A history of The SexBomb Girls, according to their founder and former manager

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Joy Cancio and her children Jara and John recall the history behind the group originally known as Chicken Sandwich Dancers. Illustration by JL JAVIER with photos courtesy of JOY CANCIO

This article is part of CNN Philippines Life’s ongoing spotlight on P-pop and its origins.

When former Vicor Dancer Joy Cancio decided to assemble a group of singers and dancers under her agency Focus Entertainment in 1997, her main goal was to support her family and provide livelihood for the talents she employed.

“For me lang, [the goal was to] have a job. At the same time, to have a good future for my kids. They are my inspiration and that's why I have to work hard,” says Cancio in a recent video call with CNN Philippines Life. “I never thought about becoming an international artist. Parang alam ko mahirap 'yun at hindi yata mangyayari.”

And in a move typical to Philippine showbiz (one familiar also to those who followed the AlDub love team phenomenon in latter years), it was the noontime variety show “Eat Bulaga” that changed everything. As the house choreographer for the show, Cancio was tasked to have a group of girls “na mas pleasing” appear in the background of the game segments. Host Joey de Leon dubbed them The SexBomb Girls, and the rest is history.

The SexBomb Girls at a "Daisy Siete" shoot in 2003. Photo courtesy of JOY CANCIO

Aside from selling out multiple concerts and garnering multiple PARI record sales certifications, we see the group’s success in their cultural impact on young Filipinos. There are Instagram accounts dedicated to bringing up photos from the group’s past, and it’s not uncommon to see posts about them (and their iconic chant “Get get aww!”) go viral on Twitter and Facebook.

The children that served as Cancio’s inspiration have been nothing but supportive of their mother’s efforts. Her eldest son John served as a producer of “Daisy Siete,” while her daughter Jara is still continuing the SexBomb legacy as creative director and manager of SB New Gen, a rebranded effort that started from SexBomb.

Contrary to popular belief, The SexBomb Girls never really disbanded. At the height of their fame, the group had 24 members divided into separate singing and dancing teams, but overall over 70 members have come and gone in the group’s history. Jara roughly compares their concept to the J-Pop franchise AKB48, where members graduate and new members are added over time. With SB New Gen, Jara hopes the girls break out into the P-Pop scene by making their own music and having a hand in the production process.

Below, the Cancio family tells the story behind the group’s phenomenal success. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This article is part of CNN Philippines Life’s ongoing spotlight on P-pop.

On the formation of The SexBomb Girls and the origin of their name

Joy Cancio: I started managing dancers [in] 1997. And then I was asked by "Eat Bulaga” — because I was working with them at that time as a house choreographer — to put girls na mas pleasing [in the show]. Kasi siyempre iba iba diba? May mga magaganda talaga pero pag sumayaw, hindi gumaganda. May mga hindi namang ganun kaganda pero iba yung awra.

At that time I think that was 1999, "Meron o Wala," I was developing select girls who had a good voice to form a singing/dancing group [called] Danz Focus. Habang ginagawa ko ‘yung training for singing, syempre priority dancing pa rin. I found a project from BMG [Records] to promote the music "Sexbomb" by Tom Jones. I requested a favor from the "Eat Bulaga" spinner to play "Sexbomb" during "Meron o Wala." That was the only way I thought of promoting the music because [that’s how we did it] nung time namin, '80s, nague-guest kami in different shows to promote music.

The SexBomb Girls on set for "Eat Bulaga." Photo courtesy of JOY CANCIO

I did the choreography [for the song]. So sumikat siya and then napalitan yung segment ng "Laban o Bawi" and at the time we started chanting already the "Bosing, bosing! Nanalo po kami!" kasi we also have this project under Red Bull for PBA. Kumbaga, we're doing these things para magkaroon ng work to earn. We're not thinking to be famous, diba?

And then one time my client called me, hiring the girls, and they were asking for SexBomb. [Before that] there was a time, Joey De Leon announced them as "Chicken Sandwich Dancers." [Then] when sumikat yung [Sexbomb] move, Joey De Leon told them "Oh, SexBomb c'mon!" tapos "Laban o Bawi" [segment] na. So naisip ko, mabuti siguro 'yan na lang yung pangalan nila kasi ‘yun ‘yung tawag ng tao sa kanila.

Cancio on the "Eat Bulaga" stage with some of the members demonstrating the dance for "Meron o Wala." Photo courtesy of JOY CANCIO

John Cancio: People were chanting. It's more of the masses call to transform the name from Chicken Sandwich Dancers, and the sheer passion of Ms. Joy of being a dancer herself [with the] Vicor Dancers before — they're the ones who popularized yung "Just Got Lucky" na dance — they wanted yung passion to keep pushing dancers to the next level. It opened that opportunity na different dancers became celebrities, which wasn't possible before. [Back then], if you were a dancer, you stopped at being a backup dancer.

