Remembering Conchita Sunico: The Philippine Society's First "It Girl" And Grand Dame
This feature story was originally titled as Society Empress, and was published in the March 2003 issue of Tatler Philippines.
Conchita Sunico was an extraordinary woman who was far ahead of her time. A noted bon vivant, patroness of the arts, and an extraordinary party host, she lived her life to the fullest. A stickler for details, she was a perfectionist who demanded only the very best from those who surrounded her.
She was an original in many ways. In the Commonwealth Era, she was Philippine society's first "It Girl". Throughout her life, she was looked upon as "The Hostess with the Mostest" even before the phrase was coined.
As one of the first patronesses of the arts and fashion, she originated touring Filipiniana multi-media culture-cum-fashion shows. She started benefit shows for charity and, despite the illusory flightiness of their approach, attained noble ends. Homegrown Filipino musicals flourished during her term as the Metropolitan Theatre's head honcho.
As 2003 marks her 90th birth anniversary, "Tita Conching" (as she is called by her wards) is remembered for her charismatic leadership and for nurturing the careers of designers, models, artists and cultural and civic leaders. "Conching did not do anything ordinary. She did everything in a grand way," recalls Mary Prieto.
Born on 8 December 1913, she was the youngest of four daughters of Tomas Sunico and Paz Chuidian. As one of the country's first beauty queens, she won her title, Carnival Queen in 1935 not only because of her delicate Oriental looks but more so for her larger-than-life persona. No less than President Manuel Quezon rooted for her beauty. As a beauty queen, she was one of the first Filipinas to be seen in strapless dresses to make costume jewellery chic.
She was wooed and sought after by handsome bachelors. Men were attracted to her ebullience and joie de vivre. The late Dr Constantino Manahan was her childhood sweetheart. While a student at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, he would pick her up from Assumption and take her home. After the war, Manahan married a patient who turned out to be an equally glamorous socialite, Elvira Manahan. Sunico became later linked to foreigners, including American High Commissioner Frank Murphy. Dates were held on the beaches of Sangley Point or dancing at the Riviera on Dewey Boulevard. Despite her popularity, she never married, admitting that her expectations were not met from the love of her life.
P.L. Lim was still a struggling entrepreneur when he courted Sunico. She once told him, "Oye, P.L., come back to me after the war, when you're a millionaire." Years later, Lim prospered in real estate and now owns the Peninsula Manila. Remembering his proposition, Sunico said, "Oye, P.L., I was only joking!"
Close friends describe Sunico as having strong-willed, tough and driven personality. Perhaps this may have also intimidated men.
"Nobody could tell her what to do. She wore the pants!" says Prieto.
Conching would always say in jest why she had remained single. "Nobody wanted to be Mr Sunico!"
In her circle of young and popular socialites, Prieto described her as their Mother Hen. She kept her stern eye on her younger peers if they were flirting or going out too late.
Sunico was dubbed "Perle Mesta of the Philippines" after the New York socialite known for her fabulous parties. Every occasion was a feast for the senses. There were colour motifs, among them lavender, her favourite. The place was imaginatively festooned with expensive with expensive accoutrements and imported fruits and flowers, and the bullet table was lavishly laden. The guest mix was composed of genuine friends such as Don Vicente Madrigal, Claro M. Recto, and Don Andres Soriano and their children. The party exuded a chic kind of snobbery that it had become a status symbol to be on the guest list. Meeting Sunico was the first agenda of every newly arrived diplomat. "What was meritorious was that she had no official position, yet people looked up to her," says Chito Madrigal.
With friend and fellow connoisseur Luis Araneta, they prepared unforgettable theme parties which have not been surpassed to this day. Madrigal recalled that Sunico organised an international night in the latter's house. They even went to the airport to pick up the fruits that would hang from the chandeliers. Each member from Manila's high society was in charge of a different tent that represented a country or an era in history. The food, décor and costumes had to be coordinated. When Prieto supervised the Japanese tent, she wore a kimono and served tempura and sashimi. Jaime and Bea Zobel were responsible for the medieval motif.
Read also: Mary Prieto: The Quintessential Society Lady of the Philippines
Her leadership qualities were already evident when she was still a teenager in Assumption Convent. She put together many socio-civic events, involving the younger members of upper echelons. She later became president of the Young Ladies' Association of Charity, which was, naturally, composed of high-key socialites.
Sunico worked with the underground movement by providing food and medicine to the soldiers and was later awarded the Legion of Honour by the government. After the war, she organised fundraising activities for the Anti-Tuberculosis Drive, the Red Feather, Community Chest and for the soldiers in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Except for the Kahirup Ball, which was an exclusive Visayan affair, Sunico oversaw Manila's special events. When superstar Tyrone Power and his wife Linda Christian visited the Philippines, the welcome party resolved around an island theme.
