The first time I remember feeling strange about being different was when my grandmother took me to the municipal market to get my hair cut. We lived several villages over from the hairdresser, so we took a jeepney packed full of people, which ran along our hamlet’s single dirt road. I must have been around 5. At that point, whenever I was among others in our rural corner of the Philippines, I’d gotten used to women and children touching me and calling me beautiful; I was the only blond kid in a village full of dark-haired people because I’d been born albino.
Among the market’s dusty stalls, we found a middle-aged woman who cut hair, whose pimples poked through her dark skin. She seemed nervous as I sat down, telling my grandmother she had never cut hair the color of mine, marveling over how it gleamed like the sun. After the haircut was over, I noticed her pick up some of my hair off the floor and put it in a white envelope, whose flap she folded so delicately that I understood how special it was to her.
“I might never cut hair like yours again,” she said when she saw me looking.
For the most part, I enjoyed the attention that came from being the only blond kid for miles around. But that day was when I began to understand that there was something different, discordant, between my color and myself. My hair became the object of intense admiration even when the rest of me didn’t necessarily come with it.
Then, when I was 7, I started living with my mom and dad in the Philippine capital of Manila, about a three-hour drive from my grandmother’s house. It might as well have been another country, with the houses crammed together and the awful traffic. I came home from school one day and my mom told me we were going to an audition for a TV show that weekend because she heard from a friend that a sitcom starring an albino actor named Redford White was looking for someone to play his child.
There were a couple dozen kids there when we got to the studio, most of them half-American and a few albinos like me. I remember treating the audition like a game, a competition between me and the other kids. But the director must have been impressed with how fast I learned lines on the soundstage under a set of blinding lights; I found out a couple of weeks later that I’d been cast. Soon afterward, I became a weekly fixture on Filipino TV and a frequent guest on variety shows.
It wasn’t like I was hugely famous. I was in a popular family sitcom — kind of like The Cosby Show or Full House — so a lot of people recognized me whenever I was out in public, but I was too young to be tabloid fodder. After the initial shock of seeing myself on TV, the shift toward fame happened gradually enough that it didn’t feel too jarring — until a magazine ran a profile on me, and I realized that other people were interested in my life the same way I was interested in the lives of celebrities. That was when, at 7 years old, I understood that I was a celebrity, too.
My memories of that period are a jumble. I was young, everything happened so fast, and I was exhausted the whole time. I remember people asking for my autograph, and sometimes getting mobbed on the street. I had some fans who were kids like me that watched the show, but I didn’t have much free time to hang out with anyone. The fans I remember most were women of all ages — whether young students or doting grandmothers — who said they wished they had a child who was as cute and nice as me.
I quickly became aware that being well-behaved and cheerful was an important part of the image I portrayed. My mom taught me that I must always be nice to fans, no matter how tired or cranky I was, and I felt watched whenever I was in public. Trying to go to regular school, tapings past midnight several times a week, media appearances on top of that — I was always really tired but could never show it in front of people. Over time, I realized that what my fans enjoyed was not really me but just an image of me — this happy, cute kid on TV who only vaguely resembled the living, breathing child I actually was.
Now that I’m older and have moved to America, no one really remembers that I used to be on TV except in my hometown. I’m also trans and went through transition, so when I go back to the Philippines, people usually read me as an American woman rather than the albino boy actor I once was. Plus, more and more foreigners have moved there, so I don’t stand out the way I used to. My brush with fame has taught me to value the simple pleasure of moving through the world undisturbed. It also made me keenly aware not just that celebrities can never live up to people’s fantasies, but that the pressure to do so burdens those whom I admire and adore.
Don’t get me wrong — there are many folks I’m an obsessive fan of, mainly singers, because I love to sing but have been cursed with a bum ear. I spend hours sometimes going on YouTube and watching vintage Whitney and Mariah, Beyoncé and Adele, vocalists whose music will always be unreachable to me, along with Broadway-type folks like Idina Menzel, Lea Salonga, and Kristen Bell.
But when a friend recently asked me whether I wanted to go to the Beyoncé Formation concert, I told her I couldn’t be in a crowd that big, realizing that I still harbor unconscious fears of being mobbed. And even when I recently sat just a few tables away from one of my musical idols at an event, and could have probably gone up to get a selfie, I also found myself sincerely uninterested even though I’ve loved her for many years.
The friend I was with thought I was just trying to play it cool, but it wasn’t that. If the singer and I were actually introduced and were having a conversation, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell her how amazing I thought she was, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to approach her just to say how much I love her, especially when dozens of people are vying for the same attention. Because ultimately, being a stan is not about the star I love, but about me and my adulation. And having been on the other side of that fence of fame, I can’t bring myself to get fully invested in stanning for anyone. In our social media–driven world where fans can reach famous people even when they’re not in the same room — sometimes making demands about how they should look, who they should date, and how they should feel to create their best work — I’m wary of participating in the cult of celebrity.
Most celebs wouldn’t want to offend by saying they don’t appreciate the people whose admiration has led to their success, because doing that would make them seem ungrateful, since the assumption is that constant attention and speculation about their lives is just the necessary price to pay for their money and success. But rich or not, I don’t think many people would like the feeling of being constantly stopped as they’re going about their day, or being constantly mobbed, or never having any privacy.
The other reason I can’t bring myself to stan for people is because their public persona likely veers significantly from who they are in real life. There’s a big difference between only seeing someone’s most carefully orchestrated moments and who they’re really like day-in and day-out. Most of the people I worked with as a kid were really nice, but being around them all the time eroded this sense that they were somehow special compared to other people. No one is as simple as their media narrative makes them out to be, whether they’re cast as the unfailingly nice ingenue or the hot mess we can’t help but follow. This is something most of us understand in the abstract, but is all too easy to forget when we’re so inundated with one-dimensional portrayals of famous people.
As time went on, I wanted my fans to see me for real rather than the image of me they imagined — but there wasn’t a way to do that without them being disappointed that I was just a human being like them, just a kid who wanted to be like other kids. There was nothing about me really that was ultimately special, worthy of their fandom. So when my show ended a couple of years later and after I did a few movies, I became adamant that I didn’t want to act again. I went back to my grandmother in the province and refused to leave, so I went to school there instead of in Manila to remain an actor. I ended up preferring that my friends and family loved the person I was, rather than large numbers of fans who adored an image that bore little resemblance to me.
A lot of child celebrities in the Philippines go on to become teen matinee idols, and that was the direction my mom wanted me to pursue. Four years after my last TV appearance, when I was around 14 years old, she convinced me to appear in a variety show for a “Where Are They Now?” segment, and I agreed to do it in part because I was curious about the life I left behind. It was fun to relive getting interviewed, sitting in front of a crowd at the center of attention. I came out of the studio wondering if I should maybe revive my acting career, when I was more mature and could handle it better.
But then I watched the segment and saw how my face had changed after puberty, how I was no longer cute but gangly and awkward. It felt pathetic to put myself forward, to be known only for what I had done — not someone people wanted to admire but someone to pity for not being able to accept that their fame had passed. It became clear to me then that reviving my acting career would interfere with my own vision of what I wanted to admire about myself, the real person I wanted to be rather than the image that the world expected of me. If I were going to be admired someday, then it would be for being and doing what was important to me — a life I hadn’t yet discovered. ●