PEOPLE | HER STORY

How I Met Lea

Michelle Baltazar

Sometimes, some dreams do come true. MICHELLE BALTAZAR shares her story on meeting Philippine singer, actress and international icon, Lea Salonga.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – To many Filipinos, Lea Salonga needs no introduction. Her name is synonymous with the best and brightest the Philippines brings to the global stage. She’s been an idol to the nation since I was a little kid. My younger brother and I used to pretend we were Lea and Gerard, making a mango shake when they did an episode about it on TV.

forwebLeaSalongaBy the time I was in my early teens, she was one of only two posters on my bedroom wall (the other one was Manilyn Reynes, hah!). But just when I thought she couldn’t get any bigger, she was discovered in the worldwide search for the lead of the Broadway musical ‘Miss Saigon’.

That was 1989 and Lea was barely 18. She went on to win the Olivier, Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics and Theatre World Awards for her performance. Since playing ‘Kim’, she has scaled new heights in her international career, becoming a constant source of national pride.

What I really liked about her was how she seemed to take it all in her stride, cleverly juggling her studies, full-time career, numerous extracurricular activities and now, family. Like many Filipinas around the world, I wanted to be as brainy, talented and formidable as her.

So, you can only imagine how many thoughts were going through my head at the prospect of meeting her. Would I like her? Would she like me? What can we talk about? What if I say something really bad and she stomps out? Did I brush my teeth?

***

It was Wednesday morning (June 9) when I got the phone call. Tita Kate (Kate Andres from ‘Her Son, Jose Rizal’) called me to ask if I was interested in meeting Lea. We both knew Lea’s in town to rehearse for the Cats production in Manila.

With Lea Salonga and daughter Nicole
With Lea Salonga and daughter Nicole. Photo credit: Johan Westen

Tita Kate scored an introduction with Lea through sheer determination, dropping a letter addressed to Lea at the hotel reception of Star City, where she’s staying with her daughter Nicole. Representing the Fine Artists Collaboration (FAC), a newly-formed community group for the arts, Tita Kate got Lea to agree to a brief catch up and dinner with the cast members of the play (it may have helped that the lead cast is RJ Rosales, who knows Lea personally).

The invite was to meet at the Mill Room in Star City on Thursday (June 10) followed by dinner at Sean’s Restaurant, also in Star City.

***

Thursday morning came. I was so excited I couldn’t think straight. I was trying to act cool because there’s still a chance she might not turn up. I told my brother, jokingly, that my sole mission that day is to make sure Lea doesn’t take a restraining order against me. I had to keep dismissing this fantasy dialogue in my head where I ask her to sing something from ‘Miss Saigon’ or add me on Facebook. I had to remind myself that, one, she’s not a toy (who should sing at my bidding) and, two, she must get lots of requests from acquaintances wanting to be her next best friend (yaiks, not cool).

She was supposed to meet us at around 7pm but the time rolled along and there was no sign of her. I began to worry that I dragged my good photographer friend, Johan Westen, to take photos for nothing. But after 7.30pm-ish, I couldn’t believe it but there she was and her gorgeous (and gregarious) daughter Nicole in tow. A momentary silence descended in the room as everyone tried to digest the fact that a superstar is among them.

Tita Kate made the introductions; there was some small talk and before I knew it, someone handed Lea a photo to sign and it was a flurry of photo opps, signatures requested and gift-giving. While all the cameras were going, I noticed Nicole quickly made new friends, comfortably doing her own thing, posing for some of the photos, too.

So there I was. Was she pretty? Of course. Was she smart? Yes. Was she nice? Yes. Did she ask me what it’s like to live in Australia? No. Did she ask me what I do for a living? No. Did we talk about the weather? Yes, very briefly.

I don’t know about the others but, to me, it was an awkward meeting. Like a blind date except you’ve googled the other person. She was having dinner with strangers and everyone wanted to ask her questions, take more photos and sign autographs.

What’s great about her, and one that caught me offguard, was that having placed her in a pedestal for so long, she is – gasp – normal.

That if there was a parallel universe where I didn’t know any of her career achievements, I would see her just like I do many of my good friends: smart, strong-willed, driven and focused.

She was very gracious, thanking the waiter whenever he came around to serve us. She attended to Nicole when she called for her. And despite just coming out of a gruelling rehearsal for Cats, Lea kept a lively conversation and didn’t seem like she was in a rush to leave, talking with dinner guests which included Tyrone Andres, Alex Chan, Rosary Coloma and Jane Crame (Sidebar: I’m listing their names for posterity’s sake!).

She smiled through a hundred camera clicks. New to this, I was a bit startled by how painful the bright flashes were to my eyes. I was fearful I’d go blind and can only imagine how staring back at those ruthless lens since she was a young child performer would have been like.

I was lucky to be seated next to her (Thanks, Tita Kate!). She talked about how much she loves the TV show ‘Glee’, how impressed she was with the Australian production of Cats, how much she loved the apple pie and the cheesecake we had for desserts, and how much she’d love to get the next iPhone. She also spoke about her upcoming role as ‘Fantine’ in the 25th anniversary production of the musical Les Miserables in London on October 3 at the O2 Arena in North Greenwich (yep, it’s in my calendar. Fingers crossed!).

With Alex Chan (Boon Chocolates) (far left) and Star City senior staff (standing).
With Alex Chan (Boon Chocolates) (far left) and Star City senior staff (standing). Photo credit: Johan Westen

The two occasions where she spoke louder than usual (you know she’s a stage performer because her vocal projection was unbelievable) was when we discussed politics (how she would vote for a politician based on their actions, not their catchy jingles) and her frustration that the Reproductive Health Bill in the Philippines is yet to go through.

She mentioned a couple of times she was tired, yet to my surprise, she stayed for dessert (one of those memories I’ll treasure forever is when she asked if I would like to share dessert with her, which really meant sharing desserts with everyone but, hey, that still made me feel special).

By the time we finished eating, it was well past 10.30pm and was time to go. A few of us had final photos taken before she said goodbye and left the restaurant. It was only when she was completely out of our sights that I was able to return back to my old self, jumping up and down, screaming “I met Lea! I met Lea!” and doing my victory jig in public, much to the amusement of Tita Kate and the rest of the gang.

My only problem is, the one time I overheard someone speak out what I was thinking all along (how much I’m in awe of her), Lea made it clear that she didn’t want to be referred to, in third person, as the Lea Salonga.

Then when someone suggested that others should be told she’s in town, she graciously rejected the idea, saying she’d rather stay below the radar rather than create a stir during her brief visit.

I get it; she is just doing her thing, and happens to be doing it well. Minor celebrities or extremely brilliant artists who are often insecure, love to be surrounded by sycophants. Not Lea: she preferred to have a stimulating conversation about ideas, politics and, of course, arts and entertainment, than be showered with praises every second.

On Twitter, Lea describes herself as an actor, singer, wife, mommy, writer, traveler and foodie. She didn’t say superstar, international icon, one of the most influential women in the Philippines, powerful charity supporter and women’s health rights advocate.

That’s cool. I’m a grown-up now. I don’t put posters on my bedroom wall anymore. But I still love Lea because our chance meeting proved to me why she is a star and an inspiration. Shhh. Just don’t tell her I said that.

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