The Nature of Sisters
Despite their differences, Criselle, Gin, and Angela Panlilio are, most importantly, each others’ witness to their lives most defining moments.
From left: Criselle Alejandro, Gin Samson, and Angela Panlilio all wearing Vania Romoff gowns
The story of their youthis something many other siblings share: petty fights that made two older sisters the worst of enemies and a much younger sister being an annoying tag along they were forced to take care of. But then age caught up and maturity settled in, and now everyone’s the best of friends. “Catfights were a regular occurrence between me and Gin, who was just a year younger than me,” says Criselle Panlilio-Alejandro, the eldest of the Panlilio sisters. “She would tease me or initiate things that would aggravate me and I was pikon so I always got irritated and worked up.” They used to share a room until their parents had to separate them because of all the clashing. Gin Panlilio-Samson then had to be roommates with Angela Panlilio who was nine years younger. “When we were younger, Gin and I used to fight like cats and dogs,” Angela relates. “I always sought her approval since I looked up to her and Criselle, but she always saw me as the annoying little sister.”
Criselle wearing a Missoni dress and De Capricho diamond earrings and ring
In retrospect, they all think the bickering was caused by their strong personalities, now tempered by a better understanding of the world and each other. “Now that we’re older, we’ve overcome our differences and we’re a lot more patient and understanding of our weaknesses,” says Gin. “We now appreciate the strengths each of us have.” After all, they grew up in such a close-knit and affectionate family, which stems from their mother Brin Panlilio’s side (the Cesar Bautista clan), from the first to the third generations. “We have lunch together every Sunday—close to 40 relatives—and spend every important family occasion together,” Criselle says. They have also learned to be more expressive with each other over the years, making it a point to tell each other how much they love them through text messages or over the phone. “While we had our fights, we were taught to always look out for each other regardless of the situation and I feel that we have managed to do just that growing up and even as we go on our own today,” adds Gin. “I see my siblings as some of my closest friends, leaning on them and also gaining strength from them when we get together to catch up on day to day events.”
Gin wearing a Valentino top and De Capriho ring
Their bond as sisters grew deeper now that they all don’t live under the same roof. Criselle works as the deputy managing director of Balibago Waterworks System, their family business in Pampanga, a water utility that operates in 40 franchises in 13 provinces in Luzon and Visayas, prompting her to spend at least three days in Angeles for work. Gin, who’s married with two kids, is an interior designer and runs a specialized packaging company, which allows her the most flexible working hours and to visit Criselle in Pampanga or Angela at home every now and then. “I like to pop into their lives every so often,” she says. Angela, on the other hand, works as a media and events officer at [email protected], one of Manila’s most in-demand public relations agencies, which keeps her plate always full.
Angela in a Jil Sanders top and De Capricho earrings
They admire each other for how they’ve all turned out and, more important, for the kind of relationships they were all able to forge. “None of my siblings expect dole outs,” says Criselle. “For Gin specifically, I am proud of how she can balance everything on her plate, from living out her dream as an interior designer and entrepreneur to managing her household and her two kids and assisting my parents in their needs as well.” The eldest sister is equally admired for her selflessness, “putting her dream of being in the fashion industry aside in order to run my dad’s company,” shares Angela. “She leaves her own family three days a week to live in Pampanga for work. She is generous with everything she has.”
Ever since Angela and gin shared a room back when they were still in school, they bonded with each other. When Gin got pregnant, Angela was the first to know. “She called me up to our room one afternoon and showed me a photo of her ultrasound,” remembers Angela. “I was 15 at the time and really felt her trust in me.” “She turned out to be my best friend,” agrees Gin. “The one who used to be the annoying tag along!” They call Criselle the “manang,” who can play the role of the strict sister and caring adult at the same time. “I’ve always looked to her for advice, whether for school or for personal matters and never has she turned me down. She’s always been selfless. Today, we’re very close and I love being around her,” shares Gin.
More than grand gestures, the Panlilio family is more keen on showing affection through simple things—from Angela babysitting or visiting Gin’s and Criselle’s kids to writing notes and letters to each other to uplift each other’s spirits—all a far cry from their younger selves. Which brings to light what they say is their greatest lesson on sisterhood: “That all things can be forgiven,” Criselle says, laughing.
Hard Work Is the Royal Road
Success didn’t come easy for Princess, Duchess, Contessa, and Marqueza Banal. They had to earn it.
Princess, Contessa, Marqueza, and Duchess
Their parents definitely did something right when they decided to make the Banal sisters spend their childhood summers back in their Pampanga hometown. Princess, Duchess, Contessa, and Marqueza recall that living in the house of their grandmother, Apo Oniang, for weeks was quite tedious but also fun and unique. During the Holy Week, they would watch movies about Lent, attend processions, and even sing the passion of Christ in native Kapampangan. The rest of their stay would involve going to church with Apo Oniang and doing chores—“every day!” emphasizes second to the eldest sister Maria Jesusa Banal-Silao, who goes by the nickname Duchess. “During those times, we thought of those summer days as torture.” They swept the garden, picked fruit in their backyard, raked and burned leaves, watered the plants, cleaned the house, cooked meals, and took turns massaging their grandmother’s tired feet at night. They prayed the rosary and attended Mass daily, too. “It was no holiday for kids,” recalls the youngest Maria Jazmin Banal, also known as Marqueza. “We would even sleep on the bamboo floor at night—with kulambo and katol!” But for Apo Oniang, hard work never went unrewarded. At the end of each day, when chores were done, they were allowed to play and were treated to halo-halo, bibingka, or ensaymada, or sometimes even rewarded with a trip to the local carnival. “Play and meal time were allowed only after everything was spic and span,” says Princess. Indeed ironic for girls nicknamed with royal titles, but an experience they could only look back on with pride and joy. “We learned to appreciate it as we got older. It reinforced the respect and love for family. It taught us discipline, the value of hard work, and being rewarded for it,” shares Duchess.
