On a quaint-looking street in Cubao, Quezon City, flanked by houses with rustic steel gates, wooden outdoor panels, and S-shaped balustrades, stands a modern four-floor structure. The top floor of this low-rise residential building gives a magnificent uninterrupted view of the cityscape, which includes the busy MRT, a Catholic church, and the familiar GMA-7 transmitter tower.
"Dito ako 'pinanganak, dito rin ako lumaki, kaya ayokong umalis dito," says the homeowner. He adds with a smile: "QC boy ako, e!"
But he is not just a "QC boy." He is Dingdong Dantes—the hunky actor who was the No. 1 bachelor in the 2007 list of Cosmopolitan Philippines magazine, the underwear model who made jaws drop with his sexy billboards, and, more recently, the only Filipino included in Hollywood E! channel's "25 Sexiest Men in the World."
The guy barely needs a formal introduction these days, especially with the ladies. So popular is he that a start-up retailer, Seafoam Fashion, sold a lot of shirts with "I wanna touch your Dingdong Dantes" printed on it.
While other stars of his stature relocate to affluent gated villages or high-rise condo units in posh districts once they've earned enough money to buy properties, Dong chooses to stay here, where his roots are.
"Kahit papaano," he says of his family, "I still wanna see them and be close to where they are. I don't want to go far."
After ten years in the business, Dingdong has definitely come a long way. Now, for the first time in those ten years, the actor opens his home and his life, exclusively to YES!
SOLDIER BOY. Born Jose Sixto Dantes III, Dingdong is the third of the Dantes clan to bear the name. His dad is Jose Sixto "Jig" Dantes Jr., and his paternal grandfather is Jose Sixto Dantes Sr. But inside his bachelor's pad, the 28-year-old star prefers to be called "Dong."
"Kesa Ding, Dong na lang!" he quips. "Mula bata ako, 'yon na ang tawag sa 'kin—Dong. Bigay sa 'kin ng dad ko 'yon, e. Hanggang ngayon, hindi ko alam kung bakit, pero 'yon talaga ang gusto niya, e."
In a separate interview, his mom, Angeline Gonzales-Dantes, reveals the real story behind the name.
"Daddy niya 'yong nagbinyag," the soft-spoken Angeline recalls, laughing at the memory. "Kasi, noong baby siya, wiwi nang wiwi. So, 'Dingdong!
Ayaw na ayaw ng Mommy ko, siyempre. Spanish kasi. 'Anong Dingdong? He's Jose Sixto, so Joselito!' Kaya sa family ko, ang nickname niya, Joselito."
Dong is the eldest of five children, the others being Aya, Trina, Angelo, and Vicky. When he was younger, the panganay originally wanted to follow in the footsteps of his dad Jig, a commander in the Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary, and his grandfather Jose Sixto Sr., who served as a general in the Philippine Constabulary, a former branch of the military that has been absorbed by the Philippine National Police.
"Kung hindi ako artista, I'm sure sundalo ako," says Dong. "'Yong mga brothers ng dad ko, nasa service din, so linya talaga ng mga military men." Dong says he was drawn to "the prestige of being chosen, the honor of serving the flag, the integrity, and the commitment to the greatest battle plan."
Aside from having a sense of patriotism instilled in him, Dong was greatly influenced by his dad in many ways, including his dad's porma.
"'Yong mga tayo niya, lahat, 'yong mga galaw niya—mana sa daddy niya!" says Angeline of Dong. "Gigising 'yan sa umaga, magsasapatos na 'yan. Kahit walang lakad! Maglalaro lang siya, naka-rubber-shoes, socks, 'tapos naka-backpack! Akala mo, pupunta na kung saan! Maporma na maski noong bata pa lang."
This, Angeline says, was around the time when she only had three kids—Dong, plus Aya and Trina. She had no problems with them, she adds: "Sanay silang magbihis sa sarili nila. Hindi ako nahirapan, kasi very independent sila."
Even with school work and homework, the Dantes kids were taught to rely on themselves instead of asking others to do the work for them.
"Very strict ang daddy nila," Angeline reveals. "Kaya maliit pa lang sila, ilag na sila. Disciplinarian kasi ang daddy nila. Military ang lolo nila, e—so ang daddy nila, lumaki sa military. De-numero ang kilos... Kunyari may homework, may tatanungin sila. Kung mayroon akong hindi alam, 'Ask your dad.' So, there was one time nagtanong sila sa dad. Alam mo sagot ng daddy: 'We have encyclopedia there. You research.' Ganyan ang sagot. Hindi na sila nagtatanong sa daddy nila."
