Anjanette Abayari: From Beauty Queen to Persona Non Grata
Of course I remember, I was 19 when it happened. I heard about it on the radio. Actress Anjanette Abayari was apprehended at the Guam airport for possession of shabu. Or was that Alma Concepcion? Either must have caused quite the sensation. Both beauty queens, both at a high in their careers, then busted only a year apart, Alma in 1998 and Anjanette in 1999. Things were never quite the same for them afterwards after being banged up abroad.
But while Alma got to go back home, with President Estrada personally offering to raise funds for her bail, Anjanette, a US citizen, was declared persona non grata by the same President. He reasoned that she would be a bad influence on her peers in the industry. “My administration is waging an all-out war against drugs and nobody's an exception to the rule," Erap had declared. Interestingly, a week later he lifted the ban after Anjanette faxed him a personal appeal, allowing her return under strict conditions such as monthly drug tests. For reasons unreported on, however, the decision was again quickly reversed, and the actress remained on the blacklist until the Bureau of Immigration finally cleared her in 2003.
For a few months in Guam, Anjanette was languishing in and out of jail and the homes of kind people who took her in, until she and her lawyers settled on a plea bargain. She paid a fine of $9,200 and went back to the United States, where her family lived. Years passed. Entertainment journalists back home wrote the occasional article about her, wondering what she’s been up to in L.A., as a person without a past, without a crown (albeit rescinded), without a history of wearing sexy superhero costumes. She lived there as a new person, and took on normal jobs like managing a fitness center, and doing the occasional modeling job. She raised two sons without getting married. Presently she works for a lawyer as a public relations officer, and only in the last year returned to television via the Fil-Am network, as a host for FanTV and as a regular guest on a popular health and beauty program called The Dr. Tess Show, which is shown all over the world except the Philippines, on GMA Pinoy TV.
Fifteen years after the incident, Anjanette decided to finally revisit her home country. On her own terms. Of course, the talk show appearances were inevitable, once word got around. The sensationalizing of her making a showbiz comeback, because it's a trend among her contemporaries, became the main narrative. And the dredging up of the past—how an ex-boyfriend allegedly sold her things and kept the money that concerned individuals donated to her during her troubles—was unavoidable. Although Anjanette had already moved on and moved far with her life, there was this huge gap in the consciousness of the public, that is, among those who are old enough to remember her.
Welcome home, Anjanette Abayari.
* * *
"Only Boy Abunda knew I was coming back. I didn't tell anyone else. The initial reason was for a family reunion in Iloilo, and also an international movie I'm shooting with Don "The Dragon" Wilson. The last thing on my mind was showbiz, really," AJ, as she is also called, says over lunch, looking very much like a ‘90s SoCal mom in a black tank top with a glittery skull, black cycling shorts and trainers. But showbiz wasn't something she ever put out of her mind, either. "I had my kids, and I made a deal, if I didn't have any stretch marks after my second child, maybe I can go back to the industry. There's something I didn't finish."
Her sons, now eight and five years old, are the epitome of adorable sweetness. Aiden, the older boy, has the exotic dark features of his mother, while Ashton looks more Caucasian, products of different fathers. During the photo shoot for Esquire, the boys would come running in and out of the studio to hug and kiss their mommy, and, as time wore on, badger her about going home. "Have you seen your mommy's movie, Darna?" I ask Ashton. He nods. "But I didn't understand it."
Anjanette did an admirable job of raising two respectful, well-behaved boys singlehandedly, so you've got to give her credit for taking her time. A Philippine comeback, in whatever form it will take, won't exactly be seamless. "I'm going to go back and forth. I know I'm not young anymore. I want to learn the production side, the business aspect of it too," she says.
Boy Abunda, who is AJ’s trusted confidante and manager, is also cautious about her leaving everything behind. “Although Filipinos are very forgiving, people who’ve been involved in a drug scandal usually have a hard time coming back,” he tells me over a phone interview. “But she’s certainly paid her dues.” He thinks that the showbiz climate of today will prove more of a challenge, since there’s a whole generation that wasn’t even born yet when Darna: Ang Pagbabalik came out in 1994. “Before, we could craft careers on paper. Now, there are a lot more variables involved in managing careers. Attention spans are shorter, the relationship between the star and audience is more direct... I wouldn’t want her to leave her job in the States without testing the waters first.” Boy feels very paternal with Anjanette. “She remains a little girl to me. She has this child-like quality, very open. But she’s a very smart woman.”
* * *
As it turns out, Anjanette is not just smart, she’s I-could’ve-been-a-nuclear-engineer-smart. "That's one thing no one really knows about me," she says, and I learn that she had that kind of strict and sheltered upbringing that produces straight-A students—or rebels. AJ, the eldest of four, was a high achiever, but she wasn't allowed to go out or date until she turned 18. So in her small private Catholic high school, she ran for student body president in order to circumvent her father's rules, because as president, she told her dad, it was her duty to attend all school functions. "I would've missed my whole high school life because my dad was not letting me go," she says. "I was patting myself on the back for that one, forever."
Still, AJ was always plagued by insecurity: "I was never the pretty girl. I was always the smart girl. I was that girl in high school who was always wishing to be asked out.” She applied to, and got accepted to Annapolis, the prestigious United States Naval Academy, for the nuclear engineering program. Once she proved to her family that she could do it, she told them, now can I go see if I'm pretty?
