It’s 5pm on a Wednesday in Singapore and Heart Evangelista is speaking to me via a Zoom Call from her home in the Philippines. She apologises quickly for the ambient noise around her— “they are preparing dinner,” she says, explaining the flurry of activity in the background. Then, picking up her laptop between her manicured hands, she gives me a virtual tour of her home. Or so I think—but Evangelista is in fact looking for a better angle for the interview. She quickly veers away from a corridor view with a “Oh, too much glare”, and settles back at where she started. We are barely five minutes into the interview, and I can already see that things like the right articulation, lighting and location are all second nature to her. The media darling and first lady of the province of Sorsogon—her husband Francis Escudero is the Governor—has mastered the art of juggling it all.
“It’s been a bit hectic,” she starts. “I just came out of a locked-in taping for a telenovela, but I managed to leave for a bit to celebrate my husband’s birthday,” she chirps. She is excited that the network came in on her pitch for a series on her current hometown, called I left my heart in Sorsogon.
At a locked-in taping, the crew first had to quarantine for 10 days and then shoot for three weeks at a stretch. “So, you are basically working almost every day. Yeah, it’s a little crazy, but we are all adapting to the change.”
She has obviously taken it all in her stride, but the Evangelista from three years ago would not have been able to adapt so easily. Unthinkable, is more like it. We are talking about the time that the “perfect” life that Evangelista projected to her fans and followers, the media, and her family, turned on her in the most unexpected of ways.
“I was at fashion week, feeling at the top of the world. Then, suddenly, I felt sad, anxious, and very depressed,” shares Evangelista. All those emotions then started to manifest physically as numbness in her limbs and a painful condition called burning tongue syndrome, which she later realised was the result of pent-up anxiety.
One might wonder why someone who is is ever so poised, perfectly groomed, in the trendiest clothes, has nine million followers on Instagram, and is married to one of the most eligible men in the Philippines would feel any of the emotions she felt that day. Which aspect of her life was evoking any kind of anxiety? It was each and every one of the above, as she found out the hard way.
To put things in perspective, let’s go back a few years. Born Love Marie Ongpauco, Evangelista was barely 13 when she first faced the camera as an actress. In fact, she has been surrounded by all things show business since the day she was born: her grandparents were owners of a production company called Everlasting Pictures; and her family owns the Barrio Fiesta chain of restaurants in the Philippines, which has since its early days has been a hotspot for celebrities, local and foreign.
“We would have these performances in the restaurants, what we call the ‘singing cooks and waiters’, and I would also perform with them when I was very young,” she recalls with a smile. Her father is a patron of the arts, and both parents were very much in the fashion circuit— “so I grew up around people who always dressed very well, loved fashion, culture and the arts.”
“However, I wasn’t really allowed to be an actress, I come from a very traditional and strict family,” she says, before we assume that her career choice was a natural progression. Her mother—who would eventually became her manager—supported her wishes and allowed her to secretly audition for the role that launched her as Evangelista, her grandmother’s name, which the network felt would make a better screen name.
Her life very quickly was taken over by back-to-back shoots, extended call times and constant media attention. “Show business is like a lion’s den,” she sums up.
“As a teenager, I really loved what I was doing. I grew up in a conservative and controlled family environment, so I was used to rules. I am pretty much a good girl, so it wasn’t a struggle for me that I couldn’t go out partying or that I wasn’t allowed to go out of town with my friends,” says Evangelista.
“I grew up around people who always dressed very well, loved fashion, culture and the arts”
But that changed in her 20s and 30s as she started living a more independent life. “It was very stressful. There was suddenly so much freedom that it scared me. I was always afraid that I would get into trouble. With no one telling me what to do, I was afraid to make a mistake.”
In a bid to shield her “real” self from the public eye, she even started signing her paintings as Love Marie, so no one would know that it was her. The bona-fide darling of the art world sought solace behind her canvasses and the Birkin bags she used to paint on.
Ironically, the very thing that thrilled her also petrified her. And it came to head on that day, three years ago.
“I was in denial. I kept questioning the credibility of it all. I am a happy person; a grateful person. I could not understand why I was feeling this way,” But the pain grew excruciating, and her anxiety started reaching dangerous levels of negativity. “That’s when I told my husband ‘I think I need to see a doctor’.”
That was possibly the best decision as she finally had someone who could put a name to what she was going through. Within a week, her numbness, and the pain from burning tongue syndrome went away There were no longer those “loud monologues in my head”.
“It was like a miracle. I was like, ‘oh my god, there are so many who are suffering in silence, because they don’t know why or are embarrassed to seek help’. This is something that can be fixed, you just need to take the first step.”
If Evangelista herself felt any amount of embarrassment in carrying her doctor’s prescription to the pharmacy, she got over it in no time. And made a pact with herself to spread the message of mental health. “I talk about it whenever I have a bigger platform to express myself. And why would I not, when taking control of things like I did can save someone’s life?”
There were bashers for sure, she says. She faced quite a bit of flak on Instagram—she was called crazy and bipolar and a pretender. “It used to bother me in the beginning, but not anymore. This is my truth, and I will fight with all I have got to get myself back,” she says firmly.
A community of like-minded people banding to support each other has also emerged from it all. Evangelista has the sincere support of her friends and her team, and she has her husband steadfast by her side. “I can be a heavy person to be with when I have my bouts. I get very negative, but he has been by me through it all. He is my biggest inspiration,” she says.
Such unconditional support warms her heart today more than even the best off the runway. “I love fashion; I love dressing up. But there are certain wars you cannot fight with a beautiful jacket.” Humorous as that statement sounds, it is evident that the thought comes from a place deep within her.
“It was like a miracle. I was like, ‘oh my god, there are so many who are suffering in silence, because they don’t know why or are embarrassed to seek help’. This is something that can be fixed, you just need to take the first step”
That said, she loves how the fashion industry is embracing this concept and that of beauty in its entirety. “People now show their stretch marks, I mean that’s a lot,” she quips. “I also love how Asians are no longer on the sidelines when it comes to movies. And that’s why, as an artist or influencer. I think it’s really important that we still keep talking about it and make it the new normal.”
Feeling empowered lies at the base of it all for Evangelista, and is what her soon-to-launch beauty company is about. Based on a direct-selling concept, it spotlights the everyday women, the homemakers and busy mums—the conservative Filipinas who put their lives on the back burner after marriage, as Evangelista describes it. “The company’s aim is not just to promote self-care, but also help a lot of women get their careers back,” she explains.
She also has an upcoming art exhibition in Los Angeles, where she is collaborating with Brandon Boyd, lead singer of rock band Incubus and founder of Moonlight Arts Creative. Evangelista also has a few other exciting projects in the pipeline. “I am not sure if I can talk about them yet,” she says excitedly.
She is Love Marie Ongpauco-Escudero to the art world and Heart Evangelista to the film and fashion world. The biggest difference is that she does not hide behind any of these names. Her screen persona now is unabashedly her.
Exercising her right to be comfortable in her own skin and expose her flaws has also positively impacted her choices. “I have started to do more and I feel like the universe has also opened up to me. I still have my bad days and good days, but this is me. This is who I am today and I’m proud of my flaws. Perfection is not of this world.”
Photography BJ Pascual
Styling Kat Cruz-Villanueva
Make-up, Justin Soriano
Hair Jeck Aguilar
Stylist’s assistant John Karunungan