Couple of photos from the super fun personal style portrait session that I did for my friend Monique Rosal a few weeks ago. This wasn’t my first time to photograph this girl. I’d shot her some two years ago, at a time when I had had very little experience, and thus had had very little technical know-how (i.e., white balance and ISO settings and all that other good stuff had baffled me), not to mention I’d had to share the job with a bunch of other photographers and so I couldn’t exercise full creative control when it came to the locations, etc. Guess it goes without saying that the resulting photos from that shoot had turned out really bad—well, maybe not that bad, but definitely something I couldn’t be proud of—and so I’d promised her I’d take her pictures again. Which brought us to this session right here. I think it’s important to be ready to extend your subjects the courtesy of reshooting, especially when you yourself are not happy with your shots—you might argue that you’d rather wait for them to tell you they’re not satisfied with your work, but the truth is not a lot of people are going find it easy to do that, so, essentially, you’re just gonna have to be honest with yourself. Trust me, it’ll only do you good—so long, of course, as you stay sensitive to your shooting schedule and other appointments. Monique here had had to wait almost two years for an opening in my schedule, but that was alright, because what mattered was we got around to doing it!
This whole thing came at a perfect time, too, because she was starting to be obsessed with Tumblr, and she wanted to be able to post original photos and to keep the “reblogging” to a minimum. (I might also convince her to go on Lookbook.nu—Monique, remind me to send you an invite, OK?) The idea was to photograph her in her own clothes, or in clothes that reflected her personality, because we didn’t want to make the same mistake we’d made the last time wherein we’d made her raid her friends’—and even her mom’s—closets. My first impulse was to ask her to wear surfer chick-inspired clothes and then drag her off to a beach setting, if only to satisfy my own Tumblr obsession (the Billabong Girls USA Tumblr site is one of the very few sites that I follow), but then I realized that dictating her would defeat the purpose of a personal style shoot. Besides, she confessed that, although she did like the beach, she really was more of a rocker chick. For days we’d been talking about Coachella, the music festival held every spring in Southern California, how it had been a mutual dream of ours to attend it one day (and how I had been foolish for being in L.A. last year and turning down invites to weekend two), and that was how we arrived at an idea: why not have her show up at the shoot in clothes that she could see herself wearing to the desert music fest if she were given the chance to make that scene one day? I’m looking at these photos now and laughing at the fact that this “DIY Coachella” thing has since been given a name—“Couchella,” which is basically the act of “sitting on your couch and dreaming you were at Coachella”—but we had so much fun that afternoon! And I loved the clothes she was able to round up for the session, especially the vintage babydoll dress in eggshell lace—very Free People-y! Delighted me to no end, too, that she chose to wear everything with her brand spanking new 1490 10-eye Doc Martens—I always love it when there’s a little grunge or ‘90s involved.
Speaking of grunge/’90s, the Smashing Pumpkins T-shirts that you see her wearing here are actually mine (yes, I collect Smashing Pumpkins T-shirts, and I consider them a prized collection—some of these shirts I got when I first saw the band live at the Louisville Palace for the third leg of their summer 2008 tour). It was kind of spur-of-the-moment, really—in the middle of our shoot I remembered that she loved the Pumpkins to death (last year she and a couple of friends literally braved a storm by flying to Manila to see Billy et al. at the Araneta Coliseum despite the torrential rains and floods), and so I was quick to snatch a couple of T-shirts from my closet so I could take photos of her in them. Of course, as you can see here, they look a hundred times better on her than they do on me, but that doesn’t mean I’m letting her keep them!
She wanted me to take a few photos of the new tattoo between her shoulder blades (of three cassette tapes with their media spewed out to form a G-clef, a not-so-subtle declaration of her love for music), and that’s how things took a turn for the, um, boudoir. I’d never done a boudoir session before in my life—perhaps the closest I’d gotten to doing one was when I’d photographed Womb frontwoman Chai Fonacier’s naked back during their album cover shoot (also to pinpoint a back tattoo)—but, hey, anything’s worth trying, right? Thank God the girl was ready with really cute undergarments! I had to be real careful with my approach, though, by thinking less FHM and more Agent Provocateur catalog—this way I was assured the photos were gonna come out sassy, not sleazy. Sure enough, they turned out really nice, but I can only post a few on here—I’m sorry, but I still have a little bit of a gentleman in me, and that little bit of a gentleman is saying that everything else should be for her eyes only.
Now I’m torn ‘cause I can’t decide which is sexier: leaving something for the imagination, or having a healthy enough self-image to have no problem baring a little for the camera. When I’d first taken Monique’s photos two years ago, she’d seemed a little tense, if not squeamish, and it would show in her face, and in the way she’d moved (or not moved, for that matter), and that was actually one of the reasons why the resulting photos from that shoot had left much to be desired. This time, however, it was as if it was a totally different girl standing in front of me: calmer, more composed, and thus more radiant—still aware of her flaws, but was mature enough to just laugh about them. I asked her what had changed, and she shared that she’d been taking yoga classes for months now. It’s amazing what a renewed commitment to fitness can do to you—not just physically to your body, but to how you feel about yourself, as well. And nothing is more beautiful to photograph than someone who is clearly comfortable in their own skin.
