Coming of age with BINI

BINI plans to cement their status as our Nation’s Girl Group through their upcoming sophomore release, out this September 29th.

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For months, it’s been impossible to go through my TikTok For You page without hearing “Na Na Na”: the sweet B-side of BINI’s “Born to Win” album.

It’s hard to believe that this ubiquity isn’t the result of their management’s concerted promotional efforts or campaign strategies, but of a simple challenge started by a fan who goes by the mononym Chonk. What was initially an organic way to promote his favorite P-pop act while also passing time off-duty has since catapulted the eight-member girl group into the mainstream.

One only needs a working pair of ears as well as a baseline understanding of the industry to see (or hear) why it’s a certified hit: aside from the infectious melody and relatable lyrics, it also comes with a set of easily replicable dance steps. You just put your fingers to your temples and bob your head to the beat, strike a pose, and turn around. Some people even started using the song to reveal the names of their objects of affection in emoji form, allowing “Na Na Na” to double as an avenue for confession.

On Maloi: Top from MA. COLLECTA, pants from PALENGKE. On Gwen: Barong and dress from MA. COLLECTA. On Jhoanna: Top and pants from PALENGKE. On Stacey: Kimona from TAGPI. On Aiah: Dress from TAGPI. On Colet: Top from JASPAL. On Mikha: Barong top from RANDOLF. On Sheena: Top from MUNI MUNI and pants from TAGPI. Photo by JL JAVIER

Until recently, only an adventurous few outside of BINI’s loyal fans — which they endearingly call BLOOMs — were willing to give their songs a try. The group officially debuted in June 2021 but was in the works long before then as a product of ABS-CBN’s global Star Hunt auditions. In the first episode of their reality documentary series, Star Magic Head Laurenti Dyogi shared that he wanted to create globally competent, local idol groups that could break the cycle of biriteras and bands that has pervaded our music landscape.

From 15,000 auditionees, 50 were put into a rigorous training bootcamp, where only eight made it to the other side and in the final line-up, namely: Jhoanna, Aiah, Colet, Maloi, Gwen, Stacey, Mikha, and Sheena. In preparation for their debut, Star Music enlisted the help of the Maestro Ryan Cayabyab in modernizing his hit novelty song “Da Coconut Nut,” a genre-bending attempt to put Filipino culture front and center.

On Aiah: Kimona and pants from TAGPI. On Jhoanna: Dress from MA. COLLECTA, sandals from MUNI MUNI.On Sheena: Jewelry from SOUVENIR, top from MA. COLLECTA, pants from TAGPI, sandals from PALENGKE.On Gwen: Jewelry from Souvenir, top from MA. COLLECTA, pants and sandals from PALENGKE. Photo by JL JAVIER

Despite putting their best foot forward, widespread acceptance wasn’t immediately in the cards for the girls. Audiences undeniably demand too much from our artists: if BINI were to follow a formula, they would be “baduy,” but if they were to adapt, they would be trying too hard. Since the release of “Na Na Na,” they’ve noticed the more favorable response from the general public and increase in opportunities: the most recent of which include winning P-pop Group of the Year at the TikTok Awards Philippines 2022 and performing after Red Velvet at last month’s Be You concert for a cause (where they also met the superstar K-pop group).

BINI plans to leverage on this success and further cement their status as our Nation’s Girl Group through their upcoming sophomore release, out this September 29th. Their first single, "I Feel Good" (out Sept. 22), is a distant cousin of “Na Na Na” and “Lagi”: perfect for the young and in love and poised to be another fan favorite. But while they’re smart enough to stick to what’s working, they refuse to shed light on only one side of who they are.

On Colet: Terno barong from RANDOLF. On Mikha: Choker from MUNI MUNI, top from MA. COLLECTA, pants from TAGPI. On Maloi: Top from MUNI MUNI, pants from PALENGKE. On Stacey: Earrings from SOUVENIR, barong from RANDOLF. Photo by JL JAVIER

Like in their debut album “Born to Win,” the girls are keen on showing the classy and sassy side of the modern binibini. All eight of them mention that they’re excited to take a crack at more vocal-heavy, dance-focused, and even teleserye soundtrack-ready material. It’s something their loyal BLOOMs have been anticipating — and finally, their long wait will bear sweet fruit.

