Cover Story

“I still have a long way to go, I know that. But I’m really just excited to see what comes my way, you know, like all of the challenges that I [would] have to go through. I just know that it’s gonna be fun.”

Nadine Lustre, a woman a few months shy of 29, tells me, sitting on an apple box in between takes for her New Order Issue cover shoot, as she charts her career trajectory, just closing in on a decade since she first permeated into the scene and exploded into juggernaut status.

“Honestly, I have no idea how I ended up here. It’s just a series of decisions from other people other than me. I don’t know, this kinda just fell [on] my lap, I don’t really know how to trace it. But I guess creating is something that I’ve always done even when I was younger,” she tells me her origin story matter-of-factly and with much candor at that, dismissing any reservations on narrating the road that led her to be this woman that she is now, with full control of her agency.

White dress, Maison Soriano. Nails, Her Tribe Nails.

In most of our discussion, Lustre talks a big game about being true to oneself as an ever-present theme—a commandment even—in navigating and taking control of all aspects of herself. True, this is easier said than done. And in “artista” lexicon, this is more a cliché than a practice. But hearing this from her, it doesn’t come off as a generic, templated celebrity blanket statement.

Growing up and flourishing into adulthood in the industry right in front of our very eyes, with the obvious familiar route trodden by any bankable star—jumping from one television appearance, box-office success, and endorsements after another—means living with a lot of strings tying one down. Lustre knows, now with hard-won wisdom, that ‘being true to yourself’ is more of a luxury, no, a fictional idea than reality, if not confronted head-on and even fought for strongly.

It is not even 10am into the shoot and we are done with the first lay-out. The rays of the sun of the sweltering July morning are peeking through the windows of Shutterspace Studios in Katipunan, hitting her face in a white Maison Soriano dress she handpicked from the line-up of looks stylist, Joanna Garcia brought.

She grins and comments, “Cool. That was fast.” I inquire if there are other things she wishes to do apart from the ones we shot from the mood board, to which she responded. “I’m good. So, we can do more with the other layouts.”

The theme is “walking work of art” or understanding the self as an artform in and of itself. From the outside, Lustre, donning various garbs that play on different textures and structures from Filipino designers—from subdued to sculptured and extravagant—projects instant grandeur. Outside the four walls of the studio, she remains an enigmatic beast—well put together, ethereal, and otherworldly, even—but whether you admit liking her or not, she continues to pull you in. She commands you to look but never fully understand. And this remains to be the most integral part of her allure and, ultimately, her power.

But it is easy to forget that, at her core, when she goes back to earth in her pullovers and platform sneakers, she is and will always be an anime-watching, video game-playing creative with an unrelenting passion to create. And by the way she jests and looks at her band of beauty and style experts and the Rank Magazine team for inspiration while generously allowing herself to be a blank canvas, she easily is the very definition of the perfect collaborator.

 “I love doing artworks, I love taking photos even at a very young age before I was even in showbiz. It’s something I really like doing already, music, just the same,” she says.

A BEAUTIFUL CANVAS. Lustre gets dolled up with celebrity make-up artist Jelly Eugenio and stylist Joanna Garcia in Job Dacon.

Looking at her now, even with her vision of what and who she is very much intact, and her understanding of her person fully realized, there’s still a prevailing sense of constant evolution and, in her words, “elevation” from what she used to be. All of this, while still grounded by her wide breadth of inspirations from Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Kylie Minogue, and Michael Jackson to the “darker stuff” with exposure to Tim Burton’s world, among others.

On a cursory search on her body of work, Lustre’s thrust into the business traces all the way back to the early 2000s, as a pre-teen, wide-eyed dreamer who’s played into the fame game early on as a young television host before transitioning into roles on the small screen here and there. But it was really in 2014 with a surprise hit with reel- turned real-life partner, James Reid, that shot her into becoming this titanic celebrity we see today, almost overnight.

Leather corset, gloves, and oversized necklace, Job Dacon. Boots, Betty Boots. Tapies, Easy Peasy.

The film, Diary ng Panget and in it, the pair that launched a thousand fan-clubs, charged a pop cultural blitzkrieg that brought Reid, a reality competition graduate and Lustre, a former girl group member, instant victories. Not all big names we hear and see in the pantheon of showbiz greats, even their contemporaries that came before them, have fared that well that fast, getting plucked from obscurity and immediately pushed to national consciousness.

