She was 15 when I first met her on board a ferryboat bound for Calapan, Mindoro. She was a wisp of a girl, so thin and pale I was half-afraid she would break, like a fragile China doll. Yes, she said, she was the girl who had won that singing contest on television the year before. She was on her way to perform in a stage show at a school gym somewhere in Mindoro, she explained in a tiny, quivering voice. She was scheduled to sing two songs for a talent fee of P1,500 and she was excited. Her hair, done in outdated curls, framed her made-up face and her loose, nondescript clothes overwhelmed her petite figure. She looked like a very old 15-year-old. Her almond eyes squinted into slits as she looked out into the open sea like an expectant lover. She was alone in that corner of the deck, but nearby stood a scraggly, dark-complexioned man of about 40. Her father, someone said.
He taught her how to sing, another commented. I wanted to hold her steady lest she will fall into the water or the strong wind blow away her tiny body. But her father beat me to it by reminding her not to stay too close to the railing. On the opposite of the deck, Janice de Belen Roderick Paulate and some other celebrities were engaged in small talk. In Mindoro, my friends and I found ourselves staying in the room next to her in a cheap, elevatorless hotel.
We invited her to join us and teasingly urged her to sing. Without much ado she obliged, and soon, her melancholy voice, no longer small and unsure filled the cramped hotel room. "All at once, I looked around and found that you were with another love," she sang the Whitney Houston number, cautiously at first, sounding like a wind song. There her voice rose to an awe-inspiring crescendo. "Ever since I met you, you're the only love I know." A rap on the door rudely interrupted our mini-concert. Her father peeped in. "I heard someone singing, was that you, Chona?" he asked. "Hindi po, Siya po," she lied, pointing a finger at me. But Papa knew better. "Kailangan i-conserve mo ang boses mo para sa show mamaya," he scolded her. She fell silent, her head bowed in embarrassment. "Sige, ha," she bade us goodbye in a voice we couldn't reconcile with that of our impromptu entertainer.
The next time I met the girl named Chona was at a decent sing along bar along West Avenue in 1986. Her voice effortlessly glided through the difficult notes of the EDSA revolution song "Mag-kaisa." The show was a regular stint for her, her father said. Commuting from Bulacan to Manila had been a problem initially, but they mad friends with a taxi driver to whom they became suki. They paid him P200 pesos for waiting and taking them home to Bulacan every time Chona had a performance. The next time I saw Regina Asuncion Velasquez she was performing at a small, art decoish cafe/bar. She was no longer Chona but Regine. A singer/TV host had re-christened her, saying her nickname sounded too parochial for someone so young. The shy provinciana, now a year older, felt burdened by the high-sounding moniker. She must act like a Regine now and leave chokingly boring Chona behind. Her new manager, Ronnie Henares, who had discovered her in that sing-along joint, felt that her repertoire and general appearance should change along her name. Her outmoded clothes were thrown into a baul (native chest) and sweatshirts, high-cut rubber shoes and jeans became her regular fashion fare. Her straight, shoulder length hair was left as it was, with no spraynet to hold it in place, while she danced to more upbeat songs. She was a teenager, for heaven's sake, no matter that she was the breadwinner for a family of six.
Gone was the dark colored eye shadow she used to put on her narrow lids, that mad her cat like yes look bruised and heavy. No more cheekbone highlighter that gave her an emancipated look. The new light make-up emphasized rather than hid her small face. The girl was beautiful, after all. She was also gaining quite a following. The young habitues of the cafe and a sprinkling of yuppies and middle-aged music lovers filled the place to standing room capacity.
The entrance fee had been raised - a sure sign of her growing celebrity. Mang Gerry, her father, remained zealous guardian. "From manager to alalay," he said, laughing away his demotion. "I've got a crush on you," she belted out on a disco number, her wiry limbs, camouflaged by thick clothing, gracefully maneuvering the stage floor. I didn't know she could dance so well. Between songs she gave spiels in Taglish contorting her face when someone from the audience commented or grunted a request. She hated having to talk, but "Regine" sounded like the name of a glib-tongued girl.I did not just "see" Regine the next time, I sought her out for an interview. She was 17 by then, and among her fans was Larry Henares, who immortalized her in his column. She had just recorded her first single, "Urong Sulong," which was thinking of going back to school the following year.