This exploration and evolution is emblematic of where the members of BINI are in their own lives. With an average age of 19, the girls find themselves in the sweet spot of adolescence, where they’re free to define who they want to be and witness what they’re bound to become. For those of us already old enough to know, the coming-of-age process isn’t as easy as the movies make it out to be. But thankfully for them, their experiences are enriched by lifting up and learning from one another.

We spoke to the group to discuss how the personal and professional aspects of their identities have meshed over the years to make up the modern Filipinas they are today.

On Jhoanna: Dress from MA. COLLECTA. Photo by JL JAVIER

Jhoanna, Leader/lead vocal/lead rapper

At the heart of every group is a leader who holds everyone together and keeps the balance. 18-year-old Jhoanna Robles slips into the role effortlessly despite being the second youngest: while on shoot, she’s constantly in conversation with their road manager or checking if everyone has eaten. The girls also approach her to run through steps for a brand partnership they have to film.

“Ganyan po kasi ako lumaki: nung nasa school pa po ako, two years older sa akin ‘yung karamihan sa kaklase ko kasi nagskip ako ng isang grade,” she said. “Puro matatanda na kasama ko kaya na-influence siguro ako na mag-isip na pang-two years older and pang-two steps ahead.” Upon joining BINI, her knack for organization and her uncanny ability to stay on top of their ever-growing list of commitments immediately stood out; shortly after the group was formed, she was appointed the leader.

The daily responsibility of reining in seven other diverse personalities is as easy as it sounds but Jhoanna claims it was harder when they were just starting out. “Noong trainees pa kami, hindi talaga namin gets ‘yung ugali ng isa’t isa at walang willing magadjust sa paniniwala ng iba.” She even remembers that for a period of time, the group was divided into two separate factions based on who had similar attitudes.

In hindsight, Jhoanna laughs it off like it’s just some silly high school fight. But the lifelong bond they enjoy today was, in no small part, because of her efforts. Hailing from Laguna, “ang middle ground ng lahat ng provinces kung saan kami nanggaling,” Jhoanna sees herself as the stabilizing force that grounds them. “Naiintindihan ko kung saan sila nanggagaling lahat at parang naging ready ako na magadjust sa kailangan ng iba.”

Jhoanna finds that this approach as a leader has allowed her to come into her own as a young woman. “Para sa akin, ang modern Filipina ay empowered at informed. Kung dati takot ako na mag-voice ng opinion, mag-call out kapag may mali kasi feel ko masyado akong bata, natutunan ko ngayon bilang leader ng BINI na what I have to say matters. Meron akong masasabi, at most importantly, merong makikinig.”

On Aiah: Kimona and pants from TAGPI. Photo by JL JAVIER

Aiah, Visual/Main rapper

Being a celebrity is often an all-or-nothing game: you either have the talent or you don’t. Aiah Arceta admits she never had the conventional background in singing or dancing: the 5’6”-tall 21-year-old was a mainstay in the teen pageant circuit and was once in the running to play the role of Darna. When she got her National Career Assessment Examination results three years ago, she also thought of going behind the camera as either a director or member of the production team.

But today, she balances vocals, rap, and visuals as the eldest member of BINI: an accomplishment that she attributes to her strong will and thirst for knowledge all throughout her training period. “Growing up in Cebu, parang lahat ng tao dun palaban. Lagi naming kailangang patunayan na hindi kami taga-probinsya lang, like how other people see us,” she said. As a result, in her younger years, she was always eager to put herself in new situations and “fit in or complement” even random groups of people.

It’s this maturity and wisdom she hopes she’s able to impart to her newfound sisters. “All my life, it was just me and my older brother: I never had to step up to the responsibility of looking after or being a role model to anyone,” she said. “But I’m excited to help [the girls] through things that I might have already tried or experienced, or am more knowledgeable about.”

Aiah also hopes to set a good example as the only BINI member who’s back in school. She is one of the five Star Magic artists endowed with an Enderun scholarship and is currently in her freshman year of a Multimedia Arts degree: one of her dream courses ever since. “I actually just came from my first face-to-face class this morning,” she said excitedly. “Ngayon lang kasi nagka-time because of our busy schedules pero sobrang saya ko na naisingit siya today.” In fact, she was spotted reading modules and answering activities while getting her hair and make-up done.

