Millennial Traversals – Star Builders on Parade

I remember reconstructing (during the pre-digital era) the original ending of this article as soon as I realized that the published version had cut out several paragraphs toward the end, including the closer. Unfortunately I misplaced not just this original version but the clipping of the published version as well. After tracking down a copy of the newspaper on microfilm, I realized it would be impossible for me to reconstitute what I originally wrote; on the other hand, I also realized that I had (mainly subconsciously) pursued one of the interview subjects, Rey de la Cruz, since he’d presented the edgiest case for star-building; during the later interview (available here), he not only reneged on his promise to retire from talent management but had adopted the studio-initiated trend of launching new faces in batches, with the wildly popular satirical twist of commodifying the members of the group: softdrink beauties, hard-drink beauties, street beauties, revolutionary beauties, etc. Douglas Quijano remained a sensible acquaintance, articulate and cooperative; while Jesse Ejercito lost his bid for posterity along with his (and his brother Joseph Estrada’s) attempts at political ascendancy. In film-historical terms, Ejercito’s loss was more pitiful, since he had set a template for successful quality productions outside the realm of studio interference – still the best example, to my mind, of the producer as auteur – and may never be acknowledged for it as long as the trauma of the Erap presidency remains in the popular imagination. [This article originally appeared in Times Journal (May 26, 1980): 21, 23.]

Behind every screen personality’s rise to fame and notoriety is a star-builder, the one who made it all possible for her or him. Say Rio Locsin, Nora Aunor, or Alma Moreno, and those who keep close tabs on the film industry will surely connect them with names like Rey de la Cruz, Douglas Quijano, and Jesse Ejercito respectively. These latter-listed are the people behind the stars – influential satellites well-connected with movie-world bosses and the press, the all-around counselors of their celebrity wards who also wield enough cash to invest in developing their discoveries.

“I pick up my talents from the mud, polish them until they shine brightly, and hold them up for the public to see,” says Rey de la Cruz, Rio Locsin’s first manager. Before Locsin entered his life, de la Cruz was generally considered a jinx. His previous clients – Olivia O’Hara, Mitos del Mundo, and Susan Henson – never quite made it, which in this business means “made it big.” After Locsin, however, he has been confidently promoting some new faces: Yehlen Catral (a “re-discovery” from 1975), Gil Guerrero, and Rio Locsin II. He also swears that after these three he will be bowing out of show business, “an ungrateful world,” he sighs.

Nevertheless he realizes that ingratitude is inherent in the profession: “Intrigues are healthy; gossip is the barometer of popularity.” In spotting potential stars, de la Cruz, an optometrist, begins (not surprisingly) with the eyes. Then, if the woman’s breasts are ample (“at least 34 inches”) and her legs shapely, he approaches her. Discoveries invariably turn out to be females since, according to de la Cruz, perhaps deliberately mixing up species, “It is hard to tame a lion but easy to sell a woman…. Beauty queens and middle-class women are to be avoided [because] I don’t want my discoveries to look down on me. I prefer ordinary persons because they’ll be sincere and persevering.”

Having lured a discovery with promises of stardom, he enters into a five-year contract with her. In effect, he assures himself of 20 percent of her profits. (Rio Locsin, he claims, defaulted in her third year, thereby divesting him of a 25-percent return on investments.) Then he cooks up gimmicks calculated to whet the public’s appetite. “I avoid fabricating because of my profession as a doctor and my upbringing with a lawyer-uncle and a religious grandmother.” De la Cruz’s gimmicks, nonetheless, are unmistakably sensationalistic. For instance, he gave the press a recent heyday by announcing his same-sex relationship with ward Gil Guerrero.

But as if to dispel any impression of him as a wicked witch to his Cinderellas and Cinderfellas, he lets fall a checklist of what he thinks an ideal star-builder should be: “Witty, imaginative, tactful, honest, courageous, understanding, law-abiding, and most of all, non-exploitative.” He declined to comment on the casting couch syndrome, the practice of stars going to bed with their star-builders, although he does not deny that he has been approached for pimping services. “What I do in such a case is refer such people to ‘friends’ who I know engage in those practices.”