Dong also took a cue from his father on what it means to be the firstborn.
"Maliit pa lang siya, very responsible na. Noong ipapanganak si Vicky, naiwan ang daddy niya sa hospital. Nagpaiwan din siya. Andoon lang siya sa hospital. Minsan, kahit checkup ko lang, siya kasama ko."
Back then, the prospect of being an actor was not on anyone's mind. But Dong believes there were already signs that he was inclined to something related to the actor's craft.
"Mahilig lang ako gumawa ng mga scenario, e," he recalls. "Like, noong bata ako, mayroong akong mga laruan. Mahilig ako sa mga G.I. Joe, He-Man... So, pinag-aaway-away ko sila, 'tapos ginagawan ko ng script! Bata pa lang ako, I already created scenarios. So I thought talagang may inclination ako sa mga bagay na ganoon. Pero never ko inisip na mag-aartista ako."
NAUGHTY PRIEST. Like other young boys, Dong also had his share of kalokohan. He and his mom Angeline recall an incident when Dong, then seven years old, almost died because of one of his stunts.
"Pag Holy Week, gumagawa siya ng crucifix na kahoy at nagpa-crucify siya doon!" Angeline recounts. "Kulang na lang ipako 'yong mga kamay niya. At nagbigti pa siya! Ayun, muntik na siyang matuluyan!"
Dong adds: "'Yong Tita ko, naglalaba—nakita niya ako, nakaganoon." He makes a croaking sound.
Following the Philippine folk tradition of penitensiya during the Lenten season, Dong was presumably trying to reenact Jesus' being nailed on the cross and Judas hanging himself after betraying Christ.
Around this time, it looked like Dong had an inclination toward the priesthood.
"Ang hilig pa niya, magpapari siya," Angeline says, remembering how he would drape himself in a blanket and make like a priest saying Mass.
"'Tapos, bibilihin niya 'yong Hao Flakes, bibigyan niya 'yong mga kapatid niya. 'Body of Christ!'"
Hao Flakes are thin, red, round Chinese sweets that have the same shape and size as communion hosts. Obviously, Dong doesn't feed them to his siblings anymore. But is entering a seminary still an option for him?
"Magugulo 'yong seminaryo," quips Angeline.
Dong jests, "Malalaman natin bukas."
Ironically, it was because of Dong's kalokohan that he got lured into show business. He was three years old at the time. "Naninilip siya ng mga palda ng manikin sa Shoe Mart!" Angeline reveals, laughing.
A talent scout noticed the naughty boy who had inherited his parents' mestizo features, and offered him the starring role in a television commercial for Carnation milk.
The boy was not interested. It was his aunt Lui, sister of Angeline, who persuaded her favorite nephew to accept the job offer. "Ayaw niya talaga," Lui, who happens to be in the house during the YES! shoot, recalls. But she knew where to find his kiliti. The little boy loved fashionable wear. He was "napakaluho," she says, and all of his clothes carried brand names. "Kung di brand name, ayaw niya."
So she told the three-year-old Dong: "At least man lang, for your luho, sige na, katuwaan lang. If you cooperate, I'll bring you to Cash & Carry."
For his first commercial, Dong was paid P2,000. As a reward, his Tita Lui made good on her promise and brought him to the imported-goods store, which, back then, carried high-end clothing brands.
"Hulaan mo ang nagasta ko?" Lui asks, turning to us. "Limang libo! Kulang pa 'yong two thousand niya!"
Thanks to that milk commercial, Dong got noticed, and he was soon getting more and more offers to appear in advertisements. He was a quick learner, easily following the instructions of his directors. "Pag nag-shoot siya ng commercial, ang bilis matapos ng shoot," Lui comments. "Maliit pa siya noon, ha? May talent na talaga siya."
By Angeline's estimate, Dong did about 20 TV commercials up to the age of 17, before he went into showbiz.
At the Ateneo de Manila, where he would study from prep to college (he has a bachelor of arts degree in interdisciplinary studies), Dong started to participate in extra-curricular activities, particularly theater. In high school, he joined the cast of the school's production of Aladdin, and even directed a play for his Filipino class.
In 1997, when Dong was 17, his cousin, Arthur Gonzales-Solinap, came to Manila from Iloilo and joined the Abztract dancers, an all-male dance group.
"Nanood ako one time, and I found it interesting," says Dong. "Parang nakakaaliw lang dahil ang gandang exercise niya, sabay when they're on stage parang ang saya-saya nila. Wala lang. Sabi ko, subukan ko nga. So they invited me."
