Showbiz Babylon: A Tribute-of-Sorts to the Barretto Sisters

Pique and pulchritude: Claudine, Gretchen, and Marjorie (left to right), the protagonists of the Barretto family scandal, 2019 edition. (Instagram collage courtesy of ABS-CBNNews.com.) To jump to later sections, click here for: New Blood; Trophy BFs; Weaker Sex; and Notes.

“La dénonciation du scandale
est toujours un hommage rendu à la loi.”
– J. Baudrillard[1]

Since celebrity scandals observe the same cycle of fostering fatigue among the public after a period of intense engagement, don’t be surprised if the latest Barretto family intrigue has mellowed, if not dissipated, by the time you read this. Before the first member of the family emerged on the national stage, “Barretto” used to be better known as the location of a coastal drive along Subic Bay, where girlie bars featuring women from all over the country catered to American GIs willing to spend their precious dollars for rest and recreation (even if they wound up getting neither).

This made the Barretto clan locally prominent citizens in so far as any red-light area could bestow respectability. (It might help to remember that the illustrious residents of Malate also reside adjacent to another former red-light district, Ermita.) Hence Gretchen Barretto, or her handlers, did not feel the need to use another family name when she was launched as part of the second batch of mixed-gender Regal Babies. Unfortunately, the rival Viva Films studio had just launched its monstrously successful all-male Bagets batch, and Rey de la Cruz had an all-female troupe, the Softdrink Beauties, claiming whatever (frankly prurient) interest could be generated in good-looking women.

So the Regal Babies II were destined for certain oblivion, with a bravely determined Gretchen languishing in supporting roles.[2] She was barely noticeable in Lino Brocka’s Miguelito: Ang Batang Rebelde (1985), for example, banking on her classy features but limited by her narrow range as a performer. By the 1990s, she had shed enough of her premature flab and gained enough height to look alluring enough for male-gaze purposes. Robbie Tan, founder-manager of Seiko Films, profitably deduced that the public had tired of sex sirens who looked and behaved like they came from the wrong side of the tracks. He devised a series of projects that objectified seemingly unattainable porcelain beauties led by Gretchen, turned his outfit into a major player in the process, and made the first Barretto star (Figure 1).[3]

Figure 1. Gretchen Barretto in one of Seiko Films’ early “sex-trip” hits, Abbo Q. de la Cruz’s Tukso: Layuan Mo Ako (1991).

New Blood

Another Barretto quietly took Gretchen’s place as constant second-stringer: Claudine, her younger sister. Unlike her predecessor, Claudine handled her years of relative obscurity as an opportunity to hone her performative skills. Her walk in the sun had a healthier component to it, by conventional moralist standards: she came of age when romantic comedies succeeded in displacing all the other then-profitable local film genres – horror, action, comedy, even her elder sister’s soft-core melodramas – and managed to prove her mettle alongside the peak capability of Vilma Santos, in Rory B. Quintos’s Anak (2000).

An accident of fate though propelled Claudine to a stature never attained by Gretchen. It was, unfortunately, a tragedy, the first indication that the Barrettos could only really soar on the wings of bad news. Just as Gretchen became a star by shedding her clothes, Claudine captured the public imagination when she broke up with her buena-familia boyfriend Rico Yan, grandson of a former army chief and ambassador during the presidency of Ferdinand E. Marcos. The heartbroken beau repaired to a Palawan resort, where he failed to awaken on an Easter Sunday, of all days, after a night of heavy drinking (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Claudine Barretto’s Instagram memento of the last note sent her by Rico Yan, posted after the latter died.

The public response was hysterical, with Yan’s wake and funeral march overshadowing those of two National Artists for Music, Lucio San Pedro and Levi Celerio. A reporter from the rival of Yan’s home station happened to be at the resort and scooped its competitor, which in turn avenged itself by preventing all other TV stations from occupying vantage points during Yan’s wake. Best of all, for Claudine’s fortune, her co-starrer with Yan, Olivia M. Lamasan’s Got 2 Believe (2002), had just opened in theaters, with Yan’s death catapulting it to record-blockbuster status.

