Friday, September 23, 2016

The best gift

Me and my mother chilling after one of her therapy sessions. This is our latest photo together.
When I was a little kid, I read a story about a girl whose parents threw her a circus-themed birthday party with all the trimmings, including a cake shaped like a clown and a ringmaster’s costume for her to wear. Sadly, despite all her parents’ efforts, no one came to party with her. I can’t remember why because it has been years since I last read that story, but that’s not the point.

That story stayed with me, and I grew up afraid the same thing would happen to me. It never did—my fear of being rejected on my birthday remained unfounded year after year, but it kept coming back anyway. It got worse when my anxiety disorder took hold. Things got to a point where even the mere thought of my birthday would turn me into an anxious, sobbing mess.

One year my mother took it upon herself to throw me a birthday party. She saw how worked up I’d get about having to text people and invite them myself, so she did it all instead. She didn’t want to see me so miserable over something that should have made me happy. She did that the next year, and the year after that. Because she had a stroke last June 2, my mother wasn’t able to do that for me this year. I didn’t mind—honestly, partying on my birthday was the last thing on my mind when September began. I was too busy worrying about other things.

Days before my actual birthday, I visited my mother. She asked me how I was planning to celebrate, and I told her, “Most of my friends are out of the country or busy working. I didn’t have time to text anyone, so no celebration for me this year.” 

She teared up because she knows how much my birthday means to me, but I stopped her before she could say anything.

“Mom, it’s OK. I don’t mind not celebrating. Honestly, this year all I want is for you to get better as soon as possible so our lives can get back to normal,” I said, squeezing her hand.

Both our eyes filled with tears when she squeezed back and said, somewhat haltingly but clearly, “I want the same thing, believe me.”


On September 19, the day before my birthday, the power and water in my house got cut and I came down with a high fever. I wallowed in my misery for a bit until my friend Erica Abello sent me a kick in the pants via Facebook. 

Long story short, I ended up at UP Technohub, where I snagged a table at Starbucks. In my haste to leave the house, I forgot to bring a jacket. Despite that, I ignored the cold and sat there writing until midnight, at which point I bought myself a slice of chocolate cake. I couldn’t bring myself to eat it, though; I just sat there and stared at it while tears trickled down my cheeks.

I was 31 and I had never felt so alone.

I was 31 and it was the first time I got older without my mother by my side.


I spent my actual birthday paying bills and running errands. I didn’t get to visit my mother until well after nightfall. When I arrived, she pressed an envelope into my hands. I opened it to find this:

To say that this touched me would be a gross understatement.
She tried to write a birthday message for me, but since she’s still re-learning to use her right hand, this is how it turned out. She also put some money in the envelope with the note. “Treat yourself,” she said when I asked her what I should do with the money.

I nearly burst into tears when I saw the card and money. Even in the midst of a tough battle, she still wanted to be sure I’d have fun on my birthday. That’s how my mother was before she had a stroke—she always went out of her way to ensure my happiness, even if that meant sacrificing her own—and for me, the card and money were a sign that she’s going to be fine.

I didn’t get to throw a party, but upon reflection, I got the best gift I could ever have gotten.

Happy birthday to me.

Another solid week

I was really tickled pink by the video greeting from Simon Cowell that opened last Saturday’s Pinoy Boyband Superstar episode. Most of what I know about critiquing contestants on shows like this, I learned from years of watching Simon.

Anyone who has watched Simon on TV for as long as I have knows he normally gets it right. He was right when he said that not only would Carrie Underwood win American Idol season four, but she would also go on to sell more albums than any of the show’s previous winners. He also turned out to be right when he said Filipinos would love Pinoy Boyband Superstar, as evidenced by the pilot week’s ratings.

Congratulations to the Pinoy Boyband Superstar team on a strong debut!
About last week, I still think Niel Murillo was the strongest singer of that group, with Ford Valencia coming in second. Allen Cecilio, Keanno dela Cruz and Markus Paterson need to step up their game. As for the twins, they’re talented, but they may not be right for the boyband this show is aiming to form. Bjorn and Jayvee Mendoza are too different—which isn’t a bad thing per se, but that may make fitting in as part of a five-piece hard for them. I would prefer seeing them strike out on their own, as a duo. They’re certainly entertaining enough to do so.

