At just 27, Filipino photographer BJ Pascual is already one of Manila’s biggest names. He’s the city’s go-to celebrity fashion photographer whose work has featured on countless magazine covers (including this one), high profile advertising campaigns and popular pan-continental TV show, Asia’s Next Top Model. His work emblazons vast billboards across the Philippines, in one particular instance, the biggest piece of advertising real estate in Manila contained exclusively his work on all of its colossal canvases. He’s also a best-selling author and recently graced the cover of Manila’s ground-breaking gay magazine, TEAM.
I first met BJ when he was visiting London – we met for coffee in Dalston and chatted about his portfolio. It was clear he had a real talent but his demeanour seemed ill-atodds with a life in the cut-throat world of fashion. How could someone so, well, nice ever hope to succeed?
A year later, I’m standing on the helipad on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel, Manila with a crew of twelve people shooting one of the Philippine’s top actors. BJ stands beside me, confidently in control as he directs a celebrity 23 years his senior. Just a day before, I had tentatively asked the hotel’s marketing department for permission to shoot here, and an agreement came swiftly at the mere mention of his name – “Open sesame” didn’t have as much power. In his company, I became part of Manila’s ‘it’ crowd.
A week earlier, I had landed at Manila Airport. It was 7pm on a Friday evening and I was trying to figure out the difference between the yellow and white taxis that stood at two different ranks when my phone lit up.
“Have you landed yet? You have? Wait there, I’ll send my driver to pick you up.” Now, I’m 45, have worked with some of the world’s magazine giants and own a (albeit modest) publishing company, yet the closest I’ve ever come to having my very own driver was sheepishly calling my Dad up as a teenager having missed the last train home from a night out on the town. “I’ll meet you at your hotel and we can eat, then I need to decide if we are going to the The Palace or the O Bar to catch the drag show.”
Was this even the same person? What happened to that timid guy I met in London? An hour later, BJ joins me in the car and we are driven through the chaotic streets of Manila in BJ’s SUV by his skilful driver. BJ is head down, buried – like every other 20 something – in his smartphone. He is posting a picture on Instagram and moments later it has been ‘liked’ over 200 times by his adoring fans (I keep an eye on the photo over the next day or so and at the last count it was at over 3500). Looking up from his screen for a second, he points over to a gargantuan LCD billboard that fills the entire side of a skyscraper.
“That’s one of mine – I shot it on this phone,” he says casually. The ad is a loop of a model in a colourful neon lit studio, for the new, national Samsung Galaxy campaign. It’s the same phone that lights up with messages every other second. Over the next week, I learn that the only time it is not in use is when BJ’s beautifully manicured hands are either being occupied by his camera, a drink or some food.
We turn off the main road into what looks like a disused retail park. We jump out and find ourselves by a little bar, welcomed by a table of smiling, gorgeous young gays. I’m introduced to them one by one – too many names to hold in my head after a 14 hour flight – and we settle down for a drink. The chat flows freely, Manileños love to talk as much as they love to laugh – but not as much as they love to eat; some things are, after all, sacred. The guy on my left, Paolo is especially chatty and we instantly click – something which seems to happen nine times in ten in Manila – a welcome contrast to the rarity with which it happens back home. It turns out that Paolo is a presenter of a uniquely Filipino, philanthropic TV show, Eat Bulaga! where prizes are handed out to the city’s poor – of which there are tragically many. From what I gather, it’s a game-show-cum-variety-show fusion – but contestants don’t actually need to do much more than sign-up, to potentially find themself as the owner of a life-changing prize. The show goes out daily at noon and is extraordinarily popular with the Filipino public – as a result there is no shortage of companies clambering to offer up prizes for the exposure it gives them. In Manila, exposure is everything.
“Oh, you have to see Paolo’s Instagram,” another of the guys shouts excitedly across the table. “It’s amazing!” Sure enough, it is actually amazing. Paolo, self taught in makeup, is a genius with an eyebrow pencil, convincingly turning himself into any one he pleases from Rihanna to Michelle Obama, which for a Pinoy boy is no mean feat.
“I started doing it for fun, I didn’t realise people would like it so much – but they did. Buzzfeed spotted me and shared my pictures.” I had to double check that I’d read it correctly – Paolo Ballesteros has over 1.6 million followers. I had thought that BJ’s 245k was a lot. BJ and his peers will share, engage, consume and comment on almost anything and are by no means ill-adjusted egomaniacs. They are, for all I can see, just regular, albeit very creative, happy-golucky, pleasant, young, switched-on people. They just choose to share that with hundreds of thousands of others, most of whom they have never met, nor will they ever meet. And the benefits of them of doing so seem to far outweigh the negatives. In fact, it is hard to see any negatives at all.
In BJ’s case, the plusses seem to go way beyond even his own expectations. There is no doubt in my mind that he is an extraordinarily talented photographer – it takes a lot for me to trust someone with something as important as a cover shoot. By no means am I saying that he would not enjoy such success without social media, but his talent for photography is equalled and supported by his talent for digital publicity. He instinctively knows what to share and what people will like; but, perhaps I’m creating too much of a division between the two things. The art of photography is not just a good eye, but also a great edit.
