On the Spot: Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago for Team Manila

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(SPOT.ph) Her security, and then her stylist stepped in first. They were 30 minutes behind schedule and the entire room was waiting with bated breath. Did she wake up on the right side of the bed? Should we hide the forks and knives? The success of today’s shoot rested largely on Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago’s mood and everyone had their fingers crossed hoping it would be a good one. Finally, she arrived. The senator surveyed the studio and the more or less 20 people who were transfixed. "Stop working!" she bellowed before breaking into a huge grin. A pause, a sigh of relief, then laughter; no balls were going to be busted today, at least not in the Team Manila office, where she had a photo shoot for a line of Miriam-inspired T-shirts.

Meeting Sen. Miriam is a three-step process: fear, shock, and then fascination. With fear pretty much over with, it hit us how striking her presence was-not because the former future President was larger than life, but because today, in her comfy white button-down, chinos, and rubber sandals, she looked surprisingly...ordinary.

As she made her way to the set, one couldn’t help but stare, half-amused, half-intrigued, and half-waiting for her to blow up. But the latter seemed far off. She was chatting up a storm-introductions, instructions, jokes. It was difficult to reconcile this droll, genial figure with the perennially ill-tempered stateswoman on television. "Being at work reduces my sexual instinct," she said, interrupting our thoughts. There you go. Five minutes ago she was the most feared woman in politics, now she felt more like a doting mother-and a pretty cool one. This wasn’t Miriam the senator; this was Miriam the model. Or rather Miriam without the presence of irksome colleagues.

After changing into a pretty pale pink suit, she was ready. Sen. Miriam had to recite the pick-up lines-the material for her T-shirts-that she made famous in a previous speech. She glossed over the initial batch of statements on the prompter, quietly chuckling to herself. One of the crew asked if she remembered saying any of them, to which she replied with a smile: "Sometimes."

Our front-row seat was just three meters away from the Miriam production, and she gave a great performance every time. Whether it's proposing new legislation or just enumerating one-liners, every syllable is mentioned in oration and dripping with feeling. After the first take, which went without a glitch, someone gingerly asked if she’d like to study the video. We know better, after all, than to insinuate that she’d done anything less than her best. Still standing behind her Team Manila podium, the senator shook her head. "You can review it and ask me to say it again if you’re not satisfied."

Another pause. For a moment we forgot who was standing in front of us: not the political genius, but rather a public servant who, first and foremost, only aims to please. Obligingly, the shoot director advised her to be more seductive when saying the line "Ang dami nang pick-up lines ngayon, wala naman akong ibang maisip kundi ikaw." Her eyes danced with humor. "But at my age, sino pa’ng lalandiin ko diyan? Wala nang buhok, wala nang ngipin!" she protested, generating another round of laughter. We have to hand it to her, whatever platform she’s on, she knows how to put on a good show.

hangs with the spirited senator as she discusses Team Manila, dating, modeling, dogs, and of course, Heart Evangelista.




Why did you agree to endorse Team Manila?

Well, at first they made me an offer that I could hardly refuse because they said part of the profits could go to a charity of my choice. But now that I have become acquainted with them, I have discovered that they will be the charity of my choice because apparently they are living on a very thin budget. They’re just starting up so I just want to help them.

How do you feel now that you’re technically a model?

Technically? (Laughs) Well, I’m not going to pay income tax for what I did today so I don’t consider it work. It’s just, for me, a peek or a small window into another world where everything is new and exciting.




A teaser for Sen. Miriam’s Team Manila shirt collection


So is there a possibility that you might start a modeling career?

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Oh no, not at all. [Maybe] my three grandchildren because they are very beautiful; their mother is a Spanish-mestiza. But unfortunately, each of them has inherited my genes: they’re all very high-strung, very outspoken, very opinionated. They’re also very fond of modeling for some reason because they watch it on their baby DVDs that I buy from abroad.

You had to deliver pick-up lines for Team Manila. If you could choose a pick-up line for your husband, what would it be?

My husband would get shocked to death because he is not used to that kind of humor. I’m very, very humorous with him. I think one of the reasons I married him [is] because he says I have a very bizarre sense of humor-that I just find everything funny. Normally when we’re watching something serious, I would make a joke out of it and that got to my children too-they developed that habit. So my husband would find it very unusual for me to drop a pickup line with him.


