Saturday, 13 September 2008

Oprah, Ellen, Celine and Charice - on greater heights!

I’m not fond of fancy food,” she says in Filipino, eating the spam and eggs – spamsilog, actually – out of a Tupperware container with her right hand encased in a clear plastic baggie.

Charice would rather eat with her fingers like any true-blooded Pinoy, but then she wouldn’t want to get any grease on her Macbook’s keypad, would she?

The silver laptop is powered on in front of the dresser, revealing a Garfield screensaver.

It’s more than just a prop.

Speaking mainly in Filipino, she explains: “When I get sleepy, I lose my voice. So I need games on my laptop to keep me awake. I love gadgets – cellphones, iPods, laptop – dati napapanood ko lang sila sa TV, ngayon nabibili ko na sila (I used to just see them on TV, but now I can afford to buy them).”

Charice is wearing a floppy blue hat, with her big toothy grin and eyes that turn down at the corners in a broad, good-natured face that reminds one of Alice’s Cheshire cat, or Evisu, the Japanese god of wealth.

Like any 16-year-old girl, she giggles a lot, and it’s probably this natural, unforced quality that must have appealed so much to Oprah, Ellen Degeneres et. al., apart of course from the outsize voice that got everyone’s attention.

“Kalog po talaga ako (I’m really goofy),” she explains. “I’m a cheerful person. I only look serious when I’m performing on TV. People like me because I make them smile, although when I perform, they say I make them cry too, being the first Asian to have achieved this stature, this being the ’little girl with a big voice,’” she continues. “I felt really touched when Oprah Winfrey described me as the most talented girl in the world. Naisip ko na maraming talented sa mundo pero ako yung napili niya na sabihan ng ganoon (I thought, there are a lot of talented people in the world, but she chose me for that tag.) ”

Her cellphone rings.

Charice’s ringtone is a snippet of her Madison Square Garden duet with Celine Dion, a measure of the impossibly high esteem in which she holds “Miss Celine.” Of all the incredible achievements she’s racked up in such a short span of time – appearing on “Oprah” and “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” singing a duet with Andrea Bocelli and performing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade – it’s still the highlight of her life thus far, a dreamlike moment during which she ascended to the higher realms and tasted nirvana.

Or in her own words:

“Talagang napaka-perfect kasi niya at napakabait kaya hanggang ngayon nandoon sya,” (She’s really so perfect and so kind, so until now, she’s up there),”she gushes.

And she would love nothing better than to record another duet with “Miss Celine,” God willing, on her international debut album, due next year from Warner Brothers. Or Josh Groban. But that’s really up to her managers and producers.

In the meantime, she’s happy to be our first truly bi-coastal star, or in local showbiz parlance a “lagare queen,” only her lagare involves juggling local performances with bookings in the US and other countries. In fact, international stardom has prompted the family to keep an apartment in LA, although Charice is more often on the road, racking up frequent-flyer miles and living out of hotel rooms.

Luckily, at her age, it’s still an adventure and not yet a grind. Being pronounced “the most talented girl in the world” by Oprah doesn’t seem to have jaded her yet.

“Syempre po nakakapagod yung byahe, pero pag nandun na ako sa stage at nagpe-perform ako, naiisip ko na lang ang pagod pag matutulog na ko, (Yes, the trips can be tiring but when I’m performing onstage, I only think of the fatigue come bedtime),” she says. “The events where I sing are enjoyable and I get to perform with big stars, and that banishes the tiredness,” she adds.

Like any star-struck fan, Charice’s Macbook contains her photo album of cherished snaps with the likes of Alicia Keyes, David Archuleta of “American Idol” fame, Nicole Richie, Mariah Carey, Josh Groban and Peter Cetera of Chicago, to name just the more recent additions.

The Mac is also a reminder of just how much Charice owes her present celebrity to the existence of the worldwide web. Like Arnel Pineda, she was discovered on YouTube through videos posted by her fans.

“That’s the main reason I’m here,” she admits. “Because of YouTube, I got invited to Sweden, Korea, the Ellen Degeneres show, then Oprah’s show. That was also where I was discovered by the brother of David Foster (her current producer).”

