Jervi Li became a household name just last year, when a video of her impersonating veteran news anchor Karen Davila suddenly went viral. From the way she looked down to her manner of speaking, Jervi’s spot-on impression left many (including the esteemed broadcast journalist herself), well, impressed. It was only a matter time before showbiz would open its doors to make way for the woman we better know as KaladKaren Davila.
In the few months since that video was posted, KaladKaren has already landed hosting gigs on Pilipinas Got Talent and her own talk show with ABS-CBN Mobile. She’s also been offered endorsement deals and has made guest appearances on other talk shows.
On top of her success is how KaladKaren represents an interesting demographic. She identifies as transgender woman—one of only a handful in local media and entertainment. And while her gender assignment at birth says otherwise, she is intent on proving to her audience and skeptics that she is no less a woman herself, and that nothing will stop her from pursuing even bigger dreams.
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At what point did you realize you were a woman?
KaladKaren: Of course, I was born a male, pero I remember when I was three or four years old nagsasayaw ako ng Pearly Shells. Totoo ito! Pag sinabi ng mom ko na sumayaw ako, ang kakantahin, Pearly Shells. So, I think from the beginning, nung nagkaro’n ako ng isip, feeling ko girl na ‘ko.
Did you have, at any point in your life, reservations on expressing your gender identity?
K: In college, ang uso no’n—you can quote me on this—mga “paminta.” You’re gay, pero you’re the masculine type of gay. Kapag medyo effeminate ka or medyo pa-girl ka, wala kang magiging boyfriend! (Laughs) I had a “paminta phase”—short hair polo-polo, ganyan. Ta’s sabi ko, “Oh my god, hindi bagay sa ‘kin.” Tapos sabi ng mga friends ko, “Alam mo, sayang yung ganda mo. Magpa-girl ka na.” After ng paminta phase ko, nagme-makeup na ako, I started wearing dresses, nagpahaba ako ng hair, tas naka-boots na ‘ko. Pero hindi pa ako nag-ho-hormones, etc. I started transitioning when I was 20 to 21 years old. Do’n ko na talaga napag-decide-an kasi feeling ko kailan ko pa aaminin sa sarili ko na gusto ko talaga maging girl? Yun naman talaga yung gusto ko from the very beginning. Yun nga lang, dahil uso yung mga paminta no’n, parang feeling mo dapat mag-paminta ‘ko. Di pa masyadong uso yung mga trans; wala pa ngang concept of transgender. Cross-dresser o transvestite pa lang ang tawag. Also, dahil nga hindi pa siya uso, ang fear ko no’n eh if magiging girl ako, tatanggapin ba ‘ko ng mga companies? Is it okay for them to hire transgender women? But on my first job, when I was part of a noon-time show, wala naman silang pakialam kung anumang damit mo or kung sino ka man. So do’n ko na rin nag-decide na, “Ay sige, magpapa-girl na (‘ko).” From then on, hindi ko na ma-imagine yung sarili ko na magiging lalaki ako ulit.
How about when you were in college? Did your decision sit well with your peers?
K: Ninety percent of my friends are also part of the LGBT community. Iba’t ibang klase ng lesbians; iba’t ibang klase ng gays. Because when I was at the University of the Philippines, isa rin ‘to sa mga natutunan ko—tinanong na ‘ko ni Ma’am Karen dito before, ano daw natutunan ko sa UP? I (learned) yung pagiging totoo sa sarili. Kasi sabi nila sa UP pag pumasok ka dyan, come as you are. Wala kaming uniform, so kung beki ka, mag-skirt ka, mag-tsinelas ka kung anuman ang gusto mo. And I was very active with our organization, UP Samahan Ng Mga Mag-aaral sa Komunikasyon (UP SAMASKOM), na ang daming members na gays, lesbians, (and) transgenders. So college pa lang, wala ‘kong naging problema in terms of finding true friends kasi mga bakla at tomboy din (sila). And I’m happy because kahit part sila ng LGBT community, they’re successful in their own careers.
You’ve made a name for yourself for impersonating Karen Davila. How does she inspire you?
K: You know, when I was growing up, idol ko na sya. Parang, isa siya sa mga haligi ng news ng ABS-CBN. And I think she’s now one of the most respected broadcast journalists—well specifically woman broadcast journalists—in the country. She’s like (the) Christiane Amanpour of the Philippines. She gives the hard-hitting questions. She’s not afraid of political controversies; talagang pag-uusapan yan, hihimayin niya kung anong gustong malaman ng publiko. She gave me this idea that women can be powerful in serious matters like news and current affairs. We’re not just pa-tweetums. Hindi lang tayo palaging leading lady; hindi lang tayo yung sexy na babae. We can be empowered on television, and I think si Ma’am Karen yung isa sa mga nagpatunay.
