Iza Calzado is right where she needs to be
Iza Calzado did not bring a cap. She really should have. For one thing, it would have shielded her eyes from the harsh afternoon sun. More importantly, it might have provided a measure of anonymity as she walked the streets of Binondo. It probably wouldn't have been much of a disguise, but it might have granted her a few seconds of being "like everyone else."
She really should have brought a cap, but she didn’t think ahead. That’s not what today is about. For the first time in a long time, Iza doesn’t have anything planned. People tend to confuse celebrity with freedom, assuming that the lives of artistas are freewheeling enterprises driven by whim and flights of fancy. There might be some truth to that, given the number of young stars who make records simply because they can. But by and large, the life of a celebrity is heavily regimented, and in some ways limited. It would be folly to say that their lives are difficult, but there’s wisdom in recognizing that celebrities don’t get to experience some things that we might take for granted.
To Iza, this is an adventure, a chance to forget for a moment that she’s one of the country’s biggest stars.
“I never get to walk around,” Iza says. “I haven’t been to Binondo in probably ten years.” Back in college, before fame limited her possible itineraries, she and her friends often hopped a jeepney to Chinatown to have a greasy Chinese buffet. These days, Iza can’t even really have Chinese food, as it’s not part of her new healthy lifestyle. She claims that being a celebrity has nothing to do with her food choices, but it would be difficult not to be at least a little bit skeptical.
“I really want to walk,” she says. And now, she is standing in the middle of Ongpin Street, instantly drawing the attention of everyone within thirty feet. Even from a distance, it’s hard not to spot her artista-level looks. Within seconds a couple of kids are trailing her, watching her every move. To Iza, this is an adventure, a chance to forget for a moment that she’s one of the country’s biggest stars. But it’s pretty clear that no one in Binondo is going to let her forget.
A cap might have helped.
The first stop is Dong Bei Dumplings on Yuchengco, a little hole-in-the-wall legendary for its boiled dumplings. There isn’t a lot of space in the restaurant; the tables are taken up by a group of students all dressed in red. The restaurant’s staff has taken over the table nearest the restaurant’s glass sliding doors, and are using the extra table space to make enough dumplings to fill the students’ orders. The staff stops working when they see Iza on the other side of the glass.
Iza steps tentatively through the space, working her way to the lone empty table in the back. All conversation has stopped, aside from the occasional exclamatory “Si Iza!” She goes to the washroom for a moment, and everyone in the restaurant exhales. They can’t quite believe that she’s here. Everyone, that is, except the owner of the place, a nice lady who speaks in flinty Mandarin and seems somewhat baffled by the hullabaloo.
Iza wanders over to the dumpling-making table, curious about the process. She stands over one of the girls, who is suddenly uneasy doing something she does everyday. Later, after the meal, she asks the students what they’re doing in Binondo. They’re there making a documentary about Chinese culture for school, they say eventually, after several bouts of nerves.
Everyone greets Iza as she passes by. “Hi Iza,” everyone says, with a familiarity that can be a little unnerving.
“When I walk around, people think they already know me. The funny thing is, I want to know them.” Iza asks a lot of questions, noticeably curious about everything around her. But people freeze when asked questions, not quite ready to be grilled by someone famous.
Strangely, no one hesitates to ask to have his or her picture taken with her. People pose beside her, pressing their bodies close, creating an image of intimacy to be shared later on Facebook. But few seem actually willing to relate to her on a real human level. Celebrity is all about image after all.
“It doesn’t bother me, as long they’re polite,” Iza says. “There are some people who just grab my arm and say ‘picture tayo!’ I can’t really say no, but you can see I’m not happy about it.”
The boiled dumplings live up to their reputation. As soon as Iza rises, the students and the staff work up the courage to politely ask for a picture. Iza obliges. All the while, Dong Bei’s owner tends to her customers, squeezing through the narrow aisles carrying plates of hot food, speaking in her hard-edged Chinese.
* * *
Yuchengco leads back out to Ongpin. Iza decides to stop by Binondo Church. She quietly kneels at a pew in the back and says a little prayer. Her father has just been in the hospital. The prayer is silent, but the praise is all too audible.
“I think cathedrals are scary,” Iza later confesses, looking up at the ominous curves of Binondo Church. “If I get married, I don’t think it will be in a church.”
But for the moment, she has her hands clasped and her eyes closed, and the Church is everything she needs it to be.
“I really want to have dessert,” Iza says. She doesn’t get to do that much anymore. There are cheat days, of course, but by and large, her new lifestyle doesn’t have space for sweet treats. “I want to have hopia. And I want halo-halo.” She speaks happily about living healthily, singing praises of her new exercise routine and the way it makes her feel. But there’s no mistaking the hint of regret in her voice when she mentions dessert.
Shin Tai Sheng is a shop on Salazar Street renowned for its chicken pies and Chinese style desserts. A crowd gathers outside as Iza browses through the shop’s selection. She’s given a chicken pie and a taro cake. The shop girls swear by the taro cake, explaining that unlike most desserts, there isn’t a lot of sugar in it.
