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The Unbecoming of Kathryn Bernardo: How Growing Up as the "Teen Queen" Was Both a Blessing and a Curse

As she turns 26, the actress opens up about the royal price attached to her proverbial crown.

by Jamina F. Nitura | Mar 26, 2022

“I think ‘yun ‘yung stage na ang dami kong natutunan, [when I was around that age of] 16 to 19. Yan, lahat ng mga nangyari na yan, lahat yan dala-dala ko ngayon. Ayoko siyang iwan just because I’m 25, turning 26.

Some people still refer to Kathryn Bernardo as the Teen Queen. She’s 26 years old. She laughs when I mention it, an incredulous sound that somehow manages to be polite—as everything about Kathryn is. Her eyes fly off while she speaks, like she can’t quite believe that the nation-bestowed moniker is still a thing. She doesn’t necessarily dislike it, though. After all, she’d worn the proverbial crown over her head for years. It signifies her hard work and reminds her of her formative youth—the Kathryn she had to be to get to the Kathryn she is now. But now that she’s officially closer to her 30s than she is to her 20s, admittedly, it already feels a bit “weird.”


Kathryn Bernardo for Preview March 2022

We’re huddled in a gazebo at the yard of a seaside residence when Kathryn has to take off the skirt covering up her spindly legs. Underneath, her tanned skin glistens against her classic white bikini and plain tee, bunched up just enough to show off her taut abs. “Pinaghandaan ko talaga ‘to,” she says with a tiny laugh. Before that, it was a whole moment: Her glam team was teasing her while others were trying to avert their eyes, pretending to busy themselves out of courtesy. Her manager, Lulu Romero, held up a blanket to give her enough coverage and privacy; while her stylist, Jan Aranilla, assisted her as she got ready. Oh, and Kathryn? Well, Kathryn chuckled at the restless sight, an amused grin on her face as she jested, “Hindi na aalis si Tita Lulu diyan.” The latter quickly agreed, with the thick, white towel still spread wide between her arms like drawn theater curtains to protect her from prying eyes. “Hindi talaga,” she said. All jokes aside though, her manager folded up the blanket the moment Kathryn stepped out of it and we got the shot in less than 20 minutes. 

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She’s been posing for the camera for over a decade that her confidence comes off as routine, and if she was nervous from the particular lack of clothes this time around, it barely registered. She’s wanted to try this kind of “mature” look for a while and she feels that 26 is just the perfect age to do so. “If I did it two years ago, I think that would’ve been very early pa,” the actress tells me two weeks later through a Zoom call. “I can’t do it naman if 30 na ako, kapag mag-aasawa na ako, so I have to do it now because minsan lang ako mag-26 and I’m glad I did it.”


Kathryn’s bold vigor to shed off the remnants of her squeaky clean, girl-next-door image isn’t anything out of the blue. In her 2019 Preview cover, she once penned an open letter to fans, explaining how she can’t possibly be their Teen Queen forever. Her past two birthday shoots were more explicit in their intention, yet tasteful nonetheless: The actress rang in her 24th with a photo of herself in a boxy black blazer and nothing underneath, while she celebrated the big 2-5 by posting seemingly topless, black-and-white closeups of her gorgeous, elfin visage (in reality she had on a white bandeau top and casual blue jeans). Kathryn’s aware that her teenage dream has long come and gone. Yes, it made her, brick by brick. But now that she’s living in the after, she’s just waiting for everyone else to catch up.

Learning to Say “No”

After her cover shoot in La Union, the next time I met Kathryn was through a screen. She looked modest in a black collared shirt, fresh off her shoot for her upcoming teleserye with Daniel Padilla, 2 Good 2 Be True. Her aura was cordial, laidback, and almost cavalier, although she’s anything but, once she speaks her mind. She explained that the Kathryn she slipped into at surftown weeks ago—the sultry beach vixen with fiery red hair, sprawled on the sand in a tangerine tie bikini—is all it is: a photograph. 


Top and pants set, ADAM PEREYRA

The woman in Kathryn lives more in her head. Instead of posting constant sexy skinshows on her IG feed, she’d rather be a grownup in the way she acts and speaks. “For me, yun yung maturity…how you handle yourself, your problems, how you talk to people, how you understand things, how you become more patient pagdating sa mga bagay.” It also means learning to say “no”—that ostensibly forbidden magical word once elusive in the vocabulary of her teenybopper image. 


These days, “no” is her good friend. The young superstar uses the word not as a lock to close doors, but as a pen to draw lines.

Growing up as the darling of all media is a double-edged sword. Sure, she’s everywhere: brand endorsements, movies, TV shows, billboards, magazine covers, the whole nine yards. But on the other hand, she’s everywhere. And when you have that monopoly of visibility at a young age, people, whether they say it or not, expect you to not just be delightful at all times, but infallible to a point. 


