"Pinakamabigat na challenge ko before joining showbiz... kasi breadwinner ako."
If you used to frequent jazz bars in hotels some eighteen years ago, you might have seen a young girl singing her heart out while patrons milled about, unmindful of the shy but talented probinsyana who would soon be catapulted to fame and fortune.
Jennylyn Mercado considers this time of her life as one of the most physically draining periods in a career that began with singing and went on to include acting and hosting.
Jennylyn pokes fun at herself—during this PEP.ph (Philippine Entertainment Portal) Headliner shoot—by saying that back then, people hardly paid her any attention as she performed.
"Sa jazz bar, di ba, pagpasok mo sa entrance ng hotel, merong mga kumakanta, 'tapos wala namang nanonood?
"Kami yun!" says Jennylyn with a big laugh.
She turns more serious, calling it a difficult time:
"Pinakamabigat na challenge ko before joining showbiz... kasi breadwinner ako.
"Nag-school ako, 'tapos kailangan kong magtrabaho ng Friday night saka Saturday night para kumita.
"Mga isang taon akong nag-ganun."
Little did she know that her singing would pave the way for joining the entertainment industry, allowing Jennylyn Mercado to become a household name in a career that has spanned 16 years and shows all signs of going on.
Before reaching the success she enjoys now, the young lady did a lot more for her family.
Taking her role as breadwinner seriously, she gave up her studies when she reached fourth year high school to keep her job as a hotel lounge singer.
Then in 2003 the opportunity to join GMA-7's original artista search, StarStruck, came along.
She admits she was extremely reluctant in the beginning. What finally convinced her to join StarStruck's first season?
"Actually, nakita lang ako ni Tita Becky sa salon," says Jennylyn, referring to the woman who would become her manager, Becky Aguila.
"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.'"
Her singing was important to her and her family: "Actually, trabaho ko kasi yun kasi gusto kong tulungan ang parents ko."
And leaving singing to go into acting was a risk: "Sabi ko, 'Hindi po ako marunong niyan, nahihiya po ako.'
"Sabi sa akin, 'Try mo lang muna, baka puwedeng commercial muna. Dun ka mag-decide kung nagustuhan mo.'
"'Tapos, may mga endorsements at commercials na pumasok.
"Tuwang-tuwa ako kasi yung mom and dad ko noon, walang work. Kaya ako yung nagpo-provide.
"Sabi ko, 'Ang galing ng job na ito!'"
When she joined the Kapuso reality show, Jennylyn was just 16 years old.
"Sabi ko, i-try ko nga mag-StarStruck. Nag-audition ako sa StarStruck.
"'Tapos, nung 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.
"Simula nun, tuluy-tuloy na," she reminisces.
Also auditioning then were—Rainier Castillo, Dion Ignacio, and Alvin Aragon—who all ended up being Kapuso talents, just like her.
How did she overcome her shyness?
"Grabe yung nerbiyos ko, hanggang sa nanalo ako, nahihiya pa rin ako. Hindi ako yung sobrang bibo dun," she recalls.
Still, her innate talent shone through. Working in her favor was that singing was a big part of the contest. Also helping a big deal was that she was truly a fresh and beautiful face. Jennylyn was declared Ultimate Survivor of StarStruckSeason 1.
She gained an exclusive contract with the GMA Network, which would eventually give her top billing in such shows as Encantadia, I Luv NY, Now and Forever, Dangal, Super Twins, plus more.
With the PHP1 million she took home as Ultimate Survivor, she bought a house for her family.
She currently stars in the Kapuso prime-time series Love You Two along with Gabby Concepcion and Shaira Diaz.
But first, did you know that before she became celebrated in her home network, Jennylyn worked in rival network ABS-CBN?
Jennylyn was tapped as a bit player, an "ekstra," in ABS-CBN's Kay Tagal Kang Hinintay, a 2002 teleserye top-billed by John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo.
She cringes to recall how she was then: "Nahihiya ako. Pinapasok ako ni Tita Becky sa malilit na roles...parang training ground siya.
"Naku, tanong niyo kay John Lloyd kung naaalaala niya 'ko. Ilang takes bago ako maka-ano, kasi nahihiya ako sa kanya."
She recalls that their characters were at a bar—and she was required to do what?
"Ifi-flirt ko siya. Sabi ko, 'Hala, hindi naman ako nagfi-flirt. Paano ko ba ito gagawin?' Siyempre, wala naman akong acting workshop noon, di ba?"
How did she manage to flirt with John Lloyd?
"Yung director, tinuruan ako. Ganito ang gagawin mo. Sabi ko, 'Sige po, try ko.'"
