Sunshine Dizon, Iza Calzado, Karylle, and Diana Zubiri are proof that network wars cannot stand in the way of friendship.
The four actresses are known as the original Sang'gres of Encantadia, GMA-7's breakthrough fantaserye which aired in 2005.
In the fantaserye, Sunshine portrayed the fiery Pirena, keeper of Brilyante ng Apoy. Iza Calzado was Amihan, heir to the throne and keeper of Brilyante ng Hangin. Karylle was Alena, keeper of Brilyante ng Tubig. Finally, Diana was Danaya, keeper of the Brilyante ng Lupa. The four women played sisters in the landmark series.
It was the first and last time they would all work together.
As the years went by, they took different career paths: Karylle was first to transfer to rival network ABS-CBN, in 2008; Iza followed three years later, in 2011.
Diana also became a Kapamilya in 2012, took a showbiz hiatus to focus on her family, and then came back to being a Kapuso.
Sunshine rose to become one of the Kapuso network's drama queens. But, like Diana, she chose marriage over career in 2010.
No one thought, not even them, that they would come together again 14 years after the birth of the Sang'gres.
Bustling with energy on a Tuesday afternoon, the four lovely stars of Mystified—their new iFlix movie—breeze through the three-layout shoot of PEP.ph for its "Headliner" section.
They also happily take us back on a walk down memory lane about how their friendship story, and how it was built in what has become one of the most memorable telefantasyas on primetime TV.
"Instantly, nag-gel kaming apat when we were doing Encantadia," says Sunshine, who at the time had racked up 19 years in showbiz.
"Masaya, kasi ang trabaho namin noon was more than twenty-four hours, e. So we find ways para aliwin ang isa't isa.
"It was my first time to work with Diana, pero may backstory."
Diana recalls, admittedly with fondness, that she was not yet an artista and was only in her second year at high school that first time she saw Sunshine.
"Yes! Nakiki-shooting siya sa school namin. Nakikinood ako doon, mga ganon. Yung ibang artistang kasama niya, mukhang isnabera. Hindi pinansin yung mga nagkakaway-kaway kami. Si Sunshine, pagbaba ng van, siya pa talaga yung unang nag-hi sa amin."
Diana adds, "Kasi mai-intimidate ka sa kanya because, noong time na iyon, ang dami niyang kontrabida na acting gigs—pero hindi pala. Sobrang friendly niya."
Sunshine says, smiling, "Buti na lang, nakawayan ko! Kasi baka may hinanakit naman sa akin. Sabi nga niya, hindi, super friendly daw ako noong bagets ako. Thank you naman."
Sunshine, Iza, and Karylle already knew one another, since they occasionally guested in the now-defunct Kapuso noontime show, SOP, apart from performing at their other Kapuso engagements.
"Iza has always been a friend of mine. Bata pa lang kami, kasi si Tito Lito usually is the floor director or director of musicals or mga specials that we used to do," says Sunshine, referring to Iza's father, the late, well-known choreographer/musical director Lito Calzado.
Sunshine recalls, "So, maliit pa kami medyo magkalaro na kami niyan. Pero namuo talaga yung friendship namin, na kumbaga friendship na talaga, when we did the series Kung Mawawala Ka, in 2002.
"There was a time na nagbakasyon pa ako sa bahay ni Iza for a few months. Gano'n kami ka-close."
Describing the Karylle she knew back then, Sunshine goes on, "Si K naman, parati kong nakakatrabaho noon, noong mga SOP days.
"Si K ang totally nagbago, 180-degree turn-around, kasi manang 'yan dati, super manang! As in, hindi mo siya mapapasuot ng medyo revealing, balot na balot siya, super manang."
Diana says the same thing about Karylle.
"Napanood ko rin kasi siya before, sa SOP, na parang kinukuwento niya na ayaw niya mag- sleeveless. Gagawa siya ng music video, ayaw niyang mag bra top, mag-midriff.
"'Tapos noong nakasama ko siya, gano'n pala talaga siya, kasi parang napalaki siya na gano'n yung pamumuhay as a girl. Conservative rin yung family nila."