[related: ABS-CBN Lifestyle Asks Resident 'WHIP' Gretchen Ho: What's The Essence Of Being A Woman?]
Are there other women, or WHIPS, you look up to besides Karen Davila?
K: Syempre sasabihin ng mga tao ang role model mo talaga nanay mo. Pero cliché man siya, it’s true because sa nanay ko napatunayan yung unconditional love. She has been very supportive until now. Tinanggap nya ‘ko kung sino ako. Wala syang pakialam when I was a little boy (kahit) siguro napansin nya na medyo girl (ako). When I was in high school, it was my mom (na) bumibili sa akin ng mga makeup. Sa nanay ko napatunayan na pwede pa lang i-accept nang wholeheartedly yung anak mo (kahit) bakla or may mga anak na tomboy, or kung anuman. Marami pa ring mga parents ang against their children being homosexual or whatever. Sya yung role model ko in terms of understanding the choice of a child to be whoever that child wants to become in the future.
Now that I’m an adult, marami akong idol na transgender women. In politics there is Geraldine Roman, the first ever openly transgender woman who was elected in Congress. What a very big accomplishment for the community! ‘Di ba, she’s also pushing for the SOGIE bill? Sya yung main author no’n. Bilang transgender woman, happy ako kasi meron na kaming beacon of hope! May boses na kami sa politika; hindi na kami mapapabayaan. Although, of course, meron pa ring Ladlad Party-list, pero groundbreaking yung pagpasok ni Geraldine Roman sa politics. She’s in her prime now; talagang humahanga talaga ako sa kanya.
In the entertainment industry, we have Laverne Cox from Orange Is The New Black. She’s the first openly transgender woman who was nominated for an acting award in the Emmys. So, parang, pwedeng pwede rin pala yung mga transgender woman maging bona fide na award-winning actress. Hindi lang palaging patawa or comic relief. Hindi lang basta model or beauty queen. And she’s also the first openly transgender woman who won in the Emmys! She won as an executive producer.
And, of course, we have Geena Rocero. She’s a supermodel. Siya rin ang unang nagsalita sa TED being a transgender woman. She also launched Gender Proud, an advocacy and awareness campaign that aims to advance the rights of all transgender individuals. Ta’s Pinay pa sya, so nakaka-proud din.
Yun yung mga goals ko! Dapat gano’n, kasi sayang yung influence eh kung hindi mo siya magagamit.
What has your experience been like so far as a transgender woman in media?
K: I’m happy (with) my exposure because there are not so many openly transgender women who are visible on television. It somehow gives me the hope—parang pwede pala merong openly transgender woman on television, social media, and the mainstream media. Before kasi pag transgender laging beauty queen, nananalo sa Super Sireyna—yung mga ganyan. When I entered show business, I think a lot of people knew that I’m a transgender woman. Feeling ko it gives another aspect of transgender women—that we can be funny; that pwede kaming katulad lang ng ordinary women na merong endorsements, may sariling show, the chance to be a social media influencer…walang pinagkaiba, parang babae lang din (kami)? I think yung pagpasok ko sa media is also a breakthrough for transgender women especially in the Philippines. In the U.S. you have Laverne Cox (and) Geena Rocero. In the Philippines, we have Kevin Balot, Francine Garcia, and Trixie Maristela. In media I’m happy na very visible na kami. Mas lumalawak yung awareness ng mga tao.
[related: ABS-CBN Lifestyle Asks Resident 'WHIP' Iza Calzado: What's The Essence Of Being A Woman?]
Are there disadvantages to your being trans?
K: Siyempre marami pa ring mapanghusgang tao. When you’re in the public eye, you’re more prone to scrutiny. Yung relationship namin ng boyfriend ko, pinag-uusapan siya. It’s already a spectacle para sa kanila na, “Oy, tingnan mo si Kaladkaren, ang gwapo ng boyfriend nya.” Parang…anong issue do’n? When ABS-CBN News posted our love story, it got 21,000 reactions but super dami ring comments. Nakakaloka. Parang laging sensitive yung mga tao kasi when it comes to the concept of the transgender community. Dito sa Pilipinas, it wasn’t really long ago when it was openly talked about. Kasi dati pag bakla, ‘di ba parang baklang parlor o machong bakla or Super Sireynang bakla? Pero I think for the past three or four years, nagkaroon ng trans revolution. (It was) 2014 when Geena Rocero had her talk on TED. She talked about being a transgender woman in Hollywood kasi she’s a supermodel. So simula no’n, I think unti-unti nang nag-improve yung awareness ng mga Pilipino when it comes to the concept of the transgender community. Yun nga lang, lagi ka lang ma-su-scrutinize. And then when I read comments, marami pa ring mga bigot na tao; marami pa ring close-minded. I’m less sensitive na than before. I’ve been in show business as KaladKaren for six months, pero in the beginning, I’d get so affected with their comments. Ba’t gano’n yung tingin nila sa ‘kin? Ayaw nila ng damit ko, tapos marami pang nagsasabi na, “Uy, hume-healthy ka, tumataba ka” or “Oy, bakla din ‘yan” (or), “Babae ba siya?” Sinasabi ko sa mga friends ko na, “Oo nga, na-hu-hurt ako dito sa mga comments na ‘to.” But now natatawa lang ako. In hindsight, parang dapat naman talaga hindi ka magalit because of their ignorance. Kaya nga kami nandito—to push for awareness. Nandito kami para ipaintindi sa kanila na may ganitong klaseng mga babae. We exist and actually contribute to society. We work hard for our families; we work hard for our lives. We help people. So yung ignorance na yon… somehow, in a few years, baka mas matuto sila.