Has she ever reminded John Lloyd about those flirting scenes?
"Alam niya yun! Kasi ayoko naman magpaka-fangirl sa harap niya."Kinukuwento ko sa kanya na para akong probinsyana. 'Alam mo, nakasama na kita, 'tapos hindi niya maalaala!
"Ako pa nagpapaalaala, saka yung Star Cinema. Sinabi nila, 'Oo, nakasama mo na iyan.'
"Naalala naman niya eventually," she chuckles.
This happened 14 years later, when Jennylyn and John Lloyd crossed paths again. They were now both established stars in competing networks. Jennylyn was a GMA-7 sought-after leading lady and John Lloyd was an ABS-CBN teleserye star and a blockbuster film actor.
Their movie project was Star Cinema's Just the 3 of Us, the film directed by Cathy Garcia Molina which would gross PHP230 million in 2016.
Gushing about her project with John Lloyd, Jennylyn says: "Excited ako kasi first time ko makatrabaho yung ultimate crush ko.
"Bata pa lang ako, dream ko nang makatrabaho si John Lloyd. Isa siya talaga sa tinitingala kong artista. Sobrang thankful ako na nabigyan ako ng chance na makatrabaho siya.
"Saka si Direk Cathy."
Jennylyn is grateful to have been given the rare chance of crossing over and doing a movie with ABS-CBN's film production arm, Star Cinema.
She exclaims, "Masarap rin na nakaka-experience ka nang ganun, na wala ka sa comfort zone mo.
"Parang dun mate-test kung paano ka makikisalamuha, paano ka makikisama sa iba't ibang klaseng tao."
This kind of flexibility served Jennylyn well, especially when she got into a rough patch in the early part of her career.
Back then, Jennylyn was on a roll. She was being tapped to be the leading lady in consecutive projects.
Then she got pregnant by former boyfriend Patrick Garcia. Her showbiz career was put on hold, and she had no idea if she could make a comeback.
In 2008, the two had a bitter falling out. Jennylyn gave a controversial TV interview where she declared that it was over between her and Patrick and that she would raise their son, Alex Jazz, alone.
How did she handle being father and a mother to her son?
"Hindi naman siya mahirap, basta tama ang tao sa paligid mo. Kung tama ang mga tao na nakakasama mo at ng anak mo, hindi ka magkakamali.
"I think yun ang kinasuwerte ko, and I'm very thankful na meron akong mga tao na ganun sa paligid ko.
"Talagang 15 years na sila sa amin, 20 years na. Talagang hindi sila umalis, hindi nila kami iniiwan."
In 2009, Jennylyn made her TV comeback. She was tapped to star in Paano Ba Ang Mangarap?, teleserye in GMA-7's Dramarama sa Hapon, which reunited her with her former flame, Mark Herras.
She recalls, "After ng pregnancy ko, after ko manganak, ito yung una kong project.
"Actually, nahiya ako kasi hindi ko alam kung matatanggap ako ng tao pagkatapos mangyari ang lahat ng yun.
"Yun yung time na hindi ako masyadong confident sa mga ginagawa ko, kasi hindi ako sure kung papanoorin pa ba ako ng tao. Okay lang ba sa kanila? Ang dami kong iniisip. Worried talaga ako nun."
The fans supported the teleserye. "Siguro na-miss nila ang Mark-Jen tandem," she thought at the time.
Eventually, Patrick and Jennylyn worked things out and have become co-parents to their son, while they have their respective partners. Patrick is now married to Nikka Martinez, while Jennylyn has been on a long-term relationship with Dennis Trillo.
Jennylyn explains how she got Alex Jazz to adjust to the unconventional family setup.
"Sobra po talaga ang pagmamahal namin sa bata," she says simply.
"Halos lahat ng oras namin, pag walang ginagawa, nanonood kami ng sine, nagmu-mall kami.
"Mahilig siyang manood. Kahit magmu-mall kami, hihilahin niya ako sa sinehan. Gustung-gusto niya manood.
"Wala namang bibilhin, mamamasyal lang."
The storms in her 32-year-old life have been many. Jennylyn has to be seen for what she is today: one beautiful survivor.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Shaira Luna
SHOOT PRODUCER: Nikko Tuazon
ART DIRECTOR: Jeremiah Idanan
STYLIST: Kevin Cusi
MAKE-UP ARTIST: Japeth Purog
HAIRSTYLIST: Mark Ibarrola
VIDEO PRODUCERS: Coleen Oliva & Ann Mari Cajucom
VIDEO EDITOR: John Henri Mariano