Although he was a member of the Abztract dancers for ten months, Dong is the first to admit that he didn't exactly fit in with the rest of the boys. "Parehong kaliwa paa ko, e," he admits, giving a hearty laugh. "Noong nag-a-Abztract ako, bano ako noon, e!"
DADDY DONG? Despite his steady modeling and dancing work, Dong was still not interested in seriously pursuing a career in show business.
"Parang feeling ko, it was not for me," he confesses. "At that time, I was in high school. So, parang, I figured hindi mo puwedeng ipagsabay 'yan."
Again, it was his Tita Lui who persuaded him to give acting a try, so he could have extra money to buy stuff. Lui, who admits to spoiling her nephew, recalls telling Dong: "Iho, mag-artista ka na for the fun of it!"
After finishing high school, Dong decided to give showbiz a try, but just as a "Saturday thing." His first project was the hit teen-oriented drama series T.G.I.S. (Thank God It's Sabado), where he played a supporting role.
It was on this show that Dong met Antoinette Taus, a T.G.I.S. co-star.
Offscreen, the two became romantically involved. That gave both their careers a boost, and they went on to topbill two movies together, Honey My Love So Sweet and Kiss Mo 'Ko, in addition to starring in two more GMA-7 TV programs, the Sunday variety show S.O.P. and the tearjerker Anna Karenina.
In 2001, Antoinette—Toni to friends—surprised everyone when she decided to migrate to the U.S. to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. Not long after that, kibitzers started speculating that the young actress was secretly pregnant with Dong's child. The speculation was further fueled by rumors that photos of the couple holding a baby had allegedly surfaced.
Dong ignored the issue at first, but his silence only resulted in even more talk.
"For the longest time, sinasabi ko lang parating, 'Wala,'" says Dong. "And sinasabi ko naman na kung sakaling mayroon, I would be one proud father. So, hindi ko siya itatago.
"I'm fond of kids. So, marami akong inaanak, marami akong pamangkin. And I like to bring them around sa simbahan, sa mall. So, sometimes people see me with children. Maybe it makes them wonder who that child is. And I can't explain to everyone, 'Hey, this is my inaanak...'"
Dong says he has come to accept that being a public figure comes with public interest in his activities and assumptions about his life.
"Sometimes the reports are either nadadagdagan or nababawasan, so nagiging iba 'yong perception. Pag ganoon na, pag malala na, siguro I think that's the time I should clarify things. But most of the time I'd just rather not talk about it."
In 2005, after six years of being an item, Dong and Toni ended their long-distance relationship.
Dong's mom, Angeline, saw the breakup as a way for her son to start anew.
"Kami naman, kung sino ang gusto niya—except lang nga, for the record, except lang 'yong dati niya talaga," Angeline says while Dong is out of earshot, referring to Toni. "Talagang 'yon ang naging ibang klaseng naging girlfriend niya. Hindi namin kaya. Buong pamilya, pati aso namin 'tsaka pusa, ayaw siya..."
She leaves the sentence hanging and does not elaborate, maybe in deference to her son, who remains a friend to his ex-girlfriend.
While Toni was out of the country, Dong had a steady stream of projects that paired him with different leading ladies, including Judy Ann Santos, Regine Velasquez, and Tanya Garcia. But it wasn't until he did the hit GMA-7 series Encantadia that he met the woman who would make him fall in love again—Karylle.
"Ang tingin ko sa kanya, pagka na-in-love sa girl, bigay-todo," says Angeline. "Hindi siya 'yong parang paglalaruan 'yong babae. Pero grabe siya, seloso siya, number one! Mana sa daddy niya."
Dong does not deny that he can be a bit overprotective when it comes to girlfriends.
"Dati, in my younger days, as in, sobra," he admits. "As in, hindi ka puwede magsuot ng maikli. Hindi ka puwedeng tumawa nang malakas, mga ganoon... Siguro noong pagtanda, nawala na lang talaga. Naging mas confident ako sa 'binibigay ko rin sa babae na pagmamahal. 'Tsaka, kumbaga, lahat ng 'binibigay ko sa kanya, alam kong hindi niya makukuha sa ibang tao, because ako lang puwede magbigay sa kanya noon. Trust lang. It comes with maturity, I guess."
Although he has played a romantic leading man in a succession of films, in real life Dong is not quite so romantiko.
"Hindi ako masyado showy, hindi ako masyado masalita," he says. "Pero on special occasions that are unexpected, that's how I show it. Talagang when it comes unexpectedly, talagang from nowhere, sometimes 'yon 'yong pinaka-naaalala. Kumbaga, I just wanna do things that are out of the box when it comes to showing feelings."
