Lipa City mayor Vilma Santos Recto turned 50 yesterday, but the years certainly do not show on her face and especially not on her still slim figure. And those 50 years certainly were not wasted because she excelled in everything she did – in both life and career. As an actress, she has the most number of acting awards – with eight Urian trophies (10 if you include the two times she was named Actress of the Decade along with Nora Aunor). As a TV host, she had the best variety show on television that ran for many years. As mayor of her beloved Lipa, her reputation is untarnished. As wife, her 11-year marriage with Sen. Ralph Recto, is sometimes part of the gossip mill, but which celebrity union isn’t? As a mother, she must be very proud of her son Luis’ recent achievements in the field of entertainment. But her biggest sacrifice as a mother – and for this she earned my undying respect – was when she risked her career to give birth to Ryan Christian.
Vilma is truly an accomplished woman. Why, even her recording of “Sweet Sixteen” was certified gold! All those 50 years behind her have indeed been fruitful. However, I still can’t believe that Vilma has turned golden girl. Wasn’t it only yesterday when she was still doing those light musical comedy/dramas with Edgar Mortiz? I still have vivid memories of Vilma from way back and I would want to share them with you. My earliest memories of Vilma Santos must be in black and white. Back then, I knew there was a Vilma Santos playing teen-age daughter to Eddie Rodriguez and Lolita Rodriguez in those Virgo love triangles. She was said to have been launched by Sampaguita Pictures in “Trudis Liit” and supposedly did a lot of other projects as a child star in the early ‘60s, but I didn’t know that then. The more popular Vilma that time was singer-actress Vilma Valera.
Then Nora Aunor came along and both TV and movie screens were filled with diminutive female teen stars – with Vilma Santos among them. No, Vilma wasn’t as popular as Nora that time, but her rise to superstardom was steady. The public’s interest in Vilma interestingly enough came when her “Trudis Liit” was shown one summer on afternoon television a couple of years before martial law. In those days, only one Tagalog movie was aired by the station (it was ABS-CBN in this case) from Monday to Friday, but children on summer break with nothing else to do at home would still watch the same film everyday. And so on that summer vacation, even kids from the uppity homes had their fill of Vilma. It was good thing she excelled in that film and was cute and had charmed everyone. And so, even if her singing of the theme song of “D’Sensations” was murder on the eardrums, she already had the public’s curiosity and even respect – thanks to the revived interest on “Trudis Liit”. From my end, the first time I became curious about her was when I read an article on her in this fan magazine that featured her house in Arfel Homes in Project 6. Even then, I was already interested in architectural designs and I marveled at the simple, yet tasteful structure of the home she has built for her family.
The only opulent feature of that house was her round bed and I’ve always wanted to ask her what she did with it. Later, the FAMAS had its awards night and she tied with Boots Anson Roa for Best Actress and I was among those who watched her tearful acceptance speech on television. Months later, I finally saw a Vilma Santos movie on the big screen – and in color. My Dad that time had a friend who gave us season’s passes to the Manila Filmfest ever year and one of the entries then was “Dyesebel”. Since I’ve always been the type who wouldn’t want to see anything go to waste, I saw to it that the entire pass was used – all 10 movies. The problem was getting people to bring me to the theatres – in downtown Manila – since I couldn’t get there on own my own yet.
On the night I saw “Dyesebel”, it was raining very hard and my older cousin (who had to be bribed to accompany me) and I had to squeeze into Miramar because the film was a boxoffice hit. The film wasn’t really much (and I enjoyed another entry more – Ramon Zamora’s “Pedro Penduko” by Celso Ad. Castillo), but Vilma – in spite of that awful rubber fishtail – was very charming in “Dyesebel”. Unfortunately, my fondness for her dipped a bit when she did another variety show called – good grief! – ‘’Yan Eh!” Couldn’t they have thought of a better title? And yes, the horrible theme song. It went like this: La-lala-la-la-la-la-la-la, ‘yan eh, la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-, ‘yan eh, la-lala-la-la-la-la-la-la-, ‘yan eh! Yan eh! No wonder, she got the Batangueno a la eh votes so easily. Okay, so her 50 years weren’t really all that great. But hey, this was just one tiny mistake in her career and I can forgive her for this. After all, she more than made up for it – and how! Vilma Santos started endorsing products in the early ‘70s and the first product she sold on TV I remember was Tanduay – the wholesome edition. (There was a sexy version with Rosanna Ortiz).
