ANGEL Aquino is no beauty. At least, not a conventional one.
Her face is too narrow, she smiles widely instead of model-pouting delicately; she wears that kayumanggi skin unashamedly. Angel’s definitely not your tawny-tressed, conventional half-American, half-everything peaches-and-cream beauty that most Pinays aspire to look like these days. Her own brand of allure isn’t a result of some foreign-gene salad tossing or chemically-altered pigmentation. Your eyes won’t see it. But you will certainly feel it.
We think we know all about Angel Aquino, the accomplished actress, TV host, model and endorser. What we don’t know is that she was once a college student all set to take on the world who ended up breaking her mother’s heart instead. A 20-something mother who, though married, had to single-handedly support her two little daughters. A struggling actress torn between wifely duties and a budding movie career. A woman who denied herself in the past but now demands and accepts nothing less than the utmost respect from her partner.
I discover all these inside a sparsely-furnished condo unit 30 floors above the bustling Ortigas district. If it had merely been a “surface junk 401” tête-à-tête, any café in the metro would have done. But marie claire wanted to delve not only into Angel’s life, but her romantic liaisons and her much-speculated sexual inclinations as well; so an empty pad away from accidental eavesdroppers seems like a perfect choice.
My subject arrives in a flowing blouse and short denim skirt ensemble that shows off those long, long legs. Suddenly, I remember our first meeting a few days before. She sat in very much the same way she settled across me now; smooth brown arms cuddling svelte tanned legs casually propped on the couch. Now I know why dusky Marias everywhere can’t help but admire her brown skin.
Facing one another on the couch, there’s a pregnant silence. I momentarily regret telling her beforehand that there are quite a few “intimate” questions on the list. Now, will she answer them? If she does will she be straightforward about it? And more importantly, will she let me use it for this story?
Her answer: Yes on all counts.
Finding out the hard way
Angel could have been an unwed mother. And in hindsight, she says she would much rather have been one.
When she was 19, Angel felt invincible. She was a journalism major in UP Baguio back then, living away from her family and having the time of her life. Her credo: “I can take on whatever comes my way.”
Then she fell in love. He was her first boyfriend, younger than her. She became pregnant.
“I was being foolish and careless,” Angel recalls.
Her mother was devastated. The day Angel and her boyfriend confirmed the pregnancy, her mother left the house and didn’t come home till the next day. “It was her way of telling me that she was disappointed (in me).”
It turned out, her mother (whom Angel says is “old school”) went to her boyfriend’s house to inform him of the situation. For her part, Angel didn’t plan on telling him about the baby. But when he offered to marry her after the baby was born, her mother insisted that she accept it.
“It was one mistake after another,” says Angel. “I know I learned from (the marriage). But still, when I look back, I know I could have done without it. I could have still learned the things I learned from life (even without getting married).”
But she caved in when people persisted with their fusty argument that even if the marriage fell apart–and it did–she could at least tell her child she married to make sure he had a name. Her mother was determined to make Angel face up to her mistake and lead a morally upright life as a married woman.
“Since she and my father were never married, my mother felt she was living a lie and in sin. Siguro (maybe), she didn’t want me to live the same life she had.”
So Angel acquiesced.
She was already modeling and doing commercials before the baby happened but she stopped once the bump materialized. While her husband went back to school, Angel took on the role of dutiful housewife and mother –cooking, cleaning the house, and taking care of their newborn daughter.
“I really gave it my best,” insists the reluctant homemaker. “But we were both too young.”
Each day, the couple got more and more on each other’s nerves; the relationship turned strained. Angel was so depressed that the second pregnancy that immediately followed the first brought her much difficulty.
The guy never finished school; he was too busy flying back and forth to the US, shopping for a Green card. With him gone for five to eight months, Angel had no choice but to raise and support their two children on her own. Fortunately, commercials and modeling jobs kept coming.
Then, showbiz beckoned. She was launched in Mumbaki in 1996 and earned a nomination as New Actress of the Year in the 1996 Star Awards for her role as an Ifugao maiden. From that moment on, her star rose as acting offers landed on her lap.
As her husband sought his fortunes in the US, Angel continued doing her own thing – shooting films, modeling, saving her own money. Whenever she found her routine, it would be disrupted each time her husband came home.