Monique Rosal | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in Cebu City, Cebu, on March 24, 2013 | Hair and makeup by Alex Nicole Lorenzana | Special thanks to Christine L. Abragan
When I told my friends that I wanted to photograph “a bunch of California girls,” most of them were quick to roll their eyes and quip, “Oh, it’s obvious you want a The Hills-inspired shoot!” or “Let me guess: Lauren Conrad in your mood board?” While I will admit that I am crazy about Lauren Conrad and her gang (it’s no secret, after all, that one of the main reasons for this recent trip of mine to the City of Angels was to meet her in person—you know, as a birthday present to myself), allow me to lay my cards on the table and say that my California cultural references do not stop at The Hills or Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. I also happen to be obsessed with, say, the L.A.-born photographer Herb Ritts, and I am constantly studying his body of work and always looking for ways to incorporate that magical Ritts touch into my own aesthetic (another reason for this trip was so I could see the Herb Ritts: L.A. Style exhibition at the Getty—ongoing until August 26, by the way, so go now if you haven’t yet). Bret Easton Ellis and most of his works are also very California to me. And, of course, I grew up to Beverly Hills, 90210 and Baywatch, which means that Shannen Doherty will always be my number one bad girl crush (sorry, Kristin Cavallari) and that Pamela Anderson will always be my favorite plastic (sorry, Heidi Montag). And I happen to be a fan of the, um, “manlier” shows, too, like Entourage, for example. But as far as TV shows about California go, Tom Kapinos’s Californication will forever be on top of my list, and that’s thanks to Madeleine Martin’s character Becca Moody, and Natascha McElhone’s character Karen van der Beek. Becca is the main protagonist Hank Moody’s (David Duchovny) acerbic, goth rock-inclined teenage daughter, and Karen is Becca’s grownup cool kid mom. Becca and Karen are not the quintessential California girls—but they’re my kind of California girls. Disaffected, not peachy. Witty, not ditzy. Pallid, not sunkissed. And none of that cotton candy, celluloid chic, too—like, no Juicy Couture sweatpants or anything like that. Becca is dead-on grunge with her flannels and vintage concert Tees, and Karen’s style is kind of downtown-meets-boho-meets-Coachella. Yes, they are, as you would call it, the other side of tinseltown, home of the hardcore. And they—not Lauren Conrad and her pretty posse—were exactly the kind of girls I had in mind when I said I wanted to photograph “a bunch of California girls.”
My prayers were answered when Maia Ramirez hit me up and asked me to photograph her and her daughters Mallie and Maxine, after seeing the work that I’d done for her brother Luigi’s engagement last year. Her message ended with a warning of sorts: “I have to tell you, though, the Mallie, my eldest, is kind of ‘tomboyish’—we’re gonna have a hard time convincing her to wear anything girly!!!” To which I responded, “Perfect!” Because wasn’t that a very Becca Moody thing to do—not “wear anything girly?” It was like I’d died and gone to heaven! Finally here was my chance to have a shoot inspired by the main girls of Californication! I wasted no time in sending her a list of clothes to prepare—flannels, big black grunge boots, beanies, and fishnet wrist gloves for the little girls, and Karen van der Beek-inspired pieces for Maia. At first Maia was concerned about the grunge look on her youngest, Maxine—unlike Mallie, you see, Maxine was the girly girl type, the kind who preferred ballerina flats over boots, and Disney princesses over, say, Queens of Dogtown. A compromise had to be made, and so I allowed Maxine to pair her flannels with sequined shorts instead of jeans—I had to say no to the ballerina flats, though, and only allowed her to wear leather Chuck Taylor-esque lace-up boots (with floral applique detail, of course).
Initially Maia wanted the shoot to take place in their hometown of Clovis, CA, which was some 4 hours northwest of L.A. (some 15 minutes northeast of Fresno), but I had to turn that down because I couldn’t find anyone to drive me there. Also, I really couldn’t imagine doing this whole thing anywhere else but in Venice Beach. As some of you who’ve been there may know, Venice is one of the more colorful and vibrant areas of Southern California, one of those places that have managed to establish itself as a cultural phenomenon by being egalitarian, mind-bogglingly eclectic and compellingly odd—I’d fallen in love with the place the first time I’d visited some three years ago, and there was nothing I wanted more now than a chance to take its pulse through pictures. Besides, it’s also where most of my favorite scenes from Californication were shot, especially that one scene some 7 or 8 minutes into the second episode of the fourth season where Becca is playing her electric guitar at the boardwalk for some cash (to save up for a place of her own), while Karen and Pamela Adlon’s character Marcy Runkle looked on—it was exactly this scene that I wanted to recreate for this shoot. Thankfully, Maia said yes to driving all the way from Clovis; she owed the girls a visit to Disneyland, anyways, and so she asked for our gig to be scheduled on the Monday following their Sunday date with Mickey Mouse and friends.
Sometimes materializing your vision is never easy, and this one right here was no exception. In order to effectively recreate that one rockin’ scene of Becca’s at the boardwalk, we needed heavy duty props, such as an electric guitar, a hard case, maybe even some amps. Thank God my brother-in-law Chester is a guitarist and had all these stuff handy (I think I must’ve had over a dozen guitars and cases to choose from, but I ended up picking the Dean Vendetta guitar and the B.C. Rich “casket case,’’ of course, because they were just so badass-looking)! But while the sourcing wasn’t a problem, dragging all that stuff around definitely was pain in the backside—I think I almost broke my two arms trying to carry them from the beachfront parking lot to the spot we were shooting at and back (and I had my camera bag with me, too)! All worth the backbreaking trouble, though, because the pictures from that set came out real good! And not so much because of the props as in terms of how Mallie and Maxine handled them. I didn’t even need to teach Mallie how to cradle the guitar—she just snatched the darn thing from my hands and in no time declared she was ready for her closeup! Who says little girls don’t know a thing or two about rocking out? I hope she grows up to be a guitarist.
Yes, what started out as something I thought I needed to do in a hurry quickly turned into one of those shoots that I didn’t want to ever end. On the 10 en route to the beach, all I could think of was, I gotta do this fast! I gotta to this fast! (I even had a cup of coffee before leaving my sister’s house, and coffee is not my favorite thing in the world!) I was thinking of the little girls, you see, and how I didn’t want to work them up too much, especially considering the fact that, well, these were little girls, and that they’d spent more than 8 hours under the sun at Disneyland the previous day (no Mickey Mouse ears are ever large enough to shade you against the brutal California sun, and I learned that the hard way). Once we got to the beach, though, Mallie and Maxine were suddenly so rejuvenated, and they couldn’t wait to step in front of the camera! And once I started clicking, it was as if they didn’t want to step away from my frame ever! Maxine, in particular, was such a hogger (for lack of a better term)—I’d take pictures of her big sister solo, and just two or three clicks and she’d be screaming, “OK, enough, Mallie! My turn! My turn!” To which Mallie would just nod and politely give way! Can’t remember the countless times I told her, “Maxine, you gotta wait your turn!” and the countless times she retorted, “But it already is my turn!” Swear to God, for every three pictures of Mallie, Maxine would have 20! This didn’t seem to bother the elder sister, though, because she’s chill like that—at one point she even told me, “I don’t really like my picture being taken.” The only reason she had no issues about doing this session, apparently, was ‘cause it was in her lane in that it was kind of “non-girly,” and she even lived up to her offbeat, tomboy cred by demanding, “[If you have to] take photos of me, [they have to be of me] standing right next to these really cool trash cans!” It was like I’d found my own personal Becca Moody! How else was I supposed to love this girl but to bits and pieces?