At the time, the surrounding curio about the two relative unknowns making a killing at the box office scene mainly populated by usual suspects nurtured and manufactured by network giants fueled under-the-radar cult following for the two before being inducted to mainstream success. Not long after, Lustre’s ascent to superstar status became inevitable and seemingly divinely ordained. But it is not without its hurdles unseen to people who only see the pomp and the glitters.

She says, “There’s a lot of process that went into it. A lot of different things that happened. I wasn’t sure what it is that I wanted when I was starting out just because I didn’t really know [what] the environment of showbiz is like and when I was still new, I thought that it’s whatever people wanted for me or whatever people told me to do. That was it.”

Through the years, amid the applause, the awards, the blinding klieg lights, and the million-peso deals, a quicksand of questions has emerged, something that she has openly divulged and discussed in numerous interviews.

She discloses, “I kind of went through an identity crisis just because it really affects you. The things that you wear, the things that you do to yourself—hairstyle, makeup, how you present yourself—it really affects you mentally, because it did affect me. There was a time when I was questioning myself like who am I really? What do I wanna do? Why am I always dressing up like this? Why am I always a ‘girly girl’? I couldn’t understand why I became this person who wasn’t me.”

Even with a lot riding on her, we saw Lustre slowly waking up from the fever dream of constricting ideals and expectations of her, single-handedly questioned and abolished these to emerge into her unapologetic stance, declaring herself free from entertaining demands to her person other than hers.

“As I grew older, I have realized more that I have to be different from everyone else. I can’t just follow a certain mold that people give me because I have to standout. And I’ve realized that I just wanted to be myself. I woke up one day and I’m like, ‘Why am I following everyone else? Why am I trying so hard to fit into this mold that I am not?’”

Trailing the path to self-possession is a long road she boldly took on, and ultimately triumphed. But, in the process, she did not get off scot-free. However, looking at her now, even with many unnecessary noises trying to question her decision-making from the way she dresses, the kind of roles she plays, down to the most basic and most natural facets of her as the color of her skin, hers is a heightened consciousness that has been found through a lot of introspection.

Black leather sculptured dress, Jan Garcia. Platform boots, Versace.

We have seen her brave the odds and pass through the rather thorny crucible of Philippine entertainment, with a knowingly raised eyebrow that then created this “counterculture” to the “artista” mold she has been expected to conform to. In her transcendence, Lustre indiscriminately built her own Olympus, to which her coterie of fans anointed her to preside over, and for others to follow suit.

She goes on, “Eventually, I woke up and told myself ‘You know what I’m just gonna be myself and just figure out who I really am and what I really want for myself, I mean it’s very understandable that you wanna do good in the industry. [But] what kind of goes with that is that you wanna please everyone. But really, a lot of people think that’s the way to go but [ultimately], you just have to be yourself because it’s what sets you apart from everyone else. It’s a learning process.”

Much of this disarming self-awareness may be attributed to the time she followed her creative hunger to join the roster of talents of Careless Music. It was in 2017 when she joined the independent music label, with Reid and friend, Bret Jackson at the helm, when she put her musicality to the test and allowing herself to reexamine her overall artistry.

Recalling her ever-evolving musical journey, she shares, “All of my friends who are around me, who are also musicians, they kind of just pushed me to start writing [because] they know that I love music. And it’s true, I can’t last a day without listening to music, so it really runs in my veins. So, my friends just pushed me to start working on music and because Careless was already up and running back at that time, I just started writing random stuff. [I got to] eventually meet different producers and then ended up releasing songs.”

She continues, “But it wasn’t as serious before as now. Before kasi was more on play lang and something that I can put out that’s creative because music, of course, comes with visuals. It’s really a creative exhaust. But now, I think there’s more pressure just because there’s so many musicians now in the world, not just in the Philippines. So, I think the pressure is just to find my own sound and my own place in the industry.”

Even with a continuing education on her sonic vocabulary and artistry, this exploration has led her to toil on the release of her first full-length visual album, “Wildest Dreams” that later gave birth to a sold-out virtual concert, “Absolute Madness,” where she fused the worlds of fashion, film, music, and theater in one artistic revelry. These were Herculean tasks accomplished in the span of the pandemic—a feat not all artists of her caliber can claim.

