One Saturday afternoon, in studio in Quezon City, a young girl has been eliminated from an audition. After waiting for months for the audition process to even start, after a contentious “voting” period that saw her rank fluctuate in puzzling ways, after so many sacrifices, hardships, and challenges, it was finally over for Uriko Bernas and her dream of joining MNL48.
“Yung week na iyon, ramdam ko na matatanggal ako kaya sinasabi ko na kila Thea at Micah na galingan nila para maging member sila at susupportahan ko sila ng buong puso.
Nung sinabi yung pangalan ko ngumingiti ako pero alam ko sa sarili ko ayun ung first and last na performance ko sa MNL48. Kaya nung natawag na pangalan ko ngumiti lang ako para ipakita sa lahat na kaya ko to at okay lang ako. Mas nabawasan pa lungkot ko nung kasama ko na ma-eliminate si Micah so less lungkot yung naramdaman ko, kasi kasama ko kaibigan ko hanggang ma-eliminate. Nung papunta kami sa Online Update sinabi ko kay Micah na di pwede mahinto dito yung dream namin maging Idol, nag agree si Micah sakin at tutulungan nyako matupad yun.”
(That week, I had a feeling that I will be eliminated so I said to Thea (current MNL48 member Thea) and Micah (Micah Mateo, Uriko’s friend during the audition), to try their best so that they will become a member and I will support them with all my heart.
When my name was called, I was smiling, although deep inside me, I knew it will be my first and last performance for MNL48. I wanted to show everyone that I am okay. My sadness was lessened somewhat when Micah was also eliminated because I was with my friend until the end. When we were going to the Online Update, I told Micah that our dreams of being an idol shouldn’t stop here and she agreed and told me she will help me fulfill that dream.)
But Uriko DID cry. She continues, “Kasi pinapunta kaming limang na eliminate at nag usap usap kami. Then someone asked me if ano talaga nararamdaman ko nung natanggal ako.
Dun ako umiyak ng sobra kasi sobrang tagal ko pinangarap tapos bigla nalang nawala. Iyak ako ng iyak habang pinapaliwanag na gusto ko maging idol. Gusto ko sumayaw sa stage, gusto ko makita ng tao na gusto ko ginagawa ko pero wala na tapos na iyon kasi tanggal na ako.”
(All five of us who were eliminated were called and we were talking. Then someone asked me about what I truly felt about being eliminated.
That’s when I cried a lot because it has been my dream for so long and now it’s gone. I cried and cried while explaining that I really wanted to be and idol. I wanted to dance on the stage, I want people to see me that I really love what I am doing but now it’s over because I was eliminated.)
For a split second, she thought her dream was over, and it was probably her determination to continue pursuing her dream that kept her from the brink. The MNL48 Audition introduced many things that fans felt were contrary to its identity as AKB48’s sister group. Of course now we have a wonderful collection of talented individuals worthy of being called AKB48‘s sisters, but the journey towards that was long and painful.
To continue her dream, Uriko now had to accept that the road to the stage won’t just be an uphill climb, but an uphill climb filled with rocks and crevices. The Philippines does not yet have a functioning Japanese-style idol industry, and MNL48 was the first real major undertaking and only the second truly professional idol group after Kawaii5. Most of what we call idol groups in the Philippines are cover-groups mostly, with the emergence of “independently produced” groups being a recent development. None has had their own paid event: most existing groups get to perform only on the various anime and cosplay conventions throughout the year and mostly as fillers between major acts.
The hope is that if they do well enough, they might be invited to perform in other events and maybe – just maybe – get paid for it. They can also bring in their merchandise that they can sell to garner some measure of profit as well as their promotional materials. This usually means one or two things: the group has someone to provide the financial fuel, and another one to handle logistics. Whether it is the members themselves doing it on their own or they asked around, it doesn’t matter. What is important is that the PR materials, the songs themselves, and the funding came from somewhere, whether inside the group or out.
But because CH4U had neither a benefactor or a fund, a lot of things are against them from the beginning. To rent a studio or a private space for rehearsals, they would need money. Because they’re not doing paid performances, the only other way they could get money is to sell merchandise. With good old determination and grit, they did manage to unveil their merchandise (photo-cards, T-shirts, etc). But they knew that it will only sell if they manage to perform very well on the stage. And to perform on stage, they need to either get invited, or know someone who could get them in.
It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: they need money to pay for the rent of the venue for rehearsals, but without bookings, they’re not getting paid to perform so they try to sell merchandise instead which will only ever really sell if the fans are happy enough with their performances, the improvement of which is very dependent on rehearsals. And so on, and so forth…
Why is this important? Because if training molds you, then rehearsals refine you. No group becomes a good performer just because, there’s a lot of hard work going behind becoming one. MNL48‘s typical week includes several training sessions, and during the past two months, they’ve been really hitting it on the training floor.