On Colet: Terno barong from RANDOLF. Photo by JL JAVIER

Colet, Main vocal/lead dancer/lead rapper

Colet Vergara didn’t exactly grow up seeing many Boholanos on TV, but she never saw this as a hindrance. Having come of age in an environment where she felt free to do and say what she pleased, she followed the footsteps of her childhood idols Sarah Geronimo and KZ Tandingan as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

“Nung una nga po, gusto ko pa po dumayo sa Cebu para doon na mag-audition kaso hindi ako pinayagan,” she said. “Kaya noong dumating na ’yung Star Hunt sa Bohol, hindi na ako nagsabi sa family ko na magau-audition ako.” “Ginising ko na lang sila ng madaling araw on the day itself na nakaoutfit na ako at ready na ako magpahatid sa kanila.”

This go-getter attitude landed the 21-year-old a coveted spot as the group’s main dancer and the resident “prangka.” “Lahat naman kaming girls, matapang at may paninindigan. Pero ako ata ‘yung Top 1 na ganun,” Colet said. “Lumalapit talaga sila sa akin pag may kailangang i-voice out na concern or kapag kailangan nila ng magsasabi sa kanila ng totoo.”

In fact, her need to speak her mind often grows so intense, she claims she often can’t sleep until she’s able to do so. When she arrived in Manila, she was baffled to learn that not everyone is comfortable with this level of pagka-prangka. “Kadalasan, nag-cocompose pa ako ng sentences in my head bago ko siya sabihin kasi nagaadjust pa ako sa language and pakikitungo ng mga tao dito,” Colet said. “Puro na lang ako ‘ok sige po’, ‘sorry po’, o di kaya tatahimik na lang.”

Thankfully, her time in the group has proven that her outspokenness matters and carries weight even in creative decision-making. While she is grateful for the opportunity to have written one song for their debut release, she’s proud of the control they’ve collectively exercised in putting their next album together: “Kami mismo 'yung pumili ng mga kanta namin: nakinig ata kami ng mahigit kumulang 40 na demo para masigurado kung anong sound 'yung gusto namin iparinig sa fans.” Hopefully, the songs they’ve chosen — and the very person Colet is – inspires BLOOMs to chase after the life they dream of.

On Maloi: Top and sandals from MUNI MUNI, pants from PALENGKE. Photo by JL JAVIER

Maloi, Main vocal

Listen to any BINI track and you can easily distinguish Maloi Ricalde’s voice: at 20, she possesses a timbre and range that can hold a candle to more seasoned performers in the industry. Throughout the shoot, she effortlessly belts out high notes while absentmindedly retouching her makeup or scrolling through Instagram.

The group’s main vocal has been singing since she was three years old but surprisingly, it was never a skill she planned on seeing through. As a consistent honor student who dabbled in extracurricular activities like swimming, badminton, and cheerleading, she had her sights set on finishing school. “Napagtripan ko lang na samahan 'yung kapatid ko sa Star Hunt audition all those years ago,” she said. “Wala lang, titignan ko lang dapat kung anong mangyayari. Tapos biglang nagtuloy-tuloy na ako: nakapasok ako at napasabak sa intense na training.”

Such a sudden change in career trajectory could have been jarring for others but Maloi was sustained by her competitive spirit. She attributes this trait to having grown up as an high-flyer with a very strong female influence. “Ang nanay ko 'yung typical Batanguena talaga at pinalaki niya rin ako that way: malakas ang loob at malakas ang boses,” she said, laughing. “Lagi niya akong pinupush to be my best at hindi siya nagtotolerate ng maling gawain. Kaya siguro ako never nagsettle for less, hanggang sa napunta na ako sa BINI.”

Unfortunately, this attitude also posed some difficulties for her at the start: after all, what kind of achiever enjoys being told what to do? “Na-culture shock talaga ako as a trainee in the sense na kailangan kong makinig sa sinasabi ng iba. Dati, akala ko na 'yung iniisip or ginagawa ko lang 'yung dapat sundin,” she said. “Hindi rin maiiwasan na isipin kung sino ang mas lamang sa amin in terms of looks or talents. Pero yan pala ang modern Filipina para sa akin: kayang i-respect ang uniqueness niya at uniqueness ng iba.”

Today, Maloi reaps the rewards of the advice she followed and is having the most fun she’s experienced in her entire life. True enough, her signature bunny smile didn’t leave her face once while she was speaking. “Ang BINI talaga ang highlight ng buhay ko; ito talaga 'yung humubog sa akin. Grateful ako na everything we do, kahit the smallest things, is centered talaga in love and happiness.”

