[Trigger warning: Mentions of body dysmorphia, bullying, and mental health struggles.]
Contrary to what her iconic TV kontrabida role suggests, it would actually be fun to share a lunch table with Andrea Brillantes.
The 19-year-old actress, who arrived exactly at call time, instantly felt relatable: She candidly compliments food in between bites (“Ang sarap po ng salmon!”), probes the zodiac signs of people she just met, and intentionally pauses for the question, “What’s your recent favorite book?”
“Ay, hindi!” the 19-year-old actress, all glammed up in space buns for our next layout, eagerly corrects herself after listing Colleen Hoover’s BookTok-famous “It Ends With Us” and “November 9.” Although she’s drawn to the former thanks to its relatability regarding mother-daughter relationships and to the latter for its ability to make her heart flutter, she declares “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” as her actual favorite, topping it off with the comment, “My life.”
The Taylor Jenkins Reid fiction novel, also raved about by Gen Zs online, spotlights Evelyn Hugo, an aging Hollywood icon set to release a tell-all on her glamorous and scandalous life. “Nakaka-relate kasi ako sa kanya as an actress—as a controversial actress—na ang daming issue,” Andrea laughs softly as she stresses the additional adjective. The book details how fame can affect everything from dating to self-worth, and for Andrea, it offers life lessons. “Mahilig kasi ako sa mga nakaka-empower sa ’kin.”
For someone who’s just in the last leg of teenhood, Andrea seems to find more empathy in a 79-year-old woman seasoned by life’s challenges versus protagonists safely tailor-made for her age. And maybe that’s because she wrestled with adulthood’s perils early—as a breadwinner in constant scrutiny.
Her more-than-a-decade-spanning career began in hard mode. “Pumipila ako, nag-co-commute ako para makapunta sa mga audition, tatayo ako nang matagal,” she recounts the cycle familiar to her since she was four years old. However, the first try wasn’t so successful; she wasn’t able to speak.
But years before she stepped inside that audition room, her eyes were set on becoming a pop star, not an actress. The artista agenda was originally manifested by her mom for her—nevertheless, acting played a part in her childhood.
“Umaarte-arte na talaga ako,” Andrea describes her frequent time alone, calling Sharpay from “High School Musical” her idol. Growing up with her grandparents until she was five years old, she’d usually see her parents for important matters, including accompanying her to auditions. When she finally moved in with them, Andrea admits to feeling like an onlooker while her siblings were close to one another. “Mga nakailang beach trip [na] sila.”
However, an accident involving her brother one New Year’s Day swerved into her origin story. Seven-year-old Andrea, who blamed herself for the mishap, looked for a way to make up for it. “May nahanap ’yung tita ko na flyer, na parang beauty pageant ng mga bata. Sumali ako.” The prize money she bagged not only went to the treatment of her brother’s scar but also to her sister who was sick.
Witnessing the ripple effect of her hard work pushed her to take acting more seriously. “Doon ako nagkaroon ng confidence na sabi ko, ‘Ma, ready na ako mag-artista. Mag-audition na tayo.’”
This kind of selfless motivation stayed in Andrea, who’d progress from taking a passersby role in a Claudine Barretto movie to gradually getting lines in kids’ sketch comedy show “Goin’ Bulilit,” to finally earning her first big break as the titular character of 2013 drama series “Annaliza.”
But landing the main character milestone, which not all celebrities get in their lifetime, isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. In fact, anyone who’s followed the actress’s career knows how she’s been plagued with controversies for as long as we can remember. And not even her long-running acting reel spared her from the ferocity recently.
In the TikTokverse lexicon, the term “main character” has birthed multilayered meanings since the pandemic’s onset. The universal bleakness ushered people to “romanticize” their life as protagonists, which is a good thing, if it means owning every moment. But i-D also observes how it eventually got linked with narcissism.
Now a double-edged label, “main character” still pops up on the internet—including those spots that talk about Andrea.
Fans and casual viewers call her the main character when she manages to thrive and shine above all elements. But those that dislike her (or her actions) make it out to be synonymous with attention-seeking, sometimes even with a Filipino “pa-” prefix to highlight its forcefulness. With the stark contrast in meanings, does Andrea consider herself one?
“Kahit nung bata ako, feel na feel ko ’yun. Bida-bida po ako eh,” she jokes, instantly answering before I could finish my question. When I finally do, her tone shifts to more conviction and honesty. “[Sinasabi nila] na feeling main character ako. Totoo naman eh.”
She traces this attitude back to her childhood: The abundant love and care from family, despite the initially unconventional setup. Her “tomboy” and “kikay” phases. Her constant competitiveness and enthusiasm that catch others off guard. “’Pag may nakita akong nag-cartwheel, mag-ca-cartwheel ako tatlong beses. May nag-split, mag-si-split din ako. ’Yun din ’yung tawag sa ’kin ng ate ko. [Sabi niya,] ‘Gawin mo ’yan, bida-bida ka naman eh.’”
But it isn’t surface level. Andrea also reveals that this main character mindset helped her cope with hardships. “Ever since [nung] bata ako, kahit nung binu-bully ako [sa school], iniisip ko it’s all part of the show,” she smiles, trying to conceal the topic’s heaviness. “Nung pinanood ko ’yung ‘The Truman Show,’ iniisip ko, may nakatago talagang mga camera tapos artista din pala ako sa movie na ’to pero hindi.”