Now, no one expects (or should expect) indie idols to train with the same kind of intensity or regularity as MNL48. That’s simply unrealistic and I would believe that most fans know and understand it. With that said however, as performers, there are certain expectations like being able at least to perform competently for example.
“July 22,2018, Sa Quezon Memorial Circle, bago ako makapunta sa mismong circle naligaw ligaw muna ako kasi nakalimutan ko na paano pumunta sa Circle.
Pagkatapos ng maraming ikot ikot nakarating na ako kasama mga kaibigan ko sa Circle, hinintay namin sila Kimhui, Sunny at Eru. nasa mga 2pm nayun
Naiintindihan naman namin na late na sila nakarating dahil may church service pa si Eru at taga pasig pa sila. Nagsimula ng 2:30pm ang rehearsal namin nag praktis kami sa lugar na pwede mag practice. Dahil di pa familiar sila Kimhui at Eru sa steps tinuruan muna ni Sunny sila at pagkatapos nun inayos na namin ang formation dahil sa di sapat na oras di namin na ayos ang mga steps ngunit kabisado na namin ang formation na ngako kami sa susunod na practice ay lilinisin na ito.”
(July 22, 2018, Practice is in Quezon Memorial Circle. Before I arrived, I got lost on the way because I forgot how to get there.
After going around the place, my friends and I waited for Kimhui, Sunny and Eru in the Circle. It was already 2PM when they arrived.
We understand why they were late because Eru had church service and they came from Pasig. Rehearsal started at 2:30PM in a place in the Circle where we are allowed to practice. Because Kimhui and Eru are not yet familiar with the steps, Sunny had to teach them and then we had to fix the formations. We ran out of time to finish learning the steps but we at least got the formations and we all promised to clean it up in the next practice.)
What we see here is a group trying to balance their responsibilities with whatever their situation is in life. It’s easy to comment that “they have to be professional“, or “they have a lot of places where they can practice in” while forgetting that these girls aren’t paid to perform, and have little to no incentive to drag themselves from across the Metro to practice in a public park especially if you only have two days and a very tight budget.
It is also equally easy to hail this as an example of dedication, and it is true. But our praises won’t magically give them a place to practice. Money does, and it is something these girls just don’t have in their current circumstances. But their simple solution to that problem is equal parts resourceful, amazing, and bizarre.
CH4U did their rehearsal in a Fire Exit.
“July 29, 2018. Around 3pm na nun nasa Megamall ako hinihintay sila pero wala pa sila kaya napakain muna ako, anong oras na sila dumating kaya naisipan nalang namin na wag na pumunta ng Pasig Park kasi sayang oras.
Nag suggest si Kimhui at Eru na sa pinaka-taas kung saan madalas ganapin ang mga Anime Cons dun kami mag rehearse, disagree si Sunny kasi natatakot sya para sa amin at baka may makakita pa samin na kakilala kami. Ngunit may nakita kaming isa pang way para makapag practice ng di na bumabyahe at nagsasayang ng pera.
Dumiretso kami at natagpuan ang hinahanap namin ang Fire Exit. Walang tao na dumadaan dito o dikaya sobrang dalang. Nagsimula kami mag rehearse, nasisikapan kasi maliit lang ang space, ngunit natawid namin ang rehearsal namin nalinis ang dalawang kanta na ipeperform namin sa Manila Idol Matsuri. Habang nag practice natutuwa ako sa dedication ng members sa pangarap nila kasi kahit nasa Fire Exit lang kami pag nag practice kami seryoso kami na gagalingan namin na kahit sa Monday ay madami pang gawain sa school nag practice parin kami. Naisip ko na sana isang beses man lang maranansan ng members ko na makapag practice sa isang studio.”
(Around 3PM, I was in Megamall waiting for them (CH4U) but they still haven’t arrived so I decided to eat first. They arrived pretty late so we decided not to go to Pasig Park so as not to waste time.
Kinhui and Eru suggested that we rehearse at the top floor where the Anime Conventions are usually held (Megatrade Hall). Sunny disagreed because she was afraid that someone might see us there and recognize us. But we found a way to practice without having to travel and waste money.
We went and found what we were looking for: a Fire Exit. People do not go this way, or if they do, it was very rare. We started our rehearsal and immediately we were having problems with the lack of space, but we were able to finish our rehearsal for both the songs we will perform in the Manila Idol Matsuri. While we were practicing, I was ver happy and proud of the members’ dedication to their dream that even practicing in a Fire Exit, we were very serious and will continue to do our very best that even on Monday, even with the school homework, we still practiced. Although I really, really wished my members could at least experience practicing in a studio.)
When Uriko told me they practiced in the Fire Exit, I didn’t believe it at first. It just didn’t seem real, for a group that is less than a month away from the biggest stage so far in their careers, to actually conduct their rehearsals in the Fire Exit of all places.
