Apr 16, 2009
By Nicolas Lacson / Photographs by Mark Nicdao
Yciar Castillo—commercial model, TV host, radio scriptwriter, theater actress, and now makeup apprentice—is in a self-deprecating mood. Her life is unremarkable, she protests. “What are you going to write about me if I’m just the girl next door?” she asks, genuinely puzzled. She needn’t have worried—writer Nicolas Lacson dissects the refreshing candor of this dusky Ilongga beauty.
Bacolod-bred Yciar Castillo confesses to occupational malaise tempered by a continuing quest for fulfillment. She is, after all, the fruit of a family tree with several diligently defined branches (she is director Peque Gallaga’s niece, for one). But while the kin of this self-confessed “girl next door” have influenced Philippine history and culture, she has yet to find her own niche. Nicolas Lacson speaks to the lovely Negrense and is left convinced that she is on the cusp of her own personal saga
This is a story of a kiss from a girl named Yciar.
Yciar. It’s an uncommon arrangement of consonants. That initial standout y, and immediately after, the confusion caused by the c—do you pronounce it like a k or as an s?—both of which are enough to make me wonder how she orders a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Sorry, ma’am, is that Ēk-si-yar? Ē-shar? Or Ī-sē-yar??
“I-thyar,” she says, emphasizing the short i at the beginning, but in a tone that borders on apologetic, as if it is her fault that people have to deal with the inconvenience of her tongue-twisting name. She welcomes me into her home, a bungalow she has lived in since she was nine, tucked in a subdivision (which shall remain unnamed) in the middle of the urban sprawl that is Makati. The c in her name is actually pronounced as th, in the Castilian manner, a slithering, sexy, susurrous duet of consonants. You will discover that it is Nabokovian pleasure to utter that name, that th: the tip of the tongue taking a trip against the top of your two front teeth. Yciar, I say it, an obssessive Humbert Humbert emphasis on the th, and it is like speaking of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as if the name were some exotic ore or rare oil extracted from a faraway land.
Which is apt, because the name itself exists in a faraway land, as a little town in the Basque region of Spain, although the actual spelling is Itziar. “It was really a pagan town,” Yciar explains, “until it became Catholicized. They named a little black Virgin Mary statue after Yciar, after the town, so it’s Nuestra Señora de Yciar.” She recalls with eagerness in her voice how her mom, after graduating from college, had gone to Spain and had ended up teaching English. “She had this student who was tall, had dark, beautiful hair, blue eyes, and her name was Yciar. And she liked the name, so she named her second daughter—me—after Yciar.”
“From the beginning, my love was really theater.” On the plays she has appeared in, she stresses, “I didn’t really star in them, but I came out in Steel Magnolias. Also, Wind in the Willows. I was the laundrywoman’s daughter—that sort of thing!”
That juxtaposition of the images of the Virgin Mary and the beautiful, ebony-tressed English student (A heartbroken flamenco dancer? A struggling model?) is probably the best way to describe Yciar. Sinner: well, sort of. She is dressed for the impending arrival of summer—in a denim skirt that stops just above mid-thigh, enough to make the nuns at the Assumption, where she went for high school and university, roll their eyes and whip out their wooden rulers. A sea-green top shows off a sliver of collarbone. Saint? Well, she has dolled herself up for this interview. Not the fancy kind of dolling up, but rather the kind where you wash your face and put on something decent like it is Sunday or because there are guests—the kind of dolling up you do if you’ve got manners.
That sinner-but-saint metaphor becomes more apparent as she settles into the sofa opposite me. This is the view of Yciar from her living room, an airy space with two plush sofas flanking a large wooden table: she has put on large silver earrings in the shape of Dreamworks half-moons and they dangle from her elven-shaped ears. A tightly done, practical ponytail—a dancer’s ponytail, meant to keep the hair out of the face—pulls back her dark, wavy hair, so that not a strand is out of place. This creates the unintentional effect of showing off her perfectly symmetrical, Hispanic face, including the fine, high bridge of her nose and the natural rosy flush of her cheeks.
