It has been 15 years since Jennylyn Mercado's StarStruck journey ended.
But it was a beautiful end, because on the night of February 1, 2004, Jennylyn was declared the first StarStruck Ultimate Female Survivor, with Mark Herras as her male counterpart.
Jennylyn's StarStruck journey was remarkable not only for herself, but for the fans who have been supporting her since day one.
Fast forward to this day, Jennylyn continues her StarStruck journey as she is the host of StarStruck's seventh season, which is currently airing on GMA-7.
In this exclusive interview, PEP.ph (Philippine Entertainment Portal) chronicles Jennylyn's StarStruck experience—from her auditions to the eliminations and to finally emerging as the first Ultimate Female Survivor.
In Jennylyn Mercado's PEP.ph Headliner feature, she already told the story as to how she got discovered by her current manager, Becky Aguila.
When Jennylyn was starting out in showbiz, she first did commercials and accepted bit roles in TV shows, including GMA-7's Habang Kapiling Ka and ABS-CBN's Kay Tagal Kang Hinintay.
In Habang Kapiling Ka, Jennylyn played one of Chynna Ortaleza's friends, but the former did not have any speaking line.
In Kay Tagal Kang Hinintay, Jennylyn played a girl in a bar who flirted with the character of John Lloyd Cruz.
She recalls, "Grabe, ilang takes bago ako maka-ano kasi sobrang nahihiya ako sa kanya, nahihiya ako sa mga tao.
"Ipi-flirt ko siya, sabi ko, 'Hindi naman ako nagpi-flirt, paano ko ba ito gagawin?'
"Siyempre, wala namang akong acting workshop noon di ba? Yung direktor, tinuruan ako, ganito gagawin mo. Sige po, try ko."
Eventually, Becky asked Jennylyn to try her luck in StarStruck.
"May gig ako every Friday and Saturday, kumakanta ako sa jazz bar. Bago ako pumunta sa gig, sa hapon, nagsa-salon ako. Nakita lang ako ng assistant ni Tita Becky, 'tapos sabi niya, mag-audition ka dito sa StarStruck.
"Sabi ko, 'Hindi po ako umaarte, kumakanta lang po ako.'"
Even though she showed reluctance at first, it did not take long before Jennylyn was convinced to join StarStruck.
She says about the audition, "Noong time na yun, pumila ako sa GMA, at lima lang kami! Wala talagang pila. Ang kasama ko pa sa pila, si Rainier, si Dion, si Alvin, ako, 'tapos may isa pa."
She was referring to her StarStruck co-finalists Rainier Castillo, Dion Ignacio, and Alvin Aragon.
Since Jennylyn already had experience on TV, and already did bit roles, why did she still have to join StarStruck?
The 32-year-old actress explains, "Di ba, sabi ko nahihiya ako 'tapos nagstart ako mag-commercial, 'tapos pinapasok ako ni Tita Becky na mag ganun, sa maliliit na roles?
"Nag-e-enjoy ako umarte pero nahihiya ako, mahiyain pa rin ako.
"Para sa akin, training ground siya, para lang may experience din ako, para rin ma-boost yung experience ko."
After series of screenings and callbacks, Jennylyn made it to the Final 14 of StarStruck, which started airing in October 2003.
Back then, Jennylyn was still reluctant about joining showbiz and wasn't too confident about herself. For this reason, she wished her name would be called so she could be eliminated.
This was first revealed in the June 2011 issue of YES! Magazine, the print affiliate of PEP.ph. Jennylyn's late mom, Lydia Mercado, disclosed that the young girl always cried when she found out that she was safe from the eliminations.
Mommy Lydia said during the YES! interview, "Ayaw niya mag-StarStruck, ayaw niya mag-artista. Umiiyak siya na bakit hindi siya natanggal. Kasi ayaw niya na, e. Nagkakagulo na yung iba, kinakabahan. Siya, wala lang. E, siya ang nakukuha—laging nakukuha."