I went into this week hoping to see a contestant as entertaining as the aforementioned would-be boybanders. The first one to take the stage last Saturday definitely fit the bill.

Joao Constancia, 19, “Grow Old With You”

He reminds me of Ryan Potter, the voice actor of Hiro Hamada in Big Hero 6. If I had to compare him to anyone in the local showbiz scene, I’d say Joao reminds me of Alex Diaz. Furthermore, Joao strikes me as someone who loves a good opportunity to cut loose, but knows when to get down to business. The girls in the live audience found Joao striking, period, because they sent him on to the judges with 94%.

He’s very charming and handsome, which is great because I didn’t find his vocals super impressive. I think he needs to learn proper voice placement. When you know how to place your voice properly, you’ll have an easier time opening up what they call your vocal cavities—and than in turn will help you amplify your voice more efficiently. It sounded to me like he was singing from his throat too much, which not only limits how far Joao can go and what he can do vocally, but it could also hurt him in the long run. A few singing lessons would do him a world of good.

That said, I agreed with Pinoy Boyband Superstar judge Yeng Constantino. A boyband is like a pie chart. Joao isn’t the strongest singer, but he has oodles of charisma. I’m happy they gave him four yeses. Not just because I like his lip ring, but because he seems like a good guy who’s willing to work hard to improve.

Gabriel Umali, 16, “Torn”

When Gabriel hit the stage, he came across as shy, but my gosh, he transformed when he danced. Unfortunately, Gabriel didn’t seem so confident when he sang. That’s understandable, because he’s had more experience as a dancer. I do love his voice, though. In fact, I got goosebumps when he hit the pre-chorus of Natalie Imbruglia’s biggest hit. It was then that he opened up vocally—however slightly—and showed everyone how his voice can soar. He sings well; he just needs help working through his issues.

During his audition, Gabriel’s face was a stiff mask, which I think hampered his singing. For a singer, relaxing the muscles in one’s cheeks, forehead and jaw will go a long way towards helping him or her develop a beautiful and powerful voice. Gabriel stiffened up because he was so nervous. It’s adorable that he doesn’t seem to know how good he really is, but he needs to believe in himself more if he wants to go far in this competition. Aside from relaxing his facial muscles, I’d say he needs to become as confident a singer as he is a dancer. That said, he’s an early favorite of mine.

Mike Villamor, 19, “Gusto Kita”

Mike’s rendition of this OPM classic was quite pitchy. But the real problem with Mike is that as a performer, he’s good but not great. He’s average. He’s charming and talented, but whatever charm he had couldn’t make up for what he lacked vocally, unlike Joao. So although I liked his smile and the fact that he’s a rakitero, I understand why the judges turned Mike down.

That said, my ears perked up when he talked about his father who does construction and plumbing work. I’ve been looking for someone to fix things at my house. Can someone please put me in touch with Mike’s father? I want to hire him. Seriously! I identified with Mike’s desire to help his parents, so if I can help him do that by paying his father to do some work for me, I will.

Rollo Espinos, 23

I liked the look of this professional chef-turned-commercial model from Bacolod. Unfortunately, the girls in the live audience found Rollo wanting and gave him only 73%. What a shame. He could’ve served up some tasty vocals pa naman.

Kokoy de Santos, 18

This guy should be a familiar face to Jane Oineza and Janella Salvador fans. Kokoy did a Maalaala Mo Kaya episode with the former last year and he was in Oh My G with the latter. I know he can sing well, which is why I was disappointed when the girls gave him the boot with only 73%. I bet Kokoy would’ve impressed the judges had he been able to sing for them.

What happened to Kokoy in particular illustrates that letting the girls decide who gets to sing for the judges can be dangerous. Good singers could end up slipping through the cracks if the girls don’t see fit to put them through. Luckily, the guy who went onstage after Kokoy was able to charm the girls into putting him through so he could show everyone how good he is vocally.

