There is only a small group of people in the world that are worthy of the description “born to sing,” but Charice Pempengco is one of them. One of her earliest YouTube video performances has a 14-year-old Charice wearing a red Bebe tank top over a feminine white button-down blouse as she croons Christina Aguilera‘s “Reflection” into a karaoke machine microphone. She stares into the camera, commanding attention while she sings “Look at me,you may think you see who I really am, but you’ll never know me.” A deep guttural burst of sound comes out of by the time she’s reached the chorus, and it’s easy to ignore the lack of video quality or family photos perched on the desk behind her, anything that might deem this display the performance anything less than professional. Charice is a star.
Charice, now 22 in May, came out last year, but it hasn’t made her talent any less awesome.
Born in the Philippines, in the city of Cabuyao, Charice (nee Charmaine Clarice Relucio Pempengco) has been singing since she was seven, competing in local talent competitions to help supplement her single mother’s income. After a loss on the country’s American Idol equivalent Little Big Star, Charice turned to YouTube to showcase her voice, which caught the attention of American songwriter Haras Fyre. Through his help, Charice signed with a talent management agency that lined her up with her first television gig on the U.S.: a performance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It was December of 2007 and the 14-year-old traveled west for the first time ever, performing “I Will Always Love You” and “And I Am Telling You” on the Los Angeles stage in front of Ellen and a live audience.
If the world wasn’t familiar with the young woman behind the voice by 2010, her single “Pyramid” would change that. An upbeat romantic duet with British singer Iyaz, “Pyramid” broke into the Billboard Top 100, peaking at #56 and remixes becoming a number one dance track. The song hinted at Charice’s entry into adulthood, her maturity shining through in a song about building a relationship from the bottom up. Her adorable smile and trademark long locks were catching up to her voice as she began to play up a little bit of her sex appeal during performances.
Her notoriety in the U.S. continued in 2011, when Charice guest starred on Glee as Sunshine Corazon, a foreign exchange student hoping to audition for New Directions. This was the second season of the Fox show, when it was at the height of its popularity, and Charice’s, too.
The rest of 2011 and 2012 saw Charice touring on her new album, Infinity, which didn’t spawn any hits as big as “Pyramid.” But it was around this time, spring of 2012, that rumors began to buzz. The singer chopped her trademark hair into a shorter bob and was ditching her usual dresses for jackets and pants while on stage. At a press conference, she was asked about the change and said, “I know some people are more used to the old Charice, a ballad singer with the pigtails. For me, in my heart, I’ve always wanted to be more edgy, rock, more [on the] dark side. I know some people think that this is very rebellious but it’s not. It’s just me evolving. It’s me transforming into another person that is totally me.”
The transformation was just beginning. It wasn’t until one year later that Charice came out about her identifying as a butch lesbian, and that her girlfriend was another Filipino singer, Alyssa Quijano. Reporters clamored to find out more about her sexuality from her mother and grandmother, spawning tabloid gossip and shock from fans, but in that time, Charice was more concerned about two things that she has found are mutually exclusive: Her happiness and her music.
“Seeing new people telling me ‘What you did is so good, you’re such an inspiration, we look up to you,’ those are the things I didn’t expect,” Charice said in an interview over Skype. “I want to thank all the people because now, seeing all these people, they inspire me. They inspire me to be myself. The more I am myself, I see more people coming up to me and telling me that I’ve been inspiring them and it feels so good.”
Charice exudes more self-assurance than ever. Still she understands why some fans might have a hard time adjusting to the package her talent is delivered in.
“Some people online send me messages that I’m confused; that I decided this just recently, that maybe I’m heartbroken,” she said. “I just have to laugh because there are people—sometimes they come up to me and tell me, ‘Oh no, too bad because you were so pretty!’ And I’m like, ‘What!? So now I’m ugly?’ But you can just run away from that.”
Charice said most of those kinds of comments come from fans in the Philippines, where she acknowledges there isn’t as much support for the LGBT community as there is in the U.S. or parts of Europe.
“It’s hard for them to move on because for for how many years they saw me with this long hair wearing mini-skirts and all these fitted dresses and everything,” Charice said. “But it was like triple hard for me because it wasn’t me at all. It was like a character I had to play. Deep inside, deep inside. I’m a full time butch. But I had to do that because that feeling that I had to fit in with everyone just because of the career I want. It was tough. It was really hard for me waking up every day and trying to put all this make-up and all these clothes that I didn’t want but…I just did it anyway because for me, deep inside, I’m just going to sing. I’m just going to sing and singing is what I love.”