“All of a sudden, I had to change my lifestyle and go up to Baguio. Every time I had to work, I had to travel back down to Manila. When you’re in (show business), you gotta strike while the iron is hot. But I could only do so much work kasi ang layu-layo ko (because I was so far away). Not everybody could wait for me.”
She was shooting Goodbye America in Subic when her husband, newly-arrived from the US, turned up on the set, expecting his wife to pack her bags and go home with him. This time, she didn’t budge nor mince her words.
She remembers telling him: “It really causes imbalance on my part whenever you’re here. What happens now? Will you be staying in Baguio or will you wait for me until I finish shooting?”
He went back to Baguio. Saying that he refused to impose on or force the marriage to work, he finally conceded that the relationship was dead. With that, “we just let go,” says Angel.
In 1997, four years after their hesitant exchange of “I do’s,” Angel and her husband called it quits. In 2002, Angel filed for an annulment when her husband finally decided to stay in the Philippines for good.
Her marriage faltered, but not her career. Angel has shared screen time with the country’s leading artists such as Sharon Cuneta, Richard Gomez, Christopher de Leon, Eddie Garcia, Johnny Delgado and Cherry Pie Picache.
She’s a current “indie/digital film favorite,” and late last year wrapped up the filming of Kaleldo and Nasaan Na Ba Si Francis?, a commercial film.
F, the women’s lifestyle show she hosts with Daphne Oseña and Amanda Griffin, remains her main bread and butter,
When asked about her ex-husband’s relationship with their daughters, Iana, 12, and Thea, 10, Angel raves, “Oh, they’re very close. Since he moved back, they would always spend summer with him in Baguio.”
When she tells me how close they are, I swear I detected a hint of leftover resentment, the kind that mothers feel when their charges become overly-appreciative of another adult.
“It really ate me up before,” she confesses with a smile, “when they’re so excited to be with him, especially when he came back here. It was like, I was with them all these years then suddenly somebody comes and now, they have a new hero?”
But she’s over that now, she assures me. What matters is that all four of them are enjoying a tight, happy relationship.
“(My ex-husband) is very close to my family. They don’t see him as an in-law anymore nor do I see him as my ex-husband. He’s more like a relative now, that’s how close we’ve become.”
In praise of women
How do you ask a stranger if they’re gay? Subtlety, I tell myself, is the key.
“There was a rumor going on when I was in college…” I begin. But before I could get any more words out, Angel, who doesn’t believe in subtlety during times like this, interrupted my fumbling.
“…that I’m a lesbian?” she interjects. We both pause and eyeball each other. Then in unison, we laugh (in relief, it seems) at having saved ourselves from the discomfiting moment.
Not too long ago, the buzz around town was that Angel was having an affair with another woman.
“She’s bisexual,” say other malicious voices. True or not, it isn’t anybody’s business. But Angel knows she’s got nothing to hide or be ashamed of, so she speaks her mind.
“I’m a very open-minded person.” Long pause. “I have nothing against (gay) relationships.”
For this freethinker, love is not exclusive to straight folks. Just as people disregard a person’s hometown, alma mater, or other incidentals, gender should not be of consequence – in love, in business, in anything.
Angel is open to the possibility that she can get romantically attached to other women. “When I fall in love, it does not matter who the person is. So I guess, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a woman or it’s a man.”
“I’m just more comfortable (in the company of) women than with men,” she explains sheepishly. As far back as she can remember, she shied away from men.
As for the men she fell for, “I developed feelings for them only in the long run, not because of instant physical attraction).”
Since she seemed enlightened on the subject, I persuade her to compare straight and same-sex relationships. On hearing the question, she bursts out in laughter.
“Objectively?” she asks. “Actually, lesbian relationships are even better because in a heterosexual relationship, there’s definite role playing. (The guy says) ‘I’ll take care of you, so on and so forth.’ But in a same-sex relationship, you get to play both parts. Both of you take care of each other, both of you are responsible for each other’s feelings.
She warms up to the subject and adds: “And these girls really know how to take care of their women. They know what you want and more importantly, they know what you need. And it really means a lot if these needs are addressed, recognized and given to you.
“With some men, you really have to spell it out to them,” she says this while throwing her hands up in mock exasperation. “Because if you don’t, they’ll tell you, ‘What am I, a mind reader?!’”
