Long before the screaming fans, the accolades, the sold-out concerts in big venues both here and abroad, and everything that came with fame and fortune, Asia's Songbird Regine Velasquez was just Chona Velasquez, a little girl who made a career out of joining amateur singing contests.
But in her GMA-7 docu-musical special Regine: Roots to Riches aired last May 24, Regine revealed that winning all those amateur singing contests back then was not easy at all. And that was because she always had one very tough rival.
This rival of hers, Regine said, was clearly dominant. The girl is supposed to have won over 300 trophies from these amateur singing contests. Regine said she only won a little over 75 trophies in over 300 competitions.
"Parang takot ako sa kanya, e. Meron akong gano'n, e. Hindi naman takot, pero parang kinakabahan ako pagka siya yung kalaban ko, kasi nga alam ko na magaling siya at saka nagagalingan ako sa kanya," confessed Asia's Songbird.
The nemesis that Regine Velasquez was talking about was Minerva "Eva" Castillo.
THE RIVAL. The PEP (Philippine Entertainment Portal) sent me to search for Minerva in Tondo, Manila, on Pilapil Street. I found her. She was called Eva, and she greeted me with an apology as I entered her very home.
"Pasensiya na ka na, ha. Maliit lang ang bahay namin," she said. Her house, measuring barely 8 feet by 10 feet, was truly small. It looked more like a college dormer's room than a home for six people—Eva; her three kids, Pipoy (18), Enang (16), and Owel (15); Pipoy's wife Rea, and Eva's granddaughter Lian.
The dim incandescent bulb lighting the small room flickered once in a while during our interview. "Baka naglu-loose do'n sa taas," she said, referring to the room above theirs, from where they "borrowed" electricity for their light and for two electric fans and a 21-inch Japan-surplus TV.
Eva made me sit at the bottom of the makeshift double-deck bed made of used plywood and lumber. This is where Enang, Owel, Pipoy, Rea, and Baby Lian all slept. But seeing Eva sitting quite comfortably on the room's cold concrete floor, I did the same.
I began the interview by asking her to tell me more about herself.
"Minerva Castillo talaga ang pangalan ko, pero Eva na nga ang tawag sa akin. Anim kaming magkakapatid, ako ang bunso. Dito na ako ipinanganak at lumaki sa Tundo. Thirty-nine na 'ko."
Is it true that she had 300-something trophies from her amateur singing stints, as Regine said in the latter's TV special?
"Hindi ko na mabilang, pero nasa two-hundred plus ang trophy ko. Pero kung siguro lahat ng sinalihan kong amateur [singing contests] may trophy, siguro nga hindi lang ganun [ang bilang]," Eva replied.
THE YOUNG BELTER. Eva started singing at the age of six. She said that it was her parents Concepcion and Narciso who first discovered her gift for singing. "Meron daw pangyayari na sumampa ako sa owner [jeep], pagkatapos kumanta ako ng isang kanta na may tono, pero hindi maintindihan yung kinakanta ko. Doon nagsimula yun, e. Pagkatapos nun, tinuturu-turuan na ako ng kuya ko, si Kuya Carding."
The first song she learned was Superstar Nora Aunor's "Unang Halik," a Tagalog lollipop love tune popular among kids in the late 1970s.
Shortly after, she began joining amateur singing contests with the help of her uncle Tata Iking. It was Tata Iking who acted as Eva's talent manager. "Yun ang parang pinakatrabaho ni Tata Iking. Siya ang hanap nang hanap ng mga amateur [singing contests] na sasalihan ko."
She won almost all the amateur singing contests she joined. The judges couldn't believe how a little girl could belt out such high-pitched, powerful sentimental ballads as "Babaeng Makasalanan, Lalakeng Salawahan" by Imelda Papin, and "Mahal Ginagabi Ka Na Naman" and "Sabihin Mo" by Geraldine.
To those who don't remember, Imelda Papin was dubbed Asia's Queen of Sentimental Songs while Geraldine became one of Philippine pop music's sentimental sexy divas in the late '70s. The unique singing style of these two singers, who put much drama and emotion into their song interpretation, was not easy to copy. Their songs were also not the simplest ones to perform. Yet, Eva pulled off both the song and the interpretation and smoked her competitors with her tremendous vocal power.
