Ellen Adarna is a Creature of Her Own Creation
This was originally published in our April 2014 issue.
"Let's make it all up!" the girl suggests, as we discuss interview dates.
OK. Let’s say she’s just put on a sheer flesh-colored singlet over short shorts and you don’t really need to stare hard to imagine what she looked like moments before. By imagine, I mean fantasize. And by fantasize, I mean I walked in on the shoot to find my byline scrawled in kohl on her bikini line. She didn’t give a fuck about being completely naked. She didn’t give a fuck what that name was and who I was, either. Neither did I. Who am I?
In this fantasy world, many years ago, a girl took a photo of herself for her Friendster account with one of those early digital cameras. The image was appropriated by hundreds of girls and boys for their personal profiles, and the Internet was mined for more. Even her name—“Ellen Adarna,” a remarkable composition of downhome femininity and mythical flight of fancy—was pirated and duplicated. She quickly became search engine candy and social media mystery, and a life was put together for her from anonymous uploads and forum chatter.
The story came about that she was born rich and without care—a “motel heiress.” That was another useful compound term that made it all easier. It relieved men of the guilt of exploitation and gave her instant power. It added one more layer of unattainability to the already unattainable images on the screen. It created loneliness and indignation. How could those boys in the photos have her so easily? Exactly what sort of magic happens in the bars and living rooms? It also created a measure of hatred. Women disliked her to the point of asking me why I wanted to interview her.
At the interview, held at a dimly lit bar, Ellen confirms some of the fantasies. In her hometown she ran with a gang she calls the Wild Five. There are stories of benders and binges that put the Manila scene to shame. She talks about getting shit-faced, getting called names. There’s proof enough of this. There were headlines in the local papers, reporting chaos and drunken disorder at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.
Apart from her teenage selfies there are stolen shots of her getting playful at house parties and beach blowouts. There are shots of her underwater, shots of her curling her tongue, and all manner of hugging, mugging and slumming. In each one she is perpetrator and victim, causing things to happen and allowing the camera to capture the happening.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with doing a little damage and getting a little bent, as long as there’s room and time enough to straighten yourself out. There is nothing wrong, either, with nudity and exposure and candor. This is a girl who has gone places on the basis of a profile picture. For all its teenage tartness, the envelope of anonymity in which it was delivered, along with its backdrop of money, implied that she was never really that desperate for anything, even for attention.
The photos may be old but the effect seems to be timeless. Ellen talks of jealous women who tell or tweet her to stop texting their boyfriends, who are by default infatuated by her. “In their head they think I fuck everyone,” she says. This conjoined reaction of glorification and disgust has been go-ing on since her teens. I imagine that it works in favor of all parties involved. If there is anything that works so hard and so well for the Internet, it’s the image of the sacred and the profane, folded over and over itself, across multiple viewings and millions of viewers, secretly clicking, scrolling and swiping in their beds and bathrooms at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.
In those early photos Ellen Adarna is pale and a little plump and cute as a button, full of unguardedness and disregard. In her wan, epicanthic gaze there is boredom and the tender abandon of the wealthy. It is a gaze reserved for boyfriends, for cousins, for equally privileged friends, for the lucky bum behind the camera—everyone but the online lurker, avid and unfulfilled in the darkness.
Today she is 25. “I know all my angles,” the subject boasts. She has also been telling me how vain she is. I readily make the excuses for her. After all, it’s been six or seven years.
In recent syndicated photos she is a body in full, sharpened, shaped, heavy-titted. She has squirmed and blossomed out of the given fantasy. Awkward innocence has turned into inexperience. Callowness has become vapid candor. She laughs off a particularly awkward turn in social media where an interview made her look like a boba—a boob—by telling herself “bad publicity is good publicity.” The trite statement is chased by another: “I just want to make money.” But it is clear she is also learning to take advantage and take control of a mass fantasy, and how many of us can do that?
She confesses that she is living independently. After resigning from her family business, she lives in estrangement from her family, in a tender form of exile that allows measures of freedom and security. She alternately lives in a house at one of their family-owned compounds and with her boyfriend. She has a driver and a compact car at her disposal. She has a manager and a handler. It’s her own money now.
Manila is her town now. It’s a place for grown-ups. Everything is under scrutiny, in high-resolution, in slow-motion. “An ex-boyfriend called me a potato,” she ex-plains. She took it as a challenge, the way reality game show contestants take on challenges. A boxing workout video that is part of her official portfolio of work lasts all of thirty-seven seconds. It’s not even a complete song. But it’s in HD. There’s a version of it that stretches it out, through freeze frames, strobe effects, artificial zooms and slo-mos, to a full five minutes. The footage has thrived on the Internet—her home, too, after all.
She has embraced the real world now, attending acting workshops, playing second lead in teleseryes, negotiating endorsement deals, doing the rounds of magazine covers and media interviews. It is her turn to indulge in the fantasy: she turns down advances from movie stars and hangs out with the faces we only see on billboards and the backs of buses. She confirms rumors of the guessed-at things that happen behind the scenes. She reveals many things off-the-record and between-us only.
She became search engine candy and social media mystery, and a life was put together for her from anonymous uploads and forum chatter.
“When I’m done, I think I’ll go back,” she says, to mean back to her family and their business affairs, and most probably the small-town notoriety she enjoyed in her youth. The drinks come hard and fast, in double shots, and in the light that blurs and gathers, the present-day Ellen Adarna looks almost sculptural—bright, slight, and self-contained. There’s a tough, pointed tilt to her nose that was never there before, but it goes well with the new eyebrows, plucked to look like they are always raised. It’s an even, polished look that contrasts her teenage photos. To her Internet audience, this is good news. There is now more of her than ever to look at, to click and fold over and over again.
And for those who wish to know beyond what can be seen, there’s no cosplay at work behind the image, none of the jailbait coyness of Lolita, and none of the contrived chumminess that usually comes with showbiz interviews. We must be thankful for this, and as much as we permanently hold, image by image, Ellen’s youth in a spray of freckles, jpeg artifacts and low-res softness, we must also recognize her present poise and her shimmer as things every woman deserves to aspire to as they grow out of their clumsy years.
“I look like a lot of people,” she says, mentioning personages as varied as Solenn Heussaff and Regine Velasquez. This is the way she attempts to explain away her dark popularity. I suppose it makes some sense after either the sub-ject or the observer has had too much to drink.
But really, I instantly attribute it to false modesty. Because it hardly makes sense when you recall there was a time when many people looked at her photo—one among millions—and stopped and wondered who she really was, and if she really was any one of those people who had pretended to be her. We had no friends who behaved like her. We knew no one who knew her. I am reminded of the one thing every celebrity interview is really about: Who are you? I find myself blurting the question out loud, in mid-contemplation: “Who are you?”
That question is turned on millions of ardent and solitary viewers, whose identities remain hidden behind forum handles and fake profiles. After all, in the online world, it is also the viewer who is singled out, identified and questioned: his type, his personality, his perverse predilections, his useless intentions, as he sits in the shadows, waiting for something—not an answer, but another image, another mystery, another fantasy to return him to his familiar self.
It is the real girl who has appeared before me tonight, her origins in Internet fantasy sloughed off and replaced by this shimmering starlet of truth. Ellen Adarna hears my question and brushes against me as she opens her bag. She reaches into the dark, takes out her passport, unfolds it to show me her real name, and I turn away.