It was Mang Gerry who did most of the talking that time. Regine, surprisingly, still had much of the reticent Chona in her. One thing brought a glow to her eyes though the second hand Toyota car she had just acquired. "I bought that with my sweat and blood," she proudly says. It's been three years since that last interview, but the girl who greets us as we alight from Primeline's delivery jeep is still pale and thin. "Magandang tanghali po," Regine says, her naked face made even more startling by her cropped crown. The gamine charm shows through the maong jeans and handpainted T-shirt. She looks more 15 than 20. But more Regine now than Chona.
We have come all the way from Manila to San Juan (Balagtas, Bulacan), a barrio by the river where Regine has spent most of her growing-up years. If not for her accommodating townmates who led us from one narrow thoroughfare to another, we would not have found her house. A gray Hi Ace is parked outside her studio type apartment across the family's house. The receiving area, separated from her bedroom by a makeshift wall, bears much of her provincial character. No one would suspect that a celebrity lives in this carelessly trimmed house. It looks more like the house of a movie fan with its mounted faded posters of Regine's past concerts intermingling with inexpensive paintings of nature. The concert posters have documented Regine's metamorphosis, so to speak. In one, for instance, she seems naive and uncaring. She transforms into a sensuous young lady in another. And from pastel-colored attire she graduates to a more intense black and red. A red Sto. Nino statuette stands atop an old piano.
The sala set, flower printed and brightly colored is the ultimate assault on a modern decorator's sensibilities.It's been a year since Regine moved into her own place, for no special reason, but just so she would have enough space for all her growing number of things wardrobe, appliances and friends. But there seems to be no effort to make the apartment look more stylish and sophisticated, or at least presentable. On a magazine shelf she has a cheap photo album of showbiz stars Randy Santiago, Janno Gibbs, Bing Loyzaga, Lilet and an autograph of Maricel Soriano on a small piece of paper, among others. A stack of foreign fashion magazines -Vogue, Elle, Mademoiselle looks out of place among the albums and clippings. In those magazines lies the secret to her new found sophistication in fashion. Atop the improvised divider are her trophies, most of which still bear her old name: Chona Velasquez. There are 67 of them, including her latest, the Asia Pacific grand trophy which she won in Hong Kong last month. "I joined 200 contests but won first place in only 67," she blurts out unexpectedly. Recently, the Lions Club of Hong Kong honored her with a three foot high trophy in ruby red and gold. "My father had a hard time carrying it," she says while putting on make up for the pictorial.
She has just returned from that Hong Kong trip and has barely unpacked. She is bothered that she wasn't told about the pictorial because she could have fixed herself before we arrived. "Sana nag-Easy Call kayo," she reprimands her PR. But there's actually very little on that face that needs covering, and she finishes jiffy .
"Can we have her pose by the river where you used to submerge her?" the SI photographer asks Mang Gerry. "It wasn't here where I used to submerge her but in Leyte, where my wife was born," Mang Gerry clarifies. "We moved to Bulacan only when Chona was already 10."
The Velasquez' led a mobile lifestyle in the early '70s. Mang Gerry's job as a constructor estimator required him and his family to move from one province to another. With the children's schooling interrupted so often, it is a wonder that Regine finished high school at all at St. Lawrence Academy in Bulacan. She attributes her good English diction to her years at St. Lawrence and to her favorite foreign singers, to whom she listens carefully. "I told her never to get the lyrics of the songs from song hits. Listen to the original singers and capture every word correctly," says her omnipresent singing coach.
"Si Chona!" a little girl excitedly says upon seeing Regine walk toward the ancient camachile tree for the pictorial. The child runs to her mother when I begin asking her about Regine. "Ninang niya si Chona, e," says Aling Leonila, Regine's neighbor and distant relative."Hindi naman nagbago yang batang 'yan. Gustong-gusto siya rito. Lahat nga yata ng bata rito ay inaanak niya," she continues.
Regine's neighbors remember when their mornings were not complete without hearing little Chona, then about 10, vocalizing. "Palagi niyang kinakanta nuon yung kay Eva Eugenio at kay Imelda Papin, they recall with amusement. Of course now she rehearses in air conditioned studios, although her barriomates are still occasionally treated to free mini concerts whenever she practices in her apartment. Right now she's more into jazz music.