She declined Annapolis, an all-expenses-paid school, much to the disappointment of her grandmother, who wanted someone to follow in the footsteps of her brigadier general grandfather. Perhaps AJ was intimidated by the fact that her classmates would be predominantly male. Perhaps the lure of modeling was too strong. She ended up going to UCLA but never graduated, because she was well on her way to her career of being pretty. "I was so happy when I made it to the Oakland Raiderettes. A thousand girls tried out, and I was one of the 48 who made it,” she recalls. “But no one in my house congratulated me. No one was happy for me. My dad was like 'you're wasting your brain.' Nobody ever said, `hey that's cool'."
After a few turns as a video vixen (for David Lee Roth, Timmy Tee) and dancing for Prince at the MTV Video Awards, she joined the 1991 Bb. Pilipinas competition and won the top title. Because she was a naturalized American citizen, however, she had to give up the title, but she quickly embarked on a productive career in acting, with around 26 film credits to her name (after 2000, the movie trail runs cold on IMDB). Her name was also invariably followed by the term “sex symbol.” AJ was riding high.
In October of the last year of the ‘90s, AJ was scheduled to appear at the launch of a karaoke lounge in Guam. But she seemed to have a foreboding of the events to come: "I wanted to cancel my flight. I had this really bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I didn't want to go. But I had a contract. I even told my mom, something's not right. And as soon as I stepped off the plane..."
She maintains, as she did then, that the Bic ballpen the airport officials found in her makeup kit belonged to her sister. She didn't even realize what they were doing when they scraped it to find traces of shabu. "I was just as shocked as everybody else,” she says. “But I've learned to accept it. For a while I was angry, not at God, but at everyone else. I didn't want to look inside and see what part I played in it." About a month before the incident, AJ had been praying to find a way out of the country: "'I need to get out of here. God, get me out of here!' I felt suffocated, I had island fever. It was getting to the point where I couldn't go anywhere. So when that happened, I was like, 'God, I didn't mean like that!'" She laughs about it now and considers the entire nightmare a humbling experience that she needed, but the months, even years following her detainment and exile, were very dark.
"When I got back [to the States], I just sat in my room and felt like I was about to cry. There was nobody around, so I just let myself cry, and I cried so hard I thought I was going to have a heart attack. The pain in my chest—I couldn't breathe," she remembers. "That was the last time I let myself feel that kind of pain. I just buried it in." She didn't want to reach out to her friends because she was embarrassed. So she isolated herself. Eventually, she didn't have to think about it, because nobody asked her, nobody knew.
When she arrived in Manila two days before Valentine’s Day, she realized she didn't exactly know what she was doing here. What would she say to interviewers who asked her so what's the biggest lesson you've learned? Who are you now? So Anjanette sat still. With her kids away in Iloilo with their grandmother, it was the first time in forever that she was alone, completely alone, and in the silence of an empty apartment she meditated, she looked inside herself, and she confronted her demons.
“I have been fighting the need to be still, but there have been too many signs to ignore...I've had to force myself to slow down, sit still and let the universe catch up with me. In that stillness the universe led me deep to places I had forgotten, and showed me that the fears I had were no match for the light I tried to shut out,” AJ wrote down as the reflections came pouring in. She's always been more of a writer, she says, and in fact keeps a notebook of unpublished poetry.
I could tell she was attempting to compress the essence of her epiphany to a soundbite-worthy answer when she was on Jessica Soho's show Kapuso Mo and asked a similar question. But "I sat still and the universe held my hand," intercut with vintage movie clips of her bouncing around in sexy workout gear just doesn't fully convey the emotional upheaval and process of self-healing she went through.
Soho and her camera crew did spend considerable time with AJ, even accompanying her to IloIlo where she saw her ailing father for the first time in 10 years. But the encounter wasn’t the tearful reunion AJ had envisioned it to be—though he was obviously happy to see her, his stoic and unexpressive nature pre-empted any waterworks. “I had all these questions I wanted to ask, now that I’m at an age where I can talk to him as an equal. I had all this stuff written down in a notebook that I wanted to tell him.” She sighs. “I didn’t even get to open it.”
Somewhere in the labyrinth of the mind
In the frozen chambers of the heart
Lies a forgotten soul waiting
Wondering if it will ever be warm
Years ago, she wrote a poem about her father and his unemotional unavailability. Then she realized she had become her father, having folded away all the undealt-with feelings that came rushing back when she returned to Manila.
So what is the lesson you’ve learned? Who are you now?
Anjanette admits that leading up to her ordeal, she got to a point where she started to take people and her career for granted. She also acknowledges that she was taken advantage of and had been exploited in a few instances. "I wasn't street smart. But I learned. I'm definitely not the same person,” she replies. The sheltered, book-smart, open-hearted girl was forced to grow up. She did jail time. She turned her back on her old life. And despite everything, the Guam incident will never be stricken from her online record, and the label “user” will always be a footnote to her career.
“I saw the darkest of the dark and the deepest of the deep. I went through stuff I never even knew existed. Your mind is your worst enemy if you allow it to be,” she says. “That's my message to anybody who's in any feeling of isolation or sadness, just reach out. You have to, even if it's God."
AJ has been on a long journey and has come back again, and I don’t mean this in a showbiz sense, or even an immigration sense. Her return to where it all began has prompted the closure she’s been longing for, the stillness that she needed, and the chance, once again, to have it all.
This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.