Two years after being discovered on YouTube, 16-year-old Charice Pempengco's astonishing voice has taken her from obscurity in the Philippines to the cusp of international stardom. John Mather talks to the prodigy, before her Dubai concert next month, about keeping a level head, her mother's influence and performing on Oprah.
In August 2006, the most-watched video on YouTube was of Bianca Ryan, the then 11-year-old winner of America's Got Talent. Singing And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going from the Dream Girls soundtrack at her audition, Bianca showed uncanny power and range; the judges stood up as the song reached its climax. Jennifer Holliday, who originally recorded the ballad, could not have done it better. At the end of the performance, Piers Morgan, one of judges, said, "I have never heard a voice like that from an 11-year-old in my life."
For Dave Duenas, a registered nurse watching in the Philippines, talent like Bianca's wasn't new - he had witnessed that type of incredible vocal power from a pre-teen before. In 2006, he watched Charice Pempengco win third place in the Filipino TV programme Little Big Star, an American Idol-like show for under 13s. At the time, the 13-year-old girl who grew up in near poverty with her single mother caused a sensation in the country. But she had since fallen off the radar, which Duenas thought was a shame. So he posted a video of Charice singing I Will Always Love You. In it, the singer arguably out-belts Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston put together.
"I was fairly new to YouTube back then and I told myself, I'd like to post an amazing video that would generate a lot of hits," says Duenas. "Charice's name popped into my head because I had got goose bumps all over when I first saw her singing on TV." After a slow start, the video, grainy even by YouTube's standards, became a hit and attracted music industry attention. First, a Swedish production company flew Charice over to cut a record, then a Korean TV channel featured her on a talent show and the American talk show host Ellen DeGeneres invited her to the US. Charice has since performed with Céline Dion, Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban.
The little girl with the big voice, who is now 16, is being mentored by the renowned celebrity-maker, producer and songwriter David Foster to become the next face of pop music. Foster, winner of 15 Grammy Awards, previously helped launch the careers of Josh Groban and Michael Bublé, and has produced music for Whitney Houston, Céline Dion, Michael Jackson and Madonna, to name but a few. "I don't know why this is all happening. It's like a dream," Charice says from Los Angeles, ahead of her performance on March 12 at the Filipino Music Festival in Dubai. The show was originally supposed to be held this week, but when it clashed with an invitation for Charice to sing at Oprah's birthday party, organisers were happy to push the concert back a few weeks.
"Her voice is so amazing, she has been compared with Céline Dion," says Mintu Nath, CEO of Mint Lemon Events, the festival's organisers. "That is why they say a diva is born." And while Charice's voice is a force to be reckoned with, it is still too soon to tell whether the Filipina sensation will be transformed into an international superstar. From the beginning, Charice's talent came under scrutiny, as many YouTube viewers assumed she was lip-synching. (It probably didn't help that Duenas used the screen name FalseVoice, which is actually another name for falsetto.)
"That is not the girl singing," said one post. "That is definitely Whitney Houston's voice with the girl lip-synching to it." Another opined: "This girl does an incredible job of lip sync. I am a video editor, I have a trained eye for things being out of sync." Their suspicion is understandable: Charice's Aretha Franklin-strength voice sounds unnatural as it is pumped out of her petite frame. "I can't blame them," Charice says, laughing. "Even watching myself I don't believe it."
It wasn't until Duenas posted more videos - including an a cappella rendition of And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going she performed in pyjamas - that doubt was cast aside and she attracted the attention of Ellen DeGeneres' producers. They played the clip from Korean TV on the show and Ellen offered an open invitation for Charice to perform live, which she did in December 2007. This was followed by an appearance on Oprah as part of her World's Most Talented Kids series.
The publicity and raw talent led David Foster to declare Charice "my new singer". Currently, he says, the two are working on an album, a mix of original songs and covers that should be released soon. Charice talks about her new celebrity status as you might expect any teenager to do. "I like to be known by all these people. This is surreal and a dream come true." She describes the most difficult part of new-found fame as "being tired", and the best, "that I can buy what I like for my mom, myself and my family".
And while the latter comment may seem superficial, for Charice's family, disposable income is a novelty. In fact, part of Charice's success can be attributed to the worldwide Filipino community who latched on to her life story. "Every Filipino knows what she's been through," Mintu Nath says. "Coming out of those problems to this level, it's something that everyone is proud of. She will grow into a very big star. She has the whole Philippines behind her. "
When Charice was three, her mother, Raquel, left her father, who was physically abusive. Unemployed at the time, Raquel remembers feeding Charice and her brother noodles three times a day before she found work. When money came in, a portion of it was saved so that Charice could enter singing competitions. It's a story that has been documented frequently by the fawning Filipino media. In one interview, a television reporter asked her, "What if your dad suddenly shows up because you're famous now?" Charice laughed nervously. "I cannot tell if I still want to see him," she told the reporter. "Not that I'm mad, maybe I'm just feeling sad and asking myself why he did that."