Her trademark Mona Lisa-like smile—I had stalked and Google-imaged a few photos of her before the interview—is subtle, almost careful, the lips rarely parting to say cheese, ultimately adding to her mystery. When she talks to you, she will look you straight in the eye, and it is disconcerting, that gaze. Those eyes, under the clean arch of her brows, always the eyes—round, dark, but full of sparkle and incandescence when she speaks of the things that matter to her, but sometimes infinitely deep and doleful, like the Virgin Mary. The kind of eyes that would make you get on your knees.
You might have already succumbed to her spell by virtue of the glossies that Bacolod-bred Yciar has graced, which include Candy and Good Housekeeping. But probe beyond the veil and you will find more than just the platitudes reserved for beauties like Yciar. “I come from a family that’s very in touch with art. My mom used to do a lot of painting when she was younger. My uncle,” she adds, “is a film director,” referring to the fact that she happens to be the niece of prominent film director Peque Gallaga, who also stars in this magazine’s pages, and for whom Yciar recently appeared as an extra in a yet-to-be-released indie flick. I ask if she would one day want to star in her own movie. She answers that she wouldn’t mind giving it a try. “Most people think being an artista is glamorous. But it’s difficult.” Any particular kind of movie? “Um . . . sexy! No, kidding!” she quickly interjects, laughing. “I dunno. I have no idea.” Long pause. “A drama.”
Because drama was her original love. “From the beginning, my love was really theater.” On the plays she has appeared in, she stresses, “I didn’t really star in them, but I came out in Steel Magnolias. Also, Wind in the Willows. I was the laundrywoman’s daughter—that sort of thing!” she laughs. “I don’t think I really excelled in it. If not, then I would still be there. But definitely there was an interest there. And now it’s sort of translated itself to make-up.”
She is quick though to make the caveat that, right now, she is still apprenticing and discovering the ins and outs of the make-up industry, under the tutelage of professional make-up artist Aileen Ramos, from whom she admits she “has learned so much already.” Her previous experience includes a stint at MAC Cosmetics, working as a retail manager. “It’s something that I love doing because it’s working with my hands. When I was small,” she reminisces, “I used to play with my mom’s make-up. I used to ruin her lipstick and all that. It’s also the fact that it’s craft.” As she continues to elucidate on the intricacies of the world of make-up—dwelling at length on how it used to be misperceived as menial work but has now become a more accepted field of industry—her passion as a pupil and her respect for the craft involved becomes evident.
“I come from a family that’s very in touch with art. My mom used to do a lot of painting when she was younger. My uncle,” she adds, “is a film director,” referring to the fact that she happens to be the niece of prominent film director Peque Gallaga.
“It’s like being a chef. Before, everybody would think, that’s not a profession: that’s menial work. It’s work in the kitchen. But now, wow, if you’re a chef, it’s a glamorized job. Well, actually, not really. It’s hard work. And it’s the same with the make-up artist: it’s hard work. People think, make-up artist, wow, glamorized—you get freebies, you’re going to make connections, you’re going to meet all the artistas. But it’s not. I’ve watched Aileen on a shoot, standing there, just waiting to be able to go and touch up. Just being on standby. It’s difficult. Studying a person’s facial structure, his skin type, everything. It’s more complicated than what you’re thinking.”
And the longer we talk, the more it strikes me that she, too, is complicated, in the way that people tend to be beautifully messy, conflicted, and torn. “I read about all these people who are 26 and they’re so successful and they’ve found their niche in life. And then I think, God, I’m so old, I’m 32, and I still haven’t—I mean I’ve done things that are big, I think, but I haven’t really found what I’m happy doing.” Enter a brief précis of her life immediately after university. Aside from the occasional modeling gigs, Yciar also found herself plying a variety of trades: host for a lifestyle show called Zine that used to air on Studio 23, scriptwriter for radio station the Hive 100.3’s Gimmick Girl and Fashion Buzz segments, and signature model for the clothing brand Anonymous. She also used to teach english at a call center, which was a job she enjoyed briefly, if only because of her predilection for teaching. “I love teaching, but what I realized is you also have to love what you’re teaching. If not, it’s just for the sake of teaching it. What happened was I started teaching Product. So I struggled with that, then I started looking for other things to do. But I struggled with that, too. So in the end, I thought, maybe it’s really not for me.”
