‘Dance, dance, dance till you can no longer move’

By Janet Susan R. Nepales

The 1980s top Philippine model and one-time Balenciaga mannequin in Paris Bessie Badilla lives in the two best possible worlds: tranquil Connecticut and pulsating New York where all her gay friends are.

Beauty-brains-body Bessie Badilla is one rare gem. She is one of the most humble and outgoing persons I have ever met. It is always a joy to be in her company because of her great sense of humor. In fact, we always tell her that she should be a stand-up comic.
A Facebook fanatic just like me, we can both spend hours exchanging witty remarks one after the other. On FB, I call her “Tita Bessie.” But she is also known as “Queen B,” or “BB of the East” to distinguish her from actor Bernardo Bernardo who is “BB of the West”.

Born Maria Blesilda de Leon Badilla in Tondo, Manila, Bessie is the second of eight children of Teresa Javier de Leon and Romeo Garcia Badilla. After winning the Miss Visayas in a beauty contest, Bessie started modeling for top Philippine designers including Pitoy Moreno, Aureo Alonzo, and Ben Farrales. At one point in her fashion career, she was a Manequin du Cabin for The House of Balenciaga in Paris.

TF: What’s your advice to models on how to maintain a healthy body image?
BB: Eat everything you want and as much of it as you want now. Eat all the food you like but as little as possible of each if you can’t help yourself. Because in a few years, your doctor will tell you to stop eating all the food you like. Dance, dance, dance until you can no longer move. There will come a time when you won’t be able to.

TF: Has modeling affected the way you view your body?
BB: We all have our own physical insecurities growing up. I was very skinny as a child. I was tall and lanky. That image never bothered me until around the age of 15. I started growing breasts and became very self-conscious of what I thought was a curse. To hide my cup-C, I slouched a lot and my mother would always remind me to straighten my back. I was teased as ‘poste ng Meralco,’ an electric light post with two bulbs.

TF: Do you think media, the fashion and showbiz industries are to blame for models’ pursuit of thin-ness?
BB: I have seen too many models in New York who look anorexic. I have seen countless ordinary people walking the streets of New York looking like sticks. I think the media is slowly working on a new ‘dream’ image for young and old alike that reed thin is no longer in. Media, the fashion and showbiz industries have a new campaign targeted especially for young girls to love their body and not to starve themselves. They have started using plus-size models, and spokespersons who have realistic body weight and proportions. I really hope this new campaign works.

Bessie with daughters Blanca and Ines (center)

TF: Are your daughters into modeling?
BB: Not really. Blanca after finishing cum laude and taking her masters in London has a full time job in an art gallery in New York. She is now 24. She lives in Manhattan and I get to see her on weekends.
Ines, 16, is a sophomore at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, CT. She is my constant travel companion. I am afraid when she goes to college in two years because she is thinking of studying somewhere on the West Coast!
My stepdaughter Isabel who is now 30, has finally connected with her mother (actress) Hilda Koronel. I told her a long time ago that she would need to one day reconnect with her mother. I am happy for both of them. They are filling up lost time by Isabel’s frequent visit to California where her mother resides. I have a deep friendship with all my three daughters. Our relationship is built on love, trust and respect.

TF: How has life been for you since you left the Philippines?
BB: My family left Manila in 1987. We first moved to Singapore and lived there for four years. I became a full time corporate housewife and mother to our daughter Blanca, then 2 years old and my stepdaughter Isabel who was only 7. I managed to do some modeling in Singapore and was very lucky to do shoots in the Maldives, Nepal and India for Christian Dior, Gianfranco Ferre, Giorgio Armani and Valentino. I also did a lot of magazine covers.
In 1991, our family moved to Stamford, Connecticut and we’ve lived here since. I have done everything under the sun, from baking wedding cakes, competing in Gingerbread House Competitions, Chinese brush painting, dancing ballet.
When I lost Bambi (Castillo) to aneurysm in 2006, I made myself busy to help me cope with the loss. I set up a Gawad Kalinga Village in Pangil, Laguna in memory of Bambi and named it Bambiville. I gave back to our country when I turned 50 and chose to help the film industry. I produced “Bakal Boys” by Ralston Jover which became the most awarded Philippine Indie film of 2009.
I learned Portuguese and learned to dance samba and became the first Filipina Carnival Queen in Sao Paulo, Brazil and the first non-Brazilian to lead an Escola de Samba to win as carnival champion! Right now, I am busy with yet another new project. Together with my Pandeiro teacher, Ze Mauricio, we developed a new type of music called Brinoy music, for Brazilian and Pinoy.

TF: And still you find time for travel.
BB: Travel is the best form of education. Traveling a great deal and exploring the world! This was my late husband’s plan after retirement which never happened because he died four months before his retirement date. I am very blessed to be able to travel the world with our daughters, family and friends to some of the most exotic places in the world.

TF: You live in the best of both worlds: laidback suburban Connecticut and bustling, full of energy New York.
BB: I have always been fascinated with New York. It is full of life and has a pulse all its own. I also have all my gay friends in New York. This is my fountain of youth! I laugh with them all the time and because of this, my wrinkles turn into laugh lines!
I love my home out in the country. The peace and quiet of Connecticut is something my soul needs. I feel I have my own private zoo just by looking out my window! I am lucky to have the time to meditate during the week and take in the craziness of New York during the weekends.

TF: Have you had ‘work’ done, if you know what I mean?
BB: No, I was born beautiful (laughs).

TF: Are you dating?
BB: No I’m not.

TF: How would you like to be remembered?
BB: As a good mother. I know it sounds corny, but this is really what I want to be, a mother with happy, healthy and good children.

“Dance of Your Life,” a documentary on Bessie Badilla’s life as a widowed Asian American socialite, is in production.

Janet Susan R. Nepales is the first and only Filipina member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that does the Golden Globes. She can be reached at jrnepales_624@yahoo.com.


  1. Yolanda Yogi Dominguez Zaragoza wrote:

    She went into international, high fashion modeling and more…she would be a good mentor for all the Pinay models back home, so they too can take their craft a step farther.

  2. Evelyn R. Bosch wrote:

    excellent piece and a great online mag. kudos to you again, janet

  3. Rocio Nuyda wrote:

    First, good article Lady Jane. Second, great subject! Bessie, what a life! Also, it is never corny to be remembered as a good mother…and to be hip at the same time is a brand all its own. Bravo!

  4. […] Brazil plus Pinoy equals Brinoy. More specifically, it’s Tagalog lyrics and samba beat fused in a unique kind of musical genre. Its exponent is music entrepreneur and former fashion model Bessie Badilla. […]

  5. Frederick Maniquis wrote:

    A very interesting life for a successful migrant that could surely inspire not just women from our country but all Filipinos. You are very unique Bessie and an inspiration to us! Mabuhay ka Bessie Badilla!

  6. robery wrote:

    c’est jolie, elle tres belle

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