The future is trans: KaladKaren carves her place as an actress

KaladKaren is proving her mettle as a trans woman actor — a dream that has recently taken a huge leap following her historic win at this year’s Summer Metro Manila Film Festival.

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On the evening of April 11, KaladKaren and Maris Racal thought that winning the Best Supporting Actress Award at the Metro Manila Film Festival’s Gabi ng Parangal would be unlikely, especially for the former as a transgender actress. Held at the New Frontier Theater, the awards night marked the festival’s inaugural summer edition. KaladKaren and Racal were both nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for their work in Chris Martinez’s “Here Comes the Groom.” Moments before their category was up, they were called backstage to present another major acting prize, the Best Actor Award. “Baka hindi naman [kami] ‘yung mananalo kasi dapat ‘di ba nakaupo ka sa table kung ikaw ‘yung mananalo,” KaladKaren told me over a voice note on Instagram.

But when Tirso Cruz III was about to announce the Best Supporting Actress winner, the two held hands, as though having their Miss Universe moment behind the camera. KaladKaren told Racal, “You deserve this award. Ikaw na ‘to.” But Racal deflected the praise, telling her co-star, “No, Ate. This is your moment.”

Soon, the applause poured in. Thirty-year-old KaladKaren was named Best Supporting Actress — the first transgender woman to win the award in the festival’s history and in the Philippines. It was also her first acting nomination, and first departure from the typical reporter-TV host characters she had played in the past. Onstage, she had gotten emotional. She was wearing an apple green top and fuchsia skirt from Rodel Briñas, hair slightly up, adorned with some flowers she got from the bathroom of her own house.

“Etong parangal na ito ay hindi lamang po recognition ng aking trabaho, kundi pati na rin po ng aking pagkatao,” said KaladKaren in her acceptance speech. “When I entered show business, I never thought na makakakuha po ako ng award kasi, as a transgender woman, I thought I will never be enough.”

KaladKaren wears a blazer by Comme Des Garçons Shirt and an enamel clip-on earring (worn as brooch) by Ken Samudio for The Fore. Photo by JL JAVIER

In “Here Comes the Groom,” a sequel to Martinez’s 2010 box-office hit “Here Comes the Bride,” KaladKaren plays the role of Wilhelmina, a trans woman beauconera who finds herself in the body of Rodrigo Junior (played by Enchong Dee) after an accident amid a solar eclipse. Uprooting the premise of its predecessor, the film’s soul-swapping incident extends to both characters’ loved ones — to Wilhelmina’s family of liberated drag queens and to Rodrigo Junior’s family of conservative Catholics. Buoyed by Martinez’s maximalist and farcical storytelling, the film interrogates the intersections of religion, gender, economic security, age, and body autonomy.

“When Direk Chris asked me about [the role], sabi niya, ‘Hindi lang kita kailangan bilang isang artista, kailangan ko ang buong pagkatao mo,’” KaladKaren told me in a separate interview for CNN Philippines Life. She admitted that she was initially hesitant to play the part. “Kasi nga magiging lalaki, eh never naman ako naging lalaki sa life ko, so iniisip ko kung paano ko gagawin. I was scared na baka hindi ko mabigyan ng justice ‘yung character.”

There was even a scene, as she recalled, where she couldn’t find the right vocal placement as she tried to scream like a man. So she gives Dee, who provided her tips on how to navigate the character, a lot of credit for elevating her work in the film. In an interview, Dee admired KaladKaren’s generosity. “Kasi po bawat eksena, kahit po tulog na siya, gigisingin po siya ng production para tanungin lang, paano niya ito ide-deliver?” he said.

During the CNN Philippines Life shoot, KaladKaren was warm and far from intimidating. I was interviewing her while her team was doing her hair and makeup. In between questions, she would banter with them to jazz up the mood. “Ang hirap naman ng tanong,” she would admit at one point, but would still come up with meaningful insight. She could talk at length, but never wasted words. At times, she could get animated if bent on nailing a point.

In 2017, KaladKaren rose to prominence, after her viral impersonation of broadcast journalist Karen Davila in “The Correspondents,” ABS-CBN’s now defunct weekly investigative documentary show. At the time, KaladKaren and her team were shooting their show in Tanay, Rizal. While crossing the Cuyab River, the show’s director Miguel Tanchanco toyed with the idea of making a parody video. It was a single take, and KaladKaren spontaneously came up with the spiels. Little did she know that the silly incident would become the springboard for more opportunities to come to her.

She went on to rack up endorsements, stints in TV shows like “Drag Race Philippines” and “I Can See Your Voice,” and small roles in films, such as Raynier Brizuela’s “Asuang” (2018) and Jay Abello’s “The Girl in the Orange Dress” (2018), until she landed her breakthrough role in “Here Comes the Groom.”

Photo by JL JAVIER

Her historic win at the MMFF is, no doubt, a highlight of her career’s upward trajectory, but this is only the beginning of her efforts in actively carving out space for trans actors and performers like her, especially as the feat comes at a time when the SOGIE Equality Bill continues to hit roadblocks in Congress, when hate crimes targeting the LGBTQIA+ community have been heightened and relentless, when anti-trans and anti-drag legislations are being persistently pushed by far-right groups, and when mainstream media helps facilitate anti-trans narratives.