She later discloses, “Naging depressed ako at age 11.” At around 14 to 15 years old, she struggled to talk to anyone. Luckily, there was anime—specifically “Naruto.” “Sobrang positive niya kasing character, sobrang dami niyang pinagdaanan,” she explains. “Kailangan mo lang diyan ng isang panghahawakan. Kahit plant, kahit aso mo, basta meron ka lang ng isang nagpapabigay sa ’yo ng will to live.”
Andrea also avoided mirrors in her struggle against eating disorders and body dysmorphia. “Minsan sa kotse lang ako mag-be-breakdown kasi maalala ko na stuck ako sa katawan ko. As in sobra, sobrang lala. Iiyak ako tapos ayoko nang mabuhay. Ayaw ko talaga sa sarili ko. Sa-start ko pa lang ’yung morning ko, ayoko na.”
Thankfully, she overcame this with “Kadenang Ginto’s” arrival in 2018, her answered prayer. “Doon lang din talaga ako nakatanggap ng appreciation and in-acknowledge talaga ng mga tao. Sobrang nakatulong sa ’kin ’yun as a person, sa character development ko.” This is also where she met her best friend Bea Borres, whom she got closer with after the show ended.
While “Annaliza” was her first big break, Andrea further reached household name status as “Kadenang Ginto’s” Marga, an antagonist.
“Binigyan niya ako ng confidence,” she confesses, claiming that she still carries a part of her. “Isa din siya sa pinakamahirap kong roles, physically and mentally. Kasi nakaka-drain magalit araw-araw. Pero siya din ’yung pinakamahal ko kasi naiintindihan ko siya. Hindi ako katulad niya, pero naiintindihan ko ’yung hurt.”
“Kadenang Ginto” is virtually immortalized on YouTube, with slices of the heavy drama series uploaded for everyone to rewatch—and it has been millions of times. In a few confrontational episodes, comments praising Andrea’s acting chops stay on top. Jealousy, wrath, desperation, pain. The girl has range. But sometimes, these get overshadowed by another side of the internet, where dedicated critiques (and sometimes borderline hate) lie.
One recent topic would be her use of baby talk, and she’s well aware of it. It comes out naturally, she says, especially with people she feels comfortable with (i.e. a father, mother, or sister figure).
“Nag-ci-cling ako dun sa baby talk ko,” she admits, explaining it’s part of how she makes up for the childhood she missed out on. “Ang aga kong namulat. Ang aga ko ring nagdalaga. Ang aga kong minake-up-an. Ang aga kong dinress up.” Back then, an epiphany loomed over her 15-year-old self. Her 20s were nearing, and she felt there was no room for mistakes. Wanting to savor what’s left of her youth, she chose to find out what her talent fee amounted to only last year.
Despite the pressure, Andrea is grinding relentlessly for her family, and is also proactive outside acting. She has participated in charity events, given out gifts to impoverished kids on Christmas, donated to frontliners, and used her influence to make a stand in the 2022 elections, among others. Last June, she was spotted at a Siargao beach cleanup. “[May nagsabi] na finally, may nagawa rin akong tama,” she recounts a comment she came across. In frustration, she replied, “Mga mali ko lang naman pinupuna n’yo.”
But of course, she’s aware of—and values—the impact she can make with her platform. Andrea muses about moments where she could’ve used social media more wisely. “’Yung mga mali kong ginawa, binabago ko ’yun,” she says with humility. However, she still doesn’t stand for getting misinterpreted or for misinformation about her getting spread. She can’t promise that she won’t respond to bashers again once they cross the line.
After all, it took a lot to rebuild the confidence she has now. A tattoo on Andrea’s left forearm spells, “Guard your heart,” taken from Proverbs 4:23. Another says, “C’est La Vie” (that’s life).
“Ako kasi ’yung tipong tao na ’pag may pinagdadaanan, kailangan ko siyang namnamin, kailangan ko talagang mag-soak sa tears ko. ’Pag tapos na ako, snap na, done na!” she says. “Dati, sobrang ayoko ’yung tataas, iiyak, sasaya, iiyak. Ta’s natanggap ko na lang unti-unti na ito talaga ’yung life. So ngayon, ’pag sobrang saya ko, iiyak ako mamaya. Pero okay lang, kasi sasaya rin ako [ulit].”
Andrea, who has raked in millions of followers on social platforms, still values authenticity in an industry that forces one to be “likable.” And to drown out the noise, she tries to focus on things or people she loves. “Kunwari ’yung topic, about sa family, or boyfriend, or mahal kong gawin, ’dun ako maaapektuhan.” She’s thankful for the people who know all her sides and love her unconditionally—that “will to live” web where anime resides has become bigger. Now she loves herself more than ever.
When she says we should all be main characters, I know it comes from a place of empathy. “Simula bata ako iniisip ko lagi na, ‘Ano kayang point of view ng tao na ’to?’” she says. And if there’s a piece of advice she can offer the next child star, it’s this: “Maging matatag kasi hindi talaga madali. Kailangan mo mahalin ’yung trabaho mo. Kasi kapag hindi mo buong pusong binibigay ’yan, konting flop or bash, baka paghinaan ka na ng loob.”
We joke with Andrea in between preparations, and the glam team still looks amused with her spontaneity, like it’s the first time they’re seeing it even after their countless collabs. After closing the restroom door, she gushes that her contact lenses look stunning in her reflection. I’m glad she doesn’t avoid mirrors now. And I think, let her have that main character moment.