PHENOMENAL TEAMUP. The success of Encantadia gave rise to a sequel, Etheria, in which Dong again played one of the leading roles. Then he was given top billing in the primetime fantaserye Atlantika, which he also co-directed. Unfortunately, although the series won praise for its visual effects and production values, it achieved only mild success in the ratings game, and ended after just one season.
Unfazed, Dong lay low for a while. He busied himself with a directorial job in the indie flick Angels, produced by Angel Locsin, and studied his options for his next project.
"There was a project that was offered na talagang I felt that wasn't really meant for me," he recalls. "They were giving me projects—I don't wanna say what kind, what title. So I said, 'I wanna wait for something that's really for me, because I don't think it was for me.' Or maybe because I also wanted to rest that time."
After five months, Dong was offered a role that would have a terrific impact on his career—Sergio Santibañez in the Philippine adaptation of MariMar. To become the character, Dong shed off pounds, toned his abs, and traded his mestizo boy-next-door look for a tanned manlier look.
GMA-7 had acquired the rights to the hit Mexican telenovela that had made an international star of the Mexican actress Thalia. With Angel Locsin, one of the network's major stars, transferring to the rival station, the Kapuso network plucked the beautiful Marian Rivera from its stable of supporting actresses and gave her the title role.
The Dingdong-Marian teamup had never been tested and was deemed a major risk for the network and the actors. Whether it was the chemistry or sheer fate, the tandem became a phenomenal one.
"I believe that we're very different and that's what I like about our teamup," says the actor. "Kumbaga, 'yong mga wala ako, mayroon siya. Kung ano 'yong wala siya, minsan mayroon ako. So, parang it just fit perfectly. Like, for example, she's the type who would joke around, e. Ako, most of the time, I'm the serious type. So, once she cracks a joke, it breaks the ice."
Dong admits that, to make the kilig scenes believable, especially the steamy kissing scenes, actors must feel something for their partners—in this case, Marian.
"You have to. Otherwise, it won't come out real. Pero siyempre, you have to snap out of it right away. Mahirap, but you have to snap out of it. 'Yong iba naman kasi, hindi nila dinidibdib, e. Like I said, I want to put my whole self in what I'm doing. I wanna be involved. I always give my hundred percent. Siguro, sa kalagitnaan, I wasn't feeling like I was acting. I actually lived the character."
Riding on the success of Marimar, Dong and Marian were paired up for a second television project, Dyesebel. This also went through the roof, holding the lead in the AGB-Nielsen TV ratings during its run. Last November 2008, Dingdong and Marian starred in their first movie together, One True Love.
Dong believes that their tandem hasn't reached its full potential.
"I would like to still be her partner, because hindi pa naman namin nae-explore lahat. So, marami pa, alam ko marami pa kaming ibibigay."
MORE CONTROVERSIES. At the time this article was published, many showbiz insiders consider Dong one of the top two leading men in GMA-7-the other one being Richard Gutierrez. As expected, news reports have come up pitting the two against each other.
At the Bench fashion show last July 25, 2008, Dong and Chard, both of whom are endorsers of the clothing brand, were asked to model. Dong was said to have received louder cheers and applause than his fellow Kapuso. In defense of her son, Annabelle Rama issued a statement to the press, saying that the comments were "unfair," because Richard had not been given the proper introductions, and therefore the audience did not recognize him behind the make-up and the costume.
Last July 30, 2008, in an article that appeared in YES! Magazine's online affiliate PEP (Philippine Entertainment Portal), Richard was quoted as saying that his mom's reaction was just a "manager's point of view, siyempre nanay ko pa siya, siyempre emotional siya." The Asero star also denied reports of an alleged rivalry between him and Dong.
"Okey kami," Dong seconds. "Well, hindi pa kami nagkikita talaga, e, after it all started. So, I really don't know how it will be. But I think there's really nothing wrong... I refuse to involve myself... No harm done to me."
With his star on a steady rise, Dong believes he is just exactly where he should be.
"I've been here for quite some time, and I worked hard for it, so para sa akin, I think I deserve to be in this place. I'd like to give it [acting], siguro, ten more years. It's hard to give a clear destination, pero siguro isa sa mga gusto kong mangyari when I entered, I wanted to contribute something to the industry, something that can make a change. I'm trying to figure out what that change would be... Siguro, something that would elevate and give more meaning to the industry."
When asked what that change would entail, the young man, whose star is shining steadily brighter, replies with a soft smile, "I don't know yet. I'm still looking for that something."
Whatever the answer, this much Dingdong knows—he is today just where he should be.