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Bianca Umali Is Bright, Bold, and Fearless Beyond Her Years

With an acting career spanning more than a decade, Bianca Umali's experience continues to arm her with the wisdom needed to explore uncharted waters—and she's only getting started.

by Nicole R. Cruz | Mar 5, 2020

"For me, I can never have enough. I can never stop learning... I always look and strive for more. I never am content, and I think that’s the challenge: wanting to be better than the best you’ve already done."

Perched on a makeup chair with her profile towards me, Bianca Umali’s presence is undeniably intimidating, for lack of a better word. Perhaps it has something to do with her defined features: those large, piercing eyes, pouty lips, and a nose so naturally perfect that it had even become a point of discussion among gossipmongers. Such good looks have only served as the facade of what one can call the enigma of Bianca Umali. The GMA actress is often photographed—clad in powerful outfits, yes—with a certain strength that seems to come from within. As previous TV interviews and comments on social media had bluntly put it, maturity is what becomes her, and it was during this hot, sunny day that tales of how this commanding presence had developed became clearer.


Bianca Umali for March 2020

Time and Tide 

Having started as a commercial model at the age of two, Bianca practically grew up in the show biz industry, the inner workings of which became the only “normal” she will ever be accustomed to. She then constantly auditioned to be hired as an ‘extra talent’ in teleseryes, and eventually nabbed a spot on GMA’s children's show, Tropang Potchi, which she proclaims is what started the trajectory of her career. But behind the fun and games that her bubbly persona portrayed on-screen were fateful events that the public and her endearing fans have always known: Bianca lost both her parents in a span of five years. At the age of five, she lost her mother to breast cancer. At the age of 10, she lost her father to a heart attack. Soon after the passing of her parents, Bianca was left in the care of her doting grandmother, whom she proudly calls her superhero. “My lola was always supportive of everything I do. She was there for me. She’s my superhero. Without her, I don’t know where I would be now.”

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Despite the blanket of love from her lola that cradled Bianca as she tried to grieve the loss of her parents, she grappled with the inevitable challenges of being in a full-fledged TV show, something totally foreign to her, one-eye blind. Bianca recalls commuting to the GMA studio with her lola and a wardrobe of simple clothes in tow, clothes that were far from the sponsored garb that her co-stars flaunted. When asked if the daily grind was difficult to cope with, Bianca simply says she regarded it as the nature of her job, “It wasn’t difficult and it wasn’t easy, because I loved what I was doing—what I’m still doing. So, ‘pag mahal mo yung ginagawa mo, hindi ka mahihirapan at hindi rin siya madali. You just do it because you love doing it.” For such a thought to have entered the mind of then 10-year-old Bianca would surprise any of us, but as it turns out, this maturity with which she handles her career is merely an extension of her home life.


Aside from Bianca, 11 other girls (half-siblings and cousins) all lived under her grandmother’s roof, the feeling of which Bianca likens to a "bahay ampunan," as she fondly recalls. Being the eldest among the 12, Bianca naturally took up the responsibility to become her "lola’s assistant,” eventually learning household chores such as cleaning, cooking, and caring for babies, as some of her cousins were still infants.


With the weight of family responsibilities on her shoulders that garnered her a newly acquired independence, Bianca subsequently treated her career as a medium, through which she could make her family—especially her lola—happy. Such a mindset harbored feelings of self-doubt, leading her to think, “You’re not doing enough,” or “You’re failing the people na nag-e-expect sa ‘yo.” Tough thoughts for someone barely in her tweens, and yet, this self-awareness would prevail throughout the rest of her life, even well into the “awkward teleserye stage” that followed Tropang Potchi. No matter how big or small her role was, Bianca admits to being able to find herself in every character, as any other serious actress (years her senior) would ascertain. 


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Come Hell or High Water

After the primping and preening were through, Bianca looked every inch the established TV personality that she is now. Her larger-than-life aura immediately caught the attention of onlookers as we shot her under the scorching La Union sun, where she had to traverse rocky terrain to get the perfect shot. From afar, fans were gaping at her unreal beauty, but up close, I dare say that what was most palpable was her patience, for she had no qualms about standing atop a tall boulder or posing with arms in mid-air a thousand times. It’s this silent strength and determination that made her career quickly escalate from cookie-cutter roles to more challenging ones such as in the GMA fantasy series Mulawin vs. Ravena (2017) as the adult Lawiswis; and in Kambal Karibal (2017-2018), where she had to play polar opposite twins—one of them eventually dies and possesses the other.


However, she claims her breakout lead role was the recently concluded teleserye, Sahaya (2019), whose titular character is a young and intelligent Badjao woman that experiences discrimination upon moving to Metro Manila. “It was the most challenging role, as well as my favorite because it was life-changing. Through the process of being Sahaya, I found myself. I learned so much about myself. I found peace. It changed me.”