How do you feel about the Harvey Weinstein controversy? What’s your take on victim blaming?
K: Di ba sabi nila kapag may masamang nangyayari, meron ding kaakibat itong magandang opportunity, parang something like that. Hindi ko naman sinasabing maganda yung nangyari na ‘yon, pero maganda na napag-usapan sya at lumabas sya. Parang lahat ng babae sa Hollywood na na-harass have been open. So, I think it opened for a lot of dialogue do’n sa mga victims, at mas naging aware din tayo na, “Harassment pala pag ganito na yung ginawa sa’yo.” It’s not always rape na na-ha-harass ka. It’s not always touching. May verbal din pala; may iba’t ibang klaseng harassment. So I think, the best thing na naidulot nyang controversy na ‘yan is na-empower din nya yung mga kababaihan to speak out and fight for their rights.
Do you think that it sparked any dialogue here in the Philippines, or is sexual harassment/abuse still an issue that has to be addressed in the country?
K: In Quezon City, it’s an ordinance na bawal nang mang-cat call. Pwede mong ireklamo yung taong mambabastos sa’yo on the streets. At least, meron na tayong mga gano’n. Ang dami (din) nang naging movement. When that controversy sparked in Hollywood, ang dami nang nag-speak up, ang dami nang lumaban. At least, napag-usapan siya at na-raise yung issue.
How would you say you empower women?
K: I think maraming fans si KaladKaren na part ng LGBT community. I get a lot of messages on my page (from) transgender women who tell me, “Nakaka-inspire naman po kayo. Someday, I hope maging host din po ako or lumabas din ako sa television.” And marami ring na-i-inspire du’n sa love story namin no’ng partner ko na parang, “Oyy, it’s possible pala for transgender women to actually find true love.” Tapos ako, sa totoo lang, ang pangarap ko talaga in the future (is) to become the first openly transgender broadcast journalist. Yun naman ang natapos ko nung college. If they will give me a chance, I think, you know, I can do the part. I can do it nang mahusay.
Will you want to pursue that dream as KaladKaren or as Jervi?
K: Siguro as Jervi na. Fun talaga ang personality ko. But pag naging broadcast journalist na ‘ko, I think mas magiging malawak na yung scope (ko). Hindi lang basta comedy. I can talk about politics. I can deliver straight news—yung mga seryosong nangyayari sa Pilipinas. Or I can ask, you know, serious, hard-hitting questions to politicians. And I can give the right information to the public. Iba pa rin ang broadcast journalists sa mga entertainers. Right now, I’m an entertainer; I’m a host of an entertainment show. So, pag siguro, pag naging broadcast journalist ako, more of public service, more of information dissemination (ang pwede kong gawin).
[related: ABS-CBN Lifestyle Asks Resident 'WHIP' KaladKaren: What's The Essence Of Being A Trans Woman?]
Do you have any message to other transgenders and to those struggling with their identity?
K: Maraming mga bagets, teenager na nagme-message sa ‘kin na, “Ms. KaladKaren, idol ko po kayo. Sana po maging katulad niyo po ako paglaki ko,” or, “Sana po maging famous din po ‘ko sa TV.” Ang lagi ko lang sinasabi (ay) just be you and do you. Kung sino ka man, kung anuman ang gusto mo, gawin mo ‘yan, dear. Wag kang matakot kasi yun nga yung nangyari sa ‘kin. Kaya ako nagpaminta, ‘di ba? Ang sasabihin ko lang sa kanila, “Do not let your fear hinder your happiness.” So kung gusto mong maging girl, kung feeling mo, you know, transgender ka rin, go for it! I Embrace your true self. At the end of the day, kung itatago mo rin yan, lalabas at lalabas din yan.
-Interview by Nick Bautista
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Photographs by Vyn Radovan | Shot on location at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Eastwood City Mall | Special thanks to Kim Cruz