Modern Swan Maria Parsons on Life, Love, and Her Happy Ever After
I could tell you that Maria Parsons looks like a movie star, but you already know that. Chances are you have already flipped through these pages with increasing curiosity before your read. I’m even willing to wager that you have paused and asked yourself a few times, “Now, where have I seen her before?” Like one of Truman Capote’s swans, Maria, with her aristocratic carriage and intense gaze, looks right back at you from the glossy page. Then, as if somewhat embarrassed or merely disinterested, whichever you are more inclined to believe, her careful survey ends and she slowly looks away, proving that she is every much the enigma that you thought her to be.
Beautiful and privileged, Maria whispers the quiet elegance and simplicity of the truly refined, yet also possesses the mischievous demeanor and Hollywood glamour that attracts us all. Whether she is entertaining clients at her new lifestyle emporium, Lanai, or walking around the garden of her family’s weekend home in Calatagan, she moves through the world with a confidence that comes with a great sense of underlying strength and security. Clearly not without pedigree, Maria is the only daughter of Toni Serrano Parsons, the former model and socialite turned grande dame of Philippine floral design, and Patrick Parsons, an American-Filipino businessman and son of Charles “Chick” Parsons, the decorated veteran who helped Filipinos and Americans during World War II.
For Love and Lemons top and skirt, LCP, 3/F MDI building, 10th Avenue corner 39th street, Bonifacio Global City, 815.7510.
Maria grew up in Manila with her parents and her older brother Patrick. On many weekends, Toni would pack up the family and bring them to her farm in Calatagan, where they would sleep back then in a bahay kubo without electricity or running water. Summers were spent at their home in Tuscany, where Maria says she and Patrick were allowed to run around and get lots of bumps and bruises, far from the watchful eye of a helicopter nanny. “Mom is a real cowboy and I get a lot of my drive from her, while it was Dad who distilled a spirit of adventure in us,” she shares. “He found it important for us to be balanced. He didn’t expect us to bring home the very best grades, but we were well-mannered and we grew up well. As a result we are good with our hands and we know how to fix things. We were not tethered to school, but we learned a lot from our environment.”
After her junior year at International School Manila, Maria moved to Utah to finish her secondary education at a boarding school outside Salt Lake City. Later she enrolled at Westminster College, also in Utah, and graduated with a major in art and a minor in French. “I went to Salt Lake City because I had a cousin who went to school there. I was tired of Manila and the city really got to me as a teenager,” she says. “I was young and stupid, and Salt Lake was a good place to be at that point in my life. The people were very caring with intense family values and I ended up enjoying it immensely.” When she finished college, she moved to Paris for a year to pursue further French language studies at the Sorbonne. “I figured after growing up in Asia and going to school in the U.S., it was a good next step to spend some time in Europe and experience something different while being immersed in a totally different culture. I lived on a small street in the 7th arrondisement, rue de Verneuil, and we had the most fabulous cheese shop. It was a small street, only three city blocks long, and we also had a fantastic butcher, patisserie, and fruit stand, too.” When her year in Paris came to an end, Maria made her way back to Asia and took a job with the Hong Kong-based fashion retailer JOYCE, where she worked in the marketing division for a few years. “It was fun and very intense,” she says of the experience. By 2003, she decided it was finally time to move back to Manila permanently to be with her mom and dad, but just as she began to settle into her new life, and shortly before her 30th birthday, Maria was diagnosed with stage 3 thyroid cancer.
Piamita dress and Mercedes Salazar earrings, LCP, 3/F MDI building, 10th Avenue corner 39th street, Bonifacio Global City, 815.7510.
“We had just heard of a friend being diagnosed with cancer so my dad decided that the family should all have a PET scan together. It was a new machine at the time. Dad went first and then mom. I remember that they even left me at the hospital and went home after their own scans. When my turn came I noticed it was taking a long time,” Maria recalls. “They asked me, ‘Ma’am, do you have a problem anywhere?’ They scanned some more. ‘Any thyroid issue?’ When they said thyroid, that was it. I had a sinking feeling that something was wrong because my dad had thyroid cancer in his 40s. I was only 29.”