Her musical influences later on included other Pinay sentimental singers like Eva Eugenio ("Tukso") and Dulce ("Ako Ang Nagwagi"). The latter's song was an amateur singing-contest's staple and one of Eva's favorite competition pieces.
Later in her amateur singing career, Eva would meet Dulce, who gave her pointers in singing. "Nagpunta po kami noon sa bahay niya. Binigyan pa niya 'ko ng minus one ng 'Ako Ang Nagwagi' tsaka mga tips sa pagkanta."
NO SPECIAL TRAINING. Unlike the legendary "singing-neck-deep-in-sea" training that Regine had, Eva did not have any special training to develop her voice.
"Wala po. Pagka meron lang pong bagong kanta, pina-practice namin ng Kuya Carding ko," Eva recalled.
Her older brother Carding always accompanied her and Tata Iking to the singing competitions and was also her "gitarista" in almost all her performances.
"Dumadayo po talaga kami kunsaan-saan. Yun ang parang, tawagin na nating trabaho namin talaga noon. Kaya nga si Chona, ang akala niya taga-Bulacan ako, kasi nakarating kami doon para lang sa amateur. Doon kasi madalas. Doon kami unang nagkita ni Chona," she said.
Chona was Regine's real nickname and the name the now-big-time singer used in her gigs before Martin Nievera suggested, in 1986, that she use Regine as her showbiz name.
COMPETING WITH CHONA. Eva no longer remembers the exact date or the singing competition where she and Chona first crossed paths. "Siyempre, ang babata pa namin noon. Wala naman kaming masyadong...pero tuwing nagkikita kami ni Chona, lagi lang kaming naglalaro. Saka iyan kasi, noon pa, mahilig magbutingting. Nili-lipstick-an pa niya 'ko no'n."
Although they were both competitors in the same amateur singing contests, they were actually very close. "Magka-vibes naman kami, e. Sa entablado lang kami magkalaban. Ako lang talaga yung laging pinapalad."
Commenting on Regine's recollection of how Eva used to beat her in singing competitions, Eva revealed self-effacingly that she did not always get the top prize.
"Nung time na yun kasi, halu-halo rin. Magkakasama ang mga bata at matatanda, so, may mga time na hindi naman ako laging nananalo. Meron ding iba. May mga contest nga na pareho pa kami ni Chona na talo. Pero meron ding tie," she said.
It was in a contest in Pulilan, Bulacan, that Eva and Chona had their own sets of fans cheering and screaming for both of them. The judges just couldn't decide who to choose between the two girls. Even the other competitors surrendered in defeat and became fans themselves of both Eva and Chona.
"Alam na nila nun, nung makita nilang kaming dalawa, kami na lang ni Chona ang magpupukpukan," Eva said about the other contestants. "Tapos yung mga tao, talagang ayaw kaming pakawalan. Pinapakanta pa talaga kami. Marami na talagang fans si Chona nun. Kaya 'ayun, pinag-tie na lang kami. Pareho na lang kaming nanalo."
TREADING SEPARATE PATHS. As the two girls grew up, their friendship also bloomed. So close were they that, at one point, one would even put aside the chance to win so that the other would make it.
"Dun sa Bagong Kampeon, dapat kasali din ako dun," Eva recalled. "Kaya lang, dahil magkaibigan naman talaga kami, so, napagkasunduan naming dalawa na mauna na siya, 'tapos susunod na 'ko."
Bagong Kampeon was a nationally televised singing competition hosted by funnyman Bert "Tawa" Marcelo and Asia's Queen of Songs Pilita Coralles. Regine at 14 became the show's first grand champion, and among her prizes was a contract with OctoArts Records. She also became a member of the Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mang-aawit (OPM), which guaranteed her singing stints in classy lounges and bars in Metro Manila.
The rest, as we know, is history.
As for Eva, she continued joining amateur singing contests and winning most of them. "Ang pinakatalo ko lang nun na madalang, yung second place ako," she said. She even got a record deal offer from cousins Orly Ilacad and Vic del Rosario's Blackgold Records / Vicor Music Corporation, a company promoting Filipino music and artists. But the people managing her then, her uncle and aunt, didn't want her to sign a contract with the record company or any record company at all.
