By Apo Española. Photos by Ralph Mendoza, styling by Rex Atienza
There’s a concept in animation called the “uncanny valley”: as a character increases in human likeness, so do the feelings of familiarity and empathy towards it. Mapped out as a graph, that emotional response is a line on an upward trajectory. But the “uncanny valley” is the sharp dip that the line takes right before the point of ordinary human appearance: it represents the discomfort people feel towards a subject that appears almost—very close to, but not quite—real.
Uncanny valley is where I am nowadays as a casual fan of AlDub, the television supercouple and social media phenomenon that sprang from the Eat Bulaga! segment Kalyeserye. And uncanny valley is where I am especially with respect to Richard R. Faulkerson, Jr., screen name Alden Richards, male half of AlDub.
I’m uneasy that AlDub grows ever closer to encapsulating the non-committal flirtations of millennial romance. I’m uneasy that its quirks have begun to reflect myself and my friends with increasing accuracy. Most of all, I’m uneasy about Alden: the more that he plays himself on TV six days a week, the more I’m convinced that he is expertly concealing his true self from public scrutiny.
So when I was told I was getting a one-on-one interview with Alden, I set out on a mission. I had considered making a goal of things ranging from the innocuous (like getting him to put his arm around me for a selfie) to the temporary restraining order-worthy (like confirming the true depth of his dimples). But these could be done quickly, with a little audacity, and a lot less investigative will than I was hoping to deploy. No, my mission was going to take full advantage of the fact that I was going to be within his orbit for one full morning.
Hence, on the day of the interview, I arrived on set determined to solve the puzzle that was Alden Richards.
Kalyeserye is a lesson in genre-bending. I’ve been watching it for months, and I still don’t know how to explain it. Even Alden himself is loath to call it just one thing—in his words, “It’s a little acting, a little improvisation, a little reality.” He reveals that Kalyeserye is largely unscripted: the cast receives a general idea of the day’s storyline and fill the episode with their own improvisations (though, Alden admits with a grin, “I search for pick-up lines”). Aside from that, he says, “Just be ready for spontaneous changes and [the] spontaneous actions of others.”
“It’s just the magic of Kalyeserye,” he adds. “It has never been done, and when we do it, it’s like we’re just playing.”
True to teleserye form, Kalyeserye is indeed rife with drama, passion, convoluted storylines, and moral lessons. It is also full of spur-of-the-moment comedy, thanks to the talents of Wally Bayola, Jose Manalo, and Paolo Ballesteros as three elderly sisters. And, most of all, it heavily features the will-they-or-won’t-they romance between Alden and “Yaya Dub,” played by Maine Mendoza.
Reel or real? There’s the rub. On the July 16, 2015 show, Maine broke character and became visibly flustered by Alden’s handsome mug on the split-screen, because who wouldn’t? The rest of the Eat Bulaga hosts caught on, teasing Alden and Maine, and as viewers felt the secondhand kilig, AlDub was born.
But what has tantalized audiences more than anything is the possibility of the love team’s affections being more than just for show: over time, Alden has dropped the pretense of talking to “Yaya Dub” and now prefers to call Maine by name. Their fellow hosts joke about the couple’s growing closeness on and off-camera. Candid photos of them together are shared online hundreds of thousands of times. Ardent fans insist that Maine and Alden are keeping a blossoming romance under wraps.
I guess it can be said that I’m only one of millions suddenly interested in the private lives of AlDub: if there is an onscreen Alden and an off-screen Alden, I’m determined to finally tell the difference.
Picture the pantheon of Philippine celebrity love teams. Among others: Claudine and Rico. Jolina and Marvin. Judy Ann and Wowie. Antoinette and Dingdong. Kristine and Jericho. Bea and John Lloyd.
And someday—I’m calling it—Maine and Alden.
AlDub is the 2010s’ answer to love teams past, and is a natural development in the history of the Pinoy love team. It exhibits the nineties’ cheesiness and G-rated coquetry, along with the real-life mystique and intrigue of the aughts, but filtered through this decade’s cultural cornerstone: social media. The volume and tenacity of the AlDub fanbase is a thing to behold—last year, at the peak of Kalyeserye, millions of fans broke Twitter records on a daily basis.