At one point it made me wonder where these girls’ energy was coming from. Were they solar-powered, and were they getting it from the scorching sun? Was it the fact that we were in a very groovy, lively place? Was it the corndogs? Were they getting it from Harry Perry (no relation to Katy Perry, I’m sorry), the turban-sporting electric guitarist on roller skates? Did they have a peppy song playing in their heads the whole time—”Overdrive” by Katy Rose, perhaps, which goes something like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m independence/ Yeah, yeah, I’m borderline/ Yeah, yeah, I’m California/ My mind’s all screwed and upside down/ But my heart’s on overdrive”? Of course, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that they got it from their mama! Maia was so fierce in front of the camera that I had it all too easy. Considering the fact that she wasn’t really comfortable with our theme at first, she put on a very good show! Yes, she admitted that at the onset she was kind of skeptical about the whole Californication/grunge thing, but then she chimped after a few shots, and then gave me her stamp of approval, saying that she liked it ‘cause “it’s a departure from the usual family photos!” Nothing makes me happier than subjects who allow me the liberty to carry out my vision despite our creative differences, and who give me the chance to prove that I’ve got something. For that I had to reward Maia with a bonus set—a pared-down, no-fuss “denim-and-whites” set, still very much California, but sedate enough for her to use as Christmas cards or whatever she wants to use them for.
I think I am getting the hang of this—you know, photographing families and children. I mean, it all seems so distant now, that part when I was only starting out and I actually swore to myself that I was never going to do anything that involved kids because, well, I was deathly afraid I was never going to get them to stand still, much less get them to do whatever crazy stuff I wanted them to do. But after shoots like this one right here, I guess you can’t help but ask for more! Now the problem is whether or not I’ll be able to find little ones who are as crazy and outgoing as Mallie and Maxine. I’ve been trying to avoid this, but I think now is a really good time to borrow a line from The Beach Boys: Don’t you just “wish they all could be California girls?”
Maia Mangubat-Ramirez and her daughters Mary Louise and Maxine Antoine | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Los Angeles, CA, on May 21, 2012 | Hair and makeup by Mayce Aparis Arradaza | Graphic print Tee, Matthew Williamson for H&M | Yellow high-low hemline sheer top, Forever 21 | Acid wash skinny jeans, Fire Los Angeles, at Nordstrom | Girls’ flannel shirts, Abercrombie Kids | Girl’s skinny jeans, Gap | Black sequined shorts, Gap
My own personal PJ Harvey. That’s what I’d used to call singer/songwriter Cattski Espina, back when I’d immersed myself in the local music radar as part of my duties as editor-in-chief of the now-defunct alternative culture e-zine Neoground.com (where I’d worked with Sonic Boom Philippines founder Alex “Phat Boy” Lim, Urbandub’s Gabby Alipe, and former NU107 anchorwomen Hazel Montederamos and Krissi Banzon, among others). And she remembered this—the woman has an astonishing recall of detail, testament that she is a compelling storyteller. No doubt she remembered, too, that I’d been an avid follower of her live appearances in shows like Intimate Acoustics (a series of sitting room only unplugged shows held at the then happening Padi’s Point, which ran popular throughout ’99) and its subsequent all-girls spin-off Siren Souls, the latter her eponymous band had top-billed along with the Kate Torralba-fronted Hard Candy, and the then female-fronted Cueshé (yes, Dhee Evangelista, now of Pandora). At the time, of course, the comparison between her and the divine Ms. Harvey had sprouted from—and ended at—the impassioned singing, the deeply sonorous vocals, the gender-bending songwriting. Certainly I had not meant for it to be a prediction of sorts. So you could imagine my surprise upon finding out firsthand that her musical career had somewhat ended up treading the same path as Ms. Harvey’s—i.e., her group had disbanded, and she was now on her own (the only difference was that the PJ Harvey trio had dissolved after two albums, while Cattski the band had managed to make it to three albums before breaking up).
Balmy early evening in late August, and I was having coffee—well, frappé, really—with Cattski. “The Cat Lady” (as I fondly call her these days, borrowing from the name of her weekly column from back when she was resident rock critic at the local daily SunStar) had just finished titling and tracklisting her forthcoming album, and with only four or five tracks left to fine-tune, it was now time to get down and dirty for the album cover. “Other [musicians] opt for artwork,” she would later declare, “but in my case, I like having my face in the CD sleeve. I mean, you gotta put a face to the name and to the music at some point, right?” Choosing a photographer to bring her vision into life had not been a daunting task—even prior to beginning work on this album, already she’d had Malou “Mai” Pages-Solomon of Shutterfairy Photography on top of her list (she’d worked with Mai before, for a couple of promotional material, and she’d liked the outcome so much that she’d decided no other photographer would do for this new recording). Which was what had brought me here—having just jumpstarted my apprenticeship at Shutterfairy a couple of weeks back, I had been commissioned by Mai to style Cattski for this one very important shoot. And what a way to be reunited, right? I had not seen this woman in seven or so years! But breaking the ice didn’t prove to be tricky. All she had to do was tell me about how Cattski the band was no more, and that this upcoming album, although technically her fourth (fifth, if you count her tenth anniversary compilation, released early last year), was really the first from Cattski the solo artist. Of course, the news came to me as a shocker, not so much because I’d come here expecting to style a quartet, but because I’d become so used to thinking of Cattski as a group. I couldn’t bring myself to imagine Cattski as a non-group without losing a bit of composure. I mean, sure, this woman right here had always been that band’s focal point, but all I could think of was that amazing, formidable chemistry that the group had had, you know? But, oh well, as Cattski now put it, “Life happened” (exactly the reason she and I had lost touch for seven years in the first place). Guitarist Anne Muntuerto had had to leave for Washington, DC, to pursue a Master’s Degree in Nurse Anesthesia—definitely a relief to hear it had had nothing to do with “creative differences” or anything like that, and that the two of them remained really good friends, and that Anne was now turning out to be not only Cattski’s but Cebu music’s biggest ambassador/promoter overseas, sharing our goods with whatever musical circuit she was able to penetrate (including the big leagues such as singer/producer Brian Larsen, for whom she became touring guitarist). As for the rest of the band members, well, I decided it was no longer my business to ask about them. Especially when Cattski began to make it clear that there was nothing else she wanted to do at this point but to move forward.
