We go way back, this girl and I. She was only 13 or 14 when Elite Model Look-Philippines 1996 winner Charity Lagahid and I met her at a coffee shop one Saturday afternoon a little over a decade ago, a peppy high school athlete who, up to that point, had wanted nothing else but to follow in her parents’ footsteps (both of them lived and breathed sports—her father a basketball player, at one point for the MBA and at another for the PBA, and her mom a volleyball player). A few days later I would chaperone her to her very first casting (for a Levi’s fashion show), and that was when I introduced her to Valeriano “Chicoy” Tomol III, founder of the indefatigable institution Models’ Association of Cebu (MAC). Chicoy would take her under his wing, and the rest, as they say, was history. Under Chicoy’s skillful tutelage she would graduate from ingénue to spitfire supermodel faster than one could go through, say, high school, bag the Ford Models Supermodel of the World-Philippines title in 2001, make it to the top 10 at internationals in Miami later that same year, and then take the Asian fashion worlds by storm. Marjay Ramirez was unstoppable.
So unstoppable, in fact, that I would lose touch with her for quite a while—once she got it rolling, that was it, she was all over the place, and it became fiendishly difficult to pin her down! Funny thing, really, ‘cause I’d known her literally since the beginning, but I never got the chance to work with her, not once. Well, not until now.
She was home for an extended vacation early this year (she is now based in Calgary, AB, where she works for a telecommunications company and part-times as, well, a model, represented by I Model Management), and we would bump into each other while carousing in the streets on Sinulog day. I must’ve hugged her about fifty times that day. She asked what I was up to these days, and I told her I was sort of into photography now—but I must’ve been really wasted ‘cause I forgot to ask her what I’d been meaning to ask her for a long time, which was for a chance to get to work with her! Luckily, about a month later, she would chance upon my very first solo work (the grunge/’90s-themed engagement shoot I did for an Ormoc-based couple), and then she hit me up asking if I wanted her to sit for me. Of course, I did! Now more than ever, I said, that I was only starting out and could use all the help I could get to build a portfolio, not to mention I was leveraging the long-lost art of grunge as launch pad—and you couldn’t get any grungier than this girl, right, what with her air of insouciance and her current penchant for tastefully tattered shirts in Alexander Wang-like silhouettes (i.e., oversize, with asymmetrical hems), tomboy denims and work boots. My head was racing with ideas on where to shoot, what the styling would be like, etc. Time wasn’t on our side, though, and we would soon run into scheduling conflicts—I was only available to shoot on Sundays, but with only two Sundays left before she was to board the plane that was to take her back to Canada, she said she’d rather spend them on the beach with her family. I had to give it to her—I knew how important quality time with her mom was for her.
My lucky stars would shine on me once again, though, when, a few days later, I got a call from Mark Tenchavez, head designer of the local fashion accessories house Shandar, telling me about the shoe line he was about to launch under the same Shandar brand, and commissioning me to do the photos for the premier collection catalog. I was stoked—not only was this my first commercial job as a photographer, I was also going to be working with an A-team that included my stylist friend Meyen Baguio and, well, Marjay! The concept was rather simple: the shoes were to be donned by four of Mark’s muses of the moment, and that included Marjay (it would turn out she was going to be the only legit model in the roster, as the rest would be “real women”). True to form, she had given an availability of a Monday. This time I had to say yes—I figured, if this was my only chance to work with her, I had to compromise, and, boy, am I glad I did!
On the day of the shoot Marjay arrived in her ultracool uniform of the moment—oversize ripped tank top, harem-style sweatpants—and I kept thinking, you know, that this was the Marjay I wanted to shoot so bad. But Mark’s shoes were glam—bejeweled patent leather strappies in fire engine red, snakeskin stilettos, etc.—and so there was no way it could’ve worked. So much for the grunge concept that had been dancing around in my head for days! But that was alright. The beauty of it all was that you knew that whatever Marjay slipped into, and whatever theme or concept you threw at her, you were still going to end up with a perfect picture no matter what. Mark couldn’t have put it more dead-on when he said that she was the “ultimate chameleon…an amalgamation of everything her jetset life throws her way.” Her profile pictures in Facebook is testimony to this: one moment she’s thrift-store garage rock (à la everyday Kate Moss) in Romania, the next she’s laid-back tomboy in the streets of Kathmandu, the next she’s geeky/sleuthy cool in Berlin, the next she’s biker chic in the Canadian Rockies. And then there’s that photo of her sashaying in a cobalt blue décolletage cutout bodycon dress from a Vania Romoff lookbook, taken by her good friend Vito Selma, that just proves that she can take glam to the next level, too! And so, you see, I had absolutely nothing to worry about! When Meyen ushered in the rack of cocktail pieces from Ronald Enrico’s Holiday ‘10/’11 collection, that’s when I knew I was in for a real treat.