Alden is well aware of the sea change that social media has brought to his life as a celebrity. “It made the world even smaller,” he says. With a smaller world comes greater opportunities to inspire: he narrates an encounter with a 60-year-old widow living in Orange County, California, who became a fan of Kalyeserye after mourning her husband’s death. “I didn’t know the story yet, then I met her. She was shaking, stuttering… she didn’t know what she was going to say to me.” Alden muses, “It’s really life-changing for me to be an inspiration to people, to change their lives, make them feel not alone, make them feel happy.”
But he knows, too, that there’s no pleasing everyone, especially not on the Internet. “They always have something to say,” he says, “and at the end of the day, it’s up to us [whether] we’ll get affected by that. But with me, I’ve learned how to not listen and to not pay attention to it. You’ll go crazy with the bashers.”
Yet Alden’s Internet persona is easily accessible, the sum of whatever he decides to share in 140 characters. Today, I’ve decided to push my luck by uncovering a little more. After narrating the emotional encounter with the widow, I attempt to probe, asking, Do you consider yourself an emotional guy?
“I am emotional,” he agrees quickly. “What you see is what you get… I mean, whatever Alden is, whatever you see on Eat Bulaga!, that’s me.”
So you’re not worried, I ask, that people will confuse the Alden you’re portraying onscreen as you are in real life?
He shrugs. “It’s really up to them. They decide. They will be the judge of that. I will not tell them what to believe, because I do the things I do because I like to do them. So if I’m gonna be judged in a negative or positive way doing that, it’s up to them. I will not tell them what to think.”
Laughing, he adds, “Judge me.”
It’s difficult to put a verb to how the AlDub phenomenon found its way into headlines, hashtags, and households in 2015. I could say it exploded, which implies the instantaneousness of a dropped bomb, but it was actually a little more gradual than that.
Alden would know just how gradual. He did, after all, arrive on the scene as a GMA talent way back in 2010, and saw moderate success, with such highlights as the teenage series Tween Hearts and the primetime soap Carmela (co-starring no less than Marian Rivera, the network’s biggest star). AlDub, then, though seemingly sudden, was actually a breakthrough long due for him, and it finally catapulted him into MMFF film, EDSA billboard, McDonald’s ad-level ubiquity.
Even with a hotter spotlight on him, however, Alden’s boy-next-door image has remained mostly unchanged over the years. Sitting across from him in his make-up chair, I sincerely wonder how much of it has to do with his youthful appearance: he is all soft features and gentle roundness, handsome the way your first crush in college was, before college toughened him up. (Alden is 24.) There is also an irresistible mischief about him: he talks about being roughly handled during fan encounters, and jokingly, I venture, Is Alden Richards ready to get hurt?
“Double meaning?” he grins, adding, “Of course. Always ready.”
There’s a greater self-discipline centering Alden, who waited patiently for his big break, found success in spades, and yet, is aware of how fleeting it all might be. Now, Alden and Maine’s interactions on Eat Bulaga have gone from the heady thrills of the chase to the relaxed banter of two people certain in each other (though from where that certainty flows, we can still only guess).
In response, the nation seems to be sweating out its collective AlDub fever. In a January 15, 2016 piece in Inquirer.net, marketing expert Josiah Go analyzed AlDub’s waning viewership, citing data from Kantar Media: from a peak of 6.2 million households viewing Tamang Panahon in October 2015, the numbers plummeted to 4 million a month later, to a low of 2.65 million by December. As of this writing, Kantar Media reports that rival noontime program It’s Showtime has closed Eat Bulaga’s previously immense lead in the ratings, with the two now jockeying for single-digit differences.
Business pundits forecast the end of AlDub’s fifteen minutes, even as Alden and Maine inundate the airwaves and skylines. It’s a strange and daunting position to be in. But Alden has prepared for this in philosophy—not because he is a defeatist, but because thoughts of the end only seem to fuel his optimism and boundless gratitude. The mantra is, “Seize the day.” The full quote, from Greek poet Horace: “Seize the day, and trust little in tomorrow.” In order to keep afloat, Alden does just this.
“What happens when this is all gone?” he asks. “What happens after this ends? Because I have those times where I’m on the verge of burning out—of course, we’re all just human. We can’t really handle everything. So I just think of it as, ‘What happens when this is over?’ What if it’s not like this anymore?”
So you’re for living in the moment, I chime in.
“And counting my blessings every day,” he declares. “It’s a must.”