This victory is also KaladKaren’s way of proving that she’s here to stay, refusing to cave in to the idea that her first acting award should be attributed to sheer luck, especially in an industry that continues to overlook, if not erase, transgender people like her. As she puts it, “there’s always a place for the one that’s good, regardless of who you are, regardless of your SOGIE.”

First foray into the viral persona

KaladKaren — known to her relatives and close friends as Jervi Li — was born in August 1992 in Manila, and raised in La Loma, Quezon City. Her parents Jerry and Vivian used to be overseas Filipino workers. Now, KaladKaren and her elder sister Tam, a nurse in Ireland, are supporting the family. Their younger brother Gerard, whom they’ve been sending to school since elementary, is also taking up nursing.

Before becoming the family’s breadwinner, KaladKaren completed her bachelor’s degree in broadcast communication at the University of the Philippines Diliman, with flying colors. UP was also where the Karen Davila character was born. Even then, her professors would often point out that she’s got the voice of the broadcast journalist.

While taking theater classes as her electives, she honed the persona as a member of the UP SAMASKOM, short for “UP Samahan ng mga Mag-aaral sa Komunikasyon,” an organization that holds the annual Live AIDS, or “Live Ang Istoryang Dinebelop ng SAMASKOM,” the longest-running comedy variety show in the university. “During that time, ang pinakamahalagang naibigay sa akin ng UP SAMASKOM was, aside from the family that I chose for myself, mentorship. Tinuruan nila kami kung paano mag-perform sa stage, paano magsulat ng materials, kung paano i-enhance ‘yung creativity mo.”

For the show’s 31st installment, which was a parody of the 2016 Philippine elections, KaladKaren was approached by her friend and director VJ Santos to portray the news anchor onstage. “Dun ko na-realize na baka nga pwede kong i-impersonate si madam. Tapos pinanood ko ‘yung mga videos niya, inflections niya when she delivers the news, when she talks,” she said. “I cannot imagine my life without UP SAMASKOM.”

Becoming an award-winning actress

After getting her shot at fame, KaladKaren made her debut on the big screen playing a reporter in Joyce Bernal’s “Gandarrapiddo: The Revenger Squad,” one of Vice Ganda’s top grossing films. She also credited Vice for forging opportunities for many queer talents in the industry. “Kasi kung hindi dahil sa kanya, hindi magiging bida ang mga bakla,” she said without any hint of hesitation. “Siya naman ang nagpasimula na ang mga bakla pwedeng maging box office superstar, ang mga bakla pwedeng maging bida sa kanilang pelikula, ang mga bakla pwedeng umarte nang seryoso. If not because of her, hindi makikita ng tao na posible ‘yun, na hindi lang tayo sidekick, hindi lang tayo punchlines or comic relief sa mga pelikula.”

KaladKaren wears the Trapeze top by N.P.C. and trousers by Dior Homme. Photo by JL JAVIER

Her enduring love for cinema began with late-afternoon Filipino movies shown by ABS-CBN in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly those that starred Philippine cinema giants Nora Aunor, Vilma Santos, Sharon Cuneta, and Maricel Soriano. She also became obsessed with Thalía Sodi, who starred in Mexican telenovelas such as “María Mercedes,” “Marimar,” and “María la del barrio,” shows that became a global television phenomenon at the time and would later have its own Philippine adaptations.

Adjacent to her role in “Gandarrapiddo: The Revenger Squad,” KaladKaren had to maintain the Karen Davila persona early into her career. “Kailangan ang branding mo strong, kasi nakilala ako as the impersonator of Ms. Karen, so kailangan panindigan ko ‘yung buhok na ganun, na same kami for five years kasi ‘pag nakita ka ng tao, dapat automatic nilang nakikita si KaladKaren.”

However, KaladKaren already had a hunch that she must branch out of that image, little by little, to prove her mettle as an actress, a gamble that came to fruition following her success at this year’s MMFF. “Kasi nga alam ko na na kapag hindi ko ginawa ‘yun, step by step, makakahon ako sa Karen Davila character. And I don’t want that to happen to me, because it happened to so many impersonators in the industry na hindi na sila nakawala doon sa character [nila].”

The actress also doesn’t mind being typecast because the possibilities, according to her, are endless. “Bakit wala bang kontrabida na trans? Wala bang superhero na trans, meron nga si Zsazsa Zaturnnah ‘di ba? Wala bang sirena na trans?”

“I can always be that transgender woman character,” she said. In fact, she hopes to play either a superhero or supervillain trans character, if the opportunity arises. She’s also keen on telling real-life trans stories of the likes of Jennifer Laude, whose convicted murderer Joseph Scott Pemberton was pardoned by former President Rodrigo Duterte in September 2020, and the Paper Dolls, the pioneer of the local drag culture and once dubbed as “Manila’s sizzling versatile show-stoppers.”