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In effect Rey de la Cruz can be considered the star-builder who thrives on straightforward, if mostly attention-getting, methods. A series of recent talent-management awards that he had won attests to the effectiveness of his outlook. And although his tactics are unique, in essence he does not differ from most other star-builders in town. Regal Films project coordinator Douglas Quijano, for example, employs the same process in finding talents. He started way back, late 1969, with Nora Aunor for Tower Productions. “She was the first star I saw who couldn’t be controlled. Using reverse psychology, I encouraged destructive gossip about her so the public will first pity her, then sympathize with her.”

Quijano claims to also have discovered Tirso Cruz III, Al Tantay, and Tet Antiquiera for the movies. The last he considers “an ego trip, since Tet was everything a movie star should not be.” Her most notorious gimmick, of course, was her giveaway of underpants during the opening day of her first movie. “My gimmicks [compared, presumably, with de la Cruz’s] are usually more simple, more acceptable.” His job begins when he spots persons with star potential. Like de la Cruz, he prefers “those from the ranks because you can pump sense into them.”

After agreeing verbally on an initial charge of 10 percent on their earnings, he finds out which of their traits he can sell. He carefully maintains, though, that “personal problems I keep private, unless [the stars] themselves expose these to the public.” In spite of his professed uprightness, Quijano is reputed to ride on the industry’s propensity for gimmickry and the public’s conditioned preference for controversy.

It is healthier to have a large circle of star-builders, adds Jesse Ejercito, whose most successful finds have been Elizabeth Oropesa and Alma Moreno: “The more stars, the merrier. That should always be helpful in minimizing costs and delays.” Ejercito began in 1975 with Oropesa in an Ishmael Bernal film, Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko. Originally a Gloria Diaz vehicle, the project was handed over to Oropesa (with whom Diaz had starred a year earlier in Celso Ad. Castillo’s Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa) after it became apparent that Diaz would soon be too busy with other commitments.

Oropesa duly set the standard for Ejercito’s subsequent discoveries: unconventionally beautiful, physically well-endowed, and histrionically gifted. With little variation, all Ejercito protégés proved themselves competent as actresses. After Oropesa came Chanda Romero, then Daria Ramirez, Alma Moreno, Lorna Tolentino, Beth Bautista, and Amy Austria – his so-called Siyete Belyas (Seven Beauties, though belyas in Tagalog also connotes something professionally naughtier). So far, Ejercito has only had one male client – Dondon Nakar, who as a former child star was not exactly a recent discovery. The reason for the gender imbalance, according to Ejercito, is that “most contemporary projects accommodate female leads. There are already many established actors anyway like Dolphy and Fernando Poe, Jr.” – and, he carefully avoids adding, his own brothers, Joseph Estrada and George Estregan.

Ejercito’s preference for females does not really stand up to economic inspection. If anything, the preference for female discoveries only confirms the readier saleability of women. After all, for male discoveries, no physical or thespic expectations are imposed in such refined and competitive measures as they are for women. Ejercito ensures his discoveries’ success by insisting that they should be able to act – in the performing-arts rather than the casual sense – first. As an active producer, he also knows that when a film project begins, press releases concentrate on the star; after a month or two, attention tends to focus on the material itself. “I don’t use gimmicks to enhance a star’s image. The gimmicks should come with the project,” he claims.

The casting couch syndrome, he says, “all depends on the other people in the industry. I don’t indulge in it, and I don’t think other successful producers do either.” Ejercito allots about Php 300,000 to promote each project. His stars’ contracts require a 10-percent management fee payable to him. Actresses, however, are not the only ones whom Ejercito provides with opportunities. He has also given directors Manuel “Fyke” Cinco and Ishmael Bernal some of their biggest breaks. “To stay in this business, I have to promote deserving films,” he concludes.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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