Wilbert Rosalyn, 19, “Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You”

I can so identify with his wanting to make good to show his father that he missed out on something special when he walked away. Good thing the girls gave Wilbert 95% and the opportunity to stick it to his father.

I like his voice. It’s powerful without being overwhelming. I liked the little runs he put in. He does have a slight tendency to mumble—which I heard in the verses—so he should improve his diction because sayang yung ganda ng tone niya if he doesn’t. I agree with Vice Ganda; Wilbert is cute, but his isn’t the kind of cuteness that will make you take a second look. Sakto lang, kumbaga. That said, he’s one of the better singers in this competition, so I’m glad he got through.

Host Billy Crawford promised “heartwarming family stories” in the next episode, so I braced myself before I watched it. Mababaw ang luha ko sa mga ganyan ngayon, eh.

Jay Kim, 20, “Fire” and “Ikaw”

I don’t find him as handsome as some of the previous contestants, but there’s something about him I find vaguely charming. I had a big smile on my face while watching him talk to Sandara in Korean. I’m not a fan of his voice, but I’ll give him props for having enough guts to sing songs by Sandara and Yeng in front of them. I’ve watched a lot of reality shows, and I haven’t seen many contestants brave enough to do that. But while I commend his bravery, I don’t think he’s strong enough vocally to be in a boyband. He has major pitch and timing issues.

Sean Cruz, 18

His backstory made me cry. When Sean was four, he lost his father in a car accident. That tragedy greatly affected his mother, so Sean had to step up and be the breadwinner of his family, which is something I can relate to. I was disappointed when the girls didn’t put him through. Aga Muhlach was right when he said this show can be heartbreaking. I felt really bad for Sean.

I’m starting to realize that my taste in guys—as far as looks go, anyway—is vastly different from that of the girls in the live audience. I liked Sean’s eyes and smile. I would buy a condo from him any day. Hehe.

James Ryan Cesena, 18, “Boyfriend”

I love that he’s a songwriter. He wants to write songs that give people hope, which I think is nice. I’m always on the lookout for new people to write with, so I hope to be able to collaborate with James sometime. But I digress.

James’ take on this Justin Bieber track reminded me of American Idol season eight champion Kris Allen’s own reworking of “Heartless.” James is the first guy who impressed me vocally since Gabriel Umali. I get Vice’s concern about James potentially holding the final five back because of his inability to speak Filipino, but that’s what Tagalog lessons are for. In the meantime, someone can help James understand the meaning of a Filipino song by going over it with him line by line if need be. Honestly, that doesn’t seem like too much of an inconvenience to me.

Some of the guys the judges have put through aren’t up to snuff vocally, so I honestly think they should have gone a little easier on James, who’s one of the best singers Pinoy Boyband Superstar has found thus far. Kudos to Yeng for seeing his determination and welcoming him to the show.

Miko Juarez, 20, “Ngiti”

Vice compared him to James Reid, but with respect to him, I disagree. I actually think Miko looks like a cross between Ahron Villena and Paulo Avelino. Miko’s voice is good but not remarkable pero sige na nga, pweds na rin.

Mark Oblea, 21, “So Far Away”

Ang gwapo niya. I loved his earring and leather jacket. But he became so much more appealing—to me, at least—when he professed his love for his mother on national TV. Naka-relate ako sa kanya. Like Mark, I wasn’t always a good son. I made plenty of mistakes, but now I want to make up for that however I can. But I digress.

This episode saved the best for last. I flove Mark’s voice. There’s something about him that reminds me vocally of Dalton Rapattoni from American Idol season 15. (Incidentally, Dalton used to be in a boyband called IM5.) Dalton is one of my favorite singers of all time, so coming from me, that’s pretty high praise right there. There’s a slight rasp in Mark’s voice that comes out when he pushes himself, which is great, in my opinion. I think he’s a real star. Like Aga, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mark in the final five.