Diana goes on to say that Iza was like Sunshine even back then: bubbly and approachable.
"Si Iza naman, gano'n din, Miss Congeniality 'yan ng group namin, because kahit saan kami pumunta, my gosh, lahat kilala niya!
"Nawawala siya sa table namin na parang, 'Asan siya?' 'Nandon sa kabilang table, may mga kakilala.'"
For her part, Karylle says Diana made quite an impression on her when they first worked together in Encantadia.
Karylle was impressed with the showbiz newbie Diana's business smarts.
"Diana was always in my head," Karylle says "Sobrang idol ko siya sa pagiging businesswoman. She had food carts at that time, and she invested in a restaurant.
"At that point, I had zero investment, so I was like 'Wow! I have to have that!' But not food carts.
"Although she was asking me if I wanted to, I remember at that time my main question to myself was: 'Is it something that you can be passionate about? Is it something you like?'"
But just seeing Diana's ventures become profitable prompted Karylle to invest her earnings in business, too.
"That's why I got into karaoke shortly after," Karylle says.
Karylle would open videoke places as a co-owner. At present, she co-owns Rockstar KTV and Restobar at the Skypark Garden Area of SM Aura in Taguig City.
About Iza, Karylle distinctly remembers how the girl loved eating bread through their long working hours on the set of Encantadia.
"A lot of pandesal, kasi inuumaga kami. E, yun lang yung mga bukas na store, di ba? And she would eat a lot of suha.
"She used to be on a diet. And at that point, she still did not discover her best body yet, her best eating habits.
"So, that is something she developed through the years—years of searching and trying to figure it out."
Karylle reveals that while she is the eldest of the four ladies, it is Sunshine who played the role of elder sister from the very start.
"Shine already has a different kind of maturity," Karylle recalls. "She was always, like, the first one in the business, so parang she's an ate in a different way.
"Like, of course, we look to her when we talk about certain things because she knows. She knows everything. If we need to ask questions, that's her."
When it is Iza's turn to describe her first impression of her co-stars, she begins by saying that all four of them have unique qualities.
"Diana has always been entrepreneurial. Magaling sa business, kung anu-anong pinagbebenta niya sa amin. Hanggang ngayon magaling pa rin siya sa business.
"Si Sunshine remains as a skillful actress and very smart. Mas grounded din siyang di hamak ngayon because of her two children and life experiences also.
"And then Karylle—kasi K and I have stayed in touch talaga through the years—so siya yung makulit, yung maraming ideas.
"Siya yung pinaka-light, positive, vibrant energy sa grupo."
During the interviews, all look back at their Encantadia stories like these just happened yesterday.
Sunshine repeatedly calls Diana "Joy," a nickname derived from Diana's real name, Rosemarie Joy.
The three of them address Karylle as "K," her nickname in showbiz, but one used only by her close friends.
Iza and Sunshine call each other "Ga," their term of endearment. Sunshine also calls Iza "Calzado" during her interview.
But not all the years of their friendship have been filled with glitter and fun.
Their friendship has grown amid its share of trials and tribulations.
TROUBLE FITTING IN
Diana admits to initially suffering from self-esteem issues.
She struggled with her transition from being a sexy movie star to a legit TV dramatic actress.
Diana first became known for her controversial EDSA-flyover pictorial for FHM Magazine, followed by her string of bold Seiko movies with suggestive one-word titles like Liberated and Silip.
Diana remembers asking herself: How can she possibly fit in with the very wholesome Karylle, Iza, and Sunshine?
Diana explains: "Galing ako sa pagse-sexy noon, as in talagang Encantadia is my first soap.
"As in hindi ako makapaniwala. Ayoko talaga siyang tanggapin because parang feeling ko, 'Why me? Ako yung pang-apat?' Di ba, parang ang layo kasi?"
"'Tapos hindi ko sila kilala! Wala akong mga experience na nakasama ko sila or anything.
"So, parang nandoon sa akin yung kaba, and then na-intimidate ako because it was my first acting sa soap."
Pointing out how different she was from the other girls, Diana says candidly, "Ano ba ako at that time? Jologs! Totoo!
