Anton San Diego's Hot List 2020: Elegant And Glamorous Women Of Philippine Society
If there was one woman in society who was larger than life, it was Elvira Manahan. I remember watching her on her television talk show Two for the Road, mesmerised by her humour, elegance and that infectious, signature laugh. She was a true non-conformist that even her irreverence was admirable. Elvira Ledesma Manahan was born in Silay City, Negros Occidental to Simeon Ledesma and Conchita Bermejo. She moved to Manila to stay with her grandmother and studied at the Holy Ghost University (Holy Spirit).
At 16, she married Armando Eduque and got pregnant with him. One fateful day during World War II, there was an air raid; and the story was that Eduque ran after their dog and did not return home for days. Elvira went out to find him and found him dead on the street. Not too long after, she met Dr Tito Manahan, whom she married within a year.
At a time when people in high society looked down on showbiz personalities, Elvira had several movies tucked under her belt, not to mention a show that showcased her one-of-a-kind humour, which was also not very appropriate in those prim-and-proper days. She was known to never follow the script and blurt out the most outrageous remark. Like when she introduced the Ambassador of Chile as the Ambassador of Argentina and said, “Why? Is Chile not in Argentina?” Or when she introduced a soap brand and said, “Maja, the soap of beautiful women!” And nonchalantly followed up with, “It is?”.
Her friendship with legendary designer Ramon Valera who made her his muse captured society’s admiration and sealed her as an icon.
Her life was cut short at age 59 when Jaime Balatbat, a realtor, entered her home, killed two of her household helps and shot Elvira in the head. Philippine society was shocked by her tragic demise. Today, there is still no one who could ever replace Elvira as the society icon she once was. She was simply a cut above the rest.
In a Tatler article which came out in 2000, Marge Enriquez wrote, “Today, this writer can’t find anyone in the Philippine landscape—young or old, who is as fascinating a subject as Elvira was.” She broke all the rules.
There were many covetous labels attached to Tita Conching, a term of endearment for Conchita Sunico. She was the original “It Girl”, the Hostess with the Mostest and the first Patroness of the Arts and Fashion. Born on 18 December 1913, the youngest of four daughters, she captured Manila’s attention when she won the title Carnival Queen. She gave the most exquisite of parties that it became a status symbol to be on her guest list, writes Marge Enriquez in a Tatler interview in March 2003.
In the Sixties, she organised the Karilagan International fashion, cultural and dance troupes that travelled the world to promote Philippine culture. She also has been attributed to helping the careers of numerous designers and fashion models because of the luncheon fashion shows at the Manila Hilton. She had a friendly rivalry with good friend Chito Madrigal who became the social directress of the Hyatt and produced lunch fashion shows as well that eventually overshadowed her Hilton shows.
In the late Seventies, former First Lady Imelda Marcos appointed her as the head of the Metropolitan Theater (The Met) with the task of bringing it back to its former glory. She was a stickler to quality and perfection that the theatre was reinvigorated by her leadership and received much success. Once a diplomat asked her if she was the executive director of The Met, to which she replied, “Correction, I am the Met.”
Tita Conching passed away in 1990 at the age of 76. In September 2003 friends, families and protégées held a commemorative concert for her at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Like all her events and anything she had a hand in, the concert was perfectly done and well attended.
CONSUELO “CHITO” MADRIGAL COLLANTES
As one of the seven children of the industrialist Don Vicente Madrigal, Consuelo Alejandra Madrigal or “Chito” had a place awaiting her in high society. She played this role to the hilt, too: staying in the centre of the social whirl, travelling in style and becoming a habitue in top stores and chic restaurants in New York and other capital cities in the world. But she went beyond the definition of a society girl with her other laudable pursuits.
Her education was solid. From the University of Sto Tomas where she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Commerce, she went on to graduate with a law degree, top honours, from the Catholic University of America as well as passed the American Bar.
Back home, she became not only a bold-face name in society columns but a major influencer in business and politics. She sat on the board of major banks in the country as well as ran a highly successful real estate company. Two Philippine presidents who got her support were Diosdado Macapagal and Joseph Estrada.
But what defined her in society was her good heart. She was always ready to help.
Doña Chito, as Madrigal was known later, was the patron behind the successful lunchtime fashion shows at the Hyatt Hotel, giving a big boost to the fashion industry. She also supported the designer Ernest Santiago when he established the legendary club, Coco Banana.
Following in the footsteps of her father, Doña Chito maintained several charities in her hometown in Bicol as well as with the Catholic Church, for which she was given the Order of Saint Sylvester by the pope. Her charities were numerous and diverse, ranging from scholarships to microfinance, from housing to livelihood. In a previous interview with a major daily, her niece Chu-Chu Madrigal said, “It’s all about helping others but not through dole-outs. Tita Chito wanted people to have their dignity by making them partners in the enterprise. She would always tell us that helping others is a privilege.”
