In the year of our Lord 2023, a playlist could be anyone’s magnum opus.

Curating a hyper specific tracklist has grown from being a juvenile pastime to a serious form of art for the chronically online. It’s the traditional harana’s long lost introverted sibling, and also a modern snapshot of our feelings—or what we wanted to feel—at a certain time. In David Licauco’s music rotation plays “Girlfriend” by French pop rock band Phoenix, which he was listening to on the way to our shoot on a Monday morning. “Wala lang, I wanted to be…” he giggles at his brief dramatic pause. “Chill.”

That’s probably because his current life trajectory is anything but. Hours before the shoot, the Scout team and I spotted a freshly propped up billboard starring the 28-year-old model-turned-actor—a backdrop against a quiet river, ready to be marveled by EDSA Guadalupe passersby. For someone who doesn’t even have access to his Notion calendar (if he has), I know this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

With his unassuming charm and unreal presence, he pops up in presscons, TV guestings, shoots, and your friend’s phone wallpaper, mainly anchored by the success of historical portal fantasy series “Maria Clara at Ibarra,” a reimagination of Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tángere” and “El Filibusterismo” with a Gen Z twist. While David is omnipresent in real life, his role Fidel appears as a mysterious non-canon character in the show.

And if we’re talking about playlists, Fidel de los Reyes y Maglipol is a popular recipient of this modern love letter, solidifying his impact to the younger audience. Type “Fidel” (or “David Licauco”) on Spotify’s search bar and you’ll know—well, David knows, too. “Na-appreciate ko ‘yun kasi some of them, gusto ko rin ‘yung mga songs. Meron din mga Adie dun,” he says, mentioning one of his favorite artists right now, aside from Ben&Ben.

At the start of the 105-episode series, Fidel is introduced as a privileged ilustrado-slash-close friend of protagonist Crisostomo Ibarra (Dennis Trillo). You wouldn’t exactly root for him at first—he comes off arrogant, self-absorbed, classist, and sexist; hence, the “Sinaunang Red Flag” label.

But we later witness his redemption arc. Suddenly, Pambansang Ginoo is his inseparable moniker, painting all the red flags green because of his openness to change, empathy for others, and bravery in helping people fight for freedom.

“[Fidel] serves as a reminder for me that if you want something, if you think that it’s right, you go after it. Siguro na-enhance lang, ‘cause I already knew that from the start, prior to Fidel,” he says, reflecting his goal-oriented attitude. 

In immersing in his characters, David usually follows the same routine. But this doesn’t mean he took Fidel for granted—in fact, hearing his process made me imagine the two of them sitting adjacent to each other in serious discussion.

“[Reading a script,] I dissect every word, every sentence, like, ‘How am I supposed to feel? What would be my reaction if my co-actor says this?’ I’m very meticulous when it comes to my works,” he explains, adding that he takes inspiration from Daniel Padilla when it comes to the art of pausing. “I want to take my time, so that mas ma-fe-feel ng mga nanonood kumbaga ‘yung feelings na kailangan maramdaman.”

“[Fidel] serves as a reminder for me that if you want something, if you think that it’s right, you go after it. Siguro na-enhance lang, ‘cause I already knew that from the start, prior to Fidel.”

Taking his time isn’t only an acting strategy, but also a personal principle; revisit his interviews through the years and you’ll notice it as a recurring theme. So, you could expect that any major decision he makes is well-thought-out. One of them, though, I’m glad he didn’t push through: Quitting acting, just before “MCI” happened.

To be fair, he wanted to focus on business. Currently, he’s the head honcho of restaurant Kuya Korea, comfort food spot Sóbra Cafe, and lifestyle brand As Nature Intended. What made him accept the role of Fidel, then?

“To be honest with you, I needed the money. Kasi ang dami kong in-invest nun… ‘yung Kuya Korea, that was like my last straw of money,” he softly laughs in confession. When I tell him that managing brands is like raising a human being, he agrees, so he actively does the self-improvement part (e.g. dipping into books like “Start With Why” and “Leaders Eat Last”).

“Ako kasi ‘yung type of entrepreneur na I give it my all. Without thinking. Aggressive ako,” he admits. Despite the new eyes that gaze at David’s every move now, I notice that he doesn’t shy away from answers that stray away from the image of perfection. Exhibit A in retrospect: “Madalas akong ma-guidance counselor.”

He mentions this when I bring up Mr. Chinatown, his first foray into being a public figure, and his springboard to modeling. He took home first runner-up at 18 years old, which made me think, didn’t he feel too young to be—cue Twitter language—perceived by strangers? Did he struggle with it?