The way Yciar explains this, though, is in a tone that barely ever registers as negative. She will never be able to approximate the gloom and doom of financial analysts predicting the outlook for the economy. It’s just not her. She tells it candidly, like she’s just recounting her day. As I sit there, across her, impressed by the blatant honesty of the self-assessment of her life to date, it strikes me: God, this girl is real. Not the fairy-tale princess, not the girl born with the silver spoon, nor the diva, but the girl next door, with her own real doubts and insecurities, matters that are not petty in their own right. The girl who worries more about what defines her as a person rather than what she’s going to be wearing on the next Fiamma or Embassy weeknight revel. “You know that saying when they say if you love what you’re doing then you never work a day in your life? That’s what I want. And I haven’t found that yet. So I’m still looking.” She says this so good-naturedly, with a smile, and it is endearing how she maintains a glass half-full attitude.
She dispels the career talk, though, with a statement clarifying her priorities. “Everything that I talked about—that’s not everything that’s happening in my life. The biggest part of my life is my little boy,” she says, alluding to her six-year old, Joaquin. In fact, while we are chatting, we are interrupted from time to time by her family, coming in and out of the house. Her dad wanders into the kitchen, looking for something. The doorbell rings and her mom pops out to lend a video to some neighbors. Eventually, Joaquin comes strolling in, wearing a Superman shirt. All the time, we will both stand up, she will make the necessary introductions, and strangely it will feel like being a suitor who has come over to meet the family she takes pride in.
We do a tour of her home, which is littered with old photos and the personages in these photos she knows by heart. We stop by a table crammed with picture frames. That one, she points out, is her grandmother, her Abu—short for Abuelita—her grandmother from Bacolod, who was originally a Ruiz de Luzuriaga. Her Abu married her Ito—short for Abuelito—which explains the Gallaga in her. He was a sea captain, hence the sailor uniform, and a soldier who took part in the Death March to Bataan.
She points to another faded photo: “This is my mom’s great-grandmother. Do you know that her father was the man who led the Americans into Manila Bay? He was the captain who led Dewey into the Bay. And he was really good friends with General Taft. In fact, those big chairs, those were given to my family by Governor General Taft. Historical pieces.”
To understand Yciar you have to realize that she is the sum of all this personal and collective history, which she has embraced with the fierce clannishness and intense appreciation for heritage that most Negrenses seem to be imbued with.
Why is this important, at all? Well, to understand Yciar you have to realize that she is the sum of all this personal and collective history, which she has embraced with the fierce clannishness and intense appreciation for heritage that most Negrenses seem to be imbued with. It extends even to her virtual life. Later in the day, I will stalk her Facebook photos, where I will find an album playfully entitled Old Pikchoors and in that 22-picture album is the sepia and black and white story of her evolution. She appears in none of the photos; but browse through that digital family album spanning generations and you will get an idea of what Yciar means when she says that everything she talked about is not everything that’s happening in her life.
The tour takes us to a shadowy hallway that branches out into the bedrooms. On the red brick walls hang more old pikchoors, a gallery of photos sans the little plaques or labels beneath the pieces. I kid her and say that, maybe soon, her cover shoot for Rogue will be hanging up here. She grins sheepishly, sort of her way of saying that she feels that she perhaps doesn’t size up to all that greatness. “I was worried about this whole thing. What are you going to write about me if I’m just the girl next door? You get it?” she asks, like she wants me to at least understand her apprehensions. “My life’s not extraordinary. It’s not really interesting. I’m not like Bea Valdes or these big names who’ve really made it. What are you going to write about me?”
I tell her I’ll think of something.
Before I leave, Yciar recounts how in September of last year she flew to India to coordinate and plan the Subowo-Jasin nuptials, a high-budget, luxury affair that would see one of Indonesia’s biggest tycoons marry the number one actress in the country. She launches into the gory details. “We had to make sure everybody was picked up from the airport and was brought to the hotels. And then from Delhi, because the reception and ceremony was in Delhi, we flew in the whole production team. It was a morning wedding, then a lunch reception, and at night there was a concert so we built a tent from scratch in the Imperial Hotel. And we flew in all the artists: Zsa Zsa Padilla, Martin Nievera, Lani Misalucha. It was crazy. We brought in a whole orchestra and then the directors. And then the next morning, we chartered a plane to Agra, where we had a private dawn tour of the Taj Mahal. It was crazy! Crazy busy! I didn’t sleep—I’d get three hours of sleep lang.”