Their old usual locations weren’t available, and not wanting to waste precious time, they opted for the only place they can think of where they wouldn’t be disturbed, and where they wouldn’t be disturbing anyone. It’s like a flash-mob except that it is not scripted. It can almost pass for promo pictures but practicing in a Fire Exit isn’t exactly the image you’d normally want your group to have. The only reason why there are pictures is because I asked Uriko to provide me with images to use in this article, and in typical child-like straightforwardness, sent me pictures of the most recent practice they had: The Fire Exit session.
Looking at the photos, you can clearly see fatigue on their faces. I don’t know which part of the practice they were taken, but it made me think really hard about what these girls are going through right now. A major event, a “can’t miss” opportunity, and a chance to showcase their talent, everyone following any of the participants can clearly see how the event can possibly mean to their futures.
There’s some part of me that is feeling guilty at what these girls are going through. As fan of idols, I am part of the market these girls are trying to reach out to. In that sense, I am part of the reason why Uriko, CH4U, and the rest of the Manila Idol Matsuri‘s participants are going through some form of pressure. They’re doing this because of their dream. They are doing this so that we can give them a chance. Sure, every group will probably bring their own crowd into the event, but having a huge concentration of idols in one event means that the fans there will also see the others and maybe – just maybe – consider following them too.
It’s hard to write down what I felt when I saw Uriko’s tired looking face. It is along the lines of “what have we done to these girls?“, and to be fair, that’s also what came to my mind when I saw MNL48’s Ash when they had their hand-shake event while still aspirants. I guess that’s part of the reason why building up stamina was one of the most important features of MNL48‘s training regimen, because tired, out of shape idols is not good for business. But you’d really have to wonder how much of this fatigue is physical and how much of it was mental and emotional.
This is the reality of the idol industry: physical, mental, and emotional effort is demanded at all times. Where fans only see the glamour, the emphasis on cute versus skill, and the trappings, there’s actually tons of hard work and professionalism involved. But even all that effort will be for nothing if the group puts up a really bad performance. Once, the fans might still forgive you. Twice, well they’re going to have doubts. A third time, and only the most hardcore will come back for the fourth. Granted, an idol group can still get their act together and perform really good for the fourth, but they’d have to maintain that if they still want people to watch their fifth and sixth. It is a reality that all of them – even, and most especially, MNL48 – has to face.
Consistency is important to idol groups. The then MNL48 aspirants had been bashed left and right for putting up really bad performances in their weekly challenges. Despite the fact that the final line-up for the performance is known on that very same day making proper blocking impossible to really learn, it’s the bad performance that the people saw and remembered.
So the need to show a consistently good performance is a given, and CH4U knows that, and are doing all they can to make sure that if they cannot pull off a flawless performance like that in their dreams, they can at least pull off a decent one. One that will make people think twice about writing them off. One that, while not perfect, will give fans hope that they will grow into a powerhouse in the future.
CH4U is entering Manila Idol Matsuri as an underdog, and so far, I’m having a great time following their journey and trying to make sense with the emotions, the dreams, and the aspirations of Uriko and her fellow members. I admit that while I was initially hopeful of these indie idols when they first came up, I eventually grew hesitant, even skeptical. It’s not that I disapprove of them, for any great endeavor starts at the bottom, but I was starting to think if these groups (CH4U included) were all really about their dream, or maybe it is more about making a statement.
But CH4U’s simple, unassuming, and down-to-earth approach won me for a bit, enough for me to give them – and these other groups – a chance, or at the very least, the benefit of the doubt. I was wondering, that if I follow this group’s journey to the Manila Idol Matsuri, I can gain a deeper understanding of what goes on in their young heads. Maybe even understand what an idol is for these girls and why they all so much want to be one.
“Kahit nasa point na kami na down na down na kasi yung ibang group nakakapag studio, nakakapag kita kita lagi for rehearsal, kami may mga school works (na dapat) unahin at mga dapat bayaran. Kahit na sagot na namin lahat ng cost para sa group, lumalaban parin kami kasi alam namin na worth it. Na ngayon lang ito at bukas mararanasan namin yung ginhawa, yung makakatapak sa stage at makakapag perform. Napaka worth it ng lahat ng pagod ng pawis ng hirap na ginagawa namin na makita yung mga sumusupporta samin,” said Uriko.
(Even if we’re at the point where we feel very down because the others can rent a studio and always meet for rehearsals. We, on the other hand, still have school works that we have to prioritize and things we need to pay for. Even if we are all shouldering the cost for the group, we are still trying so hard because we know it is worth it. We believe that tomorrow we’re finally going to see the fruits of our labor: being able to step on the stage and perform. It will be so much worth all our sweat and labors just to see our supporters.)
I’ve been making this journey through the eyes of Uriko Bernas. I guess it’s now time to learn about the rest of CH4U and the industry they all want to get in.
To be concluded