“Not really. ‘Cause kumbaga marami na akong napagdaanan in life, hindi lang siguro halata…” David’s tone shifts to shy conviction, then continues, “Like with the way I look, siguro iniisip nila, very pampered by my parents. I’ve been through a lot. Sa school kasi namin, medyo maloko ako.”

“Siguro on a smaller scale, with my friends, I try to be an inspiration to them. Whenever they have problems, I give advice.”

“Tapos varsity player ako, so parang hindi ako ‘yung maarte type, eh. Ako ‘yung tipo na whatever is thrown at me [by people], I just accept it, and learn from it kung paano ko siya iha-handle. Life is about setting things and figuring out what to do.”

In the Q&A portion of Mr. Chinatown, he was asked: How can an ordinary Chinoy youth become an exceptional Chinoy? (At this point, David nods in agreement, with a hint of amusement that I’m aware of that 2014 core memory.) Instead of the expected (ambitious yet borderline abstract) pageant answer, he focused on fostering community. Is he the type who glues people together?

“Siguro on a smaller scale, with my friends, I try to be an inspiration to them. Whenever they have problems, I give advice.” His friend group used to wake up late and not work out, but he managed to pull them out from the slump. “I’d like to think na may natutunan naman sila sa ‘kin. Hindi lang ‘yung puro, ‘have fun,’ ‘di ba?” he fondly recalls.

In a circle, David is the Real Talk type of friend. “If I see something bad that they’re doing, I’m very frank eh. Straightforward. Although I tend to shy away from confrontations kung hindi ko close, but ‘pag close ko, yeah [I’d give real talks].”

And get this: Back in fifth or sixth grade, his classmates conferred him an end-of-school-year-ribbon kind of nickname. “Fun fact: Ang favorite subject ko growing up was Philippine History. People would call me Mr. Socials because all my scores were perfect, all the tests were perfect, siguro ‘yung lowest ko was like, 95.” Apparently, those resurfaced tweets that suggest otherwise don’t give the full picture.

“I found [the subject] really interesting, and I would say I’m a nationalist. I wouldn’t live abroad, I wouldn’t leave the Philippines.” He also staunchly supports local teams like Gilas Pilipinas. His eyes noticeably light up whenever basketball gets mentioned—no wonder, there’s some history here. He started playing in grade six until second year college, being a part of De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde’s varsity team.

“Siguro the reason why I wanted to become an actor was because I’m a frustrated basketball player.”

His backstory didn’t really spell out Future Celebrity. You wouldn’t vouch for him for spontaneous karaoke or the Christmas party stage, as a “medyo shy type” kid. Apart from that, he considers himself an introvert until now. 

“[It’s] definitely a weakness,” he lets out a light chuckle, as I link his introversion with him being a celebrity. “After like a big event, after an interview,” he trails off, clarifying himself, “I mean not like this, I have no problem with one-on-one interviews. But [with] presscons, stressed ako throughout the day.” His honesty translates to a deep sigh and a smile. “My social battery.”

However, as he says it himself, he has to live with it. During our shoot in a huge Quezon City park, I see his IRL testament to this. In between layouts, we need to move to spots far from each other, which means he could be noticed by visitors admiring the rare scenery of a bustling city.

I see no attempt from him to hide his identity—no shades nor a cap—just casual walking with our team. One, two, three. David snaps a photo with a woman in the middle of her prenup shoot near the lagoon, despite our tight schedule. He sneaks another one with a group of teens. Folks of different ages would try to catch his attention, mostly by calling him “Fidel.”

It’s not a surprising phenomenon, though. With actors, the typical jumping-off point into being a household name is portraying a memorable character. But on the flipside, those who get famous with their roles have the risk of getting boxed in by public perception. Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley in the “Harry Potter” movies, admitted to feeling “suffocated” when the lines between his real self vs. Ron got “blurred.” Tom Holland doesn’t want to play Spider-Man in his 30s. Sure, this comparison’s a bit of a stretch given David played Fidel for five months versus these longer franchises, though it also bears considering the hype of it all—and he recently expressed not wanting to be a “one-hit wonder.”

On David being an introverted celebrity: “I have no problem with one-on-one interviews. But [with] presscons, stressed ako throughout the day.”

But in our conversation, gratefulness overpowers; longevity is more of his concern.

“Not really [a fear], because I’m proud na siyempre, I played the role of Fidel, and that’s how it works eh. If you have this role na very successful, obviously ganito ka makikilala, you just have to live with it. That’s life. Hindi ko naman siya iniisip in that way, because at the end of the day, I’m still blessed na I was offered this role and it became successful. So yeah, siyempre I also have to think about my next steps. Which is, ‘how do I sustain this?’” he muses. “Take it day by day.”