During the Macapagal administration, Sunico was appointed Tourism Commissioner. As the best friend of First Lady Eva Macapagal, she and Madrigal, Prieto and Chona Recto-Kasten would help in organising parties at Malacañang. When there were dignitaries such as Juan Carlos and Sofia, who were still Prince and Princess de Bourbon then, Sunico and Madrigal headed the reception committee and led the rigodon de honor composed of high society. During Christmas, these ladies would personally wrap Christmas packages filled with canned goods, rice and toys and distribute them to the poor.
In the early '60s, Araneta collaborated with Sunico to form a travelling fashion-cultural troupe which became known as Karilagan International. She introduced the concept of promoting Filipino ethnic dance and costume with audio-visual presentations and Western fashion appropriating local motifs. The first venture was composed of designers Jose "Pitoy" Moreno Jr, Ben Farrales and Aureo Alonso and such models as Prieto and Kasten. Karilagan later presented shows in the Hotel chain in European and Asian capitals.
Moreno recalls Sunico's genius for organisation and fastidiousness to the last detail. From her, he continues the vision of advancing the Philippines abroad through fashion and cultural presentations. Today, he holds a track record of such shows that have not been equalled by other designers. Also known for organising weddings before the era of the bridal coordinator, Moreno says he owes his skills to Sunico. Although she herself was never a bride, Sunico was the doyenne of weddings.
Read more: Pitoy Moreno: The Fashion Czar of Asia
During the Marcos era, Sunico's day job was in the stock exchange. As a friend of the Delgados, the local owners of the Manila Hilton, she was invited to be the social directress. Anybody who was called to Room 1107 would either be praised, reprimanded or offered an opportunity to grow by the Grand Dame. It was a breeding ground for creative ideas as well as an alternative eatery. Managers would flock to her room when she served home-cooked meals.
Sunico organised Karilagan luncheon fashion shows and in the evening combined them with audio-visual and cultural presentations. Aside from the senior designers such as Moreno, Sunico also honed the talents of the late Arturo Cruz, Christian Espiritu, the late Baby Gozum, Nena Lapus, Joe Salazar, ready-to-wear pioneer Rusty Lopez and top seller Bobby Novenario, Rene Salud, Oskar Peralta, Rudy Fuentes, Tente Wilwayco and Boysie Villavicencio who is now a whippet breeder.
The Karilagan introduced models and beauty queens such as Suzie Moya-Benitez, Rosky Hilado, Ana Marie Arambulo, Jennifer Peña, Marites Alava, Tech Lopez, Anda Carmona, Tisha Dominguez, Erlyn Bernardez, Margie Moran, Dolores Ascalon, Luz Policarpio and Anna Lorraine Kier. The evenings introduced such talents as Nonoy Froilan and choreographer Rene Hofilena. All the shows were always packed and fully sponsored, thanks to Sunico's connections.
Suzie Benitez, who started out as a ramp model and later became the Metropolitan Theatre's business development manager, describes Sunico as a hands-on producer from the show's concept, the line-up of talents and the program notes.
Sunico disciplined her models and designers. She told models to lose weight if they needed to and yelled at designers if they were late for their call. If they did not behave properly, she would call their attention. She also wanted exclusivity with Karilagan. Chito Madrigal's appointment as Hyatt Regency's social directress posed stiff competition to the Hilton. Sunico pointed out to Madrigal the rivalry it had caused, especially in the market of luncheon fashion shows. She was displeased when her talents went to the Hyatt.
"Actually, all she wanted was to be informed," says Sunico's niece Ma. Paz Lagdameo. Joe Salazar earned his reputation in the Karilagan fashion shows. Sunico gave the then young designer confidence by producing his solo shows. His exposure gave him the courage to join the prestigious Valera Awards and win for the Karilagan.
"I was constantly challenged. That was how my creativity came about," he says, continuing, "She treated us like her babies, but she was possessive. You have to know how to be loyal to her," says Salazar.
Hyatt later overshadowed the Hilton with its fresh crop of designers and models—as well as its well-heeled crowd. When Salazar eventually switched camp, Sunico was offended and they didn't speak to each other for a year. At the same time, she was losing interest in the luncheon programs as raunchy underwear fashion shows became the new form of entertainment.
In 1978, First Lady and Metro Manila Commissioner Imelda Marcos appointed Sunico to revive the lost glory of the Manila Metropolitan Theatre. In the pre-war era, the theatre was a bastion of high culture. Right until her death, Sunico devoted her time and resources to the Met. "She ran it like her own home. For us who worked there, it was quite embarrassing as she would come away ahead of us and did not leave until the show was finished, even if it were not a Met production. You'd see her in lobby, checking everything. Her style was personalistic," says Benitez.