Regine has never thought of moving to Manila. Not even now. She has all the love she needs in San Juan. And that, to her, is the most important thing. Certainly it couldn't have been by coincidence that almost every female in this rural neighborhood, whether young or old sports Regine's daring, boyish do. "I feel I have matured a lot since I started six years ago. Marami na akong na experience, Regine intimates. "That Hong Kong trip for me was a big deal. It contributed a lot to my growth.
"You see, I was scared at first of going there to compete. I felt I wasn't that good. Beside, it's like I've gotten tired of competing. All my life that was what I did. I was tired of the pressure," she says. It took her good friends and mentors Nanette Inventor and Ivy Violan to convince her. "They said, 'You were chosen by Channel 7 of all singers. That means they believe in you. That did it."
Before the contest proper Regine had been obsessed with winning. "I didn't think of anything else. I didn't realize that the reason I was there was no t just to compete but to interact with the other competitors who were from other countries, to make an impression of my country on them. When I got there, I forgot all about the contest and making friends with the other foreign contestants became a bigger challenge. At first it was difficult because some didn't even know how to speak English. Now two have already written me."
It was in that contest that she rendered what she considers the most difficult song she has ever sung: "I'm Telling You' from the Broadway play Dream Girls. A mongrel comes along and waits for a pat on the head. "This is my dog Askar, Regine says as she runs her skinny fingers through the dog's tan-colored hair. "Askar means Asong Karaniwan."
It is only now, she confides, that she is able to savor the fruits of her labor. "Before, I always had to think of what was needed first before I would buy what I wanted. Now, I can get both. Ang pangarap ko ngayon ay ang mapatapos ang mag kapatid ko."
Her sister Maricar, 19, is a business administration student at St. Paul College, Manila; brother Jojo ,16, high school senior at La Consolacion, Bulacan; and twin sisters Dianne and Deca, 13 are in first year high school at La Consolacion. "They make lambing to me whenever they need something in school or maybe want something," Regine says, stressing the difference between "need" and " want" .
She has no regrets that at 20 she has felt neither the throbbings of passionate love nor the pain of unrequited love. "I think my maturity came from the experiences I had with my family," she says confidently. "I'm still very young. Love can wait. For now, my concerns are my family's needs. I might go back to school when Maricar graduates and is able to help in sending the other children to school."
Regine still dreams of enrolling in a fine arts course someday. When not singing on TV or concertizing, she indulges in her favorite pastime...sketching. She's hand painting shirts now, and explains that she herself did the t-shirt she was wearing when we arrived. She fetches the tee and shows the painting of a woman's face whose long hair sensuously covers her left eye. She colored the hair orange and lips neon pink. "I like sketching and painting women's faces. The contours of the eyes and lips are just beautiful. They're so nice to draw," she explains.
She tells the story behind her new haircut: "I had it shortened to ear length on my 18th birthday. I was supposed to have a concert then but a foreign band, The Jets, came over and I was advised against staging my concert on the same date which was my birthday. In rebellion, I cut my hair, which was already down to my chest, very short."
But after that act of rebellion came, the stories in the tabloids and movie columns that her face had undergone cosmetic surgery. So why didn't they make your nose better, I kid her. She laughs."You've seen me before, do you see any change?" Oh, but I don't mind those intrigues. I try to tell them it's just my make up, that now I already know how to blend with colors or enhance my features but then they say I'm being defensive.
Inside her room clothes are strewn here and there, the improvised shelves over her bed are stacked with encyclopedia volues and innumerable little stuffed dolls. She plans to clean all the dolls for Christmas and distribute them to orphanages. "Not that I've outgrown my love for them. Actually, they're so precious to me because they were gifts from my good friends. But doesn't that fact make the dolls more special and worthy of being given as gifts to orphaned and abandoned kids?"
Regine disputes rumors that she is auditioning for the role of Kin in Ms. Saigon. "I'm afraid I might not be able to endure the rehearsals. I developed nodules in my throat before and they had to be taken out by surgery. And with my hair, I might be considered for the part of soldier," she says, laughing at herself.
We keep quiet as she teats us to an a capella rendition of her favorite song, "On My Way To You" by Barbara Streisand. Softly, at first, like a wind song but full of intense and emotions. I remember that day in Mindoro when she sang that Whitney Houston song, except this time, her father doesn't interrupt. He listens as intently as we do.
Mang Gerry's girl has definitely grown up. And how!
Source: Regine at 20: Out There On Her Own By Lani T. Montreal Sun. Inquirer Magazine July 8, 1990