From LA, Charice says she is intent on moving beyond her father. "Actually, that's not really important to me now. When I'm singing I am just thinking about my family and my fans. That's it." She says her love of music and inspiration come from her mother. "I started singing when I was four. My mom discovered my voice," she says. "I was singing on the table. She heard me singing the Céline Dion song My Heart Will Go On."
She has never received any formal training, only coaching from her mother who travels around the world with her daughter. Last month, Charice made a surprise visit to Dubai for another Filipino event. Nath met the mother and daughter while they were here. He describes Raquel as "an easy lady to talk to", and says Charice is fortunate she is still very much a part of her life. Nath is also thankful the aspiring diva is in the hands of David Foster and US management companies. Otherwise, he says, she runs the risk of being taken advantage of or squandering her voice. "The management has to be very, very careful of how they handle the talent. She might get lost. But I'm not scared about that because she's under the supervision of David Foster. Everything is monitored and controlled."
He admits though, Charice is still very young. During one photo session with Raquel, he says Charice "went and sat on the lap of her mother. Normally an artist stands separate, not in someone's lap." But the signs of maturity are there. He recalls being in a hotel room with her and some friends and fans. Someone began taking pictures of the singer. She reacted, he says, as any teenager would - laughing, not paying too much attention to what she looked like. However, when someone mentioned that the photos would go on the social networking site Friendster, her attitude changed. "After a couple of clicks, she began getting particular about how she looked and her poses."
Charice, though, is wary of getting carried away with her new lifestyle. "I am loving all these surprises," she says about appearing alongside the likes of Céline Dion and Oprah. "I don't want it go to my head." Her mother, she says, is still the boss and will keep her from losing control. "I think it's a good thing that my mom is always beside me, and is always telling me what is right." And unlike some notorious parents of child stars, such as Michael Lohan, Joseph Jackson and Lynne Spears, Raquel doesn't appear obsessed with her daughter's celebrity. In the face of accusations that she is taking advantage of Charice for money, Raquel has maintained that she is simply supporting her daughter's dreams. "I've already gone through poverty," she said in a tearful TV interview. "I don't want [Charice and her brother] to go through the hardships that I went through. I want them to know that my sacrifices aren't for myself. I want them to know that my sacrifices are for them."
When asked about her future, Charice shows no sign of tempering her expectations: "Ten years from now, I want to see myself as a really big superstar." First, she has to conquer her nerves. She says she was incredibly timid singing for Ellen DeGeneres and even more so with Céline Dion. "When we started to sing my knees were shaking." Any fear, though, was lost on the audience, who were fighting to comprehend how the teenager was keeping pace with Dion, whose voice has sold more than 200 million albums. Charice hopes to match Dion's success as a pop music icon. And while there is still a long way to go, it is fair to say she is enjoying a head start.
The Filipino Music Festival is on March 12 at Zabeel Park, Dubai. Tickets cost from Dh75 to Dh250. Call 055 588 7478 for reservations
In terms of music, the most recent Super Bowl will be remembered for when Bruce Springsteen told Americans, "I want you to step back from the guacamole, I want you to put the chicken fingers down and turn your television all the way up." However, many music fans will also mark this moment as their introduction to Arnel Pineda, the Filipino who is the new lead singer of Journey. The band, who have written some of music's greatest rock epics, played Don't Stop Believing at the pregame show. While Pineda's voice, which sounds eerily similar to that of legendary Journey frontman Steve Perry, had been impressing fans on a world tour last summer, this was his biggest audience yet. And by most accounts, he impressed. What makes Pineda particularly interesting is that, like Charice, he was discovered on YouTube. The band had been without Perry since he injured his hip in 1997. They went through two lead singers before their guitarist Neal Schon discovered a video of Pineda and his band The Zoo covering Journey songs in December 2007. "I was frustrated about not having a singer," he told one reporter. "So I went on YouTube for a couple of days and just sat on it for hours. I was starting to think I was never going to find anybody." Pineda is a seasoned and well-known performer in the Philippines, having released a solo album in 1999. Still, when Schon e-mailed him to ask him to come audition, he thought it was a joke. When Schon called later, it took a few minutes of convincing before Pineda believed what was happening. After an audition, he was offered the job and recorded the album Revelation with the band, which was released last June and went platinum in October. Its release was followed by the world tour. And while some fans reacted adversely to a Filipino fronting a supposed All-American Band, the group firmly supports him. "We've become a world band," the keyboardist Jonathan Cain told a California newspaper. "We're international now. We're not about one colour. I kind of like the whole idea of having a singer like him. It's exotic."