Then, there were those beautiful Lux commercials, one of which was shot in an old church in Nagcarlan, Laguna. After that came the Fita ad where she hosts a children’s party for a niece who tells her, “Tita Vi, I am so happy. Thank you!” The one product she endorsed the longest, of course, was Eskinol. Her career at this point was charted very well. It was around this period when she did the Darna series, “Takbo, Vilma, Dali!” and other blockbuster hits. In 1975, she made a rather daring move that called for her to come out in a twopiece swimsuit. This was in “Nakakahiya” where she was involved in a May-December affair with Eddie Rodriguez.
Then there was the controversial “Tag-ulan sa Tag-araw”, her first team-up with Christopher de Leon. The year 1977 saw yet another milestone in her career. She did “Burlesk Queen” where she played the very daring and challenging role of a stripper. “Burlesk Queen” may have figured prominently in the 1977 Metro Filmfest, nevertheless heralded Vilma as an excellent actress. At this point, she was already on her way to greatness as far as acting was concerned. In the latter part of the ‘70s, Vilma made several box-office hits, but it wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that this was the lowest point of her life financially. She lost everything – save for a few properties. With the help of Marichu Maceda and Atty. Espiridion Laxa, she was able to clean up her financial mess. (By God’s grace, she was never in the red again – thanks to her faithful accountant and friend Aida Fandialan, whom she met through Amalia Fuentes.)
Eventually, Vilma got married (to Edu Manzano) and bore her first child (Lucky). She was still going through financial difficulties at this stage and wasn’t sure if the public was still willing to accept her now that she was married. “Pakawalan Mo Ako” (produced by Marichu Maceda) affirmed that the public still loved her. She was now well on her way to financial recovery. It was around this period when I first met Vilma in person. I was a student doing my practicum and my assignment was to interview Vilma regarding fortune-tellers. It was going to be a short interview, but I sought her out all the way in Broadcast City where she was the special guest of Inday Badiday in “See-True”. I thought it was brazen of me to have walked past her entourage (she still maintained a lot then) and gone straight to her. But she didn’t mind my intrusion.
On the contrary, she was very nice to me and even held me on my shoulder! That was the image I kept repeating in my mind before I slept that night. The next time I saw her again in person, I was already a true-blue journalist in the entertainment beat. This was at the Rizal Theatre when she won her second Urian for “Broken Marriage”. I was with Mario Dumaual who was one of my closest buddies then. Vilma was throwing a blowout at the Manila Pen and since Mario and I knew some of the Manunuri members, we decided to tag along (we were gatecrashers in other words). At that party, I also met Bibeth Orteza (she hosted the Urian) and found her to be very friendly and we talked like we were long-lost friends. At around 2 am, everyone decided to call it a night and Vilma positioned herself at the exit to say goodbye to everyone for coming to her party. She probably didn’t know half of the guests there and in her mind, she must have been saying, “Who the hell are you people?” But knowing how good-natured she is, our presence there must have been just okay with her.
In fact, she was still very warm and cheerful when it was my turn to shake her hand and congratulate her. Of course, she didn’t remember me anymore from the year before because that first meeting was a brief three minutes. But that evening of her blowout, I was aching to remind her that only a year before that, she actually touched my shoulder. Toward the last half of the ‘80s, I began writing a column for this paper. It was also around this period when Vilma’s variety show on Channel 7 started to get noticed. Since I genuienly liked her program (it will go down TV history as one of the best variety shows ever), I gave it a lot of positive reviews. Obviously, she read them because on the night she won for “Tagos ng Dugo” in the FAMAS, I approached her at her Manila Hotel table for another brief interview and she had this “Oh, so you’re the one!” look on her face.
Vilma was accommodating as always and after her name was announced as Best Actress, I wanted to congratulate her, except that she was mobbed by the press photographers. At the corridor outside the Fiesta Pavilion, however she saw me while she was surrounded by her battalion of fans and called out my name. I went to her to finally congratulate her and she hugged me. No, she didn’t just touch my shoulder. She hugged me. Vilma Santos hugged me. At that moment, I knew that we were going to be friends – and we did. Very good friends, indeed. And I swear she can be such a thoughtful friend. For somebody who has the world at her feet, she’s never self-centered. her most endearing trait, in fact, is that she knows how to listen. And how to say thank you. When the first installment of this two-part series came out last Tuesday, hers was the first text message I got. She said thank you.
Why, even her loyal Vilmanians are so thoughtful. The past few days, I’ve been getting text messages even from the US (one from Ben of LA and another one from Franco of San Francisco) thanking me for the write-up on Vilma. To all of you, you are most welcome. And to Mayor Vi, belated happy birthday! A lot of women I know are afraid to reach the half-century mark. But if you can be half (or even one-fourth or one-eight)as accomplished as Vilma Santos and still look as lovely as she is today, it probably would be great to be 50. – Butch Francisco, The Philippine Star 04 Nov 2003