"Kasi high-school grad lang ako at that time, e. As in, kung ano lang yung kinalakihan ko, yun lang yung dala ko din sa set.
"Wala akong experience pa, so kung ano lang ako nung time na yon. Galing nga ako sa pagpapa-sexy."
Diana says there were times when she could not help but feel out of place.
"At the same time, noong nakilala ko sila, siyempre, hindi pa naman kami gano'n naging close.
"Yun talaga yung totoo. Doon sa mga training, medyo nale-left out ako kasi magkakakilala sila."
Iza and Sunshine are certainly the closest among the four Sang'gres, but their friendship had its shaky moments.
The test of their friendship happened three years after Encantadia, in 2009, when they had just wrapped up GMA-7's remake of the Korean drama, All About Eve, which they co-headlined.
GMA-7 placed them in back-to-back Sine Novela shows in the afternoon block—with Iza headlining Kaya Kong Abutin Ang Langit and Sunshine starring in Tinik Sa Dibdib.
That their shows premiered on the same date, on September 28, 2009, only served to fan rivalry rumors.
Talk of a rift between Sunshine and Iza intensified after one was cast as the kontrabida to the other's bida, and vice versa, in teleseryes over the years.
In separate interviews, each one denied the rivalry rumors, but when the rumor mills went on high drive, this affected their friendship.
"There was a time in GMA," Sunshine says, "na hindi naman magkatapat. We were always together in a show.
"It's either siya yung nag-kontrabida, ako yung bida; or ako naman yung kontrabida, siya naman yung bida."
Sunshine says of the rivalry, "May konting gano'n, pero I think it was more of the people around.
"Uso kasi dati yun! Pini-pit with each other yung mga kyeme para maingay.
"Hindi naman ako masyado nagpapapatol. Pero merong isang beses na medyo talagang nagkaroon kami ng gap. There was a time na ganun."
But, friendship won out: Sunshine and Iza patched things up quickly.
Sunshine recalls, "I remember naayos naman namin, and noong naayos naman namin, parang wala din.
"I don't really hold on to grudges, kasi parang feeling ko, siguro gano'n lang talaga noong panahon na yun.
"Baka people around her said things and hindi lang kami nakapag-usap nang maayos. Pero deep inside, she's always my sister, and I told her that before, na parang, 'Diyos ko, ako pa?'"
"At saka alam niya 'yan, no matter what, I would cheer for her, cry with her. Ang friendship namin is malalim. Malalim talaga."
Sunshine says she knew that, even back then, she and Iza would be able to resolve their issues quickly.
"Ito, kapatid ko ito," is how Sunshine puts it. "Kaya parang, kumbaga, parang in my heart of hearts, 'Ah, magiging okay pa rin ito.' Maaayos. Naayos naman."
In fact, after doing four teleseryes together, Sunshine can say she loves sharing the screen with Iza.
"Professionally naman, jive din kami ni Calzado. Sabi nga niya, soulmate niya ako. Totoo naman.
"Siguro, few of the best scenes na nagawa ko in showbiz are she's my scene partner.
"So, may ganoon kami. Gets namin ang isa't isa. Tinginan pa lang, gets na namin."
Iza says the same thing about Sunshine.
"Sunshine and I really worked together, and she's a great scene partner talaga.
"I think together we work well, di ba? So that was, for me, I loved it!"
TIME APART FOR THE SANG'GRES
In July 2010, Sunshine got pregnant with her first child, Doreen.
She decided to take a break from show business.
It was at this time that she almost lost touch with her "sisters."
"Noong nag-asawa ako, medyo I cut off people talaga, I concentrated with my children," Sunshine admits.
"Pero once in a while, I get to talk to them pa rin, hindi lang ako ma-attend noon ng gatherings kasi sa Pampanga ako nakatira."
Even focused on domesticity, Sunshine kept in contact with the three women, especially with Iza.
Sunshine says, "Iza is the ninang of my son, nagpunta talaga 'yan ng Pampanga during the baptism ni Anton.