She knows better now, though. These days, “no” is her good friend. The young superstar uses the word not as a lock to close doors, but as a pen to draw lines. She tried it the first time a few years back after being asked to do something she was uncomfortable with. Once the worst was over, she gave herself a pat on the shoulder, noticing there really wasn’t much to it, as long she didn’t step on any toes in the process. “[Na-realize ko] parang hindi naman ako naging masamang tao because of that. At least alam nila na ‘Okay, next time pala ayaw niya pag ganun.’”

Kathryn is honest. The pressure to be perfect still lurks in the background, but the former child star is at a point in her life where she doesn’t care anymore what other people think. “Pero not yung walang pake na sisirain ko na yung buhay ko and all,” she clarifies. Trust, her mother’s especially, is built over time, and she has no intention of treating her freedom as license to be reckless. “If not for [my family’s] guidance, hindi ko rin alam kung baka napariwara na buhay ko ‘di ba? So, may pros and cons talaga ang lahat ng nangyayari. But now, I’m just happy that I earned that trust and I feel like mas may control ako sa buhay ko ngayon.”


While it might sound like she has everything figured out, it hasn’t always been easy growing up in the spotlight. It becomes evident when she talks about her younger peers in showbiz who now see her as their mentor. “Ayoko na ma-pressure sila to be somebody else, because that’s what I felt like a few years ago. Ayoko na ma-name ako after [other actresses] kasi gusto ko gumawa ng own name ko, and that’s what I did,” the actress opens up, harking back to when she would often be compared to other superstars before her time.


She tells them, “Basta yung alam kong secret lang na formula sa lahat is just to be yourself and then people will love you for who you are.” 

Stepping Outside the Box

One thing you need to know about Kathryn is that she’s pragmatic. Love teams come and go and she’s not sure how much more of KathNiel there is to look forward to, but before fans lose their heads, she doesn’t mean it in the way it sounds. 


In 2019, the real-life couple hit pause on their onscreen tandem and Kathryn ventured into her first romantic film without Daniel in Hello, Love, Goodbye. She’d stepped into unfamiliar territory with a new acting partner, GMA heartthrob Alden Richards, and the very move was a risk that came with its own demons nagging at her shoulders. “Baka magalit yung mga tao sa’kin, baka ‘di nila magustuhan,” she thought to herself. In spite of her fears, the winds found her mid-leap and carried her up and up. Two months after its premiere, the emotional overseas drama was deemed both a critical and box office success, replacing The Hows of Us, her 2018 movie with Daniel, as the highest-grossing Filipino film of all time. 



She may have hit new highs outside of her love team but Kathryn is nothing if not loyal. This 2022, the beloved pairing is set to make their first teleserye comeback in five years since La Luna Sangre with 2 Good 2 Be True. The romantic comedy was an intentional choice for the two considering their last pre-pandemic projects were heavy, tear-jerking dramas. At a time like this, though, Kathryn and Daniel would much prefer their nth meet-cute be the bright 30-minute spot to someone’s day.

“We really requested to the management na we wanted to do something very light kasi ayaw namin na ang dami na nangyayari tapos yung papanoorin pa ng tao yung very dragging,” Kathryn tells me. “Gusto namin na maging breaker ‘to, na pag pinapanood yung show, parang sasaya sila, kasi ang gulo na nung nangyayari ngayon.” 


The pair went to great lengths to find the perfect script for their highly-anticipated return to the small screen. They’re still in the midst of filming, but Kathryn and Daniel already have their sights on what's next, and whether that involves sticking together professionally is still up in the air. “Naging part [yung KathNiel] ng buhay namin pareho ni DJ, and I hope [sa] maraming tao din. Pero in the next few years, I’m not sure kung ano mangyayari kasi ayoko rin i-limit yung growth ni DJ, na ma-stuck siya sa aming dalawa and ganun din siya sa akin,” admits Kathryn. “Ayoko maging selfish about it…Andun kami sa stage na parang ‘nagawa na natin lahat. So, ano pa yung iba mong gustong gawin?’”

Fans will just have to wait for the answer. Either way, for the actress, it’s their off screen bond as Kathryn and Daniel that matters most. The facets of her life turn in seasons but if there’s one thing she’s certain of, it’s that no matter how far she cranes her head to glimpse at the horizon, Daniel will always be there. “Yun naman yung importante, kung paano kami in real life, na nandito pa rin kami and yung mga fans tumanda na kasama kami. Let’s see kung ano’ng mangyayari. But definitely, hindi namin [sila] basta-basta iiwan. Ang laki ng utang na loob namin dahil ang laking part ng KathNiel and ng fans sa career namin.


White shirt & skirt, NERIC BELTRAN, White Bikini, JULIANNE SYJUCO

Kathryn can’t overstate how much her job has done for her but she thinks she won’t be acting until her hair turns gray. Prompted to look into her far future, she thinks she’ll still be active, but not as much as she is now. Her priorities are shifting—starting her own family takes up much of the list—and with all the trophies on her mantel and the historical box office hits under her name, she can’t ask for more. Having started out younger than most, she’s hit a peak at 26 and all this talk of what’s next feels as if she might be on the precipice of another impending free-fall.