Through her laptop, Charice is able to keep track of the numerous blogs and fansites devoted to her, as well as her official website, although she is leery of actually posting anything.

“I don’t blog. I might miss some websites and people might get offended. So I just view them but don’t post anything.”

Her newfound celebrity has also somewhat curtailed her activities.

“Sometimes when I go malling, I can’t really shop and look around because people ask to have their pictures taken with me. So I don’t go anymore. But yes, I do get to play – mostly with my brother.”

Like many showbiz kids with irregular schedules, Charice has had to opt for home schooling, where she is now in third-year high school.

“Syempre po nakaka-miss din,” she says of having to say goodbye to her friends. “I was in regular school till first year high school so I really miss my classmates. I visited them once and it was a good feeling, but I couldn’t stay long. It feels good to see them and to hear them say they’re proud of me.”

Right now she’s settling for a routine that she describes as “bahay, ABS-CBN-States – ’yun lang po (home-TV studio-the US)” but allows for the possibility that showbiz may not be forever.

“College – I’m still undecided, but given the opportunity, I’d like to study in the US and take up Law. I wanted to be a doctor initially, but I was inspired by Tito Mike (immigration lawyer Mike Garfinkel, whose wife Millie manages her career Flipside). I want to be an entertainment lawyer. But school doesn’t have to be in the US, as long as I get to finish college.”

It all depends, of course, on what the future holds for Charice. Pop superstardom beckons, but she seems wise beyond her years as regards the perils of instant celebrity and its long-term prospects.

“Syempre gusto kong maging superstar, pero gusto ko rin maging lawyer,” she says candidly. “Gusto kong makompleto ang maibibigay ko sa mommy ko, gaya ng sariling bahay. Basta pag nakompleto ko yon, kahit mawala na ako sa showbiz, at least nakompleto ko na ang mga gusto nila. (Of course I’d like to be a superstar but I also want to become a lawyer. I want to give my mom a house and everything she wants. As long as I get to do that, I wouldn’t mind fading out of showbiz).”

It is her mother, after all, who remains her main role model. Raquel Pempengco was a vocalist for Souls Free, a show band. She would take Charice along on her shows, and at age four, the little girl caught the bug.

“I really envy my mom because she was a vocalist in a band, and she influenced me. One time the band asked me to sing and I found myself enjoying it. I asked my mom to teach me how to sing. She didn’t expect that I’d sing well, so in effect, she discovered me.”

Singing is the one thing that comes most naturally, and she doesn’t want to mess that up by thinking too much about it.

“I don’t want to think about it. I’ve joined a lot of singing contests before and I always lost, so I don’t want to think that I’m that good. In fact, in those amateur contests, I would imitate the other contestants whom I idolize because I didn’t think I was good enough. As long as I get to sing the song and feel it, that’s it. When people say I’m good, I just don’t think about it; it makes me uncomfortable.”

She’d also like to show her audiences that she can do more than just the big showpiece ballads. Occasionally she’ll surprise audiences by doing a Miley Cyrus number, or even “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. Her own listening these days runs to rhythm and blues, Chris Brown and Rihanna, she says. But audiences have come to expect full birit mode from her, the athletic numbers that showcase her big outsize voice and what she can do with it.

With her “keep it simple” philosophy, Charice doesn’t worry about how much to give to a performance. She always gives it all she’s got.

“I always give 100 per cent; if possible, 110 per cent, because I really want to satisfy my audience. When they go home, I want my performance to be imprinted on their mind.”

Charice will turn 17 next May, most likely in Las Vegas where she’s booked on a promotional tour for her DVD “David Foster and Friends.” Right now, however, she’s still very much a kid at heart, but a kid who’s learned some valuable lessons in life.

“I always say this because I’ve been through it,” she tells aspiring young singers. “If they really dream of being a singer, they need discipline. Don’t take advantage – hintayin mo yung para sa iyo (wait for what’s really meant for you). But don’t give up either. I remember how after ‘Little Big Star,’ I gave up. For one week, my mind was a complete blank because I’ve lost. Good thing some people helped me stand up. ’Wag susuko, kasi talagang may plan si God para sa inyo (Don’t give up because God has a plan for you).”