Jao Mapa became a hot teen actor when he entered the entertainment scene in 1994. He was first a mainstay of the top-rating sitcom Palibhasa Lalake, together with then young stars Mark Anthony Fernandez, Jomari Yllana, and Eric Fructuoso.
He had his own Star Drama series on ABS-CBN, as well as an album of songs with BMG Pilipinas. Gifted with a handsome face and a charming personality, Jao was groomed by film outfits to be leading-man material.
Indeed, he received several movie assignments and worked with some of the biggest stars—Cesar Montano, Gelli de Belen, Ricky Davao in Asero; Aga Muhlach, Vilma Santos, Christopher de Leon in Nag-iisang Bituin; Judy Ann Santos and Nora Aunor in Babae; Rossana Roces in Matrikula. Pare Ko, a Jose Javier Reyes movie where Jao starred with Mark Anthony Fernandez, Jomari Yllana, Victor Neri, Claudine Barretto, Gio Alvarez, and Nikka Valencia, was a critical and commercial hit. It gave Jao his first acting nomination from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino.
Then at 23, after seven busy years and at the prime of his career, he suddenly dropped out of the scene.
Rumors about drug use, particularly shabu, began to circulate. His fans asked: "Where was Jao and what happened to him?" But the young actor kept quiet and let the rumors fly.
Today, Jao, 25, says he never felt the need to clear his name. "I had a lot of intrigues at that time," he recalls. "That my mom and dad separated. That I was into drugs. That I was out of school... They gave it to me big time! I never really defended myself and, ah, I don't have to defend myself because none of it was true!"
He says now that he simply chose to lie low to devote all his time to his Fine Arts studies at the University of Santo Tomas. He was then in his fifth year with many requirements to fulfill. "I wanted something more solid than show business. Saka once in a blue moon lang siguro magkaroon ng thesis," Jao reasons.
He was luckier than other "super seniors," a term used for college students who stayed beyond the regular length of their course. (Jao is now on his seventh year of a four-year course.) Thankfully, he was allowed to proceed with his thesis even with back subjects on his record. Says Jao, "Now students with back subjects are not allowed to do their thesis. Yun, binigyan ako ng chance. Doon nagpursigi ako, talagang bumanat ako!"
As sudden as his decision was, it wasn't easy. "Masakit din to leave show business kasi you've got fame, the instant money," he muses. "Pero sabi ko, 'O, eto na! Just let me forget show business.' I learned to be humble. I went to school. I worked."
Jao's thesis—a total marketing and advertising campaign for Adidas—was chosen by the university among the best for that year and was made part of the exhibit of the College of Fine Arts and Architecture.
Aside from studies, there were friends and family to attend to. "The best part," Jao declares with a smile, "is I got to spend time with my family, to meet new friends, to try new stuff."
And to travel! After completing his thesis, Jao flew to the United States to visit relatives there. It would be his first trip alone. "I went to San Francisco, L.A., Kentucky. I had to take connecting flights.
"Muntik na nga akong mawala. Buti na lang I asked for directions. Hindi ko alam kung anong mangyayari sa akin, so adventure din!"
Jao also tried his hand at photography, and became competent enough to work as part-time photographer for Woman's Home Companion, the magazine his mother Tess Pacheco-Mapa edits.
He also found time to organize a basketball league in the Antipolo subdivision where his family lives. Here he discovered that winning wasn't everything. "We weren't playing for the trophy, but for friendship, for social ties," he says, pleased.
He didn't appear on television and he didn't make movies, but he was still recognized in places he went to. "Kahit pilit kong kalimutan, may mga taong nagsasabi pa rin na 'Uy, Jao Mapa! Anong nangyari sa 'yo? Ganyan...Kahit sinong lumapit, nagtatanong. People still reminded me that I was a performer at one time. 'Di ko puwedeng makalimutan 'yon dahil may mga nanood sa akin."
Eventually, he realized he missed acting. He decided to give it another go. Slowly he got stints in drama and variety shows. Now a daily soap opera is also in the works. But even with projects coming his way, Jao says he is still feeling his way back.
"Nilalakasan ko na lang ang loob ko to face the people kasi 'di ba, I just dropped it?"
Such as the time he taped a Channel 7 drama show—his first TV appearance in two years—and he came face to face with the same staff of 'Di Ba't Ikaw, the sopa opera he abandoned. "Parang wala akong mukhang ihaharap" is how Jao recalls the awkward moment. "Nahihiya ako but they were still warm and very, very nice!"
He feels like he's back to square one. Moreover, he knows he's facing tough competition in the matinee-idol department, what with Piolo Pascual, Diether Ocampo, Dingdong Dantes, and others all over the place. Even his contemporaries have become "bigger" than him. But, no, Jao does not regtret having bowed out of the scene then.
"Everyone has already gone ahead," Jao admits, "but I also wanted to prove myself that I could finish school. And 'yun lang siguro ang maipagmamalaki ko, the only thing."
Jao is still in UST with a few units to go before he graduates with a Fine Arts Advertising degree next year. He believes he has the discipline to see this one through. But he also believes now that he's got the "spunk" and "attitude" to make his mark in show business—again. In his words: "I have my goals straight. I know what I want now and I have matured."