Read also: Inside The Manila Metropolitan Theatre Restoration
She went to work in her trademark attire—shirtdresses and button-down blouses and straight skirts—matched with chunky but stunning fine jewellery. Once a diplomat said to her, "I understand that you are the executive director of the Met." "Correction," she said emphatically, "I AM THE MET!"
The Met produced the modern Filipino musical such as Hindi Kita Malimot, Maalaala Mo Kaya and Dahil Sa Iyo which were filled to the rafters. These shows attracted long queues normally seen at pop concerts.
Opening nights were always glamorous affairs. Sunico would assign a chairperson for the gala night. Manila's Finest, dressed to the nines, alighted from fancy cars. The dishes served at the cocktail receptions reflected the taste of the guest artist. For instance, when Spanish conductor Lorenzo Palomo led the Manila Symphony Orchestra, the menu revolved around his favourite foods.
Sunico always greeted Mrs Marcos with flowers during the opening night. The first Lady would be so impressed with the maintenance and commented that the floors were as shiny as mirrors. One evening though, Sunico was piled up with work and could not greet Mrs Marcos personally. Naughtily, she told her ward Boy Abunda, "If I was born a snob, then I will die a snob!"
Letters soliciting sponsorships were always willingly acknowledged by companies. The Met also boasted of its impressive roster of ticket subscribers and supporters. Benitez attributes that to Sunico's contracts which had been established over a long period of time. "Sponsors know that Tita Conching's productions were of quality and that she personally attended to them," says Benitez. "We all grew under her guidance. You would have to prove yourself. When we were not sure if we could do the job, she would boost our confidence. If she believed in you, she'd back you up," she says.
One such protégé was Boy Abunda who auditioned as a singer-actor-dancer at the Met. He was part of the Met Chorus and did bit roles and worked overtime as the production assistant. Abunda also had the nerve to wangle the juicy bit parts just to grab the audience's attention. Sunico was impressed by his diligence and spunk that she asked him to work in the public relations department of the theatre.
Their relationship was akin to Professor Henry Higgins transforming a guttersnipe into the well-bred Eliza Dolittle.
Benitez recalls that Sunico wanted her staffers to be in proper attire for work. The executive director noticed that Abunda was always dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. She told Benitez, "Oye! Que fresco. Tell him to dress up for the opening night."
Sunico was half-shocked and half-amused when Abunda wore a Barong Tagalog tucked in his tattered jeans. Nonetheless, Sunico taught her Waray ward the ways of high society, fine dining and decorum.
One thing that Abunda will always cherish is Sunico's boldness. Abunda is now a popular TV host and manages artists. "Everything that I am today was inspired by Tita Conching. She never made me feel that I was poor. She always consulted us and listened to our ideas. She was audacious. She was not an apologist for anything."
He cites an anecdote of her forthrightness. Over a luncheon, Sunico commented to an acquaintance that she spent a night at the hotel that stank. He then introduced himself as the owner. Instead of being embarrassed, she said, "You better improve your hotel!"
Abunda recalls that in the intrigue-laden theatre world, Sunico dispensed gems of wisdom. "She would tell me, 'Don't sweat the small stuff.' She taught me courage. She advised me, 'You have to choose your battles but these must be fought quietly. You don't have to wage war all the time.'" When gays were being condescended upon, Sunico taught him how to defend himself. "She told me, 'You are who you respond to.'"
During the first five years of Sunico's leadership, the Met enjoyed an annual subsidy of Php 5 million from the Metro Manila Commission. It gathered the finest talents such as composers Lucio San Pedro, Ramon Santos, Alfredo Buenaventura and introduced younger composers such as Danny Tan and Chito Toledo, director Antonio Mabesa, and dance mistress Veda Banez. Ryan Cayabyab staged his first musical Kapinangan which introduced Kuh Ledesma. It also launched the careers of Leo Valdez who starred in the Met's musicals such as Maala-Ala Mo Kaya, Gomburza and Sarungbanggi and Isay Alvarez who started out with the Chorus.
In the mid-'80s when the country's economy took a nosedive, the Met struggled for funds. The executive director would end up paying for the utility bills from her own pocket. Sunico relentlessly pursued her vision of keeping the Filipino arts scene alive at any cost. One day she suffered a mild stroke that affected her motor activity and speech, and also needed white blood cells. It came as a surprise as she was more energetic than her protégés. Steroids enabled her to get back to work again. Her health relapsed when she acquired hospital pneumonia. She died on 1 August 1990 at the age of 76.
Lagdameo and other protégés organised a foundation in Sunico's honour. In September (2003), it will hold a commemorative concert at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. "Tita Conching had this rare ability to get good people to do things together, as well as generate funds. Aside from her vision, she made things happen," says Lagdameo.
- Images Courtesy of Chingay Lagdameo and Suzie Benitez