I don’t think I’d ever enjoyed shooting someone like I did that day. I was reminded of how far more special it was to work with a bona fide model (and take note I’m using this term to differentiate them from the, um, B-list models, for lack of a better term, not as opposed to real people, because real people are a different story altogether). Not only was Marjay a champ at utilizing a bit of method acting on set, she also demonstrated unmistakable cooperation. She had a hand in every aspect of the shoot. She talked to the makeup artist about what shades/blending techniques worked best on her face, oiled her own legs, helped in picking/rearranging the sets and in looking for good lighting, folded and pinned extra fabric herself so the clothes would fit perfectly. Even talked to me about some of the best photographers she’d worked with, and dispensed some really helpful tips! In other words, no sitting around and merely waiting for instructions, and no diva-like behavior. She considered herself a part of the creative process, a part of the team, so she worked to contribute whatever she could, and in doing so made the job easier for everyone else, and reduced the shooting time by 40-50%! What I’d expected to run for six or so hours only took three!
She would leave for Calgary five days after the shoot. I don’t know when she’ll be back for a visit, but one thing is for sure: I’m already gearing up for an action-packed shoot (or, a series of them) for when she does! Finally I’ve caught on what a lot of people have been buzzing about for years: There’s just no getting enough of this girl!
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People have been asking me how we came up with the concept for the catalog cover—guy in bathtub filled with rose petals, shoe cradled between shoulder and chin like a violin, or like a vampire. I am tempted to say, oh, you know what, it just hit us like lightning right then and there, but the truth is that it took an awful lot of hard work and logistics—and a little dose of wicked inspiration. Mark and Meyen had wanted something striking and unpredictable—sensual, if you will, but without being overly so. I had to choose between five or so shoes to feature in the cover shot, and easily my favorite was that one pair Mark had named after Marjay—the Ramirez, which were taupe grey/Payne’s grey python skin-pattern leather peep-toe slingbacks with gunmetal glitter-encrusted heels. How to anchor snakeskin in a sensual context? My first impulse was to slap John Collier’s painting Lilith against the mood board—naked woman, hair down, serpent coiled around her body—but then I realized that would be going to far. Then I read about Lilith being the first rumored vampire, and that’s when it hit me. In no time I was watching Queen of the Damned from 2002, replaying my favorite scene—Akasha (played by Aaliyah) and Lestat (Stuart Townsend) making love in a tub filled with rose petals, with Deftone’s “Change (In the House of Flies)” playing in the background—over and over again. For years I’d been itching to recreate that scene, and finally here was a chance to do it! Poor Mark had to go to the night market to obtain dozens upon dozens of roses, and it took everyone a good thirty minutes to fill the tub with their petals. Of course, I didn’t ask for plastic vampire fangs; we were thinking more on the lines of the shoe as the vampire temptress. We almost witnessed an actual bite, though, when a little creepy-crawly that came with the petals surfaced for some air—good thing the model was quick to whisk it away. Marjay had to endure some 20 minutes of sitting at the edge of the tub, in the most awkward of positions, extending her legs to a point they threatened to cramp, all while trying hard not to slip. But I can’t say all our hard work didn’t pay off. I don’t normally blow my own horn because I’m terribly self-deprecating and you know it, but the pictures came out beautiful (even the unedited ones). I have never been prouder of me.
Marjay Ramirez for Shandar | Photographed by Angelo Kangleon in Cebu City on March 28, 2011 | Styled by Meyen Baguio | Hair and makeup by Hans Ferrer (to book Hans, click here) | Special thanks to Nestor Castillano | Black unishoulder bodycon cocktail dress and white Swarovski-encrusted bodycon cocktail dress, Ronald Enrico