"And then, noong nag-base na ako ng Manila, 'yan. Once in a while, Iza would call me and ask where I am, habang naghihintay ako magsundo ng anak ko.
"Minsan, tatawag naman 'yan, 'Ga, nasa QC yung shoot ko, dalawin mo ako.'
"Pupuntahan ko naman siya. Minsan, pupunta rin 'yan sa bahay.
"Kami naman ni K, more on tawagan din, and si Joy, puro mostly ganyan, pero physical talaga na magkikita, mas more kami ni Calzado talaga."
For Diana, who also took a break from showbiz, the Sang'gres time apart from each other became a chance for them to grow up in separate environments that brought them wisdom and strength.
"Kami naman," says Diana, "doon sa fourteen years, hindi naman kami dire-diretso.
"Siyempre, dumating kami sa point na, ako, nag-asawa ako, nawalan din ako ng communication sa kanila, kasi siyempre na-busy.
"Noong time na yun, hindi rin naman ako actively nakikipag-usap sa kanila. Nagkamustahan lang, ganyan."
But at no time did Diana feel she lost touch with her girl friends.
"Kapag nagkikita kami, mapi-feel mo kasi talaga na nandoon pa rin, na magkakaibigan pa rin talaga kayo, na totoo silang mga kaibigan. Gano'n kami, e."
BEING THERE FOR EACH OTHER
True enough, the Sang'gres have seen one another through each other's ups and downs.
When Sunshine's marital woes with husband Timothy Tan became known to the public in 2016, Iza was there for her.
And, when Iza had trials of her own, Sunshine readily offered the same support.
"I remember Iza calling me during those dark days," Sunshine shares.
"At saka siya din naman, like, pag medyo may something na family matters, 'Ga, puntahan mo ako dito.'
"Akala ko naman kung ano, 'tapos magdadaing lang. Nothing really specific."
Sunshine assures her friends that her door is open to them.
"Basta she knows, everyone knows, even Joy and K, they know na I am always one call away.
"Or if they really want, they can just knock on my door and I'm there. I'm that type of friend naman, e.
"Kumbaga, hindi mo ako masyadong maaasahan sa maraming labas-labas.
"Pero if you want someone to talk to in the middle of the night or you want to come running and knock on my door, kahit wee hours in the evening or morning, I'm there."
Iza says it was three years ago when they started hanging out with each other more often.
She tells PEP.ph, "We try to be there for each other.
"There was a time na hindi kami nagkakasama talaga, especially as a group. Ang tagal na.
"We started hanging out together, mga three years ago lang, pero hindi rin consistent.
"So, only because of this project na naging super consistent.
"Siyempre, yung mga pangyayari sa buhay are there. Hindi ko na iisa-isahin."
Diana mentions that they witnessed one another's breakups with the guys they dated when they were much younger.
"Kung may mga breakup-breakup ng mga boyfriend, mayroon naman kaming mga ganong pag-uusap.
"Especially nung dumating ang social media, it's easier for you to converse, to communicate, 'How are you? Ok ka lang ba?' Nagtatawagan."
Who gives the best advice when it comes to relationships?
Diana answers, "Pare-parehas naman sila, iba't-iba lang kasi yung mga culture ng bawat tao, e.
"Kung gusto mo ng prangka, punta ka kay Shine. Dire-diretso ka niyang sasabihan, 'O, ito lang naman yun, e. Kung ayaw mo talagang ano, huwag mong gawin to, e, di tapos!'
"'Tapos second the motion yung isa, sasabihin, 'Tama nga.' Si Iza ito. 'Tama naman si Shine.' Malumanay niya sasabihin, pero yung totoo, yun pa rin yung sinabi ni Shine.
"And then, si K yung medyo mabait. Iba yung approach niya. Yung solution niya, 'Sige, pag-iisipan natin 'yan kung tama ang gagawin mo.' May ganon siya."
Karylle points out that she has always thought of Sunshine as the best person to run to for protection during tough times.
"Because her character was also very fierce, in my head, she would kill for me."
"Siguro, partly because she was Pirena, so I knew that no one would ever harm me.