Or move further back, as the case would be. “[The reason] why I’ve decided to call [this new album] Zero,” she revealed, “[is] because it’s like I’ve gone back to zero!” As of the time we spoke she was still undecided on whether to label it Zero, spelled out like that, or 0:00:00, like “how your [digital] music player [timer] looks like right before you [hit the] play [button].” But whatever she ends up going with, the premise remains the same: starting from nothing. I know it sounds frightening, but turns out it’s not so bad after all. When you come from nothing, “you have this kind of independence, this freedom to do whatever you feel like doing, and it becomes a [prolific] exploration,” she explained. “Back when I was still in a group, I had all this music in me, just waiting to explode, but then I would put it forward for the rest [of the band members] to hear—because that’s what being in a band is all about, you have to get the others’ opinion—but then they’d be, like, ‘That’s too Barbie’s Cradle!’ or ‘That’s not hardcore enough.’” She went on about how, in the eight or nine years of being in a group, there had always been this unspoken rule that “you have to stick with a formula when trying to come up with new material, and so you always have to [reference] all the things you’ve already done.” But now she no longer needed to do that. “Now I can start with nothing—with silence—and then go with whatever hits me from out of the blue!”
Silence being the operative word. She proceeded to tell the story of how, one day at twilight, couple of weeks before beginning work on new material, she’d found herself standing on the vast balcony of a local hotel perched atop the hills, and she’d just stood there, stunned by how the city sprawled before her had changed its face as dusk had settled—and by the silence and stillness that had come with it. A silence so piercing that it had laid itself out like a stark blank canvas, awakening the music and words from deep inside her that she’d thought she’d long forgotten, and causing them to detonate like firecrackers. Just like that, what could possibly be her peak artistic period had gotten a jumpstart. Out of nothing, Zero had been born.
Said differently: By taking a step back, she had moved on.
In no other picture was this logic clearer to me than in “Monsters,” one of the 11 new tracks to be included in Zero, and a strong contender for carrier single. In her deeply soulful contralto, Cattski croons: “I feel I’m braver now to face my demons/ I’ve finally learned to use my angels, too/ I think I’m finally ready to live my truth/ ‘Cause right now that I’m without you there’s just nothing to lose.” Odds and ends of emotions in her words and in her voice, kind of like that closet where you’d kept your skeletons for so long, and now that the bones had been cleaned out you were seeing for the very first time all the other stuff that had been there with them all along (I won’t take credit for that simile; that’s an extended version of an imagery that she uses in the song’s refrain). But one emotion you weren’t gonna find no matter how hard you tried was bitterness. It hadn’t been disguised—it just simply wasn’t there to begin with. Definitely a feat—well, to me, at least—because very few storytellers succeed in looking past the pain, in just walking away from it. This was a huge change for Cattski, who, when she’d broken into the scene a little over a decade back, had embraced the exquisite anguish of hanging on to an offhandedly ambivalent partner (“High and Low,” 2001), and who, some five years ago, had made a big deal about holding on to someone who clearly was no longer there (“Your Ghost,” 2006). And who, only a year ago, had been “too emotionally unstable—disturbed would be an accurate description,” for whatever reason. In fact, change was starting to look like a recurring theme in Zero. In “New,” another solid candidate for first single, she spits out, in brisk cadences: “This is not you/ I guess I like the old you/ But then you like the new.” At first my brows raised, ‘cause it sounded to me like she was contradicting herself here by lamenting a friend’s resolve to change. If I hadn’t known better, though, I would have stuck to that first impression; but after rereading the lyrics more than a dozen times I was now confident enough to declare that that one line was really a sort of reverse message for her fans—like, “I know you liked the old me, but I promise you you’re gonna like the new me even more.” I could say that I made that up. But it would be very remiss of me not to insinuate that Cattski here was clever like that.
And so here she was with her brand new take on life. And, as they say, a new outlook required a new, well, look, and that was exactly what I was here for. Always I’d been cautious about styling musicians (as public figures, you see, they are ultimately responsible for the way they are seen, and so they have to be the custodian of their own image), saying yes only to those who’d asked for a helping hand (like to Urbandub bassist Lalay Lim, for example, who’d asked for my help some four years back before stepping in front of photographer Charles Buencosejo’s camera for the CD jacket of and promotional posters for their fourth album Under Southern Lights). Cattski here had not exactly asked for help, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t open to others’ ideas. So many things that needed to be done in the studio, so she wasn’t exactly in a position to turn down anyone offering to relieve her of non-studio work. Just like that, I got to work.