Even my mother liked Mark. When I went to visit her on Monday night, we streamed this episode on iWant TV. Check this out:

Mom and I bonded over the show. She didn't like Mark's pick-up line, but she loved his voice.
Overall, I think Pinoy Boyband Superstar had another solid week. Gusto ko yung timpla ng palabas na ito. The contestants’ sob stories are given just enough airtime to make viewers root for them, but not enough for all their tales of broken families and reversals of fortune to overshadow their talent—or lack thereof. Kudos to the show’s team for striking the right balance between backstory and talent!

First two photos and videos courtesy of Pinoy Boyband Superstar.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A strong debut

Niel Murillo of Cebu blew me away on the pilot episode of Pinoy Boyband Superstar. This kid should go far. He's great!
I’ve always been a big fan of boybands. When I was in the fifth grade, the first album I bought with my own money was the Backstreet Boys’ international debut album. So when I heard that ABS-CBN greenlit a Philippine version of La Banda titled Pinoy Boyband Superstar, I was excited. La Banda is a Latin American reality-based talent search created by music mogul Simon Cowell and produced by singer Ricky Martin, with an eye towards putting together the next Menudo. (If you don't know who they are, click here and here to find out.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch the Pinoy Boyband Superstar pilot as I was at Metrowalk for my mother’s benefit concert—which I’m pleased to announce was a success. Anyway, I decided to wait until both of this week’s episodes were available on iWant TV so I could catch up on the show. Now that I have, I think it’s safe to say that I found my newest favorite show.

I loved the format of the auditions. Instead of simply walking up to the judges and singing for them, the boys have to charm a roomful of girls first. The boys will only be allowed to perform for the judges if they get a score of 75% and above from the girls. Charm is key in the first round, which makes a lot of sense. After all, the success of boybands like One Direction was built largely on the charm of its members as individuals and as a unit. Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson and Zayn Malik radiated charisma on their own, which made them downright unstoppable when they became a group.

The four judges of Pinoy Boyband Superstar are Aga Muhlach, Sandara Park, Vice Ganda and Yeng Constantino. Theirs seems like a really good combination. I do believe they’ll be able to put their combined expertise to good use in creating a successful boyband.

As a heartthrob himself back in the day, Aga alone knows what it’s like to be a young man making his way in showbiz. He can relate to all the boys on a completely different level. Sandara, Vice and Yeng are all performers, but I do think Yeng has the most technical knowledge as far as music is concerned. I expect that’s what Yeng will bring to the table. 2NE1 star Sandara is the only one on the panel who has been part of a girlband, so in that sense, her perspective will be invaluable too. As for Vice, he’s judged competitions before, so he definitely has an eye for talent.

All the boys who took the stage this week definitely had that, as evidenced by the first one on deck.

Allen Cecilio, 17, “Yakap Sa Dilim”

He’s very cute, and he has a fraternal twin, which is cool. Allen reminds me of a cross between the Hashtags’ McCoy de Leon and Nikko Natividad. Allen looked comfortable onstage. When he danced, it was as if he was just busting a move in his bedroom as opposed to performing for 500 screaming girls. When he sang, his vocals were a bit shaky, but I think that was because of nerves. I’d advise Allen to drop his jaw a little more when he sings and work on his breath support to avoid being "sintunado," as Yeng said.

Also, I must say I enjoyed Allen’s song choice. I don’t think it was inappropriate at all. Boybands have sung about sex before, and it’s not as if today’s teens know nothing about the birds and the bees. Besides, Allen sang that APO Hiking Society hit in a way that was more sweet than sleazy. Overall, I love him. He’s cute, talented and he knows it, but somehow he doesn’t come off as cocky.

Alfonso Avila, 19

Alfonso is a good dancer but he’s a little over the top, which makes him somewhat painful to watch. Also, he’s cute and he knows it, which some may find a little off-putting. I know I did. Also, he didn’t interact with the girls as much as he should have, in my opinion. His time onstage was more about him showing off rather than winning the girls over, so they gave Alfonso the boot with 68% of the votes. Future contestants need to make more of an effort to connect with the girls to make it to the judges.