Alden’s good-boy appeal is part of what makes his little flirtations with Maine on national television so delicious to watch: they were both so tentative towards each other in the beginning that their few bold moments—a daring pick-up line, a split second of holding hands, a stolen kiss on the cheek—garnered the biggest reactions.
I introduce to Alden the idea of Love Languages, thought up by author Gary Chapman. There are five: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical intimacy. I ask him what he thinks his love language is.
“Time,” he answers firmly. “There’s no other gift. Above all of those five things, time is number one. Words are not enough to let someone know how much you care for them, how much you love them. Time is really the main thing you can show if you care about someone… If I’m giving someone time already, and I’m giving it my all and all my time, that’s the ultimate language of love for me.”
I ask him if he and Maine are friends outside of Kalyeserye.
“We are. We’re very close.” He says this with such a conspiratorial smile that I (fangirl that I am) am momentarily distracted; I neglect to ask him just how much quality time they are spending.
Quality or not, it is certainly much more time than from when AlDub was starting out. Wally’s character, Lola Nidora, made sure to throw many an obstacle in Alden’s path to meeting Yaya Dub. The most frustrating for Alden was the September 5, 2015 episode: after a chase, Alden and Yaya Dub finally find each other on opposite ends of a hallway backstage. They run toward each other, only to have a plywood wall fall from the ceiling between them, eliciting the viewers’ frustration and Alden’s tears.
“When I became emotional during that time, it really was unexpected. I didn’t know why. I don’t up to this point.” He struggles to find the words. “I didn’t know the wall would come down, actually. That’s the thing about Kalyeserye: we surprise ourselves. Even us, we don’t know what to expect the next day.”
But it’s no surprise that his most joyful moment was Tamang Panahon, which aired live from the Philippine Arena on October 24, 2015. “That was the official first time I saw Maine up close, really talk to her in person. You get excited, too, because you only see this person—your love team—onscreen for what, eight, nine weeks? Then after a while, given the chance to see her in person… it’s definitely something to be joyful about.”
Today, in addition to their daily stint on Eat Bulaga, he and Maine appear together on magazine covers, billboards, and television advertisements. The two seem to be hitting their stride in coming to terms with their own celebrity status, though Alden admits to giving Maine guidance about navigating the industry (the least he could do as her “good friend,” he says).
It’s advice that betrays a little of what he’s been through in his five years: “Show business is really hard. It’s really complicated, it’s really tiring, it’s really demanding, it’s unfair. But you just have to enjoy it and deal with the things you can control, and not the things you can’t control. Because of course, when you can’t do anything about it, you just let it be. And that thing or that situation will take care of itself.”
I wrap up the interview with Alden and linger to watch him shoot for the cover. If I hadn’t interviewed him just before this, I would be convinced that there was still the slightest subterfuge here. Now, though, I’m not so sure. There’s this thing he does with his eyes, which I’m sure is just a couple of muscles tensing and relaxing on his face, but I’m transfixed by his smolder. In his magazine cover wardrobe, he is dapper and sure of himself and disarmingly handsome. Then he cracks a self-deprecating joke, and he is back to being the self-professed good boy. The transformation has come full circle. Alden has completed his orbit, and I appreciate him and AlDub better for it.
His made-on-TV romance with Maine is replete with the landmarks of millennial infatuation: the awkwardness, the inexplicable giddiness over someone you know nothing about, the high of flirting maybe once a day, the subtweets, the general public’s confusion about your relationship status, all the fucking anxiety, the eventual (and surprisingly welcome) plateau. It used to discomfit me because I couldn’t accept that my generation’s romantic narrative was as ambiguous as this. Knowing better, I’ve come to terms with AlDub’s verisimilitude. It’s stopped weirding me out now.
And as for Alden—I’ve finally figured him out, too. Alden Richards is a puzzle to me, because I believe that real and reel are discrete and separable, because I still try to classify Kalyeserye into genres, because I like to deal in absolutes. The truth is that Alden Richards is everything I observed him to be on television—unabashedly emotional, playfully coy, and earnestly sweet—but he is also all of that when barely anyone is watching. Alden Richards dances to Fantastic Baby on the blurred line of massive celebrity and boy-next-door, but he is also secure enough to navigate that gray area with ease and grace. The trick is in the misdirection, him making you think, this can’t possibly be true, even as he wears his heart on his sleeve and his tears like a man.
The truth is, Alden Richards is exactly who you think he is.
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