Joy Cancio: Yung pinakamasakit doon, during my time, even if the Vicor Dancers were famous, we would wait so much. Especially pag taping. Lahat, inuuna artists. Ang dancers dulo. Dream come true na nangyari sa SexBomb na talagang, if I told the producer "We need to leave after 30 minutes," they will do it. Kasi they want The SexBomb Girls to perform in their shows.

The crowd at a SexBomb Girls show in a local mall. Photo courtesy of JOY CANCIO

On Cancio’s decision to retain the name SexBomb

Joy Cancio: There was a time pinagalitan ako ng GABRIELA (laughs).

John Cancio: It's a brand name known by the masses. Alam nila ang history kung bakit naging SexBomb, but then there are other people who think na hindi alam yung backstory na, "Ay. Bastos 'yan. SexBomb." Without even knowing the backstory first and how it came to be. It wasn't intended na "Ah, magbuo tayo ng grupo at ang pangalan niya, SexBomb." Hindi eh. Chicken Sandwich Dancers nga eh and Danz Focus dancers — it's the masses who chanted SexBomb. Actually it still resonates today that it will be important if human beings, Filipinos, to know the backstory before judging a particular person or kung ano man what they see. Kasi everyone has a story eh.

On the iconic “Get get Aww!” chant

Joy Cancio: I just thought of it…noong nag uumpisa pa lang kami sa “Meron o Wala” [segment sa] “Eat Bulaga” na naging “Laban o Bawi,” nakakuha ako ng project sa Red Bull for PBA. I kept saying “AWW!!!!” Kaya ginamit ko [‘yan] magchant sa “Meron o Wala” if we wanted to talk to the host, especially to Bosing Vic Sotto and Tito Joey.

On The SexBomb Girls recruitment process

Joy Cancio: I think that was 1999 when I started training them, tapos 2002 [kung kailan sila nag-debut]. Some members were there from the start when I started this talent agency, that was 1997, like Rochelle [Pangilinan]. Rochelle ang pinakamatagal eh.

May mga bago like Jopay [Paguia]. That was the time they made a dance showdown sa “Eat Bulaga,” parang search for SexBomb. So 'yan na, nanalo si Grace Nera, sila Mae Acosta. Nadagdagan and at the same time may walk-in, like Jopay. She came from Channel 2.

‘Yung recruitment process na interesting yung kay Aira [Bermudez]. Kasi I saw her [while I was judging] different dance competitions sa mga barangay. Aira was from Tondo, but she would compete in Parañaque. Sabi ko, "Grabe yung raket nito." Ang alam ko, pag ganoon, dapat ka-barangay ka. Pero siguro may friend siyang taga-Paranaque kasi magaling siya. Tsaka yung execution niya kakaiba talaga. Extreme ang dating. ‘Yung hinahagis. Hawak lang niya yung kawayan pero naka-lift siya doon. 'Yun yung hindi ko makalimutan kay Aira.

The SexBomb Singers were composed of members Rochelle Pangilinan, Evette Pabalan, Weng Ibarra, Izzy Trazona, Monique Icban, and Jopay Paguia. Photo courtesy of JOY CANCIO

With Che-che Tolentino and Rochelle Pangilinan naman, they didn’t used to have control of their bodies. They’d just move — parang papel. Pero kita mo, ang galing galing nila ngayon because of the training. Masipag ‘yan. Even Che-che, walang control noon but after that, siguro ilang years sa training, kasi we never stopped ang jazz class namin kahit they had "Daisy Siete" already, they [were busy with] lots of shows. They would have to do warm-up, training. Si Che-che lumaban ‘yan sa international for amateur ballroom. Nanalo siya. Champion siya. Kasi marami sa mga dancers, they just want a job to earn. Hindi nila maisip na through this training, pwede kang mapunta na doon pa sa inaakala mo. You could reach something. Like Che-che — hindi niya dream na makipag-compete siya sa ibang bansa pero because of her hard work and being always present in the training, ang dami niyang napag-aralan na genre ng sayaw.

So siguro one of the keys kung ba’t na-bless ‘yung SexBomb, na-bless ‘yung office ko because I'm helping the less fortunate young people to have a livelihood. Naging channel of blessing ako to the youth. ‘Yung mga hindi nakipag-aral, can't afford to go to school. Kaysa nga naman mag-adik adik. Nagkakaroon sila ng chance to develop their hidden talents.