Ford Valencia, 21, “All of Me”

The girls gave Ford 83% and sent him on to the judges. I like Ford. He has what my old vocal coach would describe as a "full, round, warm" sound to his voice. He just needs to improve his diction a little bit. That said, I want him to do well in this competition because like my mother, Ford’s father also had a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. I want Ford to strike a blow for sons of stroke victims everywhere.

I’m glad Aga, Sandara and Yeng put him through. With respect to Vice, I disagree with him about Ford looking too old to be in a boyband. If my memory serves me correctly, Kevin Richardson was 20 when the Backstreet Boys were starting out. The rest of his bandmates were all still teenagers. I don’t think Ford’s age will be an issue.

Jormiel Labrador, 25, “Kiss”

When Jormiel lifted his shirt to show off his washboard abs, I was all, “Whoa, keep your clothes on, dude. This is a family show.” I applaud him for advocating a healthy lifestyle, but overall I found him a little off-putting. I agreed with Sandara when she deemed Jormiel too sexy for Pinoy Boyband Superstar. Although should they decide to put together a Masculados-inspired group, Jormiel would be perfect for it.

No lie, when Jormiel started singing, the word “Chippendales” popped into my mind—which is why I laughed uproariously when Vice said it seconds later. (Just so you know, the Chippendales are an all-male dance troupe best known for their sexy choreography and costumes.) Yeng voted to put Jormiel through, but the other judges outvoted her.

Niel Murillo, 17, “Mahal Na Mahal”

Niel is cute too. Aga thought he gave off a Richard Gutierrez vibe, but for me, something about Niel reminds me of my good friend Jon Lucas. Niel is a real musician—not only can he sing, but he plays the guitar too. He’s unassuming and shy, which I think only heightens his appeal. Niel auditioned for Pinoy Boyband Superstar to help his family, particularly his kuya, who was shot in the head four years ago.

Niel had me from the run with which he opened his performance. Anyone who’s had vocal training will tell you that runs are actually hard to pull off. You have to start well and end well, and Niel did that. I love the texture of his voice. It’s so rich and velvety. Niel is by far the best singer from the first episode. Like Yeng, I’m so looking forward to seeing more of him in the future. I like him not just because he sings well, but also because he wears his heart on his sleeve—which is a good thing if you’re a performer.

On to the second episode!

Tonio Banach, 15, “Hahahasula”

My first impression of Tonio was that he looks a little like Bailey May from Pinoy Big Brother 737. He had me in tears when he talked about his relationship with his mother. I like the way he charmed the girls with that gimmick. I wonder if that girl held onto the ring he gave her? Probably. Tonio’s voice cracked here and there during his performance (brave song choice, BTW), and as my old vocal coach would say, masyado pang kulob yung tunog niya—most likely because he was nervous. That said, I like his tone. When he sang a capella, I was impressed. Tonio has a good set of pipes; he just needs some guidance, which is why I can’t believe the judges sent him home.

Markus Paterson, 18, “Tadhana”

OK, I admit it, his smile went straight to my heart. Unfortunately, Markus picked an emotionally and vocally demanding song, and I don’t think he pulled it off. I actually think his pitch was slightly under throughout his performance. Also, this Up Dharma Down original has so much yearning in it, and Markus’ rendition was a little wooden. That said, he does have a nice enough tone and, as Sandara pointed out, he looks like a proper pop star. I hope he does better in the next round.

Miggy Campbell, 24

This guy looks familiar. Hehe. Too bad the girls didn’t put him through. I think Miggy deserved to at least sing for the judges. Malay natin, magaling pala siya kumanta. We'll never know now, will we?

Keanno Dela Cruz, 15, “Night Changes”

The girls didn’t put this guy through; luckily Sandara saw fit to throw him a lifeline. He says he’s a seasoned performer, but honestly, I wasn’t impressed with Keanno’s acting. I thought his face and eyes weren’t expressive enough. His singing wasn’t the best, either; his diction could use a lot of work and he was pitchy in spots. I don’t understand why the judges put him through when they sent Tonio home. I would’ve picked him over Keanno. I can identify with Keanno’s hunger to make it big in showbiz, though. He’s a dreamer, which I like.