For now, I think the fans are doing a good job “sustaining” his presence, especially the FiLay (Fidel and Klay) shippers. David’s onscreen chemistry with Barbie Forteza also reflects their working relationship’s quality. “Barbie’s love and passion for acting is contagious. Everyday you see her love for acting is on a different level. Obviously, that love and passion really helped her and it’s really seen in her acting. And she’s always on time.”

There’s an avalanche of fanfics and TikTok edits reimagining their fate, and David actually checks out those theories. “It’s such a pleasure na maraming sumusuporta sa ‘Maria Clara at Ibarra.’ Binibigyan nila ng oras gumawa ng theory based on our story.’”

Speaking of fans’ videos, it’s actually his idea to take his supporters out on dates. Have you seen that fishball date in 2019? How about the one last Valentine’s? He mentions an instance when a friend of his found a fan’s TikTok video “cute,” so David, who frequently interacts with fans online, left a comment and sent its link to his handler. 

In Gen Zs’ sacred book, the internet’s connection with David could be classified as a “parasocial relationship,” where fans usually have, as expected, one-sided “relationships” with their favorite celebrities. But looking at a different perspective, he values his fans on a much deeper level—mainly because he empathizes with them.

“I’m a bit more careful now [with my actions] and I’m still trying my best to figure out kasi people look up to me, so they see me as an inspiration.”

“Para sa ‘kin, boundaries—wala naman akong magagawa. I can only control what I can control,” he says. “And I feel like if I was in the same situation, I’m a fan of this certain basketball player or actor, I would probably react the same way as [my fans] react to me or to other artists. That’s how the world works eh. Kung ganun tingin nila sa artista, ganun tingin nila sa basketball player, ganun tingin nila sa kung sino man, ‘di ba, I have no means to, like, say no. This is the job I chose.”

“I’m a bit more careful now [with my actions] and I’m still trying my best to figure out kasi…” he pauses for the right term. “People look up to me, so they see me as an inspiration.”

While his relationship with fame did change after “MCI,” he insists that he’s the same David nonetheless. “Siguro I have more responsibilities now. But I’ve been sort of the same since I was in high school and elementary.”

After all, his authenticity and focus on what matters most are his strengths. He claims his high school friends as his “core group” who know him from the get-go. “[What I value the most are] my family, friends, and of course, loving myself. My lola also. I’m very, very close to her,” he reflects. “Lahat naman tayo, minsan nakakalimutan nating bigyan ng importansya kung sino talagang core group mo, kasi siyempre with all the things that happen in our lives. So, sometimes you have to be aware na, ‘you’re still David na anak ng parents mo, [and] a brother.’”

As for his next chapter in acting, he’d like to explore “serious and inspirational” roles like that of Park Sae-ro-yi (Park Seo Joon) in “Itaewon Class” who went from “nothing to something.” Well, finding out that David creates a strict schedule every morning—and that his phone wallpaper is literally a daily reminder for him to send his manager at Kuya Korea money (“so I don’t forget about it!”)—I know he can pull them off.

For someone to last nine years in the industry, what could he have been holding onto all this time? Astrology? Magic? Old advice from a mentor? “I don’t really believe in magic, destiny, and all that. I believe in hard work and persistence,” he humbly says.

Upon concluding the interview, I get taken aback by David’s sudden feedback. “I really like your questions ah, very well-researched ka!” As someone who isn’t the best compliment receiver, I quip that I should’ve recorded that bit for documented validation, but he makes it clear that he’s serious. “No, I really enjoyed them. Galing mo. Galingan mo pa lalo.” I tell him the same, even if I believe he’d do it anyway without anyone else’s reminder. 

“I don’t really believe in magic, destiny, and all that. I believe in hard work and persistence.”

He may wear today’s (grand but fleeting) Internet Boyfriend badge, but with his laser focus for the long run, it’s definitely not his final form. “Totoo ka ba, David Licauco?” people would ask in admiration. We can believe that he is—in both the literal and figurative sense of the word.

Words by Jelou Galang
Photography by Shaira Luna
Creative direction by Nimu Muallam
Art Direction by Yel Sayo
Hair and makeup by Nathan Ferolino
Styling by David Milan
Photography assistant Albert Calaguas
Produced by Jelou Galang

Co-produced by Kleo Catienza, Justine Rey and Eric Salta
Special thanks to Kay Aranas and Pocholo the dog 

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