On SexBomb as a phenomenon

Joy Cancio: Nagulat na lang ako one time we were sent by “Eat Bulaga” to different places for a segment. It's sponsored by San Miguel. Doon ko na-realize na, "Aba. Sikat na yung mga girls." Kasi may mga nagpapapirma, tapos tuloy nagiging parang hawi boys (they called it during '80s, ‘yung mga Randy Santiago na ikaw ang mahawi sa mga girls). And then 2002 before the album launched. ‘Yan, ‘yung Petron. Sabay sabay lahat 'yan. June, we launched the album ng "Bakit Papa" 2002. July, the Petron commercial launched. August, kasi I planned in 2002 I would do a semi-concert for the girls. Parang nag-sakto, kasi na-build up na in June na "Uy, they're real artists because they launched the album and after a week we were awarded a Gold [certification] by PARI. Tapos after ilang months, Platinum na.

There was a time when I was driving — dahil marami naman akong ginagawa — I was working with “Eat Bulaga,” Monday to Saturday 'yun. After "Eat Bulaga," ang singers went to Pampanga to promote the album tapos ang dancers went to Iloilo to promote their album. Tapos biglang I'm listening to the news at ang news ay ‘yung highway ng North was so traffic and the reason is the SexBomb singers are there. Oh my god, nag-traffic dahil dun sa launching ng album sa SM. I think it was in Angeles. That day also, I was called by my PA na hindi daw natuloy ‘yung promotion ng dancers sa Iloilo SM kasi nagtumbahan yung speakers because of so many people. Siyempre ang worry ko, mamaya baka maipit ‘yung mga girls or something. Ganoon ka-phenomenal na pala ‘yung mga girls.

On the group’s Platinum album, “Unang Putok”

Joy Cancio: That was the idea of the recording company, not mine. Kasi bomb is putok. And that was the first album, the first na pumutok. Saan ka nakakita one week gold, one month platinum diba? That's why they thought of that. Ako nga eh hindi ko naisip. ‘Yung nakakuwentuhan ko nga yung composer, si Lito Camo, na hindi niya alam na magiging hit ‘yung kanyang kinompose na "Bakit Papa." Sumikat siya actually as composer kay Willie [Revillame]. 

John Cancio: ‘Yung mga sinasabi nilang sexual innuendos na bastos, it wasn't really top of mind when ginagawa ‘yung sayaw, ‘yung album kasi wala eh. Hindi naman ganoon ‘yung nature ng agency ni Ms. Joy na to be honest about it. Kasi ‘yung Sexbomb, kasi nga bomba, timebomb, kinonect nila talaga doon. Kaso there will be other people na, siguro sila yung green minded. Well, they added to the controversy.

On “Daisy Siete”

Joy Cancio: Kaya nagplano kami, nagkaroon ng “Daisy Siete” at that time. Kasi I was planning to have them have a show. Kasi sikat na 'yan. Tsaka excited, kasi kinukuha na sila palagi sa mga shows kaso nangangarag. Sabi ni John, "Sige push mo ‘yan, mom. Yung mga [artista sa] “Meteor Garden,” hindi naman kilala ‘yung mga ‘yan [dito] pero sikat, sumikat. What more your girls." ‘Yung unang airing namin, tinapat kami sa “Meteor Garden” which is ang hirap kasi nasa middle na sila and may storya na naka-build up. Kaya nilagay kami after “Eat Bulaga.” Kasi ‘yung first, GMA knew that the girls were famous kaya go. Ang story naman is about teens, young girls. Same lang sa kanilang real life — livelihood, they want to earn, for their family, iba ibang dreams. And then nababago na siya nung tinapatan na kami ng iba't ibang pelikula. So we planned for a teleserye.

John Cancio: Super risk yun. Kasi phenomenon noon yung SexBomb so for GMA, parang 'uy, phenomenal kasi multi-platinum recording artist 'tas ang daming dinudumog ng tao. Tapos that timeslot din after Eat Bulaga is siesta, tulog ang tao, meaning patay ‘yung timeslot na yun. Bagsak nga ‘yung TV advertising rates nun, eh. Siguro dahil may nag approach, si Ms. Joy naman ang gagastos, sinangla niya lahat ng mga ari-arian niya to produce that. So it's a hit or miss. Kung hindi 'yun kumita wala. Back to zero. For GMA naman, wala namang mawawala. Patay naman yung oras na yun, 2:30 ng hapon. Noong 2003, tulog ‘yung mga tao [sa time na 'yon].

Joy Cancio: Ang pinakamataas rating ng siesta time, mataas na daw yung otso, dose, pero we have this 22 rating. Nabuhayan ‘yung siesta timeslot.