Bjorn and Jayvee Mendoza, 22, “Pak Gayown”

I’m not quite sure how to feel about Bjorn and Jayvee, to be honest. They remind me of Jedward from The X Factor UK. They’re not vocally outstanding—their diction needs work—but they have a certain playful quality that makes them compelling to watch. Not my cup of tea, but they deserve credit for that mashup they did. If they arranged it themselves, that actually says a lot about their musicality.

In conclusion, I enjoyed the pilot more than I did the second episode. But overall, this week was a strong debut for Pinoy Boyband Superstar and I look forward to seeing the rest of the competition!

All photos and videos courtesy of Pinoy Boyband Superstar.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The price of strength

The main cast of Supergirl, circa the show's first season, which aired on CBS from 2015-2016.
An hour ago, I was lying in bed with a fever. I felt totally weak and I didn’t have any energy to fix something for myself, much less my two golden retrievers. I really needed help. I honestly don’t mind skipping dinner if I have to, but I so didn’t want Cheesestick and Muffin to go hungry on my account. So I swallowed my pride and texted my grandmother for help. I asked if she could spare the day maid she hired to help her take care of my mother, even for just a couple of hours. I just needed someone to help me make dinner for me and my furkids.

Long story short, my grandmother said no, and I was left to ponder my predicament. Eventually I went on Facebook and Twitter to look for someone who might be willing to help me. But seeing everyone’s posts only made me feel even more alone and frustrated.

Before my mother suffered a stroke last June 2, and before my Filipino-British parabatai (more on what that means in a future post) Tim Macardle returned to his hometown of Norwich earlier this year, I would’ve been able to ask them for help. But my mother is in recovery and Tim is thousands of miles away, a distance made easier but no less painful by social media. My other friends are busy with their own lives. Some are en route to New York City for ASAP, others are shooting or taping, and the non-showbiz ones are taking care of their own families. Even if they want to help—and I’m sure they do—they may not be able to, and I don’t blame them for that.

As the minutes ticked by, my frustration and loneliness morphed into anger. Not at anyone in particular, mind you; just at the situation I was in. Eventually I tossed my phone aside and used my emotions to propel myself out of bed. I slowly made my way downstairs and into the kitchen. (OK, I tripped and fell down the last couple of steps, but at least I made it, right?)

Despite the fact that my forehead was beaded with sweat and I was standing on two shaky legs, I managed to feed my dogs and fix myself a plate of rice and Libby's vienna sausage. Now, buoyed by a full stomach and the sweet sounds of Britney Spears’s new album Glory, I’m in front of my laptop, writing this post. Having eaten their fill of dog food and Purefoods sisig, Cheesestick and Muffin are curled up on either side of me.

In the months since my mother’s stroke, I’ve been told by many that they’re very proud of me for making the best of my situation. At first, that made me really happy. After all, I took over running the house in my mother’s absence because I wanted her to be able to focus on her recovery, and I’d like to think I’ve done a good job despite my mental illness. But to be honest, today I realized that being strong comes with a price.  

When you go through life like a superhero, people forget that you also need help sometimes. For the most part, I’m self-sufficient now and I'm proud of that. But not even superheroes can do it all by themselves all the time. On the TV show Supergirl, Kara Danvers is backed by the Department of Extranormal Operations, as well as her CatCo boss Cat Grant and her friends James Olsen and Winn Schott, Jr. The truth is, I need my own DEO, Cat, James and Winn, and no, I don't think I should be judged for admitting that I do.

To paraphrase an obscure pop song about the Girl of Steel back in the day, I don’t mind being Supergirl, as I do relish being able to save the day when I have to. In fact, I’m looking forward to the day that my mother is well enough to come back home so I can do more for her.

But the question still remains: who’s going to save me when I’m the one who needs saving?

Photo courtesy of Movieweb.
© Jules Explains it All
Maira Gall