Taking a cue from her stories of how the Zero creative process had begun—i.e., “from nothing”—I proceeded to assemble a mood board that was pared down and very basic. No convoluted palettes, for one: I was quick to throw in some black, just ‘cause the RGB triplet for black was (0, 0, 0), just two zeroes shy of her 0:00:00 idea. I had to make room for one more color, and was tempted to go for a primary like a red or a blue, but in the end I decided to go with white. Black and white. Or, as Cattski liked to put it, ebony and ivory, like the keys of a piano. That was it. You couldn’t get any more pared down than that. It was perfect ‘cause I’d just finished reading excerpts from Just Kids, punk rocker Patti Smith’s tender and captivating memoir of her charmed friendship with the black-and-white photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and for weeks I’d been looking for ways to translate some of that enigmatic Smith/Mapplethorpe chemistry into my own work. I wasted no time mentally updating my board with the cover photograph of Smith’s debut album Horses—the singer in a white men’s dress shirt, tight jeans, black suspenders, with a black men’s blazer nonchalantly flung over her left shoulder, and scruffy hair—which Mapplethorpe had taken using natural afternoon light “in a penthouse in Greenwich Village.” Like how I liked my burgers, though, with one patty never being enough, one reference to Patti wasn’t sufficient, so I went ahead and slapped another photo of hers against the board: An older Patti this time, circa 2010, no longer punk’s princess but very much its doyenne, shot by the fashion photographer Ruven Afanador for the February 2010 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine—reclining against a wooden table, in a black smoking jacket and a white dress shirt so supersized they allude Martin Margiela’s all-oversize collection from A/W 2000/2001, and what looked like sweatpants tucked into buckle-strapped biker boots. Cattski liked these references, just like I’d thought. It was a look that was meant for her—with her newfound air of insouciance, she could well be on her way to becoming my own personal Patti Smith (yes, no more PJ Harvey).
We brainstormed for a couple of more looks, and she proposed that, since we were doing black and white, she wanted to use this, well, black-and-white star-print sweater she’d bought from a recent trip to the Lion City, to which I said why the hell not. If we had to go with patterns, stars were the right way to go—huge for Fall (as evidenced in Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2011 Ready-to-Wear), and had kind of a grunge subtext, to people like me who remembered the teeny weeny asterisk in Billy Corgan’s infamous ZERO shirts of yore. (I swear, the uncanny correlations just kept on coming: Here I was styling an artist for her album called Zero, and Corgan’s ZERO shirt just had to come to mind.) That being said, we decided to make room for just a little bit more of neo-grunge, and that’s how actress Zoë Kravitz got into the picture, more specifically her character in the TV series Californication, a reckless Venice Beach teen and frontwoman of an all-girl band who called themselves Queens of Dogtown, whose badass (albeit scripted) Whisky a Go Go performance of Alice in Chains’s “Would” (for the fifth episode of the fourth season) and whose penchant for boy’s tanks and exposed brassieres had gotten me falling head over heels—or, wool beanie over combat boots, if you will.
Speaking of combats, Cattski forgot to bring hers on the day of the shoot, so my own Bed Stü “Artillery Boots” had to make a special guest appearance in one of the sets (I swear to God, wherever my boots go they manage to steal the show). That wasn’t the only thing I was happy about. I was also glad that the black smoking jacket I got from local menswear genius Protacio didn’t turn out to be too oversize on her (and so the silhouette came out more Demeulemeester than Margiela), and that the star-spangled sweater didn’t come out too fancy (originally we’d intended to have her wear black leggings with the said sweater, but we ditched it so we could show off the tattoo in her leg). Androgyny was a very good look on this woman, I must say. Although I was happy that she wasn’t afraid to get in touch with her girly side, too, putting on every single chain and chandelier necklace I flung her way—even agreeing, after only a moment’s hesitation, to “lose the dress shirt and just stand there in your brassiere!” (Such a trouper, I know—never even complained about the lack of a dressing room, and that she had to undress and dress in front of all of us!) Ecstatic, too, that my friend Nikki Paden had agreed to assist me with the styling, because a helping hand was always a treat, and no one knew the black and white palette better than that girl. What I was most happy about, though, was the hair and makeup. I’d never met, much less worked, with the hairstylist and makeup artist (and erstwhile model) Justine Gloria before, and had not even had the chance to talk to her before this shoot, but then she got to work and it was like magic. At the outset, you see, I’d wanted, say, Cattski’s eye makeup to be a bit glam, and her hair in some pompadour à la Gwen Stefani—but Justine had envisioned something else, and it came out perfect. It was a look that was mature yet not at all contrived, edgy but not sinister, and had that elusive quality of being at turns disheveled and flawless (think circa mid-‘90s Chrissie Hynde and you’ll begin to come close). And it went really well with the clothes! I was in awe: Cattski like I’d never seen her before.
But more important than the new outlook, and infinitely more important than the new look, was the new sound. In front of the cameras now I asked her to move around, pretend like she was performing onstage, in front of hundreds (the mic stand had been my idea, after she’d refused to be photographed cradling a guitar ‘cause it had been done so many times over the last couple of years), and so she asked for music she could swing to, and luckily for me it was a demo version of the aforementioned new song “New” that her assistant chose to play. At first I couldn’t place the song as hers, thought it was a mid-‘90s Jill Sobule, what with its rhythmic uptempo, tragicomic wordplay, and sing-songy chorus, so imagine my surprise when her assistant told me this was actually the song “New” that Cattski had been telling me about! The intro starts with a faint kick drum beat that is very characteristic of house, and then slowly intermingles with some synth and mellow guitar plucking, before it crescendos into an a capella, and then a bang. (The transitions would follow this same pattern.) It’s the kind of song that’s hard to put in a box. She would admit later on that, yes, the underlying beat was a “generic house beat,” at 140 bpm, but then throw in all the other elements and it becomes something else altogether. A hundred different things, if you will, because, I swear, every time I am ready to dismiss it as pop rock, I hear a little bit of riot grrrl pop-punk here and there, and some elements of symphonic rock. “In the past, [whenever] people asked me what kind of music I made, without [skipping a beat] I would say, ‘Rock!’” she would later recount. “Now when I meet new people and they ask me the same question, I stammer and I can’t give a straight answer.” And there is no formula, too; no two songs are ever the same. The abovementioned “Monsters,” for example, is a languid, organic ballad set against an irresistible concoction of trip-hop, ambient, and dream pop—even a tinge of country pop! “Defying genres,” that’s how she calls the whole thing. So this is what happens when you “start from nothing” with every song (and when you micromanage every single step in the production process, if I may jokingly add—I don’t think I’ve ever met the brand of control freak that this woman has on!). Although this early on Cattski is in anticipation being critiqued by the pundits: “[They’re] most likely [going to] say…that [the album] has an identity crisis, for not having a consistent sound. But I’m no longer afraid of that. I trust myself enough [now]. My intuition [is] my ultimate guide. Everything will have to be on the premise of what sounds and feels right for me.” But I don’t think it’s ever going to get to that point—the pundits part, I mean. If anything, peers and fans alike are going to appreciate the bold step she’s taking, her kind of game-changing, and I predict this album is going to be her biggest contribution yet to Cebu music. Yes, by sidestepping a niche, Cattski has found her, well, niche—that is, as renaissance woman of Cebu music.