One of the highlights of her trip was meeting one of India’s maharajahs. “On my second trip to India, I was there the first day, and David [Nugent, the groom’s buddy, and a friend of Yciar’s who had invited her to work on the wedding] was in Agra, and he called me and asked, can you do me a favor? You have to deliver the invitation—the invitation was as big as half this table, all mother of pearl. This huge box. You have to deliver it to this place in the outskirts of Delhi. So I was like, okay. I just knew that he,” referring to the man she would be delivering the invitation to, “was the chairman of the OCA—the Olympic Committee Association.”
“So I go. When I get there it’s nine thirty in the evening and it’s this beautiful house. Old architecture, like you’re back in the time of the Raj, but not grandiose or anything. I go in, and I give the invitation to the footman or the butler, whatever you want to call him. I get back into the car and then he comes after me, running, saying, my boss wants to meet you, you come down. I got nervous. But I go into the house, and I’m led into this den and it’s dark and I see people sitting on rugs on the floor, with pillows, drinking wine, and they’re all watching cricket on this huge TV screen.”
Yciar, I say it, an obssessive Humbert Humbert emphasis on the th, and it is like speaking of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, as if the name were some exotic ore or rare oil extracted from a faraway land.
“And this guy comes down, he was wearing—you know, the typical clothing. He was such a gentleman and he was super gracious. He insisted we stay for dinner, so we stayed for dinner. And then on our way out, we were talking, and he asked where we were staying. I said, we’re staying at the Imperial. The Imperial’s actually a museum hotel. That’s where Gandhi signed the proclamation. When we were talking, I was telling him that there’s this picture there, a photograph that I was really drawn to. It’s one of the maharajahs. It came out in National Geographic, I think. He has beautiful, beautiful eyes, and he had this huge diamond necklace, with a lot of huge diamonds attached. So I was telling him about it and he was like, oh yeah, that’s my uncle! WHAT?” she exclaims, miming the flummoxed look she must have had on her face when the maharajah had made his revelation.
“And so he says, come, and then he leads me to the living area where he has all these pictures. He goes, this is my mother. And he turned out to be one of the maharajahs of India. Starstruck,” she says, pointing to herself. “There are only two times in my life I was starstruck. The maharajah and when I saw Ely Buendia of the Eraserheads.”
If you recall, this was supposed to be the story of a kiss from a girl named Yciar. Conversation over, I get up, and she escorts me all the way to the gate. We exchange courtesies and I tell her that I may have to get in touch with her to fact check. “Okay, sure,” she nods. I extend my hand, wanting to be professional about the whole thing, and she takes it and we shake like businessmen. Then—and this, for me, is the unexpected thing—she leans in and offers her cheek graciously, for a kiss, or a beso, the way you would lay your cheek against an aunt’s or a close girl friend’s when saying hello or goodbye. So, ok, beso. Nice to meet you, Yciar Castillo.
And now it’s my turn to get starstruck. It is a small gesture—just a beso—but one that speaks volumes about who she is. Do pop princesses do that to nosy writers they’ve only met for the first time? Do big-time actresses offer you their cheeks? Do smoking hot, gazelle-legged models give you the time of day? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. But the point is, Yciar Castillo is about to break out and what’s so damn impressive is that she’s so unassuming about it, like she doesn’t expect the world to kowtow to her. She doesn’t seem to recognize that she is in possession of goddess-like powers that can bend wills and break hearts.
As I get in my car and watch her walk back into her home, the sun striking her radiantly, I can’t help but think: this cover girl seems different. Still as gracious as can be to a schmuck like me. Because truth is, for the ordinary Juan de la Cruz, rebels and bad girls be damned! I will take Yciar Castillo and her girl-next-doorness, any day, any time. In the days to come, I fearlessly forecast that the spotlight will belong to her and many will come to know her name (you, inclusive, Starbucks barista and Ely Buendia); but she will always, forever, indelibly remain, just like that kiss, still Yciar.