"Hindi naman literally, pero you get what I'm saying? Like she would protect me in her fiercest way, and she portrayed that role oh so well.
"In my head, 'No one can ever touch me. I got Shine.' Yun."
THE DREAM VERSUS NETWORK WARS
Now that they are no longer in the same network, and working together does not come often, the girls say they are happy with how they have maintained their friendship.
Karylle says, "Yeah, I think in life, there are no walls, di ba?
"We built those because we're like Team A and Team B.
"But sometimes, di ba, we look at the big picture with open minds. I always think about it in that sense."
For the longest time, all four wanted to do an Encantadia reunion project, but it was only three years ago, when they started meeting more often, that the idea of doing a movie together took flight.
Iza says about GMA-7, "Then they did an Encantadia 2016 for TV. So there goes our movie dream. So nobody was willing to produce it.
"At that time, GMA is not very keen on producing films. Sure, one day they will or they might want to, but it's just there, then not there.
"At the moment, all efforts are on TV, di ba? So kami, parang TV-wise, Karylle and I, hindi puwede kasi Karylle and I transferred to ABS-CBN.
"So that left us with, 'Okay, we're obviously not going to do an Encantadia reunion project so we have to come up with our own thing. It was all talk, about three years ago.
"Then, we thought no one is giving us a material, so might as well come up with it on our own, together with Direk Mark Reyes who directed Enca.
"So, he thought of pitching it to iflix and it made sense to both Karylle and I because we're both iflix ambassadors, so we said 'Go!' so we did.
"Also, it made sense to the whole team because Encantadia 2005-2006 is the most viewed local content on iflix to this day, from the day it started to this day."
Thus, Sang'gre Productions, Inc., was born. The production company is co-owned by the four stars and Direk Mark.
This way, Diana says, not even their network contracts can stop them from pushing through with the project.
"Hindi siya naging hadlang because kaming apat mismo, gusto naming mangyari.
"Kasi, di ba, if there's a will, there's a way.
"So, I think, yung naging maganda sa amin, kasi yun yung naging key—gusto namin siyang mangyari.
"So, yun yung naging motivation namin, and parang at the end of the day, gusto mo pa rin maging artista."
Diana also believes that their production company can open more doors for them, not only as actresses but as content producers.
"Kaya rin namin binuksan yung production because, siyempre, hindi naman kami habang buhay magiging artista.
"Pwede namang kumita in terms of, tayo naman yung magpo-produce.
"Tingin-tingin lang tayo sa monitor. Check-check lang. Hindi na tayo iiyak. Tayo na yung Mother Lily!"
Lily Monteverde, or Mother Lily, is the legendary matriarch of Regal Entertainment, Inc., producer of over a hundred films.
Sunshine adds, "One good thing about us, never naghalo yung trabaho sa personal namin.
"I mean, kami ni Iza, nagdadaingan kami minsan about what happens during tapings, mga hinaing namin.
"Kami lang din nag-uusap, kami lang din yung, 'Hindi, Ga, kaya mo 'yan.'"
FOR THE LOVE OF THE SANG'GRES
As it is, Iza reveals that she almost gave up while filming their reunion movie Mystified.
At the time, Iza was also busy taping for the Kapamilya prime-time series Ngayon at Kailanman, and preparing for her wedding with then fiance Ben Wintle.
"To be honest, I only did it because it's the kind of project na kapag may isang umayaw, hindi matutuloy. It's like I owe this to them," Iza says candidly.
"Yung tipong, at the busiest point of my life I had to still give this. Part of me talaga, I was crying na din.
"I was so stressed, parang four times a week with the soap, and it's a very emotionally challenging and heavy soap, and we were for airing, super hand-to-mouth, then this.
"Then, the wedding nga was really just sumisingit lang, e, kasi ito talaga, time-consuming."
An advocate for body love, it pained Iza to give up her much-needed me-time.
"So, parang ang biggest sacrifice ko was the workouts, that was really the time that I gave up, and sleep, which is very important to me. So basically, I gave up health, di ba?"
Then she quips, "Sabi ko na lang, 'Bago ako ikasal, pag ako namatay, pag ako hindi umabot—bahala na lang!'