Jennylyn added, "'Tapos, lagi pa kaming nag-aaway ni Mama, kasi sabi niya, 'Sige na, galingan mo na.' Sabi ko, 'Ma, gusto ko na mag-aral na lang. Ayoko na ng ganito. Ang gulo-gulo.'"
Jennylyn now recalls in this PEP.ph interview, "Nagtataka lang kasi ako dati kapag may nabo-bottom kasi di ko nga masyadong gusto na sumali. Parang half-hearted, hindi ako talagang naka-focus.
"So parang pupunta ako doon kasi gusto ko rin mapagbigyan yung nanay ko at saka si Tita Becky.
"Tapos, 'Hala, siguro okay lang, di ba? Magpapahinga na kung mawala. Bakit sila umiiyak? Ako, okay lang?' Parang iniisip kong ganun.
"At least pahinga na, hindi na ako napapagod. Yun yung nasa isip ko palagi pag nakikita kong merong nasa bottom tapos naiiyak sila."
It was not until the third live show when Jennylyn had a change of heart, when she was called to be part of the bottom three with the late actor Tyron Perez and Anton dela Paz.
Anton was eliminated in the episode.
Jennylyn can still remember the shivers she felt when her name was called.
"Noong ako na, 'Oh my God, ganito pala yung feeling! Okay sige, gagalingan ko na!'
"Buti na lang, Diyos ko. Pina-experience sa akin, 'O ayan, hindi mo aanuhin, ha. Sige kakalabitin kita para magising ka. Ang daming gustong sumali dito 'tapos ikaw yung napili, 'tapos ayaw mo?' Siguro ganun, ginising niya ako do'n."
Jennylyn was encouraged to excel in the competition, and became known as the best singer among the group. She would be called safe in the following weeks.
In the final seven, Jennylyn became part of the bottom group again with Mark Herras and Christian Esteban. Christian was sent home.
Jennylyn was then able to reach the competition's Final Four, and she was able to beat Yasmien Kurdi to become the first StarStruck Ultimate Female Survivor.
What does Jennylyn consider as the hardest challenge she went through during her time in StarStruck?
Laughing, the Ultimate Star answers, "Yung dance, kasi hindi talaga ako marunong tapos hirap na hirap akong maka-memorize ng steps!
"Yun yung pinaka-struggle ko 'tapos ang higpit pa ni Douglas Nierras, talagang pini-pin kami sa wall na ganun. 'Ah, hindi lang po ako marunong. Huwag kayong magalit.'"
Douglas Nierras is StarStruck's resident dancer trainer who is known for being a strict teacher.
At present, Jennylyn still considers dancing as her weakness.
"Hanggang ngayon, hindi pa rin talaga. 'Tapos dati, noong nag-SOP kami, sila Mark, sila Yasmien, one day-three hours lang yung rehearsal.
"Ako, kailangan ko three days! Three days tapos two hours, two hours para ma-pick up. 'Tapos kapag kinakabahan na ako, nakakalimutan ko rin."
For her unforgettable StarStruck moments, Jennylyn picked the time when they went to Baguio.
"Yung mga challenges na biglaan, yung natutulog kayo tapos biglang, 'Hoy, gising! Ano na, aalis na tayo!'
"Nagtu-toothbrush kami sa van, nakalabas yung ulo namin.
"Sabi ko, 'Ganito ba mag-artista? Ang hirap pala ano!'
"Kunyari natutulog kami tapos gigisingin kami ng 4 a.m., nasa Baguio kami! Siyempre ang lamig, ang sarap matulog, tapos, 'Oy, aalis na!' 'Ha?'
"Wala, di kami nakapagbihis, wala kaming time maghilamos, dinala lang namin yung toothbrush 'tapos hiraman ng toothpaste, nandoon lahat yung ulo namin sa van, nakalabas. Yung iba walang tsinelas sa pagmamadali. Nakapaa lang.