Following these career highs, the multi-hyphenate shares a renewed sense of calm when looking at her career path or life, in general, “I don’t like planning just because way too many times, I would plan and [they] would just go to waste because I take a different direction or something changes. So, as much as possible I just kind of like let the flow take me wherever. So now, I’m figuring out where I wanna take my music and my artistry. It’s just a matter of picking the right projects.”

With all the accolades, the endless slate of projects, and the throngs of supporters that worship at her feet, it is hard to imagine Lustre slow down, and her celebrity turned off, especially when in everything and anything that she does, all eyes are on her.

However, as she has realized during the pandemic, she is fortunate to find respite in Siargao, that would later on create a meaningful impact in her psychology as an artist and a human being.

Vegan leather piece, The House of Vilrique. Boots, Betty Boots.

“The thing with me is that I’m always on. [Wherever] I go, I can’t really turn off the Nadine Lustre as a celebrity or as a professional. But I’m really grateful because I have Siargao to kind of turn me into human again. So, every time things get crazy here in Manila and I know I need a breather, I fly to Siargao and that’s where Nadine the human being flourishes. [I think] it’s really difficult here just because I think I’ve mixed my work and personal life too much already that I need a change of environment just to ground me again,” she beams.

“I think it’s also because of how life is like on the island, [where] everything is so appreciated. But here, everything is rushed, everyone is always in a hurry, it feels like we always have a time limit. I feel that way, I don’t know if everyone else feels the same way, but it just never stops here in the city. [It’s like] we’re all grinding non-stop na parang even while I’m sleeping, I dream about my work which is really crazy because that’s the only time I have for myself. But I’m really glad that Siargao gave the ‘human being’ Nadine, [a place and a] time to just be herself.”

Close to two months before she celebrates her birthday, it is hard to miss how Lustre’s journey is marked by a hard-won wisdom from looking inward that she now uses to identify her next big move in her career and in her evolution as a person. That even as she remains to be publicly viewed, scrutinized, and dissected, it is in vulnerability and conversations with herself, especially during quarantine, that she has found herself fully equipped to answer to no one but only to the power of her own self.

While she remains committed to her musical journey, which is now more fully realized than before, she is more than ready to break new ground and expand to new territory. Following the recent release of dark film Greed with director Yam Laranas at the helm, she is now in the process of filming psychological thriller Deleter with Mikhail Red, bridging the three-year gap since we last saw her take on her acting roots.

But, even as things pick up once more on her life in front of the acting camera, things aren’t as tumultuous as before. She claims slowly mastering the freedom to take her steps, slowly and one at a time, far from how she has seen her trajectory when she was starting, where work took over her sense of self.

With all of her strides, staking her claim as an indomitable force in everything that she does, be it in her acting, music, entrepreneurship, and even in her more proactive stance in pushing for advocacies she believes in through her platform, with all that we think we know about Nadine Lustre, for her, it is now coming to terms to her truth and reality, unaffected by what prying eyes dictate of her that she continues to marvel at this newfound, unadulterated kind of independence that she has found by and for herself.

As she declares, “It’s just as simple as staying true to yourself and knowing who you really are. I’m so outspoken, I say things I want to say and I’m not really ashamed to say it. Just be yourself. That’s it. There’s no other explanation on how I do it, I’m just me.”

Produced, creative and fashion direction, and interview by Leo Balante
Photography by Jerick Sanchez
Styling by Joanna Garcia
Assisted by Xena Lumapas
Makeup by Jelly Eugenio
Hair by Paul Nebres
Video direction and editing by Emil Santiago
With additional video by MV Isip
Photographer’s Assistants: Cielo Lantano, Regie Coronel, and JM Jarapa
Shoot Assistants: Bhernn Saenz, Carmela Asistio, and Andrea Ysabel Andres
With Fashion from The House of Vilrique, Maison Soriano, Job Dacon, and Jan Garcia
Cover layout by Carmela Asistio
Content associate: Kyneth Brian Magayanes
Location partner: Shutterspace Studios
With acknowledgments to Vani Altomonte at Careless Music, and Mars Edding