"I couldn't believe I was doing a segue at this age!"
However, Iza says she took comfort in knowing they fulfilled what was once just a dream.
"Fulfilling siya, being on set. Of course, being with the three girls and Direk Mark.
"It was great because the last time we were all together for a project was a very long time ago, and parang the giggles, the kwento, the kakulitan, that was great!"
ENCANTADIA 2005 SANG'GRES=GIRL POWER
Their friendship is a testament to their girl power. Not just because they headlined projects—Encantadia (2005) and Mystified—with an all-woman lead cast, but because of what they have done with their careers and personal lives.
Karylle says it helped that her core values are intact in a world where it's easy to get swayed by external pressure.
"It was never intentional," Karylle says. "It was just how we ended up living our lives, so I honestly don't know, like, how it ended up that way.
"I guess what I could share is that when I was raised, I had to finish school. I believe that I was always strict with my values.
"My dad, he raised me. He was a very strict father, I appreciated that later on especially when people would praise him.
"So, I think that was probably the biggest influence in my life, and I never really resented him for that naman.
"But I always kind of felt like, 'Wow, he was really strict!' But I did see the value in all of that, especially siguro in the last ten years kasi, di ba sabi nila, 'One day you'll understand.'"
Being empowered is also about facing trials head-on and never giving up despite the pitfalls along the way.
As Sunshine puts it, "It takes a lot of courage. But you have to choose to survive each day. Gano'n lang naman yun.
"Whether or not babae ka, lalaki ka or LGBTQ+ pa, di ba? Every day is a choice. What do you make of today and your tomorrow, di ba?
"Your past will not define you, your present will. So parati lang na ganun."
Diana feels the same way about staying strong when the going gets rough.
"Kung titingnan mo yung nangyari sa buhay ko, daig niya yung mga teleserye. Minsan nga nag-iisip ako na, 'Grabe pala ano? Ganoon pala ako ka-strong. At least lumalaban pa rin.'
"Hindi ko naman sinasabi na lahat maganda or pangit ang nangyari sa akin.
"Pero, somewhere along the way, kahit papaano mayroon diyang something na nangyari, but ang pinaka-importante is kung ano ka ngayon at nandito ka pa rin ngayon."
Iza cites what she has picked up from entrepreneur Anna Meloto-Wilk about knowing the difference among self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth.
"Self-confidence is something you can fake, it's your projection of yourself being self-assured. Yung 'fake it till you make it,' pwede yan sa self-confidence. It's what you project to the outside world.
"Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself because of the things you have achieved.
"And then self-worth is just knowing that, whoever you are, wherever you are in life, you are worthy of occupying space in this world. It's that kind of confidence in your worth.
"Ganda di ba? Power!"
STORY AND INTERVIEWS BY: James Patrick Anarcon & Rachelle Siazon
PHOTOGRAPHER: Cyrus Panganiban
SHOOT PRODUCER: Nikko Tuazon
CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Jeremiah Idanan
For Sunshine Dizon: Rick Calderon
For Iza Calzado: Lala Flores
For Karylle: Jigs Mayuga
For Diana: Mariah Santos
For Sunshine: Cathlyn Soterio of Jing Monis
For Iza: Jan Edrosolan
For Karylle: Justine Ocampo
For Diana: Arvin Santos
STYLIST: Shark Tanael, Leanne Ledesma, Mac Intia, Alex Castillo, and Carl Pabilona of Qurator Studio
- Layout 1: Dress: Stylist’s Own
- Layout 2: Dress: Charina Sarte
- Layout 1: Suit: HOL, Shoes: Loubutin
- Layout 2: Dress: Debbie Co
- Layout 1: H&M Sequin Dress: Stylist’s own
- Layout 2: Dress: Martin Bautista
- Layout 1: Dress: HOL, Shoes: Tom Ford
- Layout 2: Jumpsuit: Charina Sarte
VIDEO PRODUCERS: John Henri Mariano, Pam Carlota, Coleen Oliva
Special thanks to Gian Carlo Vizcarra