Over the next week I spend a lot of time with BJ as we plan our shoot and he shows me around his city and introduces me to his friends. There are countless times he manages to share our moments together without my knowledge. It was almost like are were two BJs – the one in the room, and the digital persona, who is managed by the one in the room – the easy-going, easily-distracted boy next door and the Warholesque celebrity whose life is filled with glamour and the trappings of fame. It’s that combination of talents that makes him the success story that he is; neither would work on their own. I know people in the creative industries in London, Milan, New York – the world’s fashion capitals – many with decades of experience and proven talent who are still touting for work. Yet, here is a young man barely six years into his career, who has the head of one of the world’s biggest talent agencies, Jed Root, flying out to Manila from NYC to attend the opening of his inaugural gallery show.
Add to that, a best-selling book, Push (now on its second print run); an address book crammed with the great and the good, including international supermodels and film stars; and bookings until the end of the year. He’s a busy guy, but despite his celebrity status and gridlock schedule, he retains an easy-going, genuinely likeable personality and a real generosity. The reason he wrote his book was to help other young people get started in a career in the creative industries – it’s a ‘how to’ guide based on the things he learnt in starting his own career. It’s popular because of the celebrities featured, but also because in the minds of many, www.outtheR e.tR avel particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds, BJ is truly living the dream.
BJ is openly gay – and a role model at that. He feels that it is important for young, gay Filipino people to know that it is OK to be out and proud. It seems fine to be gay here in the Philippines (well, Manila at least) but yet there are only a handful of openly gay public figures, particular older ones. The media has tended to portray gay people as either figures of derision or as Trans*. So it’s no accident that the general impression of gay people is one that is effeminate. When you tell people here that you are gay, particularly the older generations, they will ask you when you will start to dress in women’s clothing. So it is important for people like BJ, for those stereotypes to be broken. I learnt that there is actually quite a big population of LGBTQ people in Manila – and for the most part, they are pretty integrated into society. Working-class gays tend to work in beauty parlours or hair salons, so most people do come in contact with gay people regularly – so much so that the ‘gay vernacular’ spoken in Manila, once used as a secret code in the community, is now understood by the mainstream.
Through BJ’s introductions, I feel like I’m meeting all of Manila’s talented and interesting young creatives, from journalists to actresses, designers, fashion editors and makeup artists in just a few short days. One random night I even end up at a rave with a Queen and a Princess – but that’s another story. So what is it that is breeding this new generation of switched-on people? Let’s get real for a second – there is a huge divide between the rich and the poor in Manila. So the people I’m talking about here come from the top quartile of affluence. They talk about the Filipino love for travel, and art school, and living abroad. But this is naturally because they are relatively well-off. It’s obviously much harder to be part of this new wave if you’re from the shantytowns, or a small village in the archipelago. BJ and his friends are aware of this – creating hope is extremely important – and allowing access and connectivity to a world outside of the bubble you’re used to is crucial as well.
For Manileños rich or poor, the internet has in some way become a leveller. In the past, people were far more introspective, but because of technology and the web, Filipinos are much more exposed to the outside world and even more importantly, vice versa. Now the world doesn’t see the Philippines as some backwards, undeveloped nation – they hear their lilting accents from call-centres across the country that serve the American and Canadian public, they spot Filipino talent on YouTube from their sofas and in less than 48 hours, they watch them again dancing on Ellen. Pinoy after Pinoy appear on The X Factor across the globe and blow the local talent out of the water. An impoverished boy from the slums became the best boxer in the world (albeit a homophobic one), a young woman from Quezon City became Miss Universe and a transgender politician can thrive in the Filipino Congress. BJ has had personal experience of this phenomenon. He’d been working with a young, local girl who he would promote on his Instagram, and one day the director of Wilhelmina Models signed her up just because he followed BJ on the picture-sharing network. It’s today’s greatest paradox – a much smaller world but with much bigger opportunities.
I ask BJ why he felt Manila’s star is shining. He agrees with the fact that the internet is a good source of inspiration and a motivator to make something of yourself. He also feels that a much greater sense of national pride is making the Pinoy nomad come home and be part of the movement. He tells me that there are so many people doing interesting things in the city, bringing home all the best bits from various cultures. They won’t just duplicate it, but inject it with lashings of Filipino flavour. And that, I feel is the secret ingredient – that made my time here with BJ and his friends so enjoyable and keeps making Manila such an exciting place to be. Despite the contemporary landscape in which they live, they embody the enduring characteristics of being Filipino – they’re inquisitive and resourceful, adaptable and resilient, hospitable and polite, brave and dignified. They also find humour and hilarity in everything, you can’t phase them. And if these bright, young things from Manila represent the future of the Philippines, it won’t be long before I’m packing my bags and moving here.