Now on a small U.S. tour before playing shows in Canada and Australia with more dates yet to come, Charice is putting on an entirely new show. Her concert includes covers of Beyonce, Bruno Mars and Sia, as well as some of her older songs that longtime fans are familiar with. It was a difficult process, Charice said, “because some Filipino fans are having a hard time with the songs that I want to sing so we had to make sure to mix the songs they want and what I want.” She found a delicate balance, though, in putting the dance-oriented pop songs first and moving the ballads toward the end.
Charice’s on-stage apparel is specially designed for her and she goes through several wardrobe changes that include a lot of leather (pants, vests, jackets and blazers), mostly black but also some bright reds, paired with a silver chain around her neck. Her hair is shorn close in at the sides but spiked blonde on the top. And though she always knew how to work a stage with well-placed movements and emoting, a big change for this tour is all of her dancing. The first part of her live show has two male dancers backing her up as she skillfully swaggers and bounces her mic from hand to hand in order to keep singing while performing her choreography. Even when performing Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” there is a certain masculine-air to the way she performs, one she embodies and enjoys — and her fans enjoy it, too, screaming at her hip swivels and winks during innuendo-filled moves and thrusts.
“I love dancing,” Charice said. “I’m not professionally good at it but I love dancing. When we were creating the show, I was like ‘I really want to dance.’ This is my first tour that I really had to work at it.”
Diehard Charice fans call themselves Chasters (based on the “Cha” from Charice) and the pop star acknowledges that the phenomenon is worldwide. Chasters have only grown in number since she’s come out, especially in places like the Philippines and Thailand where Charice’s influence can be seen on the streets and in pop culture. Androgynous-presenting young gay women are part of a “tomboy” identification that has made its way into K-Pop and reality television competitions.
“In the Philippines, when I came out, all the tomboys in the Philippines had the confidence to come out, too,” Charice said. “Just recently a TV show in the Philippines, they made this competition called That’s My Tomboy and I was one of the judges in the grand finals and it feels so good to have them tell me that it was because of me that’s why they made that show, because I inspired a lot of teenagers to be free. It so great because it wasn’t easy.”
Charice said she would love to return to Glee, if Ryan Murphy and co. would have her. She thinks Sunshien Corazon would have a very similar trajectory that she has had.
“I thought about it, like maybe, because Sunshine, my role, the Glee story — basically it’s like me!” she said. “They could continue the story and really relate to my real story. I would love to go back because I would love to inspire more people, especially teenagers having a hard time coming out of the closet. The teenagers who think that they are alone in this world. Of course being on Glee is one of the biggest ways to send a message to those people so I would love to go back.”
What Charice is looking for right now, though, is a hit single. She wants to break into the top 40 again, and she says it’s a completely different climate from when she was in the charts with “Pyramid.” She says she wants a song like “Royals” from Lorde, a song she covers on tour, an artist she admires.
“The single because it’s so hard. This is reality,” Charice said. “It’s hard for a full Asian like me to go to a top 40 song unless you have a really good top 40 song and I really want to find that perfect song for me. And that top 40 song for people to love. I’m really picky when it comes to music and the artists now, so I fell in love with Lorde’s voice and I wish I could have a song like that. That’s what we’re trying to do, find the right song for me.”
Charice has a very strong idea of who she is and what she wants for herself, a rare thing for an almost-22-year-old, but maybe not so rare for one who started working before the age of 10. She’s balancing her career with her relationship, which she acknowledges can be difficult while on tour.
“She’s going to follow me in Canada,” Charice said, smiling when talking about Alyssa. “In a few days I’m going to see her. We’ve been missing each other because it’s kind of hard for us to be away from each other because we’re so used to being together.”
“The more I see telling me, ‘You’re so pretty when you’re wearing that dress,’ the more I know it didn’t make me happy,” Charice said. “It made me sad because every time I saw something online, like a lesbian couple and one is like me, I could imagine myself like that; telling myself ‘That’s me. That’s what I want.’ And it made me sad because I would think of other people around me that would be disappointed and basically I didn’t listen to my heart. So finally, I just woke up and told myself that’s it. I really want to be myself because I owe it to myself and I didn’t want to be depressed anymore.”
Any true Chaster wouldn’t want that for her either.
Visit chariceworldtour.com to find out when Charice is touring near you.