(SPOT.ph) People who grew up in the '90s probably remember Cris Villonco as the voice behind the heartwarming theme song of the children’s television series Hiraya Manawari. As soon as you heard the opening lines—“Gusto kong abutin ang tayog ng ulap, gusto kong sisirin ang lalim ng dagat”—you just knew that it was time to tune in and get lost in a fantasy world if only for an hour. These are the same kids who later on listened to Villonco’s “Crush ng Bayan” and found the lines “Kailan mo sa 'kin sasabihin ang tulad ko ay feel mo rin” relatable.
It’s a different Villonco from the one we know today—an award-winning theater actress who plays a range of roles in both Filipino and English and under various theater companies. She also co-owns a theater group, Red Turnip Theater, which is staging Lucas Hnath’s A Doll's House, Part 2 from September 15 to October 7 at the BGC Arts Center. And for the first time ever, Villonco is stepping away from the spotlight and going behind the curtains to direct this Tony-nominated play.
“This is my directorial debut for anything, actually. I was never an assistant for a director, I don't know why I didn't do that. I've been blaming myself for a lot of things that I wish I could have done way before as preparation for this,” the 35-year-old thespian tells SPOT.ph. Surely, though, 25 years of experience as a performer is plenty of preparation.
From Child Singing Sensation to Pop Star
It was renowned Filipino musician Ryan Cayabyab who opened more opportunities for Villonco in the early '90s. "Mr. C discovered that I can sing. I started singing [songs for him] for charity events, for charity organizations," she recalls with gratitude about her humble beginnings. Two years after her first singing gig, Cayabyab needed a little girl to sing the theme song of Hiraya Manawari, and she was a perfect fit.
She was called a child singing sensation by the age of nine. "There were no Esangs and Lykas at the time. It was [just] me. I kept singing for all of these events," Villonco continues. She also played the role of Little Cosette in Repertory Philippines’ production of Les Misérables, her first taste of theater and acting.
During her pre-teen years, the young performer tried her hand at performing for television, appearing on dramas and teen-oriented shows. By the age of 17, she had already co-starred alongside Fernando Poe Jr. in the action-comedy film Ang Dalubhasa (2000) with two pop-music albums under her belt—One Smile at a Time (1997) and A Girl Can Dream (2000). Her last album recording came three years later—the self-titled Cris Villonco, for which she had her first solo concert Cris at Dish.
"You better change the way you look, the way you act, you can't be so manang anymore, change your wardrobe," she narrates.
“At this time, many more teen stars flooded [the industry]. And I couldn't keep up,” she says candidly. Ratings for GMA’s T.G.I.S., which starred Bobby Andrews and Angelu de Leon, and ABS-CBN’s Gimik, which starred Rico Yan and Judy Ann Santos among others, were soaring. "My own mother told me, 'Laos ka na'," the artist continues. Her mother, by the way, is Town&Country founding editor, Monique Villonco.
Villonco’s recording company "wanted to turn [her] into Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears.” They sat her down and said "You better change the way you look, the way you act, you can't be so manang anymore, change your wardrobe," she narrates. Headstrong about who she is, she begged off and said, "No, I can’t."