On Gwen: Jewelry from Souvenir, top from MA. COLLECTA, pants and sandals from PALENGKE. Photo by JL JAVIER

Gwen, Lead vocal/lead rapper

Anyone who watches Gwen Apuli from a distance – whether as the former "PBB Otso" Season 3 housemate or the lead vocal and resident fashionista of BINI – knows she was meant to be under the limelight. It’s all she ever wanted growing up: a dream that was thankfully supported by her artistic family and a privilege she’s aware is not always afforded to everyone.

“Alam ng pamilya ko 'yung value of the arts: mom ko magaling kumanta, kuya ko nagpapaint, and pati ibang family members ko mahilig sumayaw. Noong buhay pa papa ko, siya nagintroduce sa concept ng pagiging artista,” she shared.

Joining contests and presenting in school events gradually paved the way to her greatest dream: a "Pinoy Big Brother" audition, and later on, a redirection to Star Hunt and its grueling training process. Although, the 19-year-old Daraga native admitted that as time passed, she wasn’t sure what she was working towards anymore: “Napapaisip ako dati: Gusto kong maging artista. Ano ‘tong kinakanta at sinasayaw ko? Para saan ba ‘to? Kakalabas ko lang sa sobrang isolating na environment tulad ng "PBB" tapos ipinasok na naman ako sa environment na ganoon din 'yung feeling.” Having been unprepared for the physical and mental toll it would take on her body, she quit the bootcamp and was advised to go home.

While recuperating, Gwen recalls asking God for a sign. “Sabi ko, kung para talaga ako dito, makakahanap at mabibigyan niya ako ng way pabalik at kung ibibigay Niya 'yun sa akin, hindi na ako susuko ulit,” she said. So when she was given the go signal to return to Manila, she lived up to her end of the bargain and never looked back. It’s what makes the empowering music that BINI is known for so dear to her: the fact that each performance she does comes from a very personal place. Now, Gwen only hopes that she can reach the listeners she wants to uplift.

“Marami kaming nababasa[ng comments] na dati, hindi lang nila kami pinapansin or di nila pinapakinggan songs namin. Pero noong tinry na nila, nagustuhan pala nila kami,” she said. “Minsan, parang ako lang, kailangan niyo lang bigyan ng chance. Di niyo alam, baka mamaya magustuhan niyo pala.”

On Stacey: Earrings from SOUVENIR, barong from RANDOLF. Photo by JL JAVIER

Stacey, Main rapper/lead dancer

Even before BINI was brought to life, 19-year-old Stacey Sevilleja already knew that she was born to win. Raised by a solo mom with a talent in fashion design, her childhood was spent playing dress up, holding amateur photoshoots, and joining beauty pageants for fun. But soon, this mere pastime presented itself as a golden opportunity to represent her home province of Nueva Vizcaya and eventually, the entire country.

“Pinoprocess na sana 'yung papeles ko para makapagpageant ako abroad pero bigla akong nagkacallback sa BINI at pinapili ako ng nanay ko,” Stacey said. “Siyempre, 'yan 'yung pinaghandaan ko for so long pero napaisip ako: minsan lang kasi kumatok 'yung ganitong kalaking opportunity. Kaya napunta ako dito. Destiny.” Needless to say, the choice she made paid off more than she could have ever imagined.

Despite having chosen a different path, Stacey knew that the key to success in a field as cutthroat as show business would be the winner’s mindset she cultivated as a beauty queen. She didn’t see herself as the small-town girl with big dreams people are prone to using as a stereotype: “Pag tumatapak ako sa stage, pinapaisip sa akin agad ni mommy na ako 'yung pinakamaganda, ako 'yung pinakapanalo. Ako 'yung main character, kumbaga.”

This confidence is something she also observed in the BINI girls when they were trainees: though some were more on the introverted and quiet side during down time, they were all strong contenders when they were on performance mode. “Siyempre, since matatapang kaming lahat, may mga instances talaga na nagkakasakitan ng damdamin. Pero mahilig kami mag-open forum: sinanay namin na kaya naming mag-air ng concerns at ayusin 'yung pakikitungo namin sa isa’t isa,” she said.