The next few years were shadowed by even more dark clouds and challenges beyond her own health, involving those nearest and dearest to her. It was a very trying time for Maria, and in a move for self-preservation, she pulled back completely. “The situation was very hard to navigate and I was very fragile at the time. I didn’t even see my closest friends. I surrounded myself only with those who I felt would protect me.” As expected, it took a while for her to slowly reemerge from her very insular existence. She began by involving herself in activities that she was passionate about. A love of animals led her to the animal welfare organization, Compassion and Responsibility for Animals. “I have never been without a dog and I have 14 dogs at home now, most of them rescues. By working with CARA, I have now developed a love for cats, too.” Most recently, she helped with CARA’s effort to find homes for a group of pit bulls they rescued in 2012 that were being abused by a Korean syndicate for dog fight gambling. “When we rescued them, they were all in pretty bad shape. Their captor would starve them, beat them and build up the aggression. Today, the animals are doing well and are housed in Laguna where many of them still await adoption.”
Mary Katrantzou dress, Univers, One Rockwell, 553.6811; Mercedes Salazar earrings, LCP, 3/F MDI building, 10th Avenue corner 39th street, Bonifacio Global City, 815.7510; Giamba top and skirt, Univers.
Lucky for members of the syndicate that they never came face to face with Maria while she was engaging in another of her favorite pastimes. As a member of the Philippine National Benchrest Team, rifle shooting is something that Maria discovered in 2012, and as it turned out, it was something that she was pretty good at. In 2013, the team joined the Rimfire and Air Rifle World Cup and together they brought home six silver medals. It is high-power rifle shooting, however, that she says she enjoys most, and where she gets to show more of “her macho side.” She says, “It’s a small community and we’re all friends who help each other out. We practice with the military because they have the long distance ranges at the camps. I like the sport because it’s difficult and challenging. You push yourself harder each time, seeing if you can go faster but still finding the balance where you are able to shoot. You run, you fall—it’s extremely physical. I don’t condone gun violence at all, and I know there is too much of it out there, but as a sport I find it very empowering.”
Today, the very feminine Maria is sitting across from me at a table surrounded by beautiful objects and heavenly flower arrangements, inside her newest passion project, Lanai, a retail and floral store that she co-owns with her partners and childhood friends, Bianca Zobel-Warns and Natalia Zobel. Located at The Alley inside the recently redeveloped Karrivin Plaza in Makati, the compound houses restaurants, art galleries, and other small shops. I mention the fact that we couldn’t be farther away from her world of military camps and shooting ranges and she just smiles, reminding me of the fact that people—the interesting ones at least—are multifaceted. She shares that the idea of opening her own flower shop came about when she began to collaborate with her mom on the flowers for Bianca’s wedding a few years back. She then ended up taking on more small projects, and when Bianca’s brother, Jake, wed two years ago, she took the lead in the floral arrangements. In the process she discovered that she got along well with the Zobel sisters and it was then that they began to toss around the idea of opening something together that would allow them to share their fondness for beautiful things.
Alice McCall dress and Mercedes Salazar earrings, LCP, 3/F MDI building, 10th Avenue corner 39th street, Bonifacio Global City, 815.7510.
Today, Maria has seen her life come full circle. From that young girl that loathed sleeping in the bahay kubo in the middle of her mom’s farm, with its crawling insects and all, she has also learned that in the end, she is very much her mother’s daughter. Her admiration for the woman that raised her is evident in during all of our conversations. “My mom never tires. She’s nonstop and she’s been like that ever since I can remember. I saw how dedicated she was to her projects, to her farm, and to her former shop at the Mandarin. There were times when she wouldn’t come home for days—anything to get the job done,” Maria says. “I grew up with her being such a strong person that I find that it has given me a lot of confidence. She’s a wealth of information and such an inspiration. So many florists now are still drawing inspiration from what she has done.” When asked how far her mother’s aesthetic and floral style is from her own, she is quick to say that they don’t differ that much. “I may be slightly simpler than mom, because as a person I tend to be a little more muted. She is definitely the queen of bongga!”
Maria takes notice each time the door to Lanai opens. You can see from her smile that not only does she enjoy presiding over the store as a proprietor, it also gives her much happiness when she sees how much people enjoy the space that they have created. “You go through that stage where you want to distance yourself from what your parents do,” she says. “I don’t know if I was fighting this love of flowers, or if maybe it just came out later in life when I was ready, but I’m so happy that this is where I ended up.”