On how she came up with the iconic “Spageti” move

Joy Cancio: Kasi yun yung time, as a Vicor dancer we used foreign music. Mga sikat noon, mga [The] Pointer Sisters — talagang hindi siya novelty. When I received this "Bakit Papa," even me, natakot ako. Kasi sabi ko, "How could I do this?" It's really novelty but wala lang with the help of prayer at the same time from the lyrics, doon ko ginawa... kasi sa sayaw, may tawag kami na bago pa nauso 'yan "lyrical dance." So doon ko ininterpret yung move. ‘Yung [demonstrates] Bakit. Kasi usually ginagawa ng SexBomb, kumekembot. And kasi when I did “Spageti” I was told that was [what the] street children were dancing [demonstrates Spageti point move]. I wasn't aware of it so dinagdagan ko siya. So I did the step according to the lyrics. Kaya meron "Sumakit ang ulo ko, sumakit ang dibdib ko."

And nakilala ang SexBomb, eto diba yung (demonstrates). Unlike nowadays, like Jara, lahat na gutso kong pag-aralan na hindi ko napagaralan, binigay ko kay Jara. Ballet, jazz, hip-hop, gymnastics. Kasi yung mommy ko, linagay lang ako so Hawaiian kaya puro kembot. And late bloomer ako when I studied jazz under Powerdance with Douglas Nierras. I think I was 27 years old. Siyempre matigas na yung mga litid ko. I cannot do split that well, diba? Kaya hindi ako ganoon ka-flexible.

Of course I [researched] — if I could see from the videos of Britney Spears, Janet Jackson — that was the time I was starting doing this choreography na with "Eat Bulaga," doon. ‘Yung mga hindi masyadong nakikita, ‘yun ‘yung ginagamit ko and then nire-revise ko lang. I don't know the right term. Like ‘yun, ito pala yung ginawa ko sa SexBomb, sinayaw na ng UMD [Universal Motion Dancers]. ‘Yung "Always, I wanna be with you." During yung time na sumikat yun, we were in Japan. So wala pa naman mga YouTube noong araw eh. Pero nakita ko yang step na ’yan in the movement of Janet Jackson. ‘Yung "You Want this" and then I put like this lang (demonstrates). Hindi naman sumikat ‘yung step ni Janet, but sumikat doon sa SexBomb, parang ganoon. Kasi kung ano yung uso eh. ‘Yun ‘yung dinadagdag mo sa choreography kasi yun yung gusto ng mga tao tsaka yung nagagaya. Kasi noong sumikat ang StreetBoys, sumikat ang — of course UMD — very easy pa sila to copy. Pero yung StreetBoys, hindi ka naman basta basta makakatumbling diba kung hindi ka aral. Ang ginawa ko, binalik ko yung ganung moves na everybody could dance. And now nagagamit na siya sa Zumba, diba? Kasi natatandaan. And then sumikat naman itong TikTok, yung mga TikTok na ang bilis bilis kumilos. Dun ko binebase ‘yung choreography ko.

Jara Nakamura: I also feel like with SexBomb, the masses really appreciated it. Kasi in a place that's so conservative, so constrained, our culture is so constrained, dance is an expression which gives them the power to let go, let loose. Kaya whenever they see SexBomb dance, "Ay, sobrang confident. Ay, they do that na hindi sila nahihiya." It empowers them so it's not just dance as an art. It's something that reminds them of freedom, something that reminds them na, "Ah I can express myself like that too." So it's something deeper than just dancing itself, what SexBomb represents. It's freedom, it's confidence, it's making a choice that I can do whatever I want, and if you judge me, I do not care. It's living my life on my own terms. I feel like that's the power that Ms. Joy gave when she created SexBomb.

Joy Cancio: Especially when we do the [SexBomb Ultimate] Showdown. I told them "Just express yourself, what you want!" Sila kasi, more on lines. Talagang aral. Mga pasiklaban ng mga one leg up, split. Diyan nauso. And then biglang lumabas yung krumping, diba? Parang ganoon din 'yon. Express yourself, all out kung ano ‘yung gusto mong ipahiwatig.

On SB New Gen

Jara Nakamura: For me, it's the same as my mom. To also develop artists. Usually pag dancer, parang ang limited. For me, I want my dancers to grow kunwari as actresses. Right now, they write their own songs. The songs we've released as P-Pop, it's also written by them. At the same time, I don't want them to be cutesy na, whatever I say that's what they do. I let them express themselves. That's why until now, ‘yung fans namin hindi lang guys. A lot of women, a lot of children kasi they find it empowering how the girls are girls pero breadwinners sila ng family nila, or the girls are girls but they're not afraid to wear shorts and get judged. [It's like what] my mom did with the original SexBomb members. That's how I want SB New Gen to be. And thankfully naman people are seeing them as such.