"Ayaw po nila [her Tito Iking]. Kasi nga po lagi akong nananalo sa mga contest nun. Mas malaki raw po ang kita sa amateur [singing contests].
She also continued singing in bars and lounges, a job she got at the early age of 11.
"Gabi, kumakanta ako sa mga bars. 'Tapos uuwi, matutulog lang nang konti, tapos pasok na sa eskuwela."
BURNED OUT. Working at night, joining amateur singing contests to earn more money, and going to school without much rest finally took its toll on Eva. She got burned out. At 17, feeling she had had enough of earning money for her family, she eloped with her boyfriend.
"Nagtanan po kami. Kasi, ako po ang breadwinner sa family namin. Tinakasan ko yung pamilya ko. Akala ko naman, mas mabuti yung pupuntahan ko. Yun pala, mas mahirap yung pinasok kong buhay."
The man she ran off with became her husband—but she'd rather not give his name— and became the father of her seven kids: Juner, Joanna, Paolo, Reina, Rowell, Glorily, and Sharie Mae.
She returned to singing and joining amateur singing contests after giving birth to her first baby. But the scene had changed.
"Iba na ang mga contest nun, e. Hindi na lang boses ang tinitingnan. Pati na rin ito," she said, putting her hand under her chin, to say that contributing to her defeat in the singing contests was her not being pretty enough for the judges.
When I argued that she didn't look bad at all. And I meant it. She has a set of cute dimples and perfect teeth when she smiles. She just got a little full-figured in her child-bearing years, what with her duties as wife and mother.
"Pero ang gusto po nila no'n, maputi. E, wala naman ako nun!" she laughed, referring to the judges of the amateur singing contests she joined when she had become a mother. "Si Chona noon, makinis at maputi na no'n. Maganda pa ang boses."
Eva lost contact with her friend and competitor after Chona became the Bagong Kampeon grand champion and got busy with showbiz. Eva's turn to become the next Bagong Kampeon grand champion never happened.
"Nawalan na ako ng gana, e. Saka nahihiya na rin ako nung natatalo na ako," she said sighing, as she looked back to one of the dark moments in her life.
She started to get depressed over her defeats. She gave up joining singing contests and became a full-time wife and mother.
"Ayoko na, e. Gusto ko na nga lang no'n, sa bahay na lang ako. Kasi nahihiya na rin ako kapag pumipiyok ako sa mga contest. Nahihiya na rin ako kapag natatalo ako."
Not used to defeat, Eva fell into depression and decided to turn her back on singing. Her marital relationship also turned sour in a series of love-hate episodes. Although not the main reason she parted ways with her husband of 12 years, Eva's self-pity and depression contributed to their rocky marriage and eventual separation.
Three of her kids stayed with her and joined her back in Tondo. Her other four children stayed with her in-laws in Pangasinan and Antipolo.
"Hindi ko kasi sila kayang pag-aralin lahat, kaya hiwa-hiwalay muna. May iba na ring pamilya yung dating asawa ko," she said.
Standing up again after her failures was not easy for Eva. With three children to look after, Eva did odd jobs and worked as a vendor whenever she could eke out a little capital.
"Pag may puhunan, tinda. Nagpa-ending pa nga ako nun, e. Kahit illegal, sige lang, para lang may ipangkain," she narrated. "Ending" is a betting game wherein one bets on what the last two digits of the scores at the end of a basketball game would be. Eva's job was to collect these bets.
She got help once in while from friends who still remembered her beautiful voice.
"Paminsan-minsan, may mga nagsasali sa akin sa mga contest. Pero maliliit lang. Ayoko nung malalaki, kasi pag malaki, mas maraming kalaban. Pag maliit lang ang papremyo, konti lang ang kasali. Mas may tsansa ako," Eva said.
She also got to practice her voice, once in a while in wakes, and whenever friends asked her to sing in a videoke parties. "Kapag may patay, may lamay, pinapakanta ako. 'Saka sa mga videokehan. Dun lang ang pinaka-practice ko."
Once in a while, too, she got to re-tell the glory days of winning in amateur singing contests and hanging out with the famous Songbird. "Nakukuwento ko sa mga anak ko, sa mga kaibigan kong nagtatanong. Ganun lang. Ang sabi ko, si Regine, kasama ko yan dati sa amateur. Kakilala ko yan."