"Pero yun yung pinaka nakakatawa, masaya siya na nakikita mo rin yung mga tao na nahihirapan! Hahaha!"
Jennylyn considers the singing challenges as her favorite.
"Yun yung pinaka na-enjoy ko kasi yun yung pinaka comfortable na side ko, kumakanta talaga ako dati, e.
"Hindi ako umaarte, di ako naghu-host, di ako sumasayaw, yun yung pinaka na-enjoy ko."
When it comes to the competition, Jennylyn is proud to say that she never had a bad encounter with her co-finalists.
She says, "Wala akong naging problema sa kanila kasi hindi nga ako competitive so hindi nila ako inaano!
"'Ay, dedma lang siya, hindi siya kalaban!' Hahaha!
"Wala akong nakaaway, di ba sa interview, nagbabangayan si ganito, si ganyan? Ako wala talaga."
After 14 weeks of competition, on the night of February 1, 2004, Jennylyn's name was announced as winner.
Recalling that moment, Jennylyn says, "Hindi ko narinig! Kasi parang nakaganun lang ako. 'Ako ba, ako ba?' Tinanong ko si Yasmien.
"'Ikaw! Talaga? Talaga!' Hindi ko siya talaga narinig, sobrang delayed yung reaction.
"Hindi ko narinig. Ang ingay kasi, ang daming nagsisigawan, kinakabahan."
Jennylyn, along with her male counterpart Mark Herras, won P500,000 pesos in cash and a three-year GMA-7 management contract worth P1 million for the first year alone.
After winning the artista search, Jennylyn was given roles in Kapuso teleseryes and movies, was able to release studio albums, and she eventually top-billed her own projects.
Jennylyn is now touted by the Kapuso network as its "Ultimate Star."
How did her life change after StarStruck?
She answers with a smile, "Life changing, sobra. Kasi ang buhay ko lang naman noon, mag-a-aral tapos nag-gi-gig ako pagka Friday and Saturday, 'tapos ako tumutulong sa family ko.
"Ano kami, talagang medyo mahirap ang buhay namin noon.
"Noong naging StarStruck winner ako, nakikilala na ako ng mga tao, tapos may sarili na akong income.
"Ang sarap ng feeling na natutulungan mo yung family mo tapos napo-provide mo yung income nila."
One significant life-changing moment for Jennylyn was when she did the 2016 movie with John Lloyd Cruz titled Just The 3 of Us.
If in their first encounter, Jennylyn was just a bit player in John Lloyd's scene, this time, she was his leading lady.
Jennylyn says about this, "Ang galing nga, e. Alam niya yon, sobrang open ako kasi ayoko naman sobrang magpaka-fan girl sa harap niya pero sobrang kinukwento ko sa kanya, para akong probinsyana!
"Sabi ko, 'Alam mo ba, nakasama na kita!' Tapos hindi niya maalala, siyempre!
"Ang nagpaalala sa kanya, Star Cinema. Nakasama mo na yan sa ganito."
Jennylyn's StarStruck journey comes full circle as she is now tapped to be the host of its ongoing seventh season.
This is not the first time that Jennylyn played a big role in StarStruck because she was tapped to be a council member in the sixth season, aired in 2015.
While Jennylyn is excited to meet the finalists and witness their StarStruck journey, she also feels tense about the new job given to her.
"Kinakabahan ako kasi ayoko talagang naghu-host. Hindi ako komportable, hindi ko siya comfort zone, nakatayo sa stage tapos may binabasa.
"Minsan, nagdya-jumble yung letters pag yung prompter, tumataas. Hinahabol ko siya, nasaan na ako! Halata na nag-iisip ako, na conscious ako. Kaya kinakabahan ako sa totoo lang.
"Pero excited lang ako na makita yung mga contestants tapos gusto ko rin makita kung paano nila iha-handle yung mga challenges na darating sa kanila. Excited ako, gusto ko lang manuod!"