Iza takes a bite from each. Though she clearly enjoys both, she doesn’t go further than a single bite. Even today, on her day of adventure, there are limits to what she can do.
Iza Calzado wants to ride a jeepney. “It’s just something I don’t get to do,” she says. “Back when I was commuting every day, I didn’t really enjoy it. Now, it’s something I miss doing.” She wants to go to Star City. A friendly security guard tells her that she needs to head towards the Recto LRT station and hop on to a jeepney that heads to Lawton.
The city continues to be magical for her. That's where, for a few hours, she didn't know where she was going, or how she was going to get there.
Everyone greets Iza as she passes by. “Hi Iza,” everyone says, with a familiarity that can be a little unnerving. She has been in their homes for years now, playing different parts, at times addressing them directly as one of the hosts of Eat Bulaga. More than one person mentions their disappointment that she isn’t going on the show today.
She doesn’t stop moving. “You can’t really make eye contact, because if you do, you can’t move on.” But she stops long enough to marvel at the strange beauty of Recto, with its tile-lined sidewalks and fading architecture. The place is noisy and chaotic, and the buildings look like they’re about to fall apart. To a person who walks down Recto every day, Iza might seem a bit crazy, but she’s just noticing the things that are outside of her celebrity experience. Studios are cold and clean and nondescript. She is shuttled from one location to another in a comfortable car. She approaches the avenue with a sense of discovery, looking for all the things that she never gets a chance to see.
She hops on a jeepney on Rizal Avenue, not quite sure where it’s going to take her. She strikes up a conversation with the driver. She learns that he took up criminology in college, but he didn’t finish because he thought it took too long to earn the degree. He has two nieces who took up nursing, and they made it to Canada before the industry fell apart. He makes about a thousand pesos a day, which is nothing next to what his brother makes as a professor at the UST. (Iza: I thought it was UP?)
In another life, Iza might have made for a great journalist. She seems to be genuinely interested in people, and she lights up when anyone is willing to share just a little bit of his or her life. She mentions that she wants to work with Howie Severino on a documentary. Perhaps we’ll see the journalist Iza Calzado yet.
* * *
Star City is closed, unfortunately. The guards tell her that the park opens in an hour, and urge her to return later. But Iza doesn’t have a lot of time left. At 3 PM, she has to end this little adventure and go back to work. The guards helpfully suggest that she go into the nearby Tropical Hut, where one may see into the park. Iza politely declines, and has her picture taken with the guards.
She spots a family nearby, the mom and her toddler daughter wearing Angry Birds hats. Iza excitedly runs up to them and asks if she can take a picture wearing the mom’s hat. The family is all too happy to oblige.
And for the first time today, someone isn’t excited to have her picture taken with Iza. The toddler daughter looks away from the camera, burying her head in her mother’s shoulder. The mother urges her daughter to look, but she doesn’t understand why they’re having their picture taken with a strange woman who stole a hat.
The day ends at the nearby Century Park Hotel. The hotel holds a special place in Iza’s heart. Her mother used to take her up to the Top of the Century, where they would share the gorgeous views. And her father, who was a talent scout for clubs in Japan, regularly met with the club owners who stayed there.
She has sushi at the Century Tsukiji, finally indulging herself on her day of adventure. She lays the wasabi on thick, claiming to be a real wasabi freak. When the condiment inevitably backfires on her, she stands up and starts laughing. “That hasn’t happened to me in a long time,” she says happily.
She asks one of the assistant sushi chefs a bunch of questions. His name is CJ, and he’s been doing this for about four years. It was only difficult in the beginning, and the most challenging thing for him is shaping the rice of a nigiri sushi. She goes behind the counter to see how he makes a nigiri sushi. The staff eventually gathers around her and asks for pictures, and she obliges.
She tells the staff that she wants to go up to the Top of the Century, but they tell her it’s closed. She goes up anyway and finds the cleaning staff hanging out. They’re happy to show her around.
“It’s just like I remember it,” she says. She waxes nostalgic about the neon sign that proclaims the area around the piano “Harry’s Bar,” and about the afternoons she spent with her mother. In the distance, the ferris wheel of Star City has started moving, and the city continues to be magical for her. That’s where, for a few hours, she didn’t know where she was going, or how she was going to get there. Though the city wouldn’t let her forget who she is, she managed to escape just a little bit, enjoying the things that we all take for granted.
There’s time for one more round of pictures with the cleaning staff, and then Iza is whisked off to some photo shoot in Makati. 3 Three o’ clock rolls around, and the jeepney becomes a Suburban, and this curious young girl is turned back into a princess. After the shoot, she has rehearsals for Eat Bulaga and Party Pilipinas, and she has to start thinking about the next movie, or the next TV show. The next day, she’ll have an egg yolk for breakfast and skip dessert. She will be shuttled from place to place, never getting the chance to walk on broken sidewalks and marvel at crumbling buildings. Though it could never be said that Iza Calzado is unhappy where she is, there’s certainly a case to be made about everything she’s missing.
This article originally appeared in our November 2011 issue. Iza Calzado was the first ever female on our cover.