Asked about holding and creating more spaces for trans narratives, KaladKaren said the industry cannot sideline that trans and queer lives are part of the world. “It’s really all about inclusivity, equity, and equality na lahat ng istorya ay valid. All forms of narratives are valid, all forms of love are valid. So parang imposible namang walang transgender story.”

However, even if queer stories populate cinema or television, urging filmmakers and cultural workers to cast queer actors in queer roles, particularly transgender roles, is still a whole other conversation — a reality that the likes of KaladKaren contend with. “Hindi naman pwedeng trans na nga ‘yung character, tapos cisgender woman ang papalabasin mong trans, eh meron namang trans person na pwedeng gumawa nung ganung klaseng character, bakit hindi mo ibigay sa kanila?”

She also refuted the worn-out tropes that trans and, by extension, queer stories are always battered with misery. “That’s why I am proud and I always post about our story ni Luke [Wrightson], kasi I want people to realize na hindi [palaging] malungkot ang buhay ng mga trans,” she said, referring to her 11-year relationship with her fiancé. “Meron ding mga beautiful love stories na kailangan nilang malaman and to normalize it lalo na’t very heteronormative ang mga Pinoy ‘di ba. Na parang hindi lang ‘yan ang istorya, may istorya rin kami. We deserve to be seen. We deserve to be heard. We deserve our stories to be told.”

KaladKaren wears an oversized button-up by Vetements. Photo by JL JAVIER

KaladKaren shared a similar sentiment about the current makeup of the news industry, precisely because of her gnawing awareness that being a news anchor may never happen for transgender people like her. “Noong bata kasi ako, dahil nga bakla ako, iniisip ko, ‘Naku, wala namang baklang newscaster, hindi mangyayari sa akin ‘yan.’ Because we give so much importance to news figures ng ating bansa. Kailangan matigas ka, kailangan palaban ka, kailangan may integrity ka. Pero kung may openly gay newscaster, I think magiging iba ‘yung perception ng tao.”

So it was a huge thing when she got invited to guest as a Star Patroller on TV Patrol last April 17. “Kasi lumaki nga ako na [nagtatanong kung] meron bang transgender on TV, ‘di ba parang bibihira o wala. May transgender ba sa [local] news? Of course, absolutely not.” And in that moment, naisip ko na pagbukas ng pintuan, sana may iba rin na mga katulad ko na matupad ‘yung pangarap nila. Kailangan lang naman talaga ng isang tao na magsisimula, someone who will blaze the trail,” she said.

It was only in recent years that the media industry began to offer space for transgender news anchors, including Bangladesh’s Tashnuva Anan Shishir, Bolivia’s Leonie Dorado, Pakistan’s Marvia Malik, and India’s Padmini Prakash — cases that remain an outlier than a norm.

Taking up space

KaladKaren’s earnestness to represent trans stories in the media landscape is, of course, not just informed by her commitment to be taken seriously as an actress. More than anything, it is rooted in her lived experience. In 2018, at her career’s infancy, she recounted how she was denied entry to a bar because of her SOGIE. Her immediate impulse at the time was to speak about it. She knew she had to do it, otherwise this discrimination would not only go unchallenged but, worse, further perpetuate animosity towards queer people. “Kailangan mag-resist, and if there’s resistance, there’s power.”

“Sana maprotektahan tayo ng ating gobyerno,” she said, “sana maprotektahan tayo ng batas, sana bigyan tayo ng equal rights, because like we always say, when we give equal rights to the disenfranchised, nothing is taken away from you. It’s not a pie.”

To this day, the LGBTQIA+ community continues to endure relentless attacks and whitewashing, and in a network that is so used to neglect and impunity, it’s so easy to become desensitized to violence, to turn our backs on acts of injustice. But it has been said many times over that queerness is a movement, that transness is a protracted struggle, which is to say that taking up space has always been embedded in our existence, that to fight and stake our rights is the only way forward. Because every attempt at erasure is fuel for reclamation.

KaladKaren wears the Trapeze top by N.P.C. and trousers by Dior Homme. Photo by JL JAVIER

At the rate of things, living in a post-gender world still seems so far-fetched, yet we carry on, and just like the rest of us in the community, KaladKaren hopes for the same. “Sana one day, hindi ka na dine-define ng gender mo. Sana one day, pare-parehas na lang tayong tao at hindi na tayo ide-discriminate just because of who we are.”

The trans struggle, lest we forget, goes beyond issues of misgendering, deadnaming, and being denied access to a lavatory, precisely because these are symptomatic of larger material and cultural inequities that demand concrete responses: the lack of proper healthcare for trans people, educational crisis, heteronormative practices and policies in the workplace, state-sponsored killings, and the lack of a national legislation safeguarding trans lives.

In a sense, the story of KaladKaren, small as it may seem in the world’s colossal act of forgetting, is proof that transgender people — this writer included — are not going anywhere. And no matter how hard you try to eradicate us, we will always be part of the future. To imagine a life without trans people is to deny a meaningful life.

Photos by JL JAVIER
Styling by NEAL CORPUS