It was almost like a movie moment, the first time I met Alem Garcia.
Manila, November 2017: She had just come from doing Gugmang Giatay the Musical at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater and was surrounded by guests offering their congratulations.
Through her crowd of admirers, we caught each other’s eye. I remember congratulating her as well, and she responded with a very soft-spoken and polite thank you—a stark contrast to her loud and energetic performance not even an hour ago.
Ever since then, Alem has always fascinated me.
Her star shone even brighter less than a year later a role in a production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, as well as a hilariously iconic turn as the Yaya Alem in Laysho Ka Di?, a web series that tackles social realities and mobility in a satirical format. The latter catapulted her and fellow Internet darling Sarah del Mar to local prominence and major influencer status—although Alem is quick to point out she’s not famous yet. “Not to humblebrag, but I have high standards when it comes to fame,” she explains with a laugh. “I haven’t met it yet, so dili ko sikat.”
It’s interesting that Alem’s most recognizable roles so far have been ones that initially come off as brash and maldita at first glance. While it can’t be denied she’s honestly damn good at them, she deserves further credit for nurturing these characters and adding nuances to them over time—all while still being entertaining, of course.
The lines do get blurred at times, which begs the question: Is the Alem in Laysho Ka Di? really how she’s like in real life? “I guess [our similarities lie in] the drive make our dreams come true, and ang pagka maldita if triggered!” she answers with another laugh.
At times, she admits, it can be hard to relate to Alem-the-character, so she needs further preparation to internalize. She cites their major differences in the way they approach things. “The character I portray in the show is hardcore katkat (a social climber), whereas I personally go and flow with the process.
The concept of Laysho Ka Di? can be summed up with a line from the show’s pilot episode: ‘I believe in social mobility. We all just want a better life.’
“To my understanding, it shows the reality of people climbing up the ladder, and I think a lot of people can relate to it,” Alem says. “It’s factual, not mugna-mugna [made up]. I’m really proud of that aspect.” Due credit goes to David Jones Cua for being the brains behind the show.
Even with her rising success on the web screen, Alem continues to be an old soul at heart. “I still have dreams of being seen regularly on Philippine television and being on the front cover of magazines,” she confesses. “Based on what I see though, there’s really a shift towards digital so it’s a matter of adapting.”
Getting her own show, she says, is an answered prayer, one that has given her numerous opportunities and blessings. “I prayed for it the moment it was offered to me. I remember praying in Santo Niño and in all the churches I’ve visited in Ilocos when I went there in 2018. So it’s really something I’m thankful for.”
But things haven’t always been easygoing for this young digital content creator.
The death of Alem’s sister 14 years ago hit her hard—and still does to this day, if she’s being completely honest. Growing up, Alem sought solace in her whenever she got bullied in school or had other problems. “My Ate was the first person who taught me the concept of courage,” she remembers. “So when she left, nauyog sad gyud ako kalibutan [my whole world turned upside down]. I found myself asking, ‘kinsa na man mu-defend nako? [who’s going to defend me now?]'”
Despite only having a few short years together, her sister is one of Alem’s greatest influences and taught her life’s most important lesson of valuing time. “You really have to make the most of it, because you’ll never know what’s going to happen.”
Fueled by this and an unstoppable drive to pursue stardom, Alem quit a corporate job and frequently flew to Manila for auditions, to no avail. She acknowledges it was a risk she had to take. “Aside from emotional and mental preparedness, medyo financially taxing sad siya,” she recalls.
“Pero you know what? Even though I was afraid of rejections, it’s something I’d risk over and over again. Dreams empower me and that’s just how magical it is—that despite my fears, they pushed me to take an unknown road.”
Nothing is more uncertain these days than the future, given the ongoing pandemic. Since March, Laysho Ka Di?‘s production has been shut down because of the lockdown, yet Alem is busier than ever. Over the quarantine period, she kept audiences entertained through BAI TV Live, a nightly show that featured local personalities (including an episode with yours truly!)
Having experienced the show behind the scenes first-hand, I witnessed how it was quite the shift for Alem, from acting to honing her interview skills in dealing with different types of people and carrying a conversation with them for an hour, night after night. I also saw the amount of work it took to mount an online show aired live—and if I was exhausted after being a guest once, I can’t imagine how Alem must feel doing it four times a week.
I’m in my element every time I perform. Performing helps me cope with the mental battles I have, so every time there’s a rehearsal or performance show, I love it. It’s something I wanna do until I’m gone from this world.Alem Garcia
“I struggled, actually,” Alem shares. “Doing live [virtual] shows on a regular basis shocked me, and there were times I got really tired. Grabe ang adjustments and learning curve.” But she made the most out of it. “I’m grateful to my management for giving me the opportunity to showcase my talents despite the situation.”
Keeping busy helped Alem cope with everything that was going on, especially after her Generalized Anxiety Disorder reared its ugly head when the lockdown started. “The greatest battle I had [in lockdown] was inside my head. But I’m used to working and since I love what I do, work been really therapeutic for me,” she says. “But I also don’t want to drown in work, so balance lang gyud. Mao na akong ganahan i-achieve [that’s what I want to achieve].”
One thing that isolation taught her though is that, “Inner peace is the ultimate power.” It is an addendum to her journey of self-love and acceptance, especially as part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“Self-acceptance was something foreign to me. My journey towards becoming the woman I am now was not easy.” Alem admits. “There were sacrifices made and I went through different phases before I discovered so much of who I am now. There were times I wished I was another person para madali na lang akong kinabuhi [so my life would be easier], and many other times I deprived myself of chances that could have actually given me so much learning—all because there was a time nalain gyud ko sa akong kaugalingon [I was so confused with my identity].”
In her earliest auditions, Alem shares there were several instances she would dial down and pretend she wasn’t very girly, because she thought that was more acceptable. Additionally, she also had a hard time appeasing her parents, who worried about how society would treat their daughter.
Alem credits meeting new friends who were also in the LGBTQIA+ community for helping her along the way by educating her about SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression). According to her, it was an eye-opener that led to many discoveries and learnings. She is an advocate of the importance of SOGIE to help in self-awareness.
“Accepting and embracing who I am now took so much courage, pero I’m glad I’m now at a place where I can truly say I’ve accepted myself,” she reflects. “Dako’g tabang sa atong pagkataw [it’s going to help us a lot] if we learn to accept and embrace who we really are. And I will repeat that over and over again. But each person has his or her own process—it shouldn’t be rushed, and it shouldn’t be dictated. What we can do is to allow them to be in that process, because it’s really not easy.”
“And when I started to love myself, I made mama and papa understand that what matters most is I accept my identity as a transwoman and that I am accepted and loved by my own family.”
At such a young age, Alem has endured so much, both in victories and tragedies—and it’s something she’s proud of. When asked what it is she wants to be remembered for, she’s straight to the point with her answer: “My grit, courage, and perseverance. That even though a lot of challenges came my way, I remained decisive to continue pursuing my dreams.”
And accomplished as she may be already as an Internet celebrity and performing artist, Alem is not quite done yet. “I really want to do films gyud!”
Her advice, especially in these trying times? “Hang on to that something that keeps you hopeful. Go back to your reasons, talk to the people who genuinely care for you, and that dreams happen in God’s perfect time.”
- Understanding Anxiety | ADAA
- The National Mental Health Crisis Hotline | DOH
- Mental Health Support in Cebu City | Kauban
- Basic Definitions: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) | UPMC
- Let’s Talk About the Anti-Discrimination Bill First | CNN Philippines
- Sex, Gender, and SOGIE | Rappler