I am tempted to talk about all of the other songs, but that would be doing a great deal of disservice to the artist. My job is to build up excitement, not to do an album review, so I’m gonna have to stop right here. For right now, go ahead and take your time reveling at the woman that you see here—Cattski like you’ve never seen her before. Although I can’t exactly guarantee all this is ever going to prepare you for the Cattski you’ve never heard before.
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Cattski Espina | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon for Shutterfairy in Cebu City on September 3, 2011 | Main photographers: Malou “Mai” Pages-Solomon for Shutterfairy, Paul Armand Calo for Calography (click here to view Mai’s photos, and here for Paul’s) | Hair and makeup by Justine Gloria | Stylist’s assistant: Nikki Paden | Sittings assistants: Manna Alcaraz and Gwen Reyes | Special thanks to: The PR and Communications Department of Marco Polo Plaza Cebu | Black men’s smoking jacket, Protacio | White men’s dress shirt, Memo | Solid black men’s silk tie, Springfield UP by Springfield | Black women’s leather biker jacket, Bershka | Black women’s skinny suit jacket, Divided by H&M | Chandelier necklace, Forever 21 | Chain necklace, Mango | Crucifix necklace, Divided by H&M
In my mood board (see below, clockwise from left): Stills of Zoë Kravitz as her Californication character Pearl, with her band Queens of Dogtown, performing a cover of Alice in Chains’s “Would” onstage at West Hollywood’s Whisky a Go Go (for the fifth episode of the show’s fourth season, originally aired February 6, 2011); still of a star-spangled sweater from Wildfox Couture, photographed by Pete Deevakul for TeenVogue.com; looks from Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2011 Ready-to-Wear, on models Isabeli Fontana and Anna Selezneva, photographed by Yannis Vlamos for GoRunway.com; Patti Smith, photographed by Ruven Afanador for the February 2010 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine; the album cover of Patti Smith’s debut record Horses, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, circa 1975.
Behind-the-Scenes Instagrams Top row, L-R: Makeup artist/hairstylist Justine Gloria giving quick touch-ups to Cattski between sets while Mai looks on; Cattski’s assistants Gwen and Manna were asked to document the shoot and keep her in check (“I could go crazy, you know,” Cattski rationalized); Cattski literally rolling on the floor laughing when she thought we were done, only to be snapped out of it when she remembered she’d asked for night shots. Middle row, L-R: Mai with Paul (of Calography) waiting for the shoot to commence; Cattski wouldn’t stop singing, even while being photographed; Cattski forgot to bring her boots, so she had to borrow my Bed Stü “Artillery Boots”(which meant I had to go barefoot half of the time); Mai fixing Cattski’s hair. Bottom row, L-R: My assistant for the day Nikki checking out my mood boards before getting to work (she loved the Robert Mapplethorpe shots of Patti Smith); Paul getting ready to take photos of Cattski with the grand piano (the singer sang a haunting rendition of The Cure’s 1989 hit “Lovesong” while Paul was setting up); no dressing room, so Cattski was forced to dress and undress in front of everyone (such a trouper!); Cattski getting ready for the evening set.
In February I dreamed of grunge. Of unbuttoned plaid flannels flapping in the wind like a migratory bird about to embark on one of its seasonal journeys. Of ratty old jeans more torn than Ednaswap or Natalie Imbruglia could ever be. Of greasy, unkempt tendrils creeping out from under wool beanies. Of beat-up 14-hole Doc Martens stomping on dirty pavement. Of teeth-clenching throughout an entire opus. Of smelling “like teen spirit.”
I wasn’t stoned to the bajesus or anything; I was merely inspired. It all started when I was researching the German (or so I think he is) photographer Horst Diekgerdes after falling in love with the flare effects in his advertising work for Chloe from 2002 (I’d been flipping through old magazines!), and I stumbled upon this editorial that he did for Teen Vogue with stylist Havana Laffitte called “Finding Nirvana” featuring modern rethinks (Marc by Marc Jacobs, Missoni, A.P.C., Isabel Marant, etc.) of the grunge classics. The fashion, mood and mise en scène were so dead-on they brought me back to my own pimply adolescence when I would spend weeks on end experimenting on my jeans—including my one and only pair of 501s—to achieve the perfect ripped effect, raid my dad’s closet for his old Pendletons, and stay up until the wee hours of the morning just staring at this one photo of an all-grunged-up Kristen McMenamy by Steven Meisel, which I’d torn off of the December 1992 Vogue (from a spread called “Grunge & Glory”). Suddenly I found myself sorting through my iTunes looking for post-Louder Than Love Soundgarden and pre-Celebrity Skin Hole. And then glued to YouTube watching clips of Nirvana’s and Alice in Chains’s performances on MTV Unplugged. And then digging through stacks of my old Spins for anecdotes on bad behavior in the ‘90s music scene—did you know, for example, that Courtney Love used to flash her breasts to her audience during encores? Speaking of, um, mammaries, who could forget Bridget Fonda’s classic line from Cameron Crowe’s Singles from 1992: “Are my breasts too small for you?” I had planned on watching The Social Network on DVD, but now I was shelving it in favor of the ‘90s classics like, well, the aforementioned Singles, Ben Stiller’s directorial debut Reality Bites from 1994, and, of course, Antonia Bird’s Mad Love from 1995. Just like that, I got that old time feeling. The cutesy floral babydolls that Fonda’s Janet Livermore wore with leather biker jackets and trilbies. Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer and his unwashed mane and everlasting gaze. Drew Barrymore’s Casey Roberts and her oversize plaid flannels and messy pixie. When I got to the part when Casey stood at the back of Matt’s (Chris O’Donnell’s character) pickup truck as they drove away from all the troubles in their lives, her unbuttoned flannels, well, flapping in the wind like a migratory bird about to embark on one of its seasonal journeys, with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Here Comes My Girl” playing in the background (heartland rock from the early ‘80s, really, and not grunge, but no other song could’ve been more fitting), I thought of how awesome it would be to have a shoot inspired by this whole grunge feel.
