Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment. Reader discretion is advised.
Quezon City (CNN Philippines Life) — “This can’t be my best work.”
Paolo Pangilinan was lying down on his bed, narrating to me what will happen in the next three months before the start of his third year in medical school — writing about chemsex in the Philippines, reading his surgery books in advance, livestreaming gigs, modeling for covers of magazines for Pride month… The list seemed never-ending.
Then, there was “Gaya sa Pelikula.”
We were on a call after discussions around the second season of the hit Filipino Boys’ Love web series, which has developed an almost cult-like following. The show is currently on pause following several allegations of sexual harassment against series creator Juan Miguel Severo surfaced online, which was sparked by a cryptic tweet by Paolo about harassment. Though Globe Studios plans to rewrite the second season as a team, official announcements regarding the matter haven’t been made.
Paolo’s meteoric rise into celebrity status was unsurprising. But when the initial storm of attention quieted, there was a newfound clarity in the stillness. I asked him what he wanted to do. He pursed his lips and said:
“This is just the beginning of so many things that I’ve been given the power to create.”
Born in Quezon City, Paolo Victor Pangilinan grew up in an environment where excellence was rooted in curiosity and exploration.
“I may have been involved in a couple of delinquent acts [when I was] around seven,” he says, laughing. Being a self-described “problem child,” Paolo was sent to the principal’s office several times and was recommended to pursue high school elsewhere despite his good grades. He recalls how his mother, Edzelle Gonzalez, had written an impassioned letter that allowed him to stay. In the hopes of curbing his rebellious tendencies, teachers and grownups began giving him responsibilities.
He started exploring his identity through performing. It was seeing icons like Britney Spears and Jolina Magdangal that made him realize he could explore his more feminine side. “It just felt like the other side of that spectrum is much more fun.”
From the time he won his Catholic high school’s Mr. United Nations pageant by wearing wings (“I wanted to be a Victoria’s Secret Angel”) to the time he choreographed a nine-member girl group only to replace one of them at the last minute (“I put on a wig and did all of the parts”), the arts were a gateway to joy and self-actualization.
These were small retaliations against a heteronormative environment that pressured him throughout his life. He was outed at a young age after confessing to liking a boy to a small group of friends. “I didn’t know it was a crush... I just really missed hanging out with him and wanted to see him all the time,” he says. Rather than denying it, he began reclaiming the word as early as it was thrown at him. “Tinanong nila ako kung bading ba ako tapos that’s when I started saying: ‘Yes’ because I started having crushes on guys.”
“He didn’t even have to come out to me,” says Edzelle. “All I wanted him to feel was the support from a mom that he needed.” Edzelle supported Paolo’s requests by enrolling him in ballet and contemporary classes, eventually leading him to discovering his love for gymnastics — which has continued to this day. “For now, I want to thank him because he’s the son a mom could only dream of.”
Every endeavor that Paolo has taken on has required a steep learning curve. “With Paolo, walang middle ground,” says Edzelle. “He has to excel in everything he does. Walang mediocrity.” He entered the Sports Science program in U.P. Diliman in the hopes of becoming a member of the U.P. Pep Squad — a dream he’s had since the tail end of high school.
Though he had difficulties adjusting during his freshman year (“When we would do stunts, no one would line up in my lane ‘cause I sucked”), he became the most improved member by the end of the year through hard work and determination (“I was the last to leave the venue and I never sat down during training”), eventually forming a niche for himself in the team.
Though he’s always wanted to be involved in the sciences, being in the U.P. Pep Squad solidified his drive to be a medical doctor. Not only did he see how necessary it was given the sport, but it gave him the opportunity to meet people who he could look up to like former captain and Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines Kiko Cortez (“I told him I was gonna beat him.”). In fulfilling this promise, he eventually graduated cum laude from the program and entered St. Luke’s Medical School.
More than anything, Paolo was a natural storyteller. Despite his introverted nature, he can narrate the events from his childhood to young adulthood in vivid detail: stopping even at the smallest moments, taking care to remember people’s full names. It seemed to me that remembering was an act of gratitude for him. But he hasn’t always had this opportunity to tell stories.
Prior to his breakout role as Karl in “Gaya sa Pelikula,” Paolo had been in commercials and had one liners in short films. But when the pandemic hit, he began sending self-tapes for commercials, films, and T.V. shows more frequently in an attempt to help around the house.
He struck gold not once, but four times. Apart from “Gaya sa Pelikula,” he had been asked to audition for three other Boys’ Love (BL) shows. “When I got this one, I turned down the other ones. I couldn’t send other auditions because I made a commitment.” Had it not been for the pandemic, Paolo's classes would've been a clear conflict during filming and press junkets. It was a rare moment when a crisis led to opportunity.
“I remember I wanted to join the project because it seemed like I could make a nice conversation; one that was long overdue.” He was excited by the idea of an openly gay man playing a gay role. It was something that he didn’t see much in the media. “It had the potential to… really let people feel something they’ve never felt before.”
His mother had initially opposed the idea. “It wasn’t a hard no,” says Edzelle with a smile. “I always support his dreams. I was just worried about the COVID-19 situation.” She recalls how they debated, but in the end, Paolo’s stubbornness won and he sent his audition. He has only defied his mother thrice: when he auditioned for the U.P. Pep Squad, when he chose St. Luke’s for medical school, and when he auditioned for “Gaya sa Pelikula.” Paolo continued: “With most things, I trust my mom. But with big things, I trust my instincts.”
