“That gave me so much anxiety,” BJ Pascual blurts out before breaking into a short, sheepish laugh. At this point in our virtual interview, the fashion and beauty photographer recalls how a random online feature inadvertently tagged him as a “celebrity bestie”—a poorly-worded, unresearched identifier that reduced him and his years of carefully stepping up the creative industry ladder into someone who rose to fame for being friends with celebrities.

“Contrary to popular belief—charingpopular talaga?! Most people would say that I became a ‘popular’ photographer because I am friends with celebrities when in truth, I don’t know anyone when I came to Manila. I was just like a normal probinsiyano kid na walang kilala. And I think I paid my dues naman.”

From his days yearning to find a creative pursuit, toiling months of scarce projects as an industry newcomer, down to his coveted body of work reigning billboards in the metro’s major thoroughfares, it is easy to be lost in all the spectacle and sparkle and not see the being behind the applause. But as we sift through details that led him to the grandness of his now-reputable name as a successful creative and social media personality, for the young creative, it is the in-betweens that matter the most.

Black Jumpsuit with white stitching, Orseund Iris.

A cursory look at his social media feed curated during the community quarantine and it would reveal a gradual visual and tonal shift from his much-celebrated creative pursuits and collaborations with publications, well-known personalities, and even brands to reactions and facts-based musings on matters he feels strongly about, now stepping outside the confines of his stake in the LGBTQIA+ community.

“Before the lockdown, I was only vocal about issues related to the LGBTQIA+ community. I think everyone can agree that life ‘before corona’ moved a lot faster, and for me, there was too much information that I felt like I needed to focus on one specific topic. But with the drastic change of pace we’ve all experienced, some of us have more time to really digest the information we see online,” he declares.

And even in his aversion to the word “influencer”, the marketing-derived nomenclature referring to people with significant online following, Pascual unwittingly embraces the meaning of the term by pushing to counter what for him is the most disturbing “new normal” in today’s society–the proliferation of misinformation–with facts and research shared to his almost half a million following on Instagram alone.

But more than urging people to have the power to be informed, Pascual also holds people of influence accountable and responsible in the fight against maliciously-spread information—prompting him to call on friends and online personalities to speak up and inform the public, to make use of the platforms afforded them, especially in this day and age.

Blue linen suit, Kelvin Morales. Black tank top by Deliver Deliver Daily

“To me, the most disturbing thing is that, especially in our own country, misinformation is being spread like wildfire and I’m surprised that even in my own household, people tend to believe these seemingly obvious ‘fake news’. So, I think me being very vocal about issues, aside from the issues of LGBTQIA+ community, is a response to that spread of misinformation. Hoping that in some little way I can help combat all the misleading information floating around.”

He continues, “As a result, I’ve also come to realize that the LGBTQIA+ issues that we’ve all been fighting for are also very much intertwined with a lot of what’s happening around the world right now. It all boils down to basic human rights.”

With this very realization, it is evident that in understanding BJ Pascual, one must go outside the gloss and the songs of praise thrown his way on his forays in fashion, style, and the arts. And if there’s a recurring concept that the now 31-year-old creative-turned advocate circles back to, talking to him about his newfound sense of self-awareness, it is the word, “journey”.

From the time he set foot in an industry he admits to know nothing about, to his storied years as a publishing and advertising game-changer, the evolution of one BJ Pascual involves a constant state of becoming—an education that he journeyed to get to his renewed sense of self that encompasses his art, his identity, and his person.

***

In past interviews, Pascual loves going back to fond memories of his childhood to his “geeky” high school days to trace the roots of his interest in the arts. Growing up in a very traditional family, raised by his grandparents in Cavite, Pascual’s infatuation with the arts greatly involved a sincere love for images. From drawing Sailor Moon characters to taking pictures using a camera he would bring to school, down to his days designing a Christina Aguilera fan site, among other clients around the globe, his thrust to design and visuals grew but was taken to the back burner.

“As a kid, I’ve always been interested in everything creative. My family is very traditional, so they did not really encourage my interest in creativity, so I just considered it as a hobby on the side—that my family didn’t like,” he says ending with a chuckle.

“When I moved to Manila for college, na-expose na ako sa ibang aspects ng creativity. I ended up doing a T-shirt business with some of my org-mates, called Green Media Group, in our university.” The Animoism shirts, aimed at giving a facelift to the existing school spirit merchandise at the time, gained traction among consumers, in and outside of the De La Salle University lot that it was given features in numerous campus and teen publications.

This all happened while Pascual continued his Liberal Arts degree in International Studies, shifting from his earlier Computer Studies course, to the delight of his grandfather who was a diplomat at the time.