“Dapat alam mo na (You should know) that you’re supposed to give the girl this kind of caring and attention.”
I think, hmm, too bad there are no men around to hear her. “Some of (these guys), wala talaga (they don’t get it). So you really have to tell them, ‘I want you to be here!’”
But she admits some men are willing to go the distance (read: admit they’re wrong) and work out the problem, even if it means checking into the dog house from time to time.
Still, femme lovers out-love the boys. “With women, most of them are just, my god,” she says disbelievingly, “‘I will give you the universe if I can.’”
Angel’s liberal attitude extends to the way she raises her children. Her own daughter is enrolled in an exclusive school and pretty soon, she’ll come across girl-to-girl relationships.
“I would like to guide her through it. It would be her decision (to enter a gay relationship) in the same way that I have the free will to decide if I should take on a relationship with a woman or not.”
Suppose one of her daughters happened to meet the perfect woman instead of the perfect man?
She considers the possibility before answering that all she wants is to meet the girl first. “But I hope it doesn’t happen,” she backtracks quickly, “because it would really break my mother’s heart.”
So has she…?
Angel looks me straight in the eye. “I have been close to women…”
But for the record, she clarifies, “I was never with Barbie Almabis.”
In all her 32 years on this earth, Angel reveal she’s only had two men in her life – her ex- husband and her current love, Norby, who plays in a band. And the latter is something of a wonder for this dewy-eyed romantic.
“I didn’t think I could last in a relationship this long with a man,” she confesses in an amazed voice. As of this month, they’ve been together for six years already. She jokes, “I hope when this article comes out, we’ll still be together!”
As it happens, this is already Book Two of their relationship. Sometime last July, they parted ways only to get back together in November. So, is love sweeter the second time around?
“Maybe,” Angel breaks into a smile. “Because you’ve seen the worst in each other, which is why you broke up in the first place. Somehow, we now know what doesn’t work in our relationship. It’s like we’re starting all over again but this time, we try not to have expectations.
“We just go with the flow and hopefully, it works out. Kasi ako, honestly, I would like to spend the rest of my life with him.”
Angel reveals that before the breakup, there was only “empty love, empty sacrifices.” It turns out our cover girl’s been too giving with her love in the past.
“(My partners) always end up taking me for granted.” She gathers she brought it upon herself – she’s always been a disciple of the “others first before me” type of generosity.
“I realized that the way you see and treat yourself, that’s how others will see and treat you also.” It took her forever to learn this lesson.
She stares at the glass of water she’s holding for the longest time.
“Just a few months ago, I was basically the same emotionally immature…” she drifts off before re-emerging from her reverie with a resolute voice. “I’m consciously trying to improve myself on love because it has become my biggest weakness.”
And this time, she’s determined to succeed, obtaining willpower from her fount of strength – her two daughters, whom she wants to show that women deserve more from people they love.
“I was such a doormat!” she laughingly confesses. Before, she would suffer in silence and not be the first to speak of the problem.
“I don’t want to be like that anymore because I don’t want my kids to be treated that way by their partners. So now, I try to assert myself more in my relationship. Also, with other people; if I know I have a point, then I just say it out loud.”
She’s got no intention of making the same mistake in this “second life” with Norby. “I’m working on my own improvement so he’ll see me as a whole person and respect me for that.”
After taking care of herself and her daughters single-handedly, she didn’t feel comfortable about being taken care of by others.
“I’m the nurturing type, I like taking care of people. But now, I realize, ‘Wait, I want to be taken care of, too.’ I’m training myself to be more accepting when people reach out and take care of me. Alagaan niyo naman ako.”
She breaks into her wide, gentle smile.
I could be her, I think to myself. And I don’t mean becoming an icon of beauty or indie queen or any of the titles that’s been conferred on her.
When they call her real or natural, in fashion pages, they see her high cheekbones, her full lips, her regal bearing and of course, her beautiful skin.
But when I call her real, I see flaws, irrational mistakes, unfettered views, a free mind, and a great capacity for love – things I can have for myself and all the other women who share her spirit.
Believe me when I say, Angel Aquino is a beauty. At least, not a conventional one. Never the conventional one.
Originally published in marie claire FEBRUARY 2006 (cover story).