Black off-shoulder top, VANIA ROMOFF. Polka dot palazzo trousers, CAROLINA HERRERA. Fuchsia heels, MM6 MAISON MARGIELA. Windsor Fleur earrings, LOUIS VUITTON. Gold ribbed necklace, JANINA for JUL DIZON. On Lea’s right hand: White enamel and gold bangle, LOUIS VUITTON. Pearl and floral bangle in rose gold and floral wraparound ring in rose gold, both NICOLE WHISENHUNT. On Lea’s left hand: Rose gold ring with rose cut diamonds, NICOLE WHISENHUNT.PHOTO: RAYMUND ISAAC
Four decades after The King and I, Lea continues to sing her heart out, enthralling audiences all over the world.
When asked about her career’s longevity, Lea shrugs modestly.
“I don’t know, it could very well be circumstantial, it could very well be providence. It could very well be that over the years my Mom and my managers have had a 'slow but steady' approach to my career, rather than a 'burn hot, burn bright, burn out' strategy,” she says. “I think the people who have stayed around in this industry a long time have had the philosophy of not rushing. It’s like there are those who buck trends or set them. In my case, I think it was the philosophy of my Mom who has managed me all these so many years, prioritizing things that have nothing to do with the business. Prioritizing life.”
During her younger years in the Philippine entertainment industry, Ligaya made sure Lea stayed in school, having that “semblance of normalcy,” as she calls it. “There have been people who once they become some sort of famous, they drop out of school. My Mom was very adamant that I not go that route. ‘You have to go to school, you have to have that discipline,’ she said. I appreciated that. That’s how I learned how to prioritize things.”
Lea was one of those students who really enjoyed school, and would’ve pursued her degree in Biology at Ateneo de Manila University, if Miss Saigon hadn’t come knocking.
“My Mom says ‘Man supposes, God disposes,” and I guess this is what God had meant for me. And this is a path that has been carved out by a hand that is not of this earth. It’s interesting how you can make all these plans, but then something bigger happens, and then all your plans end up not being followed.”
At one point, Lea and Rob Chien, her Asian-American husband, had been pretty settled in Los Angeles, when a work opportunity opened up for Rob in the Philippines.
“I was perfectly happy living in L.A. at the time, and he’s from the States, so I don’t think he ever envisioned living here, but look, here we are!” she says. “He initiated it, it wasn’t even me. He said, ‘there is this offer,’ and we made the decision together. We didn’t have a timeline, and we weren’t sure how long we would live here, but that was back in 2005, and we’re still here.”
Nicole, their 12-year-old pre-teen, is herself a budding theater actress, having been cast in the Atlantis production of Matilda.
“She loves to sing and she loves going to the theater. She’s one of the best musical theater buddies I have. She enjoys theater, but I’m not exactly sure she wants to do it forever,” says Lea. “Musical theater might as well be classified as an athletic sport. It takes so much physical stamina, it takes so much mental energy, vocal stamina as well. It’s like your entire body is wrecked by the time the eight shows a week are done. Physical therapy is a necessity.”
“When I’m doing a show I have to have acupuncture, I have to do exercise, I have to eat properly, my entire day revolves around the few hours when I’m in the theater. It takes a lot of dedication and a heck of a lot of discipline. It takes a lot out of me. When I’m doing a show, no matter how big or how small the role, I need to rest, I need to get sleep, I need to not talk to people so I’m not the most social. I don’t go out a whole lot. It takes a lot of focus. There’s a lot of mental energy involved.”
Ligaya remembers the toll Miss Saigon took on her daughter those many years ago.
“There was all this emotion in the show. She was screaming at the top of her lungs every day. She almost lost her voice,” says Ligaya. “I had to take her to the doctor without telling them I was taking her to the doctor. So she was absent for one day and I took her to the doctor. The producers got mad at me, of course. They said they should be the one taking care of her. But then my doctor and their doctor said the same thing. She had to take three weeks off. Her vocal cords were swollen. She was developing nodules. It was so scary. She was so exhausted. So she was off three weeks and was given a voice coach, a voice teacher. There was that fear that she might lose her voice.”
Lea says that after months of hard work onstage, she always looks forward to breaks of just doing nothing.
“So when I do have the time to rest, I do nothing and hang out with my family and friends. I hang out hard. When I do nothing I do nothing hard, because when I work I work hard,” she says.
Lea admits that being away from Rob and Nicole is extremely difficult, and that every time she takes on a job, it is a “family decision” because it affects all of them. For Once On This Island, Lea had to be in New York for at least eight months.
“When I called Rob on the night of the Tonys to tell him that we won, he started crying because of the sacrifice that we all went through,” says Lea. “It’s not just me, it’s probably harder for them, because of my absence. It’s difficult for Nicole that I can’t always be there for her. So the fact that the show won the Tony made the sacrifices worth it. It’s like we had something to show for what we gave up.”
Lea says that when they, as a family, decide she will do a show, it has to be something worth flying halfway around the world for, giving up her life at home for so many months.
“It has to be singular and unique and creative and special,” she says.
We dare say that’s an apt description of herself.
Lea celebrates her four decades in entertainment this year with a special two-day show at PICC on October 19 and 20. Both shows were completely sold out just days after tickets were released in August.
Photographs by Raymund Isaac
Produced by Nicole Limos
Styling by Jacqui Salonga, assisted by April Lozada
Makeup by Juan Sarte
Hair by Marlon Suarez and Raymond Mateo
Additional art direction by Sandy Aranas, assisted by Hannah Lazatin and Pau Fong
Shot on location at Bank Bar Manila