Trophy BFs

This made of Claudine an even bigger star than her Ate Gretchen, and acrimonious vibes from the sisters’ perceived rivalry began getting airtime, with then-incipient social media paying due interest. Gretchen became the constant partner of businessman and media mogul-aspirant Antonio “Tonyboy” Cojuangco, while Claudine linked up with and eventually married another alumnus of De La Salle University, Raymart Santiago (of the well-known brood fathered by producer-director Pablo Santiago, preceded in showbiz by his elder brothers Rowell and Randy). Their mother Inday declared her preference for Claudine – a position eroded by her daughter’s on-cam pummeling of one of the roughneck Tulfo brothers (Figure 3) and her later separation from her husband amid speculation of excessive drug use, with Gretchen openly declaring her sympathy for Raymart.

Figure 3. Screen cap of mobile phone video taken by onlooker of Claudine Barretto and Raymart Santiago beating up Mon Tulfo for allegedly recording a quarrel they had with airport personnel.

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Which brings us to the latest teapot tempest. The situation could not be more high-profile, with the country’s chief executive, a family friend, attending the wake of the just-deceased Barretto patriarch. Gretchen and Claudine had patched up their differences, and Gretchen attended ostensibly to reconcile with her mother. A third Barretto showbiz aspirant, Marjorie, who never attained the same level of stardom as her younger sisters, refused President Duterte’s admonition to greet Gretchen, alleging that her niece, Nicole, was traumatized by Gretchen spiriting away a lover, businessman Atong Ang.

In a sensational tell-all TV interview, a remarkably articulate and sensible-sounding Marjorie acknowledged that after the collapse of her own marriage to Dennis Padilla (actually Dencio Padilla Jr., son of a late well-loved comedian), she bore a love-child to Recom Echiverri, a former mayor of Caloocan City; this was by way of her pointing out that Ang was also very much married, and that Gretchen was thereby being unfaithful to Cojuangco, who similarly was married to someone else.

Predictably, Gretchen denied any physical relationship between her and Ang (Figure 4), a sufficiently credible assertion when we consider how she never balked at admitting any of her past indiscretions. The clarifications and counter-accusations will continue for some time, until the family arrives at a level of accommodation acceptable to the major players in the current fracas.

What conclusions can we draw from the situation? One is that the Barretto sisters are smart and determined enough in stretching their media mileage, notwithstanding the occasional evidentiary recordings of such social slip-ups as Claudine’s fistfight with Mon Tulfo or the screams and hair-pulling (with the Presidential Security Group atypically befuddled) that erupted during Miguel Alvir Barretto’s wake.

Marjorie’s subsequent TV interview effectively effaced an earlier scandal caused when her daughter, Julia, admitted boinking hunky star Gerald Anderson, who was supposedly committed to another star, Bea Alonzo. Julia claimed that she had broken up with male starlet Joshua Garcia (just as Anderson’s relationship with Alonzo had supposedly ended), but also subsequently wound up denying that she was the mistress of another elderly entrepreneur, Ramon Ang.

Figure 4. One of Gretchen Barretto’s series of socnet posts mocking the charges made by her elder sister Marjorie and referencing Recom Echiverri.

Weaker Sex

Another conclusion we can make is that males involved in any capacity in this dustup will be better off keeping quiet. Atong Ang appeared in one of those obviously staged “ambush interviews” coddling his legal family while declaring he had never diddled any of the Barrettos. Assuming he was truth-telling, he was also effectively saying (awkwardly, at that) that some of his Barretto friends were lying. The family patriarch, in contrast, was ironically better off reposing in a coffin: even with Gretchen recapitulating her accusation that he had molested her, no one will want to continue speaking ill of the dead.

