Rubbing elbows with politicians in a charity fashion show

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Senators Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri, Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, and Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara were invited to be models in "Fashion Harmony," an annual charity fashion show organized by the Consular Corps of the Philippines. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On July 12, 2016, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr. was on state television, advising Filipinos to exercise “restraint and sobriety” in light of the now-historic Philippines-China arbitral decision. Yasay was criticized for the lifeless press conference that followed the successful ruling. It was not the first time. In the weeks that preceded, pundits had been quick to tag him as the “Unfortunate Mr. Yasay,” and assert that his statements bordered on “treasonous” for supposedly suggesting that the Philippines share its disputed waters with the rising superpower.

That was roughly a month ago. On the night of August 10, 2016, Secretary Yasay is all smiles, a purple lei adorning his shoulders, for he is a guest of honor at the Consular Corps of the Philippines’ annual charity fashion show. In the ballroom of the New World Makati Hotel, Yasay is surrounded by honorary consuls of foreign countries in the Philippines, some eager to shake or clasp their hands with him. Here, he can do no wrong.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr. sat a few seats away from former first lady Dr. Loi Ejercito, whose husband, incumbent Manila mayor Joseph Ejercito-Estrada, was implicated by Yasay in price manipulations of BW (Best World) Resources stocks in 1999. Photo by JL JAVIER

The event, dubbed “Fashion Harmony,” is “for the benefit of abandoned and abused children, elderly, and victims of calamities,” as indicated in its program. Honorary foreign consuls — who would model on the catwalk later on — came with their families, their sons and daughters sporting crisp polo shirts and soft chiffon dresses. Heads of businesses appeared in their streamlined suits. (One particular fellow was conspicuous in his pinstriped, cream suit; all that was missing was a cream-colored hat.) The women, of course, came in their fashionable best. Yet none, perhaps, drew more attention than Consul General Fortune Aleta-Ledesma (dressed in an elegant mermaid-cut dress), who, along with other members of the Consular Corps, had made it tradition to organize the annual fashion show for its beneficiaries.

Consul General Fortune Aleta-Ledesma, one of the main organizers of "Fashion Harmony," tells the crowd that all the models volunteered to walk the runway for free. Photo by JL JAVIER

One thing was different this year, however. Keeping up with the true spirit of the times — where talks of politics have become as perennial as the weather — three senators, namely Senator Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, Senator Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri, and Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara have been invited to be models. In the catwalk. For charity. On a night as rare as this one, where flashes from countless cameras can dazzle an unsuspecting bystander to confusion, one necessarily develops a heightened tolerance for the absurd.

Curiouser and curiouser

Senator Aquino’s aide arrived early. It would not be an hour until Aquino himself arrived. When he did so, he isolated himself from the growing crowd at the ballroom, silently conversing with one of his assistants. He declined to give an interview, though he cheerfully welcomed handshakes and exchanged stories with those who approached him in the ballroom.

Up in the catwalk, a director was instructing Philippine Airlines President Jaime Bautista on the proper way to walk the platform — “Count one, two, three, then turn!” But it would be a while before the director would be satisfied. Meanwhile, the audience, scanning the ballroom for the most desirable seats, and engaging in besos that never quite touched the cheek, started to trickle in. One of the first to settle was former first lady Dr. Loi Ejercito (accompanied by daughter Jacqueline Ejercito-Lopez) who sat a few seats away from where Yasay was supposed to sit. Remember that Yasay, during the presidency of incumbent Manila mayor Joseph Ejercito-Estrada, implicated the former president in price manipulations of BW (Best World) Resources stocks in 1999. In retaliation, Estrada threatened Yasay on national television: ”Tamaan ka sana ng kidlat!” The phrase would be remembered for the years to come (perhaps now, only by painstaking journalists), but as it turns out, at that time, Yasay should have been the least of Estrada’s worries.