Writing Her Own Story

Following courteous greetings and the monotonous exchange of pleasantries, it’s common procedure for an interviewee to just sit there and wait to be asked one question after another, but Kathryn, whom I’m speaking to for the first time, seems naturally curious. She asked about my age, if my job is fun, and what books I’d recommend to her. Books. She perked up when I mentioned her newfound hobby. We'd gone overtime when I brought it up, but the freshly minted bookworm didn’t mind the extra five minutes of conversation.


If her life were a book, it would have to be split up into every character she’s ever played. Some actors wear their roles like costumes, Kathryn inhabits hers—she becomes so entwined with them that they can’t possibly leave. In some way, what she knows about the world is an amalgamation of what she’s learned from all the lives she’s lived. 


According to Kathryn, a huge part of her is Joy from Hello, Love, Goodbye. Apart from experiencing the grueling realities of OFWs in Hong Kong, the character served as a wake-up call for her. “Self-love isn’t selfish. Kapag minahal mo yung sarili mo, it doesn’t make you a bad person,” says the actress, who, in the movie, plays a world-weary nursing graduate who ends up toiling away in Hong Kong as a domestic helper. “At the end of the day, wag mong kakalimutan yung sarili mo. You have to love yourself even more para mas marami kang mabigay na love sa iba.”

Being branded as the Teen Queen came with a royal price to pay. Every day wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but she’s grateful for it nonetheless.


Like a true queen loved by many, Kathryn has legions of loyal fans who would fight tooth and nail for her. But as with any other celebrity, she’s also not oblivious to what her anonymous haters say behind fake usernames online. In fact, she’s addressed her bashers—most of whom come from warring fandoms—not just once but twice. Words like “pabebe” and “sakang,” for instance, often get thrown around. There was always this impossible standard perched over Kathryn like a phantom limb. “Nandun yung pressure unconsciously, na kailangan maging good example ka, bawal ka makitang ganyan, bawal ma-picturan ka na kasama yung ganyan,” she says. “So lumaki ako na parang ang dami ko tuloy regrets na sana hindi ko masyadong inisip before. But there was that unspoken pressure na you have to be this person.”



Being branded as the Teen Queen came with a royal price to pay. Every day wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but she’s grateful for it nonetheless. “I think to be called as the Teen Queen… It’s such an honor ‘di ba kasi hindi mo naman ‘yun agad makukuha overnight and pinaghirapan ko naman ‘yon over the years,” Kathryn shares, admitting that the moniker will always have a place in her heart. “I think ‘yun ‘yung stage na ang dami kong natutunan, [when I was around the ages of] 16 to 19. Yan, lahat ng mga nangyari na yan, lahat yan dala-dala ko ngayon. Ayoko siyang iwan just because I’m 25, turning 26. Dala ko na ‘yon forever at ‘yung [title of] Teen Queen. Ang daming journey ‘non.”

Her pursuits are endless that she can barely articulate them all in one go. But if anything, she’s adamant that they have to be something her future self will be proud of when she looks back at her 20s decades from now.

It's been six years since she's shed the title, and now they’re moving into her family’s dream house, one built out of her “literal blood, sweat, and tears.” With everything she’s achieved at a young age, it’s easy to forget that she hasn’t stopped working since she was six years old. On the business side of things, she has her YouTube and Kathnails, plus a boutique hotel that’s launching soon, but she also wants to own a beach house. Her pursuits are endless that she can barely articulate them all in one go. But if anything, she’s adamant that they have to be something her future self will be proud of when she looks back at her 20s decades from now. “Ang dami kong gustong gawin, but I’m just taking my time. [I’m going] slowly lang. I don’t want to put so much pressure on myself,” she explains. “I’m just 26, so ang dami ko pang matututunan over the years, and I’m looking forward to it.” 


Kathryn took note of my book recommendations on her phone (of which I might have peddled a little too eagerly), and then she had to go. By the time we finished the Zoom interview, it was almost 8 p.m. and she was expected back on set. She may be one of the country’s biggest superstars but she’s never late and time is of the essence in her book. Once the goodbyes were said, she flashed one last polite smile, and then off she went—either to complete a current chapter or start a new one. Regardless, she has full control of the pen now and she has stacks of pages to fill.


Produced by Marj Ramos, Steph Sison, and Nicole Arcano

Photographed by Charisma Lico

Art Direction by Bacs Arcebal

Fashion Direction by Steph Sison

Beauty Direction by Nicole Arcano

Styled by Jan Aranilla

Hair by RJ Dela Cruz

Makeup by Justine Del Rosario

Assisted by Jam Nitura and Em Enriquez


Video by Yeyen Espineda, Anj Morales, and Kat Dela Cruz

Final Artist Kahlil Alcala

Words by Jam Nitura

Special thanks to Star Magic, Aren Santos, Curbside Villa, Aureo Resort & Villas, and Kitty Bunag of Casa Nakama

*All shoot attendees were tested and were negative of COVID-19 at the time of the production. Safety protocols and social distancing were implemented during the photo shoot.

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