Contessa in a Rajo Laurel gown and Bulgari bracelet and Princess in a Rosa Clara gown
The sisters—all type A personalities, headstrong, and passionate—have obviously taken these childhood lessons to heart, with everyone successful in their chosen fields today. Maria Jessica Banal-Russell or Princess, the eldest sister (they have four brothers), was a banker for over 25 years, and rose to become French bank Credit Lyonnais’s country manager—its first Filipino and female country manager in the Philippines and in the Asia Pacific region. Today, she is an independent director at a local investment house. Duchess, who finished her medical degree at the U.P. College of Medicine, now privately practices as an obstetrician-gynecologist and infertility specialist at St. Luke’s Medical Center Global City, the Medical City, and Manila Doctors Hospital, apart from being an associate professor at the University of the Philippines’ Department of Obstetrics-Gynecology. The third sister, Maria Jethra Banal-Pascual, nicknamed Contessa, shifted from being a licensed physical therapist to become a banker and now a managing director at Deutsche Bank. The youngest, Marqueza, a litigation lawyer, is a partner at one of the country’s most respected law firms.
Marqueza in an Escada Sport top, Rosa Clara skirt, and Bulgari ring
Without a doubt, one thing the sisters are all seriously good at is excelling. They all look up to each other for each one’s expertise and achievements, sharing everything to this day—from legal and medical advice and financial tips to clothes and accessories just like old times. “We shared a room through college,” says Contessa. “We shared everything—books, toys, crushes, and even time with our parents.” Princess, Duchess, and Contessa were born a year apart, allowing them to build a unique closeness especially when they were younger. Marqueza, five years younger than Contessa, admits she was closer to the two brothers who were born before her. “My sisters went to the same school and they were very close growing up. With the age gap, I could not relate to them in the same way then. But my relationship with them blossomed when I started working. The age difference didn’t matter anymore. They are among my best friends now,” she beams. It is evident at our photo shoot, with everyone complimenting their “baby sister” as she dons her frilly dress and poses for the camera. Candid please, remarks the photographer. Marqueza forces a giggle, and everyone bursts into strangely similar laughter. “When we talk and laugh we all sound the same,” says Duchess.
Duchess in her own gown, shoes, and jewelry
Through the years, the sisters have helped each other, their strengths complementing each others’ lives. Princess has always played the role of the eldest sister, which today means spearheading all family activities, travels, and weekly get-togethers or being the sisters’ top life adviser. “I like keeping our family together,” she emphasizes. Apart from making sure everyone shows up at the regular Sunday lunches at their parents’ house (which they may only miss if they’re traveling or they’re sick), she makes it a point to organize weekday cocktails or dinners, spa treatments, or salon time with her sisters. Duchess, on the other hand, is fondly called Doctor Mom, being everyone’s go-to for all their medical concerns. Being a runner, she is also their health and fitness inspiration, getting everyone to run races with her every now and then. As a gynecologist, she took on the role of Contessa’s attending physician at two crucial times. “Words are not enough to express the joy she has given me in delivering my only baby safe and healthy. She was also the one who performed my myomectomy five years ago,” Contessa relates. And while she shares the role of financial adviser with her fellow banker sister Princess, Contessa is better known in the family as the most compassionate and the kindest one. “Family members approach her for anything under the sun,” Princess says of her. “Yes, and if there is a conflict in the family, she is the first to make an effort to ease the tension,” adds Marqueza, who given her profession, is the automatic adviser for all legal matters—from things as simple as having their valuable artworks documented to fixing land titles. “She is highly principled and offers a refreshing but firm perspective on many things,” says Princess. “If we want a straight answer, we get it from her.” Marqueza is the family’s music guru, being an audiophile and avid concert goer. In fact she’s dragged her sisters along to shows of her favorite bands, from the Killers and Snow Patrol to John Mayer, Phil Collins, and Coldplay. “Even if they’re not familiar with their music,” she says, laughing. “I also actually have an anonymous blog where I post my favorite songs,” she reveals. “I do it because it makes me happy and it doesn’t matter if no one gets to read it. It’s something I won’t miss doing even if I’m tired from work or a night out.”
The many stories they tell about each other reveal a lot about the Banal sisters, but the manner they converse, compliment, and treat everyone else with genuineness and grace reveals most about who they truly are. As much as they are aware of the great things they are capable of accomplishing, they are nevertheless humbled by the trials their family of eight siblings also had to experience through the years. For the Banals, their hard work paid off not from choosing to do what was easy, but from always doing what they knew was right.