While on holiday in Bucharest last summer, Rose Marie Velasquez was encouraged by her friends to try out for The Voice of Romania. The reality singing competition was holding auditions for its latest season, welcoming anyone from around the world to try out for the show. Velasquez, a 28-year-old overseas Filipino worker who performs in a music bar in Malaysia, decided to give it a try. "Why not?" she recalls in an interview with The National. "It would be such a blessing to be seen on an international stage."
During her audition that aired last September, Velasquez went on to impress all four celebrity judges, who fought over the chance to coach her as she advanced to the show’s next rounds. She was just one step closer to joining the show’s top 12 round but was eliminated during the November 25 episode.
In October, Janice Buco, a 28-year-old Filipino singer in Hanoi, was crowned the winner of Vietnam Idol after the talent quest opened its doors to non-Vietnamese contestants this year.
Around the same time, Christian Fermin passed his audition on the American edition of The Voice, joining the team of country superstar Blake Shelton.
Several weeks back, Dubai-based Filipino singer Ivy Grace Paredes made waves on The X Factor UK, where she was considered a front-runner until being disqualified for failing to secure a visa to the United States, where the next stage of the competition was being filmed.
Regardless, Paredes has made her mark on audiences and is now enjoying the attention from both local and foreign press. She even performed back-to-back shows in Abu Dhabi and Dubai last October.
Then there is the case of 4th Impact, the Filipino girl group comprised of sisters Almira, Celina, Irene and Mylene Cercado. Despite appearing on several talent shows on Philippine television, they remained unknown, failing to attract a fan base.
Last year, they raised money to travel to London — working as performers at a local cockfighting stadium in the northern province of Isabela — to audition for The X Factor UK. The sisters were a sensation on the show, boosted by the support of Simon Cowell, and finished fifth overall.
They are now based in England, where they are working on an album and continue to perform shows around the world, including a forthcoming concert at Dubai’s Al Nasr Leisureland on December 15.
So what is it with Filipinos and singing contests — particularly international tilts that they have been dominating in recent years?
Aside from Filipinos’s seemingly innate fondness to perform and entertain, Mark Reyes, who teaches popular culture in the University of the Philippines in Manila, thinks it has to do with these aspiring musicians finding the need to secure validation from a global platform — because they cannot get it from back home.
“In the Philippine entertainment industry, it often doesn’t matter how talented you are — it’s just so hard to break through if you’re not mestizo or mestiza [mixed race, typically of Spanish or American blood], tall and good-looking,” Reyes says. “So they go abroad, where they get more appreciation for their unique look and amazing voices.”
Rose Fostanes used to be heckled by audiences in singing contests back home, which she had been joining since she was four. “They would tell me, ‘Fatty, get down there — the stage might collapse,’” she recalls. The 49-year-old, who had been working as a caregiver in Egypt, Lebanon and Israel for two decades, won The X Factor Israel in 2014. Three months after her win, she was signed by Star Records, the Philippines’s biggest recording company.
After appearing on The X Factor UK, 4th Impact are now treated like international celebrities back in the Philippines; all it took was an appearance on a foreign stage.
“We knew we had to dream big and go all the way to London, because we wanted the whole world to know who we are,” says eldest sister Almira in an interview. “But best of all, we wanted our countrymen to be proud of us.”
Paredes, who previously joined the Philippine version of the Got Talent franchise, says she’s stunned with her newfound fame back home. “I chose to go to the UK because I knew that I would get a bigger audience — that my name will be out there. While I wasn’t able to continue in the competition, I’m still very thankful because I was given the biggest exposure, which was worldwide,” she says. “I have gained a lot of supporters, especially in the Philippines, and have inspired them to pursue their dreams.”
There are about 10 million Filipinos, or a tenth of the Philippine population, living and working abroad. A substantial number are employed as performers in bars, restaurants and cruise ships, leaving their families behind in search of a better life.
“Poverty is definitely a significant factor that encourages them to work abroad,” says Reyes.
Yet these aspiring singers trying their luck in foreign contests not only for the fame, but also for the larger monetary prizes and opportunities such as securing an international recording deal and touring around the world.
Velasquez, who was performing as a singer and dancer in the Philippines until leaving for Malaysia in 2014, says that at the end of the day, it’s not just about stardom: “Overseas Filipinos work hard to help their families — it’s really difficult, especially because we’re away from them.”
But Velasquez points out that what really motivates her is the chance to inspire her countrymen.
“Just these past days there have been many people sending me messages congratulating me, sending me videos of themselves crying while watching my audition. Of course I’m overjoyed — it feels so good to make them proud that a fellow Pinoy is succeeding abroad.”
• 4th Impact will perform at Al Nasr Leisureland in Oud Metha, Dubai on December 15. Gates open at 6pm; the show starts at 7pm. Tickets, priced Dh100-200, are available at www.dubai.platinumlist.net