“I am what I am. I am my own special creation. So, come take a look, give me the hook or the ovation. It’s my world that I want to have a little pride in. My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in. Life’s not worth a damn, till you can say: I am what I am!” Jerry Herman (La Cage aux Folles)
From an esoteric village in Davao, a 15 year-old waif got the better of her mother to allow her on “Holiday in Movieland,” a weekly event where the stars of Sampaguita Pictures made themselves available to sign autograph for fans.
Amidst the throng of onlookers, her pristine beauty stood out and caught the attention of sound engineer Joseph Straight, who took a photograph. Days later, that stunning picture served as the girl’s passport to moviedom.
And thus began the legend that is Amalia Fuentes.
“I was in Grade Six, when I first heard the term BB. ‘Beauty and brains’ daw ako because I was always the valedictorian in class. Accelerated nga ako e. Four years lang ako sa elementary”, relates Amalia.
But while she was scholarly, her comely appearance also competed for attention. One of those who took notice was an elementary teacher, who chose her as muse in their school parade.
Of course, her mother Concepcion, being a skillful mananahi was thrilled. After all, she could fashion her most splendid creation for her favorite child. To their chagrin however, the parade went on without their muse in sight.
Apparently, Amalia, who was already willful as a child, jumped off the float to avoid the sweltering noontime sun. Oh yes, even as a child, Amalia did some things differently.
Her ideas were also far from customary. “Even then, in my heart, I felt that a beauty contest is like an archaic practice that shouldn’t be encouraged in our culture. I feel that it promotes the wrong kind of values, because young girls will grow up thinking that they can rely solely on their beauty to succeed.”
Amalia backed her claim by an early experience. “When I was in high school, my teacher entered me into a beauty contest, where the winner would be based on the amount of money raised by the candidate. Because we were poor, I lost to a cross-eyed Chinese. Unfortunately, she was mocked by the crowd when declared the winner, kasi nga, duling. Ako naman, I felt bad for the system. Kasi, instead of contests like that, schools should encourage competitions that would persuade the students to do better.”
She continues, “Of course, I’m glad that God gave me a chance to be an actress, and use my face, my beauty, for a purpose. But the bottom line should be: What have you achieved with that beautiful face? Still, what’s more important is my brain. Kita mo, kahit hindi na ako artista, napapakinabangan ko pa rin.”
As fate had it, Amalia wasn’t able to further her education due to a rewarding showbiz career. But when she had the chance, she studied Business Law in the University of Southern California at Berkely, even if she was already in her fortys. “It’s not enough to rely on money,” she says. “Remember the saying, ‘A fool and his money will soon be parted?’
As she grew up, she broke many boundaries. After all, she was raised thinking that the universe is boundless. “Never kong ipinasok sa isip ko, na because I’m a woman, I am inferior to man. Remember, we’re seven children. I am the only girl. My mother never made me feel that I couldn’t do some things because I’m a woman. She instilled in me that whatever a man can do, I can probably do better. I can only be restricted by my own limitations, not by people’s perceptions”, she philosophies.
In fact, nothing fazes Amalia. “I was known for being very vocal, very frank”, she admits. “Pero, hindi ako nagkikimkim ng sama ng loob. If I don’t like you, I would say it, so that I can get it out of my system. Para I never have to pretend. For me, it’s easier that way, than to keep something inside.”
“I don’t want anybody to ever feel that I am a push over”, she continues. “Yung “Anna Karenina”, iniwan ako ni Bernal (Ishmael) in the middle of the filming. Hindi ko siya sinuyo, and I ended up directing the movie. Hindi ako nagpapa-bluff.”
No movie actress had a cacophony of film roles better than Amalia. Her filmography boasts of filmdom’s most intriguing titles: “Asawa Ko, Huwag Mong Agawin” (1987), “Pagmamahal Mo, Buhay Ko” (1980), “Buhay: Ako Sa Itaas, Ikaw Sa Ibaba” (1978), “Kung Ako’y Patay Na, Sino Ako?”(1975), “Kapatid Ko Ang Aking Ina” (1969), “Dalawang Daigdig ni Carlota”, “May Lalaki Sa Ilalim ng Kama Ko,” “Lulubog, Lilitaw sa Ilalim ng Tulay,” “Pwede Ako, Pwede Ka Ba” and “Room 69”, among others.
Her enduring brilliance could be attributed to a chameleon-like persona that evolved in synch with the times. When it was the period of musicals, she did “Jesus Christ, Superstar” (1972). When the bold wagon proliferated, she had “Mga Reynang Walang Trono” (1975). When it was time to do action flicks, she did “Urduja”.
Even to this day, Amalia’s horror films are among the most popular cult classics peddled in European and Mexican websites, such as “Dugo ng Vampira” (1971) aka “Blood of the Vampire,” “Creatures of Evil” or “Curse of the Vampire” and “Kulay Dugo Ang Gabi” (1966) aka “The Blood Drinkers” or “The Vampire People”.
“Lahat ng films ko, paborito ko. Parang mga anak ko lahat ‘yan, kasi lahat sila ay pinaghirapan ko”, she says. Along her journey she met remarkable personages, who defined her life. One of them was the late Doc Jose Perez, the famed star-builder of Sampaguita Pictures. “He was my Svengali. I respected him kasi ang feeling ko, he really knew what he was doing. At hindi siya katulad ng ibang producer na walang pakialam kahit magpakamatay ka. Ang hinahangad niya para sa artista ay kung paano kami bubuti.” (Svengali is the fictional hypnotist in the sensational 1894 novel, ‘Trilby’ who transforms the lead character into a great singer.) And then, there were those, who allowed her to see life on another light.
“May naging artista ako na dating sikat na leading man, anak pa ng Gobernador. Despite his old age, he arrived at the set of my movie, “Almira,” in a motorcycle. I found him groovy so I teased him. Sabi niya, hindi daw siya nagpapa-groovy. Naka-motor daw siya because he couldn’t afford a car. I also know a movie queen, who became a caterer. Samantalang noong kasikatan niya, naku, hindi gumagamit ng fancy ‘yon. We can also learn from other people’s experiences”, she explains.
“Life comes with setbacks,” she muses. “Kung hindi ka nakatikim ng failure, hindi mo mapapahalagahan ang mga nakakamit mo sa buhay. Katulad ko, because we were poor, iniiwasan kong gumawa ng bagay na magiging dahilan para maghirap ako..”
She furthers, “I also made many mistakes. Hindi mo puwedeng ihiwalay sa buhay ang pagkakamali. Sometimes, we only learn through our mistakes. Maybe, a person should be judged based on how he was able to rise from his failures.”
In all these, Amalia found solace in her family, particularly, her brothers Cheng and Alex “ I was fifteen when I started in showbiz. So, Alex was 13 while Cheng (Alvaro) was 11. Inari ko silang obligasyon, na walang iwanan through thick and thin. I will always be there for them, kahit wala kaming ama. Kaya ang mga kapatid ko, they will never say anything bad against me. Ang tahanan, mahalaga. Without a family, you’re like a stray dog in the street.”
“I am what I am. And what I am needs no excuses …. It’s one life and there’s no-return and no-deposit…. Life’s not worth a damn till you can shout out: I am what I am!” (For
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