On the other side of the ballroom doors, former Ilocos Sur governor Luis “Chavit” Singson lingered. Singson, like Yasay, was another whistleblower during the Estrada presidency, and catapulted to national recognition for spilling the beans on Estrada’s involvement in illegal jueteng operations. Compared to Yasay’s finger-pointing, Singson’s allegation cost more — Estrada’s presidency — and eventually gave rise to a criminal conviction for plunder, albeit subsequently pardoned. That night, Singson was low-key; dressed in all black and donning dark shades, he took a seat on the other side of the ballroom, not fully invisible from other esteemed guests who sat facing the catwalk. He looks smaller in person.

Former Ilocos Sur governor Luis “Chavit” Singson recently won in the 2016 elections as a councilor in the town of Narvacan, Ilocos Sur. Photo by JL JAVIER

Standing nearly behind Singson — one needs to take effort to notice — was Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo. Panelo has been painted as a man with distinct style, and for the fashion show, his thin frame looked dapper in a tailor-fit blue suit, paired with a rose-colored tie. More distinct, however, is the fact that on the same day, Panelo made headlines for stating that the Philippine drug problem may be a valid ground to justify the declaration of martial law, a statement made in light of the president’s earlier threat to, indeed, impose martial law if the Chief Justice blocks the administration’s bloody campaign against suspected drug pushers and traffickers. It is still unclear, as of this writing, whether or not the president (or Panelo) was joking. He leaves early, just a few minutes before former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban — also a guest of honor — exits the ballroom.

On the day of the fashion show, Panelo made headlines for stating that the Philippine drug problem may justify the declaration of martial law. Photo by JL JAVIER

Men of the hour

Backstage, the consular officers and government officials slash models formed two lines, each already sharply dressed for their highly anticipated walk in the runway. The excitement builds, as Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk” blares from the loudspeakers. Senators Zubiri and Angara, having arrived just a few minutes before the program started, huddles with two other “models” dressed in long-sleeved barong. Senator Zubiri is an animated talker and seemed to dominate the conversation with his companions, including Senator Angara. Senator Aquino, while not entirely silent, seemed content with sitting in the sidelines, waiting for the senators’ turn to run the catwalk.

While Senators Zubiri, Angara, and other officials engaged in animated conversation backstage, Senator Aquino sat quietly in the sidelines. Photo by JL JAVIER

After the parade of the foreign consular officers (first dressed in casual, then formal wear), the three senators, quite literally, stepped into the spotlight. It is interesting to note that out of the three, it was Senator Angara who seemed to want to get the whole thing over with most quickly. He might also be the most shy: he walked stiffly, back slightly bent, head bowed, arms swinging awkwardly, his eyes not making contact with the audience as he traversed the length of the catwalk. He, however, is well known for his advocacy to ease the burden of regressive Philippine tax policy. Senator Aquino, meanwhile, as the champion of several entrepreneurship laws as well as the recently-enacted Sangguniang Kabataan Reform Act (the first to prohibit a political dynasty in SK positions), walked as he normally would. It was Senator Zubiri, at the end, who rose to the challenge. A known environmental advocate, he confidently strolled down the runway, even high-fiving Aquino as he walked back, waving and blowing a few kisses to the crowd who loved him. All throughout, a shrill, rhythmic sound, as if coming from an enthusiastic cop’s whistle, pierced through the music.

Senator Angara, moments before stepping into the spotlight, hazards a peek into the catwalk. Photo by JL JAVIER

The fashion show wrapped up with a few more outfits modelled by the consular officers along with some of their children (including a pair of adorable twin girls). However, as soon as their stint as models was over, Aquino left the ballroom, as did Angara. Zubiri took his time to catch up with a few colleagues outside the ballroom, all the while keeping his wife, Audrey Tan-Zubiri, close to him.

Inside, the festivities continued. Host RJ Ledesma lauded the models, now all gathered in the stage except for the senators, for starring in a show that lasted for more or less than two hours. There was a loud round of applause when Ledesma gave a tribute to the foreign affairs secretary, by way of greeting him “Mabuhay, Secretary Yasay!,” but as it would seem, Yasay, like most of the other esteemed political guests, had already left the building.