By happenstance, with a little help of Multiply and editors who spotted his knack for styling in one of their brand’s feature shoots, doors in the publishing world opened up for the young talent, with little to no idea of the goings on of the industry, except for his fascination for Richard Avedon images from the iconic Versace catalogues that he would tear and take home from his trips to his mother’s Makati home.

“What I learned about photography, I read lang in the library. This is in between toiling over readings for my class. Reward ko yun for taking on hundreds and even thousands of pages for my course. I enjoyed doing it since I didn’t have a choice, I am always in the library, anyway,” he recalls.

Soon after, with classes in New York’s Parsons School of Design, Fashion Institute of Technology, and the International Center for Photography, he would come back home to take on the industry with more knowledge and confidence. But things didn’t go as planned.

Lace-up top, Asos .

Pagbalik ko, may onti na akong ‘education’ on photography and the arts, as I deem it most important to have. But more than half a year ang dumaan, walang masyadong work. I would just do shoots with friends who are designers for free,” he recounts.

One of these shoots in between paid jobs involved designer and then-boyfriend Ziggy Savella, which would lead him to a regular shooting stint for Metro Society under the tutelage of editor Raul Manzano. Later on, this would snowball into grabbing opportunities from styling assistant jobs for stylist friend Angela Alarcon, to assisting jobs for dream publication Preview for an out-of-town editorial shoot with New York-based photographer Danilo Hess at the helm, that then ultimately led him to the radar and creative supervision of his self-professed role model, Vince Uy.

“In the very beginning, I didn’t really know what I wanted, actually. I just thought, if you keep doing it, you’ll realize what you’re drawn to. And that’s how photographers find their voice naman eh,” he shares about his creative journey. “And then, of course, I got to a certain point that I realized what I want to do, so, I thought, ‘eto na lang gagawin ko lagi‘. And then for a while, I thought I knew everything I needed to know to realize every vision I have. But as time went on, I figured there’s a lot to learn. It really takes a journey to find your voice.”

Pink zip-up coat and black trousers, both Kelvin Morales.

Guided by the synergy of his visual inspirations from Peter Lindbergh’s powerful raw, black and white images, Mert & Marcus’ hyperrealist glamour, to his top icon, Avedon’s simplicity and straight-forwardness, Pascual’s creative stamp would then sky-rocket to unimaginable heights—far from the creative kid drawing and sketching on the down low to designing fan sites in his room all summer—landing him a spot in the pantheon of industry greats, joining the ranks of those that came before him.

Straddling between the lines set by the training of photographers who are years ahead of him and the creative independence and shift of younger contemporaries that came after him, Pascual melded the contrasting schools of creativity to come up with a inimitable mark in the industry. This would merit him over 300 magazine covers, billboards, and collaborations with the country’s A-listers and even international personalities from Coco Rocha, Noah Centineo, Troye Sivan, Sky Ferreira, Pietro Boselli, among others.

Around the time he released his book, Push: Muses, Mischief, & How to Make it in Manila, in 2015, his celebrity evolved exponentially. But in condensing milestones set by his young career, Pascual also picked up realizations that would later on build a roadmap on how he would tread his years as an ever-evolving creative–a human being, even.

Black Suit with embroidered moth care label, Kelvin Morales.

“Around the time na lumabas yung book ko. Nag-quadruple ang following ko sa Instagram. Then I started noticing the changes. It was not outward but it was more me, realizing things are changing. I thought, bakit ako nagbabago? Ang dali dali ko nang mairita. Lahat ayaw kong gawin. There even came a point, na yung feeling ko mas may alam na ako sa client. They probably didn’t notice, but all of those things, I was surprised to find out about myself. I was lucky I had a great friend who knows me even before all of this, that makes me realize these things, even without directly telling me,” he opens.

With over a decade slowly building an infallible mark in the industry of fashion and the arts, Pascual, these days, is comforted by the fact that he has an awareness on the many cracks in the industry that you can easily fall into. And, at the end of the day, it’s the support system at home that helps ground and inflate whatever bubble the cheers and the applause build that changes one’s perspectives of things.

“The industry really is a lot of things. It can be toxic and it can be cliquish. You can get so full of yourself. But at the end of the day, it is important not to lose sight of what you came to do, and that means having a support system outside of the industry that will serve as your grounding force.”

***

Black Suit with embroidered moth care label, Kelvin Morales.

“Being in the creative industry, you get stuck in this bubble where everything is so comfortable and so accepted. You don’t realize what’s going on outside. It took a while for me to realize that it is not the case for a lot of Filipinos, especially being a Catholic country,” he shares as he took us deeper into his strides as a vocal LGBTQIA+ community advocate that he is today.