So monumental was the role of Sahaya that Bianca sees it not as another project but as a personal milestone through which she was able to strengthen her sense of self and beef up her courage. “I found so much of myself in her because [she is] independent [as well] and she’s someone who is okay with having nothing but her family and her culture. [I learned from her] to not give up no matter what—kahit walang wala ka na, kahit ang feeling mo yung meron ka lang yung sarili mo, ‘Wag na ‘wag kang bibigay,” Bianca says. Through Sahaya, the spirited young actress was able to achieve her desire of venturing “out of the box” to explore her acting chops, but stepping into the tenacious Sahaya’s shoes proved to be more useful in real life when adversity came her way.


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Despite the string of lead roles that she has managed to rake in before she even turned 20, she’s also had her fair share of time under the shady side of being in the prying public eye. “You know, in all my magazine covers, that question is always asked,” Bianca laughs. The topic in question is her “no makeup selfie” controversy, which came about after she had posted a barefaced photo of herself with a caption encouraging others to embrace their natural beauty. Her good intentions were received with so much backlash, with comments suggesting she was privileged and uninformed. “I was only 17, but, um looking back at it now, I understand why a lot of them would react that way or why it blew up that big,” she says, acknowledging her shortcomings. “It was not using the right words [that caused people to perceive it the wrong way]. I was just young and stupid. It was just a post. Again, I had all the good intentions, I promise,” she says earnestly.


Amidst the surge of blatant attacks, teenage Bianca took it upon herself to pause and evaluate her actions, quite swiftly at that, and moved forward. “I didn’t let it get to me.”

“There are people who will hold you back, but you realize that if they have a problem with you, it’s their problem, not yours.”

Speaking of social media, it’s difficult to talk about Bianca without discussing her Instagram account, which, in most recent times, has been making headlines for her “sexy” photos. With her hourglass figure, long legs, and sculpted abs, you can’t blame picture-perfect Bianca for flaunting her assets on Instagram, especially when she can pose as gingerly as she does in front of the camera. Browsing through her feed, one finds a mix of swimsuit photos, sunlit selfies, and a variety of OOTDs—all uncurated, unscripted. Just stuff she published on a whim. This no-frills approach to social media is quite characteristic of the majority of people her age (Gen Z, that is), and that’s only indicative of her strong sense of self and the confidence with which she conducts her every move. “It’s just being who I am. I’m not sending any message saying that I’m ready to [do more revealing or more mature roles.] It’s not [like that at all]. It’s just the photos I want to post.”


When asked about the bashers that constantly hound her with negativity, Bianca merely responds with no more than a shrug, “They can say everything they want to say… Galing ko siguro mag-deadma,” she laughs. “There are people who will hold you back, but you realize that if they have a problem with you, it’s their problem, not yours.”


However, Bianca’s uncanny ability to brush off the haters isn’t to be regarded as being oblivious, but rather as a choice of redirecting her energies to more important matters at hand, like say, herself. In fact, when asked about the most trying time of her life, Bianca doesn’t note a specific moment per se but mentions her perpetual battle with self-doubt. 

As an overthinker, Bianca obsesses over every single detail about anything under the sun—from career, to relationships, to family life—and all to a fault. “I think the level of overthinking that I’m capable of is bad. Like really bad,” she confesses. “Because of it, I get so much self-doubt. It lowers my self-esteem and confidence, and it makes me think, ‘Do I make people proud?’ or ‘Ano ba, ‘di ba ako magaling?’ Ang daming ganun.”

This constant and feverish desire for self-improvement mustn't be mistaken for vanity, for at the very root of it all, Bianca simply wants to make good for herself and for her family. It's a hunger that never seems to be satiated, that never fails to eat her up. “Everything about [my career] is an obstacle. "For me, I can never have enough. I can never stop learning and hindi ko masasabi pagnari-reach ko yung goals ko because I always look and strive for more. I never am content, and I think that’s the challenge: wanting to be better than the best you’ve already done.”


Bianca’s been living on her own since she was 16 years old, and as in her childhood days, is used to roughing it out by herself, even when it comes to handling her waves of anxiety.

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Riding the Waves

Prior to taking to the beachfront of La Union, Bianca arrived with no assistant or entourage in sight, a surprising detail for someone of her celebrity status. (As someone who's been with the GMA network for 10 years and running, she's naturally poised to become one of the biggest drama leading ladies in the future). In fact, Bianca’s been living on her own since she was 16 years old, and as in her childhood days, is used to roughing it out by herself, even when it comes to handling her waves of anxiety.


Unlike other people who find it relaxing to scroll through social media, Bianca’s 2.5 million followers will be surprised to know she’s not a big social media gal herself, and she prefers coping with stress through all things analog. “I consider myself a tita!” she confesses. “I love doing the grocery. I love furniture shopping. I love books, cleaning, and cooking!” On the topic of reading, Bianca bursts with excitement and mentions authors such as J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and John Green, as some of her favorite authors. “But, as I get older, I get attracted to self-help books, too… More of books that teach you how to think positively about everything. One book I love is The Book of Awesome. It teaches you to love the simplest things like breathing or touching the pillow—that simple,” she enthuses. She also finds solace in sketching (a hobby she picked up at 15) and painting, her favorite subject being the intricate and painstaking designs of mandala art. (Heads up: She might even have her own exhibit soon, but all that will happen in due time, she says.)


Despite the pressures of staying on top of her game and her persistent desire for growth, Bianca Umali has learned to keep her head above water, not by slowing down to pause, but by immersing herself in every experience at her fingertips. “I keep going most of the time, that’s actually [my] motto in life. To keep going no matter what. Just keep going.”


“You can’t please everyone. And, being in a bad situation, I believe it depends on how you think—how high or low in the situation you put yourself. So, if you’re high enough to look at it and look at the larger picture, no matter how big the situation is, you’ll see na it’ll pass.”


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Beyond the Horizon

There was a poignant moment after a long rally of photos where Bianca had to jump mid-air, as well as walk through the water towards the shore. It’s been hours since we started the shoot, but Bianca remains calm, solemn even. I catch her playing by the seashore, splashing around with her feet. She was looking at the sand, smiling, and seemed deep in thought. Perhaps that’s the best way to capture Bianca’s introspectiveness that allows her to handle the surge of new projects coming at her.

Last December 2019, Bianca made waves when it was announced that she was to star in the upcoming third season of HBO Asia’s Halfworlds, a fantasy thriller series on Asian folklore. Each season zeroes in on the local folklore of a specific country, and this time, it’ll be about the Philippines. The third season will be helmed by cult famous director Mikhail Red, and Bianca will star alongside seasoned actor Sam Concepcion. She’s not allowed to share any specific details yet about her role, but let’s just say she’s going through intense physical training right now (we suspect fight scenes coming up). Filming an international TV show is new territory for her, but that’s exactly the kind of uncharted waters she constantly craves for. “It wasn’t really hard to adjust because I was more [interested in the experience], so it wasn’t a challenge for me working in a new environment,” she says of the big-shot project, which is slated to air either in the tail-end of 2020 or early next year.


Aside from that, she’ll also be working on a new GMA teleserye to add another feather in Bianca’s brimming cap. Under the working title, Legal Wives, the show tells the story of a Muslim Maranao royalty played by Dennis Trillo, who is married to three women, played respectively by Alice Dixson, Megan Young, and Bianca herself. “It’s my first mature role,” she gushes. “First time ko maging asawa.” She’ll be playing the youngest wife who's 20 years old. The show is set for release in May.


These two projects mark the beginning of a new era in Bianca's career where she will top-bill not as another half of a love team but simply on her own. Sahaya was her last project with long-time love team partner Miguel Tanfelix who also started out as a GMA child star.  


Much like a wave that finds its way back to shore, Bianca channels this burning energy for growth by giving back to the community and sparking dialogue about social issues. During her senior high school years (Bianca was home-schooled since grade school), her love of the humanities led her to choose the said track. For her thesis project, Bianca discussed gender inequality and got to interview a number of people who helped deepen her understanding.

“I like fighting for women. I like proving that women can do exactly the same or even more than what men can do. I don’t like the fact that a lot of women are being bullied or stepped on.”

Aside from that, Bianca is an ambassador for the international organization World Vision, through which she gets to fight for two causes close to her heart: educating the youth and ending violence against children. “I love being with World Vision because I grew up being an ate to all my cousins, and with World Vision, I have the opportunity to become an ate to the whole world.” A common thread that ties all her philanthropic work though is women empowerment. “I like fighting for women. I like proving that women can do exactly the same or even more than what men can do. I don’t like the fact that a lot of women are being bullied or stepped on,” she ascertains, even citing everyday situations where she herself could not help but feel the sting of gender inequality. “I want to show people na kaya kong kumilos na ako lang.”


Onwards, Always

As the shoot drew to a close, one couldn’t help but notice a weary-looking Bianca who spent hours crashing against waves, posing on rocks, and standing under the hot sun, but, as if the gusto with which she savored each moment wasn't a telltale sign, Bianca proclaims she loved every moment of it: “I was actually in my element." It’s a surprising fact that this is Bianca’s first-ever beach shoot, considering her ardent passion for the landscape and the calm it gives her. But perhaps it’s about time that people are made aware of Bianca’s element, even if only in these photos, for what can better encapsulate her boundless spirit and the depths of wisdom that years and years of experience has brought her?


Like a grain of sand, Bianca knows her place in the world and in the larger scheme of things. Like the low tides at sundown, she culls strength within, only to return with more force time and time again. To make good, to do good, and to move forward has been her battle cry. We can only imagine what her next surge of success will be like.

Produced by Marj Ramos and Steph Sison

Photographed by Charisma Lico

Art Directed by Bacs Arcebal

Co-produced by Jam Nitura

Fashion Direction and Styling by Yanna Lopez

Beauty Direction by Nicole Arcano

Makeup by Rick Calderon

Hair by Jan Edrosolan

Words by Nicole Cruz

Special thanks to Funky Quarters

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