Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

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Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Monday, February 20, 2006

Philippines' First Straight Model

The list of still-thriving, ass-backwards attitudes in the Philippines that can be linked to the American colonial legacy is crowded like the customs hall at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. There's the undying love for spaghetti covered in ketchup masquerading as marinara sauce and the non-stop craving for canned corned beef and luncheon meat. There's also the passion for American television, where Jag and similar dregs are weekly primetime highlights on the RPN network. Few things are more baffling, however, than the Philippine ideal of beauty.

Anything pale is hot. European and white American features are all the rage. I get complimented on my skinny nose on a near weekly basis, sometimes by complete strangers in malls or on the train. You'd think I would have a standard response by now, but "I like your nose" is such a gonzo compliment that it never fails to startle me.

Nothing says "glamour" like the porcelain complexion of a lamprey dame.


Skin-whitening is an industry and a folk-science among Filipinas. It's hard to find a bar of soap in a drug store that doesn't claim to lighten skin. Since I sport a farmer's tan pretty regularly, I'm more than slightly frustrated by the lack of normal bathing products. But no fashion-conscious Filipina worth her salt will rely on beauty products alone to whiten her skin. A whole host of seemingly dangerous folk remedies exists for those who truly want to kick it up a notch. My neighbor, for example, likes to scrub herself with an Ajax-like floor cleaner for that extra light complexion. I haven't heard of it yet, but I suspect there are women attaching lampreys and leeches to themselves at night to rid themself of blood and the pesky color it brings to their skin.

This of course, applies to many, but not necessarily a majority of women in the Philippines. There are enough, however, to make it noticeable, especially considering the cosmetics market's oversaturation with whitening products and how common it is to hear otherwise gorgeous girls complain about being too dark.

But there is a silver lining in the white-is-right, West-is-best cloud hanging over Philippine pop culture. Well, if you happen to be White and/or from a Western nation there is. Every pale face with a pulse who walks through one of the malls in Makati gets approached by modeling agency talent scouts who offer work in print and television ads and at promotional events.

Sloth didn't stop working. He became Manila's top model and the Philippines' face of Baby Ruth.


It doesn't matter how flawed you are. They'll work around your third-degree facial burns or your nerf football-sized goiter to find what's beautiful about you. Maybe it's your hands, or just the palms of your hands because you've got hairy knuckles. It doesn't matter, because for some reason, seeing a blond guy reclining on a beach sells Champion cigarettes better than seeing a Filipino does. Even if that blond guy is Sloth from Goonies.

Allow me to express some half-hearted liberal guilt over the role America has played in developing the Philippines' Western fetish. Boo-hoo. Sob. Ahem.

I'm not going to wring my hands, shed some tears and vow to fight the system. I'll leave that for the independently wealthy. Instead, I'm gonna make the Philippines' identity crisis work for me. If I can get myself on a couple billboards on EDSA, I'm down. What do I need to do? Dress like a viking and wear Right Guard deodorant? No problem, I already do the former and switching from Old Spice should be easy enough. I've never smoked before, but I'll choke some carbon monoxide down if I get to travel to Chile and shoot a commercial for Hope cigarettes.

This attitude landed me an appointment at the Icon International Modeling Agency. Although I wasn't so cocksure about the opportunity when I first visited their office. In fact, I was worried enough that the talent scouts who spotted me -- big, gay Clyde and his frumpy sidekick Maureen -- were actually operatives for a kidnapping ring that I sent the address and contact information they gave me to a friend and told him to start worrying if he didn't hear from me 48 hours after the meeting. I steeled my reserve with the thought that I'd never modeled before, nor had I ever been kidnapped, so either way I would get a new experience out of it.

The modeling agency was legit, but in some ways what I found there was just as disturbing as the warehouse with emaciated American idiots chained to the wall that I had imagined. The boys at Icon International Modeling Agency certainly make no effort to live down stereotypes about gay men and the fashion industry.

Call me straight, but I just don't see what the big deal with Liza is, other than her grapefruit-sized eyeballs.


Sitting in the waiting room was like walking through Chelsea alone. I was ogled, teased, hugged, kissed on the cheek and generally made to feel welcome in a way that went beyond the norms of the legendary Philippine hospitality. The TV/VCR near the visitors' couches had the following movie titles next to it: Cats on Broadway, Clueless, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael, Liza Minelli Live from Radio City Music Hall, Spice Girls Live in Istanbul, a Donna Summer VH1 concert, MTV's Mariah Carey Unplugged and Jurassic Park: The Lost World.

I'm not sure what that last film was doing with the assorted diva concert videos and showtunes. I thought someone in the office might have a crush on Jeff Goldblum. A friend of mine suggested they might need something child-friendly to entertain the kids while prepared chocolate milk/rohypnol cocktails for them.

But I feel bad making fun of the Icon boys. They were more than kind to me, and they were very professional. When I did my screen test, Clyde gave me the choice of not removing my shirt. There was no flirting, no touching, no nothing. Strictly business. I was treated with dignity and respect and made to feel comfortable. And damn it, they made me look good!

Of course, on my way out the door someone asked me if I could return the next day and pose in just a pair of briefs. But hey, where else would I even get the opportunity to refuse such a request?

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey rafe!!! how are you? i'm leaving for shanghai tomorrow...havent been able to catch you online. hope all is well with you and your mom. and um...i'm a fashion conscious filipina (well, quasi-filipina) that doesnt whiten her skin. but maybe that's cuz i'm already naturally casper-esque and spend most of my time trying to get a tan. oh well. we always want what we dont have. hehe. oh. and i gotta say, sweet spaghetti with hot dogs is possibly the most disgusting thing i have ever eaten. cept maybe for balut. and dinagoong. ... well.. maybe there's a lot of disgusting food i forgot about...haha.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Bartholomew,

It's Morgan O'Hara. I guess you'd probably remember me, your pitching partner on the GV champion Milwaukee Brewers. Shit, an image of Bruce Sheingold having one of his tantrums just popped into my head. Anyways, I'm writing to you from Mexico, where I'm working as an English teacher in some tech university. My father wrote to me a little while back saying he had bumped into your dad, and hence I got the scoop on your blog and your plans to write a book. Best of luck to you; I really enjoy your writing. If you ever want to get in touch my email is oharamorgan@yahoo.com. Be good there Rafe.

4:57 AM  
Anonymous your eager cousin said...

this is the first i've heard of it, but the fact that you have book ambitions is the best news i've heard all year. if you give me a poster i'll proudly hang it next to your pops'. maybe one of your headshots from icon will be featured?

12:09 AM  
Blogger Soccer Nut said...

I mean, surely you gotta grace the public with some of these photos. We want evidence.

3:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Ross Sheingold said...

Rafe...Its Ross Sheingold... Really been a long time since I've heard from/about you. Looks like you're doing some interesting stuff! Ahhh, the joys of blogging! I was thinking of you and your father when I was at McSorleys oone time last year. I happened across your blog (google search for Sheingold) and thought I would drop a line.

Side note to Morgan O'Hara - I guess you were brainwashed by the rest of the yuppies who had kids in GV Little League after my father stopped coaching. All my father did was instill a bit of energy/competitive fire into that little league. Sorry bro, little league games aren't supposed to end in ties. Tantrums... Wow, way to rip a guy that was good to you. Classy.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Handbag Express said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geez, if you hate the country so much, why not leave?

11:25 PM  
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6:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The boys at Icon International Modeling Agency certainly make no effort to live down stereotypes about gay men and the fashion industry."

Astute... be sure to tell the boys at icon. did they ever hire you?

7:06 PM  

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