He can go on about a discussion of the many injustices that befall the community, disregarding the most basic, fundamental rights as citizens and human beings—from the sorry state of the Golden Gays, to the unnecessary troubles that a grieving partner of a COVID-19 victim had to go through to bring home the remains of the deceased, to the recent dark turn of events at a peaceful, social-distancing protocols-abiding masked Pride protest that resulted to an  unjust arrest of 20 individuals—but Pascual believes in the key importance of proper representation of the community.

It was in 2016, when he openly divulged his coming out story to a small publication that happened to be the only gay-themed magazine at the time (and until now), where him being an openly gay personality came to the fore.

Pleated sleeveless shirt and black trousers, both Kelvin Morales.

“After my coming out story in Team Magazine, even it being a small magazine na maliit ang reach, dun lang ako naka-start maka-receive ng messages from people telling me about their own stories, including those who are in the closet. Nag-o-open up sila. That’s when I realized the importance of representation. And to think, ang simple lang ng story ko.” He continued, “After that, mas naging conscious na ako about the things that I say. Not just on things happening around me directly. Ang daming sectors na nangangailangan.”

Growing up an effeminate kid in Cavite wasn’t exactly an “easy” childhood, especially with a conservative family, and just the one openly gay character from their clan that he was “scared of” showing him the ways of his sexuality and identity, the concept of the “bakla” was largely attributed to the “parlorista” who are often the object ridicule and mockery, on television and in their town.

Lolo Teyet was the only gay person in the family na out, that I know of. Siya yung tipo na pag darating siya, talagang alam mong darating siya. Pag pinaguusapan siya ng family, it is this negative thing. Growing up, I really feared dying alone, because Lolo Teyet always comes to the family gatherings alone, only with his bodyguards and associates. But then when he passed, I saw that there are so many people who came to see him and who actually loved him,” he opines.

While he still navigates that fear of dying alone as a gay person, Pascual’s evolved sense of his identity and individuality has taken a remarkable shift. “Being out is also a process and a journey for me. Even during the time that the 2016 article came out, in my mind, being masculine is at the top of the list. But after that, I’ve realized, what’s wrong with being a ‘parlorista’. It’s just one side of the spectrum—and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Black Suit with embroidered moth care label, Kelvin Morales.

As one of the most recognizable names in the creative industry, the photographer-turned-author has this to say about the state of representation in the mainstream media, that largely affects the emotional and mental journey taken by people who are just like him who had to face questions of gender and sexuality. “I think the Philippines has grown leaps and bounds in terms of LGBTQIA+ representation and exposure to the public. The numbers of the Pride parades alone have improved exponentially from 7000, to 20,000 to last year with 70,0000, and I think that’s a good thing.”

“There’s been progress but there’s still a long way to go.” He continues, “In terms of representation, there’s a lot of BL (Boys’ Love) series now that’s Filipino. I think that’s a good sign. Although, I feel that the entertainment industry in general—the major TV networks and film studios—aren’t as open to proper representation of our community. As much as a lot of directors now, like Samantha lee, are very progressive, key decision makers are still from another generation. And somehow, they still have this mentality that when actors come out, they lose the opportunity to become a leading man and leading lady. Right now, most of the gay characters, at least, on national television, are mostly objects of comedy.”

Black Jumpsuit with white stitching, Orseund Iris.

On social media, in the midst of the quarantine, Pascual shared reading up a comment that interpreted his usual home photos and videos garbed in workout clothes as an indication of him trying to identify as “masculine”. This comment, directed to someone like him who has been shamed for being effeminate, is a contradiction and an apparent implication of the importance of representation of the wide spectrum of the LGBTQIA+ community to shape public psyche–an understanding that there’s no one way of looking at one’s identity and individuality.

Marami talaga siyang possible combinations. Do whatever you want. It’s ok to be both. Pwedeng soft ka ng Monday, hard ka ng Tuesday. Pwede kang both on the same day,” he states. “Sexuality, gender expression is a spectrum. There’s an infinite possibility of connections. You can do whatever you like.”

***

Transforming from a talked-about wunderkind and a social media personality, into a person of influence, and most of all, an ardent supporter of human rights, the 31-year-old photographer is showing no signs of slowing down in treading the path he continues to form and build for himself.

And, at the core of it, becoming BJ Pascual involves braving the path to self-awareness—navigating the complexities of what makes you, you is the biggest, most significant statement of all.

Black Suit with embroidered moth care label, Kelvin Morales.

Produced by Leo Balante and BJ Pascual

Art Direction, grooming, and styling by BJ Pascual

Video shot by BJ Pascual

Video editing by Joe Andy