As luck would have it, less than 24 hours later, Maria Velasquez would announce her engagement to Michael Franco via a Facebook photo album, comic strip-style (you should’ve seen it, it was something). I was jumping up and down my seat thinking, wow, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect! I’d known Maria since forever, from when she’d been my associate lifestyle editor at Eastern Visayas Mail some 8 years back, and I’d always admired they way she carried herself—not afraid to speak her mind, opinionated yet canny, brash yet good-humored, like a one-girl revolution. Her headstrong, devil-may-care, semi-rebel nature and no-fuss, somewhat tomboyish style harbored just the sense of cool that I wanted to tap into for the grunge theme I envisioned. We wasted no time exchanging e-mails. Quite the coup in my part: It didn’t take a whole lot of effort to convince her to go for the theme. I only had to leverage the blog post that she herself had put up almost a year back, in which she’d paid homage to her 10-year-old 1460 8-eye Doc Martens. Swear to God, my amazing recall of all manner of detail is my best weapon. OK, I’m lying: I also had to sweet-talk her by pointing out that her fiancé was sort of a dead ringer for Chris O’Donnell. But that was it. In less than a half-hour I got her to say yes. Which, if you come to think of it, made that day the day she said yes twice.
Over the next couple of days a few of adjustments had to be made, especially since I found out that Michael wasn’t a grunge guy. I mean, he liked grunge and all, but that wasn’t the only thing he was into. An avid guitarist, he was also into hard rock, heavy metal, alternative, punk—you name it. And so instead of setting a theme that was purely grunge, we had to go for something a little broader—Maria and I both decided to make it ‘90s. At first the thought of giving the initial mood board an overhaul seemed disconcerting, but over time I came to an understanding that it was for the best, especially when, as I was visualizing the styling in my head, I realized that it would be just plain wrong to subject Michael to heavy grunge gear à la Matt Dillon’s Cliff Poncier from Singles—the whole thing would come out too contrived and too costumey. That’s the thing about styling for real people: You have a vision, yes, and people are going to respect that, but at the same time you have to take into consideration what your subjects are like in real life, and so you might have to exercise some restraint, tone it down a bit, because what you really need to do is augment their abstract qualities, not try to disguise them. And so, after careful deliberation, this was what the final mood board looked like: stills from the 1993 music video of Aerosmith’s “Cryin’,” featuring Alicia Silverstone and Stephen Dorff; a photo of a young Kate Moss wearing a feather headdress by the British fashion and documentary photographer Corinne Day for the July 1990 issue of The Face (also known as “The 3rd Summer of Love” issue, and the editorial in question, styled by Melanie Ward, is what many fashion journalists consider to be the launching pad that propelled Ms. Moss into superstardom); the soundtracks to 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You and 1995’s Empire Records; that one still from Mad Love (Barrymore standing at the back of O’Donnell’s pickup truck as he drove); and the album cover of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness from 1995 for the palette (take note that by palette here I mean the color swatches to be used in the final layout, and not necessarily in the styling, because I like to think of the finished product ahead of time—in this case, it was coral red, eggplant, light olive, Navajo white variation # 9, and dark chestnut that I was able to extract from the Mellon Collie album cover). There was this one photo of Mischa Barton by Bruce Weber (styled by, well, Havana Laffitte, from the September 2006 issue of Teen Vogue), in which she was wearing an oversize flannel shirt and a floral-print thermal tee over a net-overlaid taffeta gown from Peter Som’s Fall 2006 Ready-to-Wear collection, that did not make it to the board because of, well, the gown element, but I kept it in my head, just in case. Also in the backlog: the motorcycle scenes from the video of Aerosmith’s “Amazing” from 1993.
Long-distance styling can be a massive pain in the backside because it takes out of the equation some of the more important steps—like doing house calls to inspect the client’s closet for pieces they might already have that can be useful, taking their measurements, overseeing the actual fittings, etc. —but Maria was so hands-on she made it a lot easier for me. I e-mailed her a 3-page list of clothing items and accessories, and she would send the file back to me all marked up with her comments (“Yes, I have this, but in a darker shade of blue” or “No, I do not have anything that looks like this, but please do look for one for me”). It helped that she had bristling Internet savvy, having been a blogger since time immemorial (i.e., before it had become a fad), ‘cause when there was an item or two she couldn’t picture she’d do some digging up in cyberspace to see what they looked like, and more often that not she’d come up with better images/samples than what I’d had in mind! We followed this very same modus operandi when it was time to finalize the props and the locations. Somehow I was able to find (and work with) someone who was more obsessive-compulsive than I was. It took us a good five or so days doing all this, but they were time well spent.
Next on the agenda was picking a date for the shoot. We had initially agreed on February 13, Sunday, but somehow that didn’t feel right—for one, I seemed to know it was, um, impolite to wear them out in the hours leading to their first Valentine’s eve as an engaged couple! And so we had to push it back to the following Sunday, which turned out to be the right move: February 20 was Kurt Cobain’s birthday, the 17th after his passing (he would’ve turned 44). You know the stars are all aligned and you’re in for something hella good when even your shooting date is in keeping with the theme!