All of them are aware that where they are and what they mean to one another are too important to waste. To Stacey, her seven fellow members are not just companions on this journey: as an only child who spent most of her time in the province cooped up at home, they’re also the sisters she never had. “Hindi ko na ata kaya na magising sila na wala sa tabi ko pero alam ko na dadating din 'yung time na 'yun. Kaya, hanggang BINI pa kami, sinusulit at susulitin ko 'yung panahon na magkakasama kami.”

On Mikha: Choker from MUNI MUNI, top from MA. COLLECTA, pants from TAGPI. Photo by JL JAVIER

Mikha, Main rapper/lead dancer/visual

The first thing you notice (and subsequently admire) about Mikha Lim is her effortless ability to command any room she’s in. Only 18 years old, she exudes an enviable confidence, which she said is rooted in her strong sense of identity. “I grew up in a very conservative, old-fashioned family, where the men would question kung bakit ganyan manamit mga babae, kung bakit sila ganyang umupo. It was something I was alright with for a while,” she said. But after watching videos of strong, opinionated women around five years ago, she began leaning into her feminism and questioning why girls were ever policed in the first place.

Sadly, her self-assurance made the process of assimilation rather difficult. She shared, “When I started training, the girls would often misunderstand me: my intentions are often good but I think I came off too strong. I would speak English na nga, my voice was loud and thick pa.” It’s a common misconception shared by outsiders, one that she’s actively working to combat but can’t fully shed off. But beneath this exterior, she promises, is someone gentle and observant.

Mikha feels her greatest contribution to the group is her inscrutable skill of noticing small details: she can sense changes in others’ energies well and determine when she needs to pick up the slack without others explicitly asking her to. She said, “People don’t like it kasi when you dwell on something they’re going through or ask too many questions: there’s only a certain level of comfort that you can provide that will be able to help them. Sometimes, it helps to just be the person who knows what they’re going through and can easily give them what they need.”

It’s a trait that has proven helpful to BINI’s ascent to fame: the pressure of remaining at par with their Western and Korean counterparts can often get to them, and words from detractors can potentially leave a dent on their suits of armor. But Mikha always knows when she needs to steer her fellow members back to what’s important. “I feel like there are negative stereotypes surrounding K-pop today but I don’t care about it and I tell the girls it’s not something we should be focusing on,” she said. “What’s important are our standards for ourselves and the excellence we always strive towards.”

On Sheena: Jewelry from SOUVENIR, top from MA. COLLECTA, pants from TAGPI. Photo by JL JAVIER

Sheena, Main dancer/bunso

If you don’t know Sheena Catacutan as BINI’s main dancer with the killer stage presence, perhaps you know her as the lucky fan who got noticed by K-pop rapper Jessi earlier this year for her cover of ZOOM. The group’s youngest member constantly goes viral for hopping on the latest choreography trends that it’s hard to believe she was once “the world’s biggest introvert,” who took a while to fully emerge from her shell.

'Growing up in Isabela, Sheena was always the bunso in social situations, only ever in the company of five chosen friends. Though she was part of a dance crew, she never needed to know or work with them very closely. Suddenly, she was placed in a house with girls she didn’t know or understand. “Nahirapan ako maattach at mag-trust. In fact, di po ako nangkakausap ng tao hanggang hindi sila 'yung unang lumalapit,” she said.

But when the trainees were whittled down to the final eight, she noticed how they instantly began filling in one another’s gaps. “Sa case ko, tinuruan nila akong huwag mahiya at kumausap ng ibang tao,” she said. “Marami na kaming inaattend na P-pop events at marami-rami akong nakikilala sa industry. Ngayon, marunong na ako makipagclose sa iba. Paano kasi kung magkahiwalay kaming BINI? Edi kawawa lang ako.”

Now, Sheena is considered the most decisive member of the group. (Jhoanna chimes in to affirm this, saying she’s widely regarded as BINI’s voice of reason.) It’s something she feels she can pass down to those who look up to her. “Nung naging BINI ako, mas na-realize ko na sobrang important ng pagpass ng tamang attitudes kasi maraming tumitingala sa amin,” she said. “Dapat kami 'yung maging role model nila.”

For her, the ideal Filipina possesses not only a classic beauty and remarkable talent but also an awareness of what she wants and deserves. And while there’s much pressure that comes with teaching this to others when she still has much to learn, she doesn’t seem to worry. “Ang ideal Filipina din naman kasi, pwede magkamali, pero kailangan marunong siyang bumangon ulit.”

Produced by GABY GLORIA
Special thanks to MAYBELLINE NEW YORK