As pointed out by the late film scholar Johven Velasco in his book article on Rico Yan,[4] a number of influential talk-show personalities were penalized by their TV stations, after they revealed that the deceased young star, upon learning that Claudine had allegedly been unfaithful to him, had obtained Ecstasy tablets to counter his depression.

An even more significant conclusion that Velasco makes, echoed by social experts looking at the current familial flameout, is that the scandal’s staying power derives from what it says about us, more than about the family itself. It’s women claiming for themselves what moral authorities used to say only men were entitled to: the privilege of behaving badly (“war of the courtesans,” to use a semi-complimentary description by expat artist Therese Cruz). The scope even has the trigenerational impact of classical Greek tragedy, a curse being passed on from parents to children to their children’s children.

A fast-declining generation might remember when a similar phenomenon used to command the attention of the media and public, not just in the Philippines but also overseas: the Marcos family saga, from the patriarch’s womanizing and his wife’s philistinic overcompensation, through their rebellious daughter’s romance with an oppositionist scion (including a kidnapping and fall-guy killing that foreshadowed the murder of Benigno Aquino Jr.), to their exile and triumphant return to a country that seemingly, masochistically, has not had enough of their excesses. Thankfully, the worst that the Barrettos can visit on themselves and their public will never be as malevolent as their higher-profile media predecessors had been.

Notes

First published October 28, 2019, as “The Barrettos and the Privilege of Behaving Badly,” in The FilAm. An abridged version of this article was reprinted in the December 2019 issue of The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York. (Click on pic below to open PDF file.)


[1] From Jean Baudrillard, Simulacres et Simulation (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1981): “The denunciation of scandal always pays homage to the law,” trans. Paul Foss, Paul Batton, and Philip Beitchman (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 1983).

[2] Incidental disclosure: some time after completing my second undergraduate degree (film, at the national university), I was a freelance production assistant in a Regal Films project, Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Asawa Ko Huwag Mong Aagawin (1987), a Vilma Santos-starrer that featured the 1960s tandem of Amalia Fuentes and Eddie Gutierrez; Santos played the mistress of Gutierrez (and rival of Fuentes), while her much younger boyfriend was essayed by Gabby Concepcion, an original Regal baby. A then-deferential and reclusive Gretchen Barretto was cast as one of the older couple’s neglected children.

[3] In line with the introduction of an early martial law-era term, “bold,” by Regal Films, the country’s longest-running major studio, to distinguish its soft-core entries from the pre-martial law period’s more overtly sex-themed “bomba,” Robbie Tan sought to distance his productions from the late Marcos-era’s hard-core “penekula films” by first appropriating “sex-trip,” abbreviated as ST, and later coining an English term, “titillating film.”

Penekula was, to Filipino speakers, a readily recognizable portmanteau of penetration and pelikula (film), so as in the case of ST, titillating film was discreetly abbreviated as TF (not, as amateurishly claimed in one author’s studies, TT film – cf. this article in an avowedly left-leaning publication, which is highly problematic in many other ways). This was because TF played on the popular showbiz abbreviation for talent fee, and it did not make sense for Tan’s drive for gentrification to succumb to using “titi,” the Tagalog word for penis, when it could already be articulated in the polysyllabic English modifier titillating – the same way that ST merely and rather coyly mimicked the slang term for an aroused male, “standing titi.”

The apparent motive for moving from the merely misleading ST to the more risqué TF was to take advantage of “more relaxed censorship laws,” as recounted by José B. Capino in “Soothsayers, Politicians, Lesbian Scribes: The Philippine Movie Talk Show” (in Planet TV: A Global Television Studies Reader, eds. Lisa Parks & Shanti Kumar [New York University Press, 2002], 262-73). Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., founding chair of the Young Critics Circle and founding director of the San Francisco-based Filipino Arts & Cinema International, ascribes these terms to the promotional strategies of the late publicist Oskee Salazar.

[4] “Rico Yan: Posthumously Recognized and Constructed,” in Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp.: The Film Writings of Johven Velasco, ed. Joel David (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2009), pp. 24-38.

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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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