up on stage at Dion’s Madison Square Garden concert. Dion would let Charice sing most of “Because You Loved Me,” backing her up in certain parts, but mostly giving the little girl the stage. Now Pinoys at home couldn’t ignore the little girl who had awed the rest of the world.

Up yours, people

The Oprah show where Charice met Celine on live video was also about telling Charice’s story. On the one hand, this was about Charice’s experiences in America in the four months since she first guested on Oprah. On the other, this was also about her rags-to-riches story. Of course this story is a cliché in a country where 80% are below the poverty line, but paired with a voice that had yet to be given credit in her own country, it becomes understandable why Oprah – and all of the US – would want to take her in.

Now we can say that the rest is history.

Charice’s 2009 would be filled with concert appearances, major US presidential campaign dinners and charity balls in the US. She would get standing ovations in most performances elsewhere, while here we riddled her with every other award we could give her, never mind that it seemed irrelevant and a tad bit too late. This is irrelevant to her mass fan base, the ones who made for her sold-out concerts here, and who call themselves the Chasters.

Then it became obvious: there is a clear disconnect between the middle to upper classes that have access to cable television and Charice’s international appearances, and the mass base that could only see all of Charice’s successes via Internet. There is an educated Pinoy class that might be more in tune with American popular culture, but will not speak of Charice as a Pinoy success, and when they aren’t silent about her, end up revealing their class biases.

And here’s some proof: early this year, news leaked that Charice was going to be on Glee. Lo and behold the fangs came out and what had been kept silent was said in exasperation over Twitter and Facebook: Charice? Why not Lea Salonga?

But why not Charice?

Salonga of course is someone who has never had a mass fan base here, no hit albums, no regular performances on local TV. Her fan base is obviously one that’s borne of her social class, her upbringing, where she went to school, the kind of person she is. We are Lea Salonga’s fan base, and in the face of Charice we are reminded really, of how puny we are. We’re also reminded of the travesty that is high art versus low art, the discrimination of the baduy in the mere fact of the word’s existence, and how we continue to live these terms out, whether we admit it or not.

That Charice is now an international popular culture image, one that can only get bigger when we see her on Glee this season, reminds us of how messed up we are as a nation that searches for identity, and yet is quick to point a finger at who we are not. Of course we could cringe at the way in which she’s been introduced to America as living breathing proof of the impoverished conditions of the Philippines. We could talk about how this tiny Filipina with a big voice is a dime a dozen where we come from. We could say that she’s in fact suffering the exoticization of the Filipina by America, where she is celebrated for her talent yes, but also as a specimen: look at her small as she is, look at what she can do, let’s try and make her bigger than that!

Which the team of Oprah and Foster has done, and while the assertion of exoticization could be true, it doesn’t mean that it’s any less sincere, the goal of helping out this talented girl from the third world. After all, what could these two American icons gain by fulfilling Charice’s dreams?

Charice’s success, our failures

If anything we should be learning from the way they’ve managed and planned Charice’s international career, a far cry from the way it happens here. First, they let her be the little girl with a big voice, who might have been singing mature songs for her age, but was actually always singing to her mom (even changing lyrics). Second, they set a limit to her TV guestings even on Oprah, refusing what we know in this country to be the principle of bombardment: we are told that the more we see a celebrity, the bigger her star will become. Third, they waited until it was time to come out with a CD that would sell, which meant waiting for Charice to turn 18, lose her baby fat, and become worthy of a young diva-look: long sleek hair, tight-fitting clothes, and heels. They knew to wait for her to be old enough to sing a song like “Pyramid” and it has paid off.

And yes, they respect Charice’s talent enough to let her be a solo star, the kind who won’t need a partner or love interest, who need not be part of a smorgasbord of singers in a variety show. America has respected Charice enough to let her be herself, whatever version of it is there, who is always overwhelmed, always thankful, complete with limited English skills to what is now distinctly an American accented English distinct to Pinoys. Yes, she ain’t perfect in our eyes, and she ain’t as pretty as those Fil-Ams who are sort of making it in the US, isn’t as tall as the beauty queens we celebrate.

But Charice in fact outdoes all those images of the Filipino that we don’t mind claiming. She outdoes them, because she has outdone us, an audience that thinks itself intelligent, but fails at taking stock of what’s here and now, and apparently in the future, which can only be a life of international stardom for this little girl who could. Now, anything less than an appreciation of Charice’s achievements and talent, regardless of her English and outfits, just sounds like crab mentality. And that is our problem, educated as we come.

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