We heard you were a heartthrob in UP Law...

I’m not sure if that’s the proper word (laughs). I was a nerd.

Considering you went on many dates, how many hearts did you break?

Well, you know, I think it was just the age I was in when a person goes to law school. I graduated at 25 so I guess that I went to law school at 21. At that time, that’s the age when most young people, male and female, find each other attractive and that is the best period in life when they find their ultimate spouses. I was not interested because I concentrated on doing my masters abroad. It was my be-all. The alpha and omega of my universe was I had to go to the United States so I was not interested in marriage-although there were a lot of marriage proposals, [but only because] we were all cooped up in one campus. UP Diliman [was] isolated from the rest of the world, particularly at that time. Our campus was so far away we never had a chance to go elsewhere. The tendency was to ask just the girls you saw on campus out for a date.


I think it was just the temper of the times. People ask each other about marriage, especially if they went to graduate school. Undergraduate school normally lasts until [one is] about 19 years old then you go on to live your life. Some of us who were in graduate school, some of my classmates and friends, wanted to settle down at that age, but I was not interested. So, I never kept count [of the hearts I broke]. I just always pictured a date as a free dinner.

You said earlier that you didn’t have time to look at boys because you were busy studying. What about now? Do you find anyone cute apart from your husband?

No, no. When I married my husband, I thought to myself, well everyone has to get married some time so I might as well get married now rather than later. Just like measles, I would already have passed it (laughs) and got inoculated. That is what happened to my life: after I got married, I completely lost interest, meaning to say, sexual interest in the other sex. Often I would go by myself on a scholarship or a travel grant to other countries where I would get a pass from young men on the plane because I was traveling alone and I looked very young because I’m Asian. I would say immediately say, "I’m married" and normally, you’d be surprised, the answer was, "So?" or "So what?" Because in their culture, apparently, it’s okay to do that.


What’s the best love advice you’ve ever been given?

Given? No one ever gave me love advice! (Laughs) But it’s possible to love everybody, especially if they’re buying you dinner (laughs). What I’m saying is, if you’re determined to find a good in every person, you’ll always find it. It’s just a question of whether you’re interested in developing that viewpoint or you’re just not interested because you’re more interested in something else. That’s what happened to me. I always thought that young men were extraneous to my life like, you know, they do their thing and I’ll do my thing and our paths would never cross. I thought I was going to be self-sufficient. I always wanted children, at least one child, but I never wanted to get married. I was very ahead of my time. So, I was trying to look for young men who were going to make good sex partners.


What do I want from child? I want him to be healthy, I want him to be bright in school, I want him to have reasonably accepted features. I was trying to look for that kind of person, but I had to screw up my courage to ask the person, "Can you please impregnate me?" or "Can we have children without getting married?" It was very difficult (laughs).




How do you go about your day? How do you start your day?

I’m what is called a workaholic because I was brought up that way. My mother is a math genius. She could figure out, during her prime, the answers to mathematical problems much faster than a computer. We tested her before. We were brought up along very strict standards and we were taught that we had to be at the top of the class because we were born that way and no low grade like, for example 85 or a grade of 2, was acceptable then. We always had to excel. It was something we had to do. So, I grew up in that atmosphere and so did my siblings.

I really thought, and this is going to sound very naive, but I really thought when I was small that all families were composed of honor children, honor graduates, or honor students. I was very surprised to find that there were some families that did not have a single honor student among themselves. I was so perplexed about this! It never occurred to me that not everybody can be honor students because otherwise there would be no one left to become mediocre! I really thought that everybody was born to be an honor student. I was very surprised. The first thing I would ask when I meet a new friend would be, "How many honor students do you have in your family?" until someone told me that was very rude (laughs). So you could say that I had a very unconventional childhood that’s why I think I developed that habit that nothing, even young men who would otherwise be considered very attractive, should distract me from what I was born to do which is to excel in school.


Right now I’m not very happy because I have to work for a living. I always thought that I would just study until I die. Unfortunately, there is an age limit in getting free scholarships and travel grants.

Where do you go to hang out and relax?

