Bessie Badilla is a born entertainer, who loves performing in front of her family, her friends and just anybody who cared to watch her perform for free. As a young talented girl, she also made up and thought of the story line, directed, and starred in all her own productions. As someone who loves art it is not impossible for Bessie to be in the path of stardom. With her talents and skills and being loved by people, she was able to make it in the fashion and entertainment industry in the Philippines and in the international scene.
The beginning of something big for Queen B.
The door of opportunity opened for Bessie when she became one of the 100 IMF-WB Usherettes chosen by then First Lady Imelda R. Marcos. The top models at that time were all out of the country doing a world tour with the famous Filipino designer Aureo Alonzo. Because of this, Pitoy Moreno, another well-known fashion designer, had trouble finding models to walk that very night for the Bagong Anyo presentation. Being much taller than the other usherettes, Mrs. Marcos noticed her and asked if she could go to the Folk Arts Theater immediately and look for Pitoy. She didn’t know that she would walk for his show that evening. According to Bessie, the director, Gary G. Flores liked what he saw during rehearsals, so he asked Pitoy to give Bessie four outfits to wear for her first ever fashion show! Right after the show, Gary instructed her to meet him at the Hyatt Hotel after the IMF-WB Conferences so she could sign-up to be a Bighani Model.
After modeling in Manila for almost all the fashion designers and landing a job as Mannequin du Cabin for the House of Balenciaga in Paris for four years, Bessie was discovered by talent manager and director, Johnny Manahan. He invited her to join his new TV Sitcom, “Eh Kasi, Babae,” which became the number one show on Philippine prime time television. Bessie was nominated as “Best Actress in a Comedy,” and “Best New Artist,” during the first year of her acting career.
Bessie in Brazil and her Carnaval Queen Story
Carnaval in Brazil is a yearly religious celebration. It is held on the weekend before Ash Wednesday. The entire country celebrates carnival in different ways. It started as street dancing in the final weekend before Lent, celebrating just before the 40 days of abstinence, sacrificing and prayers began. In big cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, there are Sambodromos (Samba) built where 14 to 17 escolas, or associations compete for the title of Carnaval Champions. There can be as many as 3,000 to 5,000 members of each escola who will dance samba and sing enredos (theme songs) together on the pasarela of the Sambodromo. Each escola is judged for costumes, dancing and how well they tell a story and portray their theme to the 50,000 to 82,000 spectators who come from all over Brazil and all over the world! Carnaval is very much part of Brazilian culture. There is a saying in Brazil, “If there is no football (soccer) and no carnaval, there is no Brazil.”
The Carnaval in Brazil is one of the major turning points in Bessie’s life experiences. Her story began when she attended a good friend’s wedding in Valinhos, a small resort town outside São Paulo when Renato Freitas, a Carnaval Ambassador in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro saw her dancing at the reception. According to Renato, he saw Bessie’s “energy,” and it was the perfect energy he was looking for in a Carnival Queen. He came up to her on the dance floor and invited her to become queen. Bessie didn’t understand what Renato was saying in Portuguese, so she responded, “Yes, yes! I’ll dance with you!” She thought he wanted to dance with her! Bessie wasn’t aware that saying “Yes” to a Carnival Ambassador is like a written contract! She didn’t know she just said “Yes’ ‘ to an invitation to become a Carnival Queen!
“To be part of the carnival in Brazil as Emperatriz or Queen is not made by one’s choice or by one’s personal decision. You have to be “chosen” and invited by a Carnavalesco (Escola Director) or a Carnaval Ambassador. In my case, I was chosen and invited by Renato Freitas who is a Carnival Ambassador both in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro”.
From the Fashion Runways to being the First Filipina Carnival Queen
For Bessie, being the first ever Filipina Carnaval Queen it is probably the most exciting experience of her life! But she understood being a queen comes with big responsibilities. These responsibilities became the highlights of her experience.
First, she had to learn Portuguese because all the interviews for magazines, newspapers and TV were done only in Portuguese. She needed to hire a personal trainer to help her lose 25 lbs. Then she had to learn samba. This was difficult for her because with all of her ballet training and other dances that she is familiar with, samba is contra-tiempo. It was so different from all her dance training, but she did not quit. She just kept on trying until it became natural for her and she started enjoying it.
Brazil: The closest to home I can get
There is a pulsating heartbeat in Brazil that is alive, and it naturally draws people to it. Bessie has visited numerous states in Brazil from São Paulo, Minas Gerais, São Luis, Maranhenses, Parana, Natal and Bahia. But she’s mesmerized by the “Ciudad Maravilhosa,” a term so perfect for Rio de Janeiro. She added, “I can’t get over its places of interest from Cristo Redentor, Pão de Açucar to its countless beaches Ipanema, Copacabana, Arpoador for its stunning sunsets to Leblon and Barra de Tijuca”. “I even find the favelas a beautiful sight to behold especially at night when you can see the tiny flickering lights from each of its tens of thousands of homes”. “I love Brazilian music and dance; I can sing a number of songs in Portuguese that carry the bossa nova beat”. And I can dance samba for hours! I now can say, SAMBA is life!
Bessie enjoys eating the national dish, “Feijoada,” and she always craves for her personal choice of meat cuts, the “Picanha.” She is always thinking of her favorite afternoon snack, “Açai com Banana e Granola.” And not to mention, “Pão de Quiejo,” which she can snack on the entire day. There is also white cheese with membrillo on crackers called “Romeo e Juliet,” which she can have anytime, any day, all day!
But for her, the one thing that draws Brazil close to her heart is the people. They are cariñoso and warm, and they love to eat, drink, sing, dance and be merry. Everyday can turn into a party in Brazil! The Brazilians are friendly and welcoming, and they are beautiful to look at. They are similar to Filipinos. Brazilians, just like Filipinos, love and respect their parents and they have very close family ties. “This is the closest to home I can get!” Bessie added.
Dance of my Life: The beat of Bessie’s life journey
The documentary, “Dance of My Life” was written and directed by Bessie’s good friend, Lyca Benitez-Brown. It started as a “Behind-the-Scenes” take on how the carnaval in Brazil is made from start to finish. From an idea conceptualized by the Escola’s director to the actual parade takes an entire year to complete! The docu would have never-before-seen footage and interviews with different carnaval directors, dancers, musicians, and staff explaining in their own words the hows and whys of the carnaval. While shooting between Brazil and her home in Stamford, Connecticut, Lyca changed her mind and decided to incorporate Bessie’s life into the carnival. How her childhood, teenage years and present life as a widow and mother of three girls somehow were like how a carnival is made. “Dance of My Life,” was the working title for the documentary but became the actual title once the documentary was completed. It is perfect for what the documentary is all about.
Bessie at present and her future life plans
Bessie shared with Victor Magazine that during the pandemic, she was happily stranded in the Philippines with her family. She was not allowed to go out, so she found something to do at home to keep herself busy. In the first year, she published and worked on the layout and art direction of the coffee table book, “Through a Writer’s Lens by Ruben V. Nepales.” It won First Prize at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards 2022. In the second year of the pandemic, she published a second coffee table book, “FASHION. Filipino. Hollywood. The World. by Janet Nepales.
Bessie mentioned, “I am enjoying book publishing so much that I plan to publish more books in the future”. She also plans on traveling again with her family and friends so she can add to her growing list of countries she has visited. At the moment, she’s in her 124th country and plans on adding more countries in the future.
Bessie started traveling when she was 18. She would spend at least an entire week or two in one city while she immerses herself with the culture of the current place she is visiting. Total immersion is the only way for Bessie’s travels.