On the day of the shoot I woke up at 5 AM. I’d arrived in Ormoc 1 PM of the previous day, and went straight to bed after 2 hours of oculars—I’d figured more than 12 hours of sleep should be enough to prep me for a 12-hour shoot (I do not have an assistant, so if it’s an on-location assignment that entails 4 or more sets I usually plot a 7-to-7 in my datebook). Michael and Maria were ready by 7:30 AM, complete with an entourage (3 people!) to help out with the props and the heavy equipment! There were a few setbacks, like the pickup truck not turning up (we’d asked to borrow my cousin Francis’s vintage-looking bad boy that looked like a ‘78–‘79 Ford F100 Custom XLT, but he was marooned in Manila)—good thing Maria had a Plan B, and she had her cousin’s jeep on standby (things like this I appreciate because I’m not very good with backup plans).
I was happy with the clothes, too. The five or so days we’d spent exchanging e-mails to plot their outfits turned out to be the best investment. I loved that Maria paid close attention to detail. When I’d told her to bring a pair of denim shorts, for example, she could’ve brought one that was close-fitting, but she’d known we were doing ‘90s so she’d made a conscious effort to bring one that was somewhat baggy. Some items weren’t perfect, but a little nip and tuck here and there did the trick—the floral minidress that we’d borrowed for my mom, for instance, wasn’t exactly babydoll and didn’t exactly have that ‘90s silhouette, but a few crude alterations to the hemline brought us closer to the vicinity of the Donna Martin look. That wasn’t the only alteration that had to be made on the fly—when I told her to cut the sleeves off her precious denim jacket to make it look more in sync with Axl Rose-inspired red bandana, she obliged. I hope I’m not blowing my horn too much if I say I think this was my best styling job ever. My only regret was forgetting to ask Michael to slip out of his surfer sandals and borrow my Bed Stu work boots for a while, but, oh, well, the whole thing didn’t turn out dastardly so I guess we’re fine.
Sheila On did a really great job with hair and makeup. This was my first time working with her, but she just blew me away with her awesomeness. We didn’t have to explain to her what we’d wanted—Maria only had to show her a photo of Alicia Silverstone circa the Areosmith years, and they got to work. Of course, it’s a look Sheila is all too familiar with: We were classmates in high school, so it’s safe to say we grew up with the same inspirations (I remember asking her almost everyday to sing Shanice’s “Saving Forever for You” from the Beverly Hills, 90210 soundtrack to me—another thing you should know about her is she got mad pipes!). She couldn’t be with us the whole time, though, since she’d just opened her studio and had clients literally banging on her door, but that was fine because her finished product required minimal to no retouching, even when Maria had to sweat like hell because of all the crazy stunts I was making her do. The only retouching that had to be done were those between sets, and thank God Sheila had chosen to set up camp smack in the middle of the city, only a good 10 minutes away from wherever we were shooting.
I must say, though, that my favorite part of this whole thing was how game my subjects were. This was my first solo project, and naturally I’d had apprehensions—like, “Am I sure about this? Can I do this?”—but Michael and Maria were so upbeat and flexible and playful and just plain wonderful to work with that all my worries had to hit the road. They also liked to overcompensate. I’d asked for an electric guitar, and Michael brought two. I’d asked for a small set of speakers and amps, and he brought everything he owned plus a couple more he’d borrowed from friends. I’d asked for an empty bottle of Jägermeister, they brought all sorts of liquor bottles in all shapes and sizes! (They even brought a dozen sandwiches for snacks, and said I was supposed to finish all of it!) Did I mention they were extra resourceful? When I decided the last minute that I wanted to do an “Amazing”-inspired motorbike set, they found a bike to borrow at the snap of their fingers. It helped that Michael was into photography, too—in between frames he would dispense quick suggestions and helpful tips. (I guess it’s worth mentioning now that one of his cameras he’d sold to contribute to the engagement ring fund—isn’t that sweet?) And Maria, so used to being a muse, was a natural in front of the camera—she had this preternatural way of finding the right facial expressions, and a sinuous grace that made her poses look like actual movements. I also saw how supportive they were of each other—I’d ask Maria to do something really tricky, and Michael would cheer, “You can do it!” Yes, I have the tendency to push my subjects around a bit. But it was the sets wherein I had absolutely nothing to do with the sittings—i.e., the stolens and the candids—that I enjoyed shooting the most. These two, when they think nobody’s watching—or taking a picture, for that matter—are quite the pair. Pure, unadulterated chemistry. I swear there were times I forgot they were yet to be married, ‘cause they looked like they’d been married from the moment they’d first met.
I couldn’t make it to their wedding because I was booked for another shoot, but I heard it was quite the spectacle. No, the theme wasn’t grunge, but one that was equally fierce: Mafia. I was just looking at the photos from their wedding reception, and it looked pretty wild, alright—think The Sopranos meets The Wedding Crashers. It’s refreshing that there are people who get to come up with things like this, because it makes the whole thing all the more memorable. Were they trying to cause a stir? Well, no. They simply wanted to prove to the world that rock ‘n’ roll dreams do come true.
Michael Vincent Franco and Maria Cecilia Velásquez | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Ormoc City on February 20, 2011 | Hair and makeup by Sheila On (to book Sheila, click here)
In my mood board (see below, clockwise from top left): Stills of Alicia Silverstone and Stephen Dorff from the music video for Aerosmith’s “Cryin’,” 1993; the soundtracks to 1995’s Empire Records and 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You; a photograph of Kate Moss by Corinne Day (styled by Melanie Ward) for The Face’s “The 3rd Summer of Love” issue, July 1990; still of Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell from Antonia Bird’s Mad Love, 1995; palette inspired by the drabber colors of the album cover of The Smashing Pumpkin’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995, composed of (L-R) coral red, eggplant, light olive, Navajo white variation # 9, and dark chestnut (take note that, because I added some grain to them, the swatches here might be different—darker, if you will—from the samples in your matching system).