I don’t know how to relax! That’s what my psychiatrist tells me: relax, relax, and I always say, "But how?!" I don’t know. If I’m, for example, swimming, I swim like I’m training for the Olympics. I cannot relax. If I’m cooking, it’s like I’m going to be graded with what I’m doing. I don’t really know how to relax. I try to do that with my dogs but principally, it’s an opportunistic hobby for me. I pick dogs over humans because dogs don’t talk back to me.

What kinds of dogs do you have?


Oh lots! Of course the usual German Shepherds, one of them was given to me by Heart Evangelista. And then all the kinds of toy dogs you can ever think of. I got a Lhassa Apso, I got a Yorkshire Terrier, different kinds of pomeranians, Maltese. I have about a dozen of them in my house in Quezon City and more than a dozen of them in my house in Tagaytay City. I can’t always recall but I have very exotic dogs, too. I love them all and they love me too. They jump all over me and lick me all over. I guess that’s why I’m not so interested in young men. I get enough loving from my dogs.

What’s your favorite food?

I don’t really have a favorite food. My favorite form of sustenance is champagne and caviar together. I got into that habit when I worked in the United Nations because every time we had cocktail parties, that’s what they would serve plus cucumber sandwiches, I love that as well. But now I cannot eat caviar, not as much as I want, because I have high cholesterol and I have to be careful. Otherwise, I don’t really pay too much attention.


Where do you go on dates with your husband?

Well, my husband is a gourmand. He loves to eat, but now not so much because he had surgery already and his intestines have been sort of abbreviated. But he loves to eat in five-star restaurants, I’m afraid. I just eat whatever he orders.

What would you tell an alien about Manila?

Don’t go there! (Laughs)

If a foreigner friend came to Manila, where would you take him or her?

I’ve had many of those. I have a guestroom in my house so they can stay there but normally they want to stay in their own hotel. Then I would take them on a Metro Manila tour that is not limited to showing off our affluence as a third world country but also includes the urban poor areas so they will see the mix that makes up Manila. Then, of course, we all have to go to the countryside. We have a farm in Batangas and we always take them there first then to our house in Tagaytay so they can see the real jewel of the Philippines which is our countryside, basically.


How did you and Heart Evangelista become friends?

Oh that’s a long story! When my children-I only have two birth children, both boys-when they were still in college, we always had dinner together and at one time they started talking about this commercial model. I heard her name several times during meal times and apparently they were very enthused with her, just like their classmates, because she was such a new face. My interest was piqued so I asked my boys where I could see a picture of her and they said right there in the billboard near our house. I live in La Vista and there was a big commercial billboard that showed her as a commercial model. I was disappointed and went back home. I saw her picture but I didn’t find her extraordinary; she’s a Chinese-mestiza. She is much more animated when you watch her on screen, though. So, I think my youngest son, whom I’ve since lost, had a crush on her.


Then, one time, when there was a typhoon, I spent the afternoon in a high-end store in Makati. When the guards called my car, I had to wait for some time because of the rain. I sat down at the entrance of the store to people-watch, then my companion said, "There’s Heart Evangelista." I’d completely forgotten about her but if that was the comment of my companion, it must be a VIP or someone spectacular. I’m very impetuous sometimes so I put my hands in the air, not looking directly at anybody and just shouting for the whole world to hear: "Heart Evangelista!" I remember she pointed at herself then looked to the left then right and raised her eyebrows like, "You mean me?" I said, "Are you Heart Evangelista?" and she said "Yes, ma’am." So I [replied], "I mean you! Come here." I said, "You’re very popular, my sons really love you. I congratulate you on your career but I think you should go back to school and remember to obey your mother no matter what happens." She was sort of looking confused. She never hears these things, I guess, from other people, and then when she was walking away, I said, "I’m a lawyer! Any time you have a legal problem in your life, call me." And she did after maybe nine or 10 years. This time I had problems again being acquainted with her. My staff had to write me a memo on who she was.


And of course we knew what happened next. Heart served as the senator’s maid of honor when she renewed her vows with her husband, Atty. Narciso Santiago. Sen. Miriam also admitted to setting up the alleged romance between the actress and Sen. Chiz Escudero.


Photos by Jo Manalastas and courtesy of Team Manila and MDS’ office

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