THE ROOTS-TO-RICHES TEAM. One day, a group of people came to see her and asked her if she wanted to see Regine Velasquez.
"Mga taga-Channel 7 daw. Tinanong ako kung gusto ko raw makita si Regine. Siyempre, sabi ko, oo. Ang tagal ko nang gustong makita yun." She told us that one time, she and her friends actually went to the house of Regine in Bulacan to visit her.
"Hindi kami pinapasok. Wala raw kasi si Chona nun. Hanggang gate lang kami. Kaya umuwi na lang kami."
At first, she wasn't sure what to think of the research team that visited her.
"Ang sabi, babalik daw agad sila. So naghintay ako, kaya lang dalawa, tatlong araw, wala pa. 'Tapos naisip ko rin, baka ano, 'to, Wish Ko Lang. Naaano ko nga, kunyari, magugulat ako, kasi biglang darating si Vicky [Morales, Wish Ko Lang host]," Eva laughed.
But the team, true to its promise, returned for Eva.
"Hindi ko na in-expect, kasi nga pangatlong araw na. 'Tapos biglang dumating. Pinagbihis na ako't makikita ko na raw si Regine. Ang lakas ng kaba ko! Tapos nung nakasakay na kami sa van, ang sarap pala. Kasi laging jeepney lang nasasakyan ko, e," Eva narrated.
THE REUNION. What was the feeling when she met Chona again after so many years?
"Wala...nag-iyakan kami," Eva laughed after recalling the first time she saw the friend and rival from her amateur singing days. 'Tapos nagkuwentuhan. Tuwang-tuwa ako kasi hindi pa rin niya kami nalilimutan na mga kasama niya dati sa amateur."
Eva says facing an audience while standing onstage and singing was not an unfamiliar thing for her, but standing onstage again and, this time, with a larger audience and with the Songbird Regine Velasquez, was really overwhelming.
"Buti nga, hindi ako pumiyok," Eva laughed again. "Saka nakita mo ba yung kamay ko na nakahawak kay Regine, mahigpit na mahigpit yun. Kasi ninenerbiyos ako. Nanginginig ako."
After the show was televised, her neighbors and friends stood outside her cramped home waiting to greet and congratulate her.
"Parang...alam mo yun. Pag brownout...nasa labas lang yung mga tao. Kuwentuhan nang kuwentuhan," Eva related.
INSTANT STARDOM. People also treated her differently in the next days after Roots to Riches was televised and after her successive guesting stints in Mel and Joey, Sis, and SOP.
"Yung mga taong hindi pumapansin sa akin noon, nagugulat ako, tinatawag ako, pinapatigil muna 'ko. Nakikipagkuwentuhan. Ang dami nang bumabati sa akin."
She also now has the means to send her kids to school. "Silang tatlo, nag-aaral na uli. In-enrol ko sila itong school year." She has the money now, thanks to her instant manager, director Louie Ignacio, who now books her singing jobs.
Direk Louie said in a conversation PEP had with him days before our interview with Eva, "Napanood ko siya dun sa Roots to Riches. Ang sabi ko kay Regine, tutulungan ko siya kasi mabuti siyang tao. 'Saka magaling siya."
She also gets little perks from being seen on TV and touted as "ang babaeng tumatalo kay Regine Velasquez."
"Yung uniform ng anak ko, pinagawa namin. Nung malaman na anak ko sila, hindi na kami pinagbayad nung gumawa," she beams.
And all of these she owes to her friend and "karibal," Regine "Chona" Velasquez.
"Kung hindi dahil sa kanya, hindi na ako makakabangon uli," says Eva, as she starts to get teary-eyed and tries to stop her chin from shaking. "Sobrang laki ng pasasalamat ko sa kanya at kay Direk Louie at kay Allan K at sa lahat ng taong tumutulong pa rin sa akin hanggang ngayon."
Allan K, the comedian-TV host and comedy-club magnate, promised to help her and now gets her to sing in Zirkoh on Thursday nights.
"Pero higit sa lahat po talaga, kay Regine. Kay Chona...siya po talaga ang dahilan ng lahat ng ito. Buong-buhay kong utang na loob ko ito sa kanya."