Doña Chito’s philanthropy continues today through the Consuelo “Chito” Madrigal Foundation, led by her two nieces Chu-Chu and Ging Gonzalez-Montinola. She was married twice, first to Luis “Chichos” Earnshaw Vazquez and then to Manuel “Manoling” Collantes, minister of Foreign Affairs under the Marcos administration.
In fashion, she was fearless, the ultimate trendsetter. She shocked conservative society by being the first to wear strapless gowns, pose nude, sport a China doll bob (that many copied) and other bold firsts.
Born in February 1922 to Don Claro M Recto and Angela Sitos, she was called “Pichona”, which was later shortened when she was in her teens. She studied in Marymount College in New York and when WW2 broke out, she was asked to return to Manila where she met and married Johnny Ysmael with whom she had four children. They were married for ten years, until Johnny died from tuberculosis.
Johnny left a trust fund for their children but Chona received the smallest amount. She met a German expat, Hans Kasten, and they married and had a son. Things didn’t go well with the marriage and Chona was forced to work, something she had not done much of or at all. She trained the staff of Philippine Airlines, worked as a consultant for Joanne Drew and did a fashion line for Rustan’s called “Panache”. Despite maintaining a full day’s work, she was still seen in most high-profile evening socials and lent elegance and class to them. She would be the toast of the town, along with friend Mary Prieto.
In an interview for a newspaper she said, “I’m very much against overdressing. Sometimes people go overboard. They don’t know that presence is so much more important. When you enter a room, you have to make people see you and know you’re there without you saying anything or trying hard.” Marge Enriquez writes in that same Tatler interview in 2001 that Chona “ruled it over the fashion and social scene and was the epitome of elegance and women felt like mere mortals beside her”. Her son Louie said, “There could be no one like Chona. She wasn’t trying to perpetuate anything other than being herself.”
In 1987 at the age of 65, she passed away due to colon cancer. She lived a colourful life filled with fashion, style, heartbreak and mystery.
She was the quintessential society lady and style icon who caught the imagination of Filipinos when she starred in her first movie Milagro ng Nazareno under the screen name Yolanda Marquez. Born in San Francisco, California to a Filipino father and a Mexican mother, Maria (Mary) Luisa Hernandez always wanted to be an actress and was able to achieve that dream when her parents relocated to Manila. This dream was cut short, however, because of WW2. She had to work in different jobs from telephone operator to office assistant and even opened a coffee shop with friends.
She married Leo Prieto (considered the father of the Philippine Basketball Association) after Manila was liberated by the Americans and lived a relatively quiet life. That is, until Conching Sunico asked her to model for a fashion show, transforming her into a society muse. She developed close ties with Chito Madrigal and Chona Kasten, and together, they were the most celebrated women of their time, for their looks, style and elegance.
They were the toast of town in the spirited Seventies, and were constant fixtures at parties society by being the first to wear strapless gowns, pose nude, sport a China doll bob (that many copied) and other bold firsts. Born in February 1922 to Don Claro M Recto and Angela Sitos, she was called “Pichona”, which was later shortened when she was in her teens. She studied in Marymount College in New York and when WW2 broke out, she was asked to return to Manila where she met and married Johnny Ysmael with whom she had four children. They were married for ten years, until Johnny died from tuberculosis. Johnny left a trust fund for their children but Chona received the and events, most especially at the legendary disco, Coco Banana. In the Eighties, she, along with a group of women, joined the faculty of John Robert Powers, a modelling, etiquette and personality development school for women. She also had a popular advice column in the Philippine Star called “Just Asking”.
She was a favourite of many designers and attributed her style and demeanour to her studio days, as per an article in the Tatler in 2008, when actors and actresses were trained to be well-groomed on and off-camera. This would carry on to her family life (she had a daughter and three sons). Her granddaughter, Marta Lovina, said in the same interview, “She constantly drummed into our heads that we had to look good, no matter what we were feeling or how our day was, or who we were going to see or the occasion we were going to attend. We remember her as a woman of style and substance, grace and propriety.
Of all the ladies in this feature, I knew her the most as she was the mother of my stepfather. We featured her several times in the magazine for our best dressed and most invited list, and she, alongside Chito Madrigal-Collantes, won the Pinnacle Award at the first Tatler Ball. In June 2009, two months after the death of her dear husband Leo, she passed away from pneumonia. At the wake, there was a beautiful black and white portrait of her wearing a black gown and opera pearl necklace, the epitome of understated elegance and taste, just how her world was.
This article was originally published in Tatler Philippines December 2020 issue. Download it on your device via Magzter.
- Photography Jaime Zobel de Ayala
- Images Chingay Lagdameo and Suzie Benitez