A dream girl named Charisse

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Before there was City of Dreams (COD), there was Charisse Chuidian. I put the two together not only because Charisse has been working at the COD since 2014. More importantly, Charisse is the perennial Dream Girl of every fledgling and mid-career public relations person in the tourism industry — someone they admire, respect and try to emulate.

With so many top-of-the-line hotels and urban resorts sprouting, there is now a continuous demand for in-house public relations people, and Charisse comes to mind because anyone who wants to succeed and survive in this industry, and be loved as well, had better possess assets and virtues that come close to her expertise and charm.

What has Charisse to do with a column that purports to give its point of view on social climbing, or making it in a world that’s higher than the social environment where one lives and moves around now? Well, many things. But just to give you one, Charisse made it to the social top merely and clearly by not seriously, deliberately and obsessively wanting to make it there. She just worked hard and people recognized her professionalism and a lot more.

Esquire food editor Tom Parker Bowles and Charisse Chuidian at The Tivoli.

Sweetheart of the PR world

A veteran public relations lady told me, “All it takes to succeed in this field is to be like Charisse. You don’t need a bible, a handbook, or a mentor. Just be like Charisse.” The PR lady, however, prefers not to be identified “lest the other hotel PR ladies get jealous.”

Well, I told her, Tita Mila is number one in my list, but then, we agreed the Guy’s daughter is Doyen Emeritus of Hotel PR while Charisse is the Sweetheart. That explains the difference, although Tita Mila can be just as sweet, but with the common touch that, being her father’s daughter, