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Jennylyn Mercado Has Mastered the Art of Flying Solo

The "Descendants of the Sun" leading lady is proof that conquering the unknown can be done on your own.

by Nicole R. Cruz | Feb 6, 2020

As a single mother, Jennylyn Mercado constantly struggles to strike a balance between career and family. Still, she’s learned to duke it out by herself without a wince, no looking back.

The bare studio was transformed into a whimsical set. The blank floor was sprinkled with colorful flowers. The corners were brimming with gem-toned clothes, while we, the people behind the scenes, were buzzing in anticipation. Such is the typical humdrum that the power of the word “celebrity” results in, and it has become so mundane as to elicit calm reactions when the celebrity of the hour finally arrived. Jennylyn Mercado, fondly known as Jen, appeared bare-faced and clad in a cherry red peasant dress, looking fresh as a daisy despite her lack of sleep. She had come from long hours of taping, after all. In true celebrity fashion, she greets us, mere mortals, with a handshake, and surprisingly, a kiss on the cheek. Graceful, respectful, and altogether charming, Jennylyn’s life has all the trappings of a celebrity who’s been in the industry for over 16 years.

As an established actress who got her start in the very first season of StarStruck (2004), Jen has become a consistent persona of our television screens and the silver screen. Perhaps the first movie that comes to mind when ‘Jennylyn Mercado’ is mentioned in passing is that little film called English Only Please, where she plays the role of Tere Madlansacay, an English tutor who ends up being hired by Julian Parker, played by Derek Ramsay. Here, her kitschy, rambunctious Filipino humor is so palpable that this image of Jen has become embedded in everyone’s minds, making Jen the quintessential funny girl next door of Philippine cinema. That was in 2014, and since then, Jennylyn would live up to her moniker as the “ultimate star.”

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Jennylyn Mercado for Preview.ph February 2020

Taking Root in the Unknown

Her picture book story life traces back to her very own celebrity genesis, a.k.a. the time she was “discovered.” It’s a story that, unlike her high-profile life now, mass audiences are unaware of. At the tender age of 13, a cherub-faced Jennylyn would accompany her mother and work as a part-time lounge singer. It’s strange to think of a 13-year-old as the family’s breadwinner, but to Jen, it was all a matter of helping her family get by. One fateful day at the salon where the mother and daughter would prep for another night of singing, her present-day manager’s staff chanced upon young Jen and suggested she give becoming an artista a try. Scared and aware of her shyness—”I can sing but I can’t act!”—she kindly declined. If it weren’t for her supportive mother’s prodding, Jen wouldn’t have agreed to audition for StarStruck, a talent workshop-cum-competition—which she ended up winning in the end, FYI. She was just 14 years old. Evidently, Jen plunged into “adulting” quite prematurely, but this pushed her to try things beyond her comfort zone of simply carrying a tune. “'Di ko alam kung anong gagawin ko kasi that’s [an] uncomfortable environment para sa ‘kin,” she says of her StarStruck experience.

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Becoming acclimated to the demands of the "artista life" obviously entailed sacrifices that other girls her age would never encounter in their lifetime: “Kailangan kong mag-stop ng pag-aaral. Kailangan kong mag-work halos every day… eh hindi ako sanay sa ganun, so umiiyak ako sa car—ganung level ng pagodkasi from one taping to another ‘dun ako naliligo kung saan ako aabutan. Ganun kalala.”

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Jen got caught up in a vicious cycle of “victim” roles that often required her to be slapped or pulled by the hair. “Lagi ako yung victim. Lagi ako yung mahirap, inaapi.”

But even after she caught up with her life’s 360-degree turn, Jen found herself faced with a struggle that celebrities often face at one point in their career: being cast to play just one kind of character. Jen got caught up in a vicious cycle of “victim” roles that often required her to be slapped or pulled by the hair. “Lagi ako yung victim. Lagi ako yung mahirap, inaapi.” The years that followed StarStruck also saw her alongside her StarStruck co-winner, Mark Herras, in a slew of cheesy romantic series and flicks such as Lovestruck (2005), Say That You Love Me (2005), and Blue Moon (2006). At this point, Jen’s string of happy-go-lucky roles not only allowed her to provide for her family but enabled her to develop a sense of security that, little did she know, would be thwarted much sooner than expected.

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Adapting to the Winds of Change

A lot has happened between 2008 and the present, and it’s been too long a time for us onlookers to remember the details of that period’s onset. In 2008, Jen announced that she was pregnant with the child of her then-beau, actor Patrick Garcia. She was 21 years old. In the showbiz industry where the lines between make-believe and reality are often blurred, life’s milestones (like romantic relationships, marriage, and pregnancy) are cautiously discerned with one’s career in mind—everything should be well-timed. Jen, however, found herself on the opposite side of that ideal, and on the brink of another big turning point in her life.

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When her beau slowly distanced himself from her during her pregnancy, Jen faced the new struggles of motherhood alone. In fact, she even drove herself to the hospital when she was in labor, leaving her family and friends very surprised and shocked.

When asked about her pregnancy, Jen surprisingly recalls one of the most trying times of her life in a matter-of-fact manner, as if she were merely discussing any other period. That isn’t to say that Jen was not at all rattled by the turn of events that fate had brought upon her. Far from that. In fact, it was this period when Jen was, admittedly, plagued by questions of self-doubt: “Sabi ko ‘parang hindi ko na yata kayang bumalik [sa work] nung time na ‘yun and kahit may mga dumarating na mga projects sabi ko, ‘Kaya ko ba tong gawin? Ano kaya tingin nila sakin?’ Kasi feeling ko, yung tingin nila sakin, ‘Oy, mommy na ‘yan. Baka hindi niya kaya, hindi na siya makaka-focus kasi may baby na.’ Parang ako nag-doubt na rin sa sarili ko… ‘Oo nga noh, kaya ko bang pagsabayin yung pagiging single mom tapos ako lang mag-isa. Kaya ko bang gawin ‘tong lahat?’”

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It’s safe to say that Jennylyn’s response would be no different than that of other actresses should they be endowed with the gift of childbirth. Here’s what made Jen an acutely different case though: She may have been rattled, but she didn’t let fear get to her, as one would expect others to react in the throes of the unpredictable. Her disposition was so strong that, when her beau slowly distanced himself from her during her pregnancy, Jen faced the new struggles of motherhood alone. In fact, she even drove herself to the hospital when she was in labor, leaving her family and friends very surprised and shocked the next day (in admiration, we proffer). “Nanganak na ako!”


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Looking at Jen propped up on the makeup chair in violet eyeliner and red lips, it’s almost strange to think of how this doll-like human—with her hourglass figure and defined features—could ever go through such an ordeal. But, what proved to be one of Jen’s most challenging times (there have been other dark epochs, she says, but she’d rather not talk about them) turned out for the better. With no time to lull in the limbo of uncertainty, Jen coursed through the changing tides by plunging into its very depths headfirst: “Hindi naman ako ready so kailangan kong pilitin maging ready. Yung [motherly] instinct, habang tumatagal, naaral mo naman lahat. Natutunan mo naman lahat.” This time, Jen was not only the lone breadwinner once again, but she now had the responsibility of molding her child into the good person she wanted him to be. From that point on, Jen was and is, first and foremost, a mother. From providing for her parents and sister, Jen’s priorities now shifted into that of caring for and protecting her son, Jazz. Suddenly, her ordered life, which took some time for her to achieve, was fractured to accommodate more time for her unico hijo. Even until now, Jen shares that she needs at least two days of free time to spend with her son and for her body to recover from fatigue as well. It’s an ongoing bargain with time, so much so that it’s the one thing Jen claims she is currently challenged with. “Nung dumating si Jazz sa buhay ko, nagkaroon ako ng goal. Nagkaroon ako ng path; dati kasi saan lang ako, ‘O bahala na.’ Pero nung nagkaroon ako ng baby, kailangan lahat ng gagawin ko iisipin ko muna kasi lahat ito para sa kanya,” Jen says.

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Now, Jazz is 11 years old, and Jen shares that he’s quite an easy kid to manage and finds joy in the simplest of things, like a stroll around the mall, playing at an arcade, or watching movies while snacking on popcorn. By now, she is certain of how she would like to guide her son, and she even confesses to being a disciplinarian: books over toys, bedtime is at 8 p.m., and meals should be finished within 30 minutes. It then didn’t come as a surprise when Jen confidently ascertains that she has mastered the art of being a single mother, while acknowledging, of course, that she has much yet to learn as Jazz grows older.

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In a word: Jen overcame the doubts inflicted upon her by others and herself, and ultimately triumphed with a new sense of security that hinged upon her very own independence—a feat that not everyone can proudly claim for themselves.


The Perpetual Bloom

Halfway through the photoshoot, picture-perfect Jen is prostrated on a wooden plank surrounded by the many fresh flowers we had placed in tall vases. Her eyes are watery. She appears weary. Her oversized outfit seems to be weighing her down. Snap! We got the shot. Soon enough, we found out that Jen is, in fact, allergic to flowers. And yet, she had pressed on with no complaints. A true pro.

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This relentlessness to power through without qualms is another defining characteristic that is often veiled by the pretty-faced version of Jen cemented in our heads. She may live day-to-day fueled by a sense of purpose, but that isn’t to say that she doesn’t pay close attention to her own personal growth as an actress. In fact, it could be said that she is always in hot pursuit of self-improvement. Case in point: Years after she had given birth, Jen discovered the breadth of her acting chops upon taking the lead role in GMA’s psychological thriller drama, Rhodora X. Her character, Rhodora/Baby/Rowena/Roxanne, is diagnosed with multiple identity disorder, which challenged Jen to morph into different personalities from scene to scene. “Feeling ko ‘yun yung pinaka-challenging. [Sobrang] nakapag-explore ako ng mas wide na range of skills, parang, ‘Uy, kaya ko palang maging kontrabida. Kaya ko palang maging baliw, ganun.’ Sabi ko, ‘Pwede. Baka meron pa,’” Jen says of her newfound strength.

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After succeeding at one of her toughest roles yet, and realizing a facet of her talent she never knew existed, the light-hearted romantic comedy English Only Please (2014) had fallen into her lap, and it was to be her most favorite role yet. Perhaps it’s because it had won her the Best Actress Award at the Metro Manila Film Festival (among other awards the film had raked in), but Jen simply admits that what made it so memorable was the fact that her character was very much like herself. “Part of me nilagay ko talaga sa character ni Tere. I think kaya siyang naging ganun ka effective.” With the success of English Only Please ensued a string of more rom-coms wherein she top-billed alongside stars like John Lloyd Cruz (Just the Three of Us, 2016) and Coco Martin (3pol Trobol: Huli Ka Balbon!, 2019). This uncanny ability to attract audiences regardless of whomever she was paired with carved a special niche for Jen in the industry.

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Jen doesn’t rest on her laurels though, and despite the supposed “ease” of channeling funny gals, this takes a lot of groundwork behind the scenes—she thoroughly dissects her characters in order to understand them. So much so that back in 2010, when she played the titular character for the drama film Rosario, Jen placed her physical and mental health on the line. In the film/series, Jen’s character required her to smoke cigarettes—she doesn’t smoke—chalking up to one pack a day. Consequently, she contracted an upper respiratory tract infection. She also confesses to being on the verge of depression, as she would retain the heaviness of her character even after filming. Severe empathy, if you will.


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One of Jen’s biggest projects to date is the GMA remake of the wildly popular Korean series, Descendants of the Sun (DOTS), which comes with its own kind of pressure: She’ll be playing the role of Doctor Kang Mo-yeon, originally portrayed by Song Hye Kyo.

For an actress of her clout and caliber, one would think that Jen has become immune to the external pressures of the show biz industry, but it’s a different ball game when Koreanovelas are involved. “Mas mahirap yung Koreanovela kasi kailangan mong at least pantayan [yung original portrayal] kung hindi mo malalampasan.” Currently, one of Jen’s biggest projects to date is the GMA remake of the wildly popular Korean series, Descendants of the Sun (DOTS), which comes with its own kind of pressure: She’ll be playing the role of Doctor Kang Mo-yeon, originally portrayed by Song Hye Kyo, who, for those who aren’t familiar with K-drama, is one of the biggest names in the Hallyu industry. Jen's character, localized with the name Dra. Maxine dela Cruz, is a skilled doctor with comical mannerisms, a juxtaposition that Jen strongly identifies with (naturally!). As depicted in the original series, her character crosses paths with Si-jin, captain of a special forces unit—the role was originally played by Korean actor Song Joong-ki. In the remake, Si-jin is played by veteran actor Dingdong Dantes under the name Lucas Manalo, and as all stories go, they fall in love and are eventually tested by the fell clutch of circumstance. Aside from Dra. Maxine’s humor, Jen also identifies with her clear-cut priorities: “Siguro naka-relate ako sa pagiging light niya at tsaka yung pagiging mapagmahal sa family. Binibigay niya ng importance lahat ng tao sa paligid niya.” 

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It isn’t the first time Jen is tackling a mammoth role, though. Last 2017, she portrayed Steffi Chavez in My Love From the Star, which she starred alongside burgeoning young actor Gil Cuerva. For this GMA remake, Jen’s character was originally portrayed by another widely popular Korean leading lady, Jun Ji-hyun. In both shows, Jen thoroughly prepared for her role by watching the entire series and studying her character. In fact, so extensive was her prep for DOTS that she even underwent medical training and learned how to handle emergency situations. “Marami akong natutunang medical terms at kung pano gumawa ng emergency yung mga doctors… yung mga malalang level!” she enthuses.

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Despite the pressures of living up to her Korean counterparts, Jen keeps an open mind when it comes to criticism, and in fact, loves to get feedback from her co-workers while on set. She has never watched her own playback during taping, and she never will. It’s not that she isn’t confident with her acting. She’s simply afraid of disappointing herself, and you can’t blame her: She’s outdone, outmaneuvered, and outsmarted herself so many times that it’s become second nature. Who she is. Even her manager, Katrina Aguila, affirms: “Jennylyn is passionate. She takes that leap of faith. Everything she gets [herself] into, she takes a risk and is unafraid.”


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In Her Element

The flowers were plucked from the concrete floor. The rose-red backdrop stripped, and the whimsical fanfare removed. What was in place was a stark white backdrop and a video camera, the space between them would be filled by Jennylyn and the acting challenges she was to do. Lights. Camera. Action. With each take, what unfolded before us was a chameleon who was able to morph depending on the situation being thrown at her. Energetic and extremely animated, it was as if her presence had expanded and filled up the entire room. In that moment, she was in control.

Needless to say, Jen’s current undertakings are hallmarks of such control which had taken her so long to master. In fact, this learned genius (a.k.a. juggling everything on her plate) permitted her to make time for things that “fuel her soul.” Case in point: She was able to concoct an entire concert from scratch with the help of her team. “Co Love,” which finally takes place on February 15th at the New Frontier Theater, was a joint passion project between her and her onscreen and offscreen partner Dennis Trillo. It isn’t just your regular jamming sesh, though, for Jen wanted the entire production to be a well-told narrative, and word has it that they’ll even be sharing their love story with the audience. Co Love, as Jen’s loyal followers already know, is the title of her ongoing series on her YouTube channel which has 392,000 subscribers to date. If you haven’t caught a glimpse of her videos yet, you’ll be surprised to see Jen not only belting out a song but playing the drums as well. Plus, there’s this whole series called “Jen Survives,” where she challenges herself to do crazy things way beyond her comfort zone, like teaching a Zumba class (she doesn’t really dance) or eating fried insects in Thailand (she hates exotic street food). Aside from her online antics, Jen is also able to squeeze in some time to set up businesses she strongly believes in, like her soon-to-open cat cafe inspired by her recent trip to Japan. The plot twist? Jen handles everything herself and with no assistant. “Sobrang hands-on ako... kaya ayoko ng assistant kasi gusto kong nakikita siya in person: kung ano man ang bibilhin ko, ano man ang computations ko.”

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If there’s one thing Jennylyn has learned from it all, it’s that she is enough for her son: “Proud akong sabihin na kaya ko siyang gawin. Kaya ko siyang i-balance,” she says, teary-eyed.

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Aside from her side hustle, things are pretty much under control as far as her career path is concerned. If before, Jen was boxed up in stereotypical victim roles, now, she and her manager have a strong hand in choosing the characters she portrays. “We can’t accept weak characters kasi no matter how good she is, it’s not what she stands for,” Katrina explains. In other words, nothing but empowered female ladies from now on, or perhaps something more challenging like “a mentally disabled character,” Jen ascertains. She is up for it.

Given everything she’s achieved so far, Jen, at the drop of a hat, mentions only one thing when asked about what she is most proud of: “Pagiging single mom, kasi hindi madali na magpalaki ng isang anak na ikaw lang mag-isa ‘di ba? So, siguro yun yung pinaka achievement na masasabi ko na proud ako kasi di ba ang hirap talaga. Hindi siya madali kasi nagtatatrabaho ka tapos single mom ka tapos yung working hours ng isang artista, 24 hours, kulang pa yun sa isang araw.” And, if there’s one thing she has learned from it all, it’s that she is enough for her son: “Proud akong sabihin na kaya ko siyang gawin. Kaya ko siyang i-balance,” she says, teary-eyed.

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Alas, when the photoshoot had finally ended, picture-perfect Jen changed back into her own clothes and bid us goodbye in her polite, professional manner, before quickly descending down the steps, rather hurriedly, and into her car. She couldn’t wait to head home, to the life she’s built for her family, all on her own.

Produced by Steph Sison

Photographed by Regine David

Art Directed by Bacs Arcebal

Co-produced and Written by Nicole Cruz

Fashion Direction and Styling by Yanna Lopez

Beauty Direction by Nicole Arcano

Makeup by Anthea Bueno

Hair by Jay Aquino

Nails by Beverly Detera of Fit and Form Club

Set Design by Kristian Heruela; Assisted by Kyle Arceo

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