Attack the Crowd
More than his good looks, intelligence, and self-described ‘jologs’ personality, “Gaya sa Pelikula” production designer Maolen Fadul details that people were drawn to Paolo because of his outspokenness about his identity as an openly gay actor in the entertainment industry and the eloquent manner by which he discussed issues and advocacies concerning the queer community. He put a premium on openness and authenticity and it was also an opportunity to challenge industry stereotypes of gay roles going to straight actors who weren’t even allies.
But media outlets had a proclivity for tokenizing Paolo as the pinnacle of gay representation exactly because of these reasons. “I don’t want to be the sole representation of the community. That’s so boring.” He chuckles at the idea and expresses that his favorite part is learning from different members of the LGBTQIA+ community from all walks of life. “I’m never going to be any other type of gay. I’m not the next Vice Ganda. I’m just gonna be the first me and no one else is going to be the next me. So no, I don’t feel pressure to represent all the gays.”
“This is just the beginning of so many things that I’ve been given the power to create.”
However, he does feel pressure in other things, especially with acting out a role onscreen. “All of the things that I do are unforgiving,” says Paolo. But rather than letting himself be intimidated by these, he attempts to find ease within the circumstance. “You only have a limited number of chances. Once it’s onscreen, it’s gonna be out there in the world and there’s no way to redact it. It’s no longer mine...So I rehearse.”
“What amazed me was how quickly he got to truth,” says Ian Pangilinan, Paolo’s co-star and the other half of what is now known as PangPang. When I asked him what the process was like, he replied: “He just focused on me… When you talk to him, you always feel like you’re in the present and thinking of nothing else. That’s how he approached his acting too. He focuses on me, listens to everything I’m saying, trusts me, and that’s the whole process.” He laughs, scratching his nose. “I wish I could give you more profound answers, but really the simplicity of it all is the defining characteristic of how Pao is as a person.”
Mao describes Paolo as a celebrity that refused to be a celebrity. During a podcast called “For the Love of the Game,” Paolo named the people behind the stan accounts, expressing his gratitude to them. “It doesn’t feel transactional,” he explains, citing celebrities he looks up to like Lady Gaga who also regularly interact with their fans. “If someone goes to you and appreciates your work? I say thank you. I don’t think it’s that unique.”
Paolo’s favorite part of the “Gaya sa Pelikula” experience had been the reactions of audiences who’ve connected to his character or to himself as a person. “When people message me saying: ‘I felt seen and heard’ or ‘I was Karl’, those are the best,” says Paolo. “Wherever I am, whether it’s after an episode or right before an interview, I would check those messages and feel like what I was doing was something important.”
“I feel the need to balance both because it’s a moral, social, and ethical responsibility.” Paolo is keenly aware of his social influence, even before he was a celebrity. After seeing how Taylor Swift’s statements encouraged a spike in voter registration and how the BTS Army matched the donations of their idols for the Black Lives Matter movement, he wants to use whatever platform he is given to help push towards positive change. “What if someone could incorporate health issues in entertainment? It’s the reason why I remain and do what I do now.”
Routine and hard work provided him some semblance of stability which he didn’t have as a kid. He discovered his routine and which spaces he could exist in only at the tail end of his first year in med school. But now, not only are these spaces inaccessible, the support that exists in these spaces is now limited by distance.
For the past year, he experienced difficulties navigating the student-artist life and readjusting his routines. So much was missing from the online setting, considering the tactile nature of medical school. “I fear for every single first year med student. How do you fake the skills? So many things are teachable through palpation,” says Paolo, referring to the practices taught by the very act of doing them, at in-person lab classes. When things from entertainment and med school began to conflict, he got overwhelmed. But he is persistent in perfecting this tightrope act. Edzelle explains: “Whatever he can give, kahit walang matira sa kanya, binibigay niya.”
But in May, Paolo had chosen to disappear completely from social media after fulfilling work obligations, only resurfacing for brief moments in between Pomodoro breaks and after major requirements were completed. He needed to focus on the long term dreams and urgent tasks. Cornerstone, his management, had understood, putting the brakes on nearly everything.
“I tell him to stop and smell the flowers cause if you’re always looking towards the next big thing, what was achieving that one step for?” says Ian. “Life is not about this continuous pursuit of something gigantic and great. These little moments in your life are big achievements in themselves. I just hope he sees them too.”
With the fate of “Gaya sa Pelikula” up in the air, it remains an uncertain time for the cast and the crew. “I don’t think that first season is ever capturable again, and it’s a bittersweet feeling,” says Paolo. “We’re back to square one.” Paolo had committed his life to taking care of others, but now he finds himself on the receiving end of this support. Surrounded by his family, chosen family, and even strangers, he remains hopeful. “I’m an artist who’s never done,” his eyes are freshly wet with tears. “My story is unfinished. Maybe by telling my story, people can add in theirs.”
“I just feel like this is such an important interview,” Ian stops for a moment. Throughout, he chooses his words carefully like opening a photo album in his mind, scanning through an invisible library of which moments are best to share. “I don’t know if I’m giving answers that do him justice.”
In the year that they’ve known each other, Ian and Paolo have been through countless trials. In each way, Paolo has continued to forge on with little to no complaints thanks to the support of his friends and loved ones. “I think the best way to describe us is that we’re always partners in whatever we go through,” says Ian. “We’re always Bonnie and Clyde or Lilo and Stitch. What changes is who gives and takes at any given time.”
I asked Ian what he wants to tell Paolo in the future. He smiles and says:
“I’ll tell him when we get there.”
Photos by JL JAVIER
Styling by MYRRH LAO TO