Angel Aquino's favorite four-letter word
At seventeen, ANGEL AQUINO was discovered by a production designer while she was loitering at an out-of-the-way mall. “No one goes there,” she said. “You’ve never heard of it.” She tells me the name of the mall and I pretend to have heard of it, and that the story of her discovery is unique.
She tells me that she grew up an ugly girl, a plain Jane. “I was the dark-skinned one. I had unruly hair. Bata pa lang ako, I was always told-you’re not that pretty.” The ugly duckling-turned-swan-it’s not an uncommon backstory, either. And neither is the label so often lazily attached to her, along with the kind of posed headshot models like her were famous for in the ’90s. Model-turned-actress: the epithet invoking some form of split, of struggle, external and internal, from one end of the crazy celebrity-slash-society spectrum to another.
Today she is at both ends. In the morning she was at a Shengen visa interview at the German Embassy in preparation for an upcoming trip to represent Ang Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis, her latest film, which screens in competition at the Berlinale. And then, while waiting for our appointment, she killed time at her favorite hairdresser, coming out of it looking remarkably untouched, and untouchable, so that the mothers and matrons at the mall can’t help but look at her-hair achingly perfect, cheekbones improbably high, cheeks flush with impossibly youthful metabolism.
She remembers her first film, Butch Perez’s Mumbaki. “The first time Butch Perez spoke to me about it, I was pregnant with my second child.” When they started filming, Thea was almost a year old already. “It was a small role but it was also close to my heart because it was in the mountains. I was so scared that I would be sent home-they’d find out I couldn’t act.” At that time, she was living in Baguio with her husband and two children. She had gotten married while attending college, the consequence of a teenage pregnancy. The marriage ended 10 years later. She singlehandedly brought up two daughters with modeling money and showbiz money.
“I never make long-term plans,” she says-it’s a de rigeur statement in these parts and just as well-but she has dreams: one of them is to live in Europe, to go to market on a bike, in a summer dress. Perhaps this is a connection to her youth, and at the same time an escape from it-when she was young she tagged along to Farmer’s Market every Sunday with her father, where he would pick the ingredients for the weekend family meal. “He would choose the chickens with eggs inside them-pregnant chickens!”
Both are ordinary instances, to be sure, but look at her: picture this particular woman pedalling hard in a dress, imagine the threateningly beautiful gamine in the kitchen, degutting an animal.
She is 42 now, and perches comfortably in the middle of effortless and composed, accomplished and promising. She looks easily 20 years younger, but wears a grownup luxury watch on her wrist; she’s won serious awards for her acting, but won’t say no to non-studio films. By now she’s unguarded enough to confide a particularly hair-raising personal tragedy. She gives gravid details-“parang comics, na horror story, na parang pelikula!”-and attempts to give the episode some perspective, as though she’d been watching a teleserye herself, with its own kontrabida, and is thankful for the time that has passed that now allows her to make light of it.
There’s no trace of darkness in her humor, no remorse coming from her end of the table. She is 42, after all. What comes is the kind of authenticity and fullness of manner that comes with having everything a real person should have by a certain age: celebrated accomplishments, tantalizing secrets, brief dark episodes, and a sense of humor: “If I didn’t have to go through all that, ang baduy naman!”
Do you feel like you’re in midlife? “I’m starting to feel it,” she answers, after some thought.
She laments the self-consciousness and the necessary vanity. She confesses stretch marks and unsightly breasts. The candor, of course, is part of the entitlement that comes with her age. “Of course it gives you a sense of authority,” she admits. “Now everyone is younger than me.”
But Angel was always more comfortable being with someone younger. “I’ve never been with an older person. For some reason I feel they’re going to control me.” She adds: “I’m not with anyone now. I enjoy hanging out more than going out on a date,” she says.
She’s unattached again, and the idea of going to Europe thrills her. “Maybe I’ll meet a man,” she says, half-jokingly. “Or a woman!”
That excitement, borne on a midlife recklessness, is genuine, but she’s never really hooked up with anyone the way younger people do today. At most, a kiss: “Kissing! It’s something I can recklessly give away!” The disclaimer quickly follows, unnecessary but emphatic: “-to people I want to give it to.” It’s part of this age, too, the embrace of one’s own authority and the rejection of it in others, the give-and-take-back, the open secret kept secret.
“I enjoy being a woman. I enjoy my body. You know what word I find great? Cunt.”
I keep my silence, but the word spells itself out in my head.
“Isn’t it?” she exclaims. “It’s strong, bold, unapologetic!”
She claps a hand on her mouth-maybe too much has been said. There’s playful remorse now, and embarrassment, which she also attaches to certain memories: filching money from her father’s wallet when she was a child, buying porn at one of her modeling trips to Tokyo-“it was anime-at least dito walang na-e-exploit!”
Embarrassed over being embarrassed, remorseful over the most unremarkable things-a generational quirk, I offer. She offers to pay the bill. Time’s up-there’s still the rest of the living day, and we’re almost past the middle of it. She’s neither model nor actress now, just another mother picking up a daughter at school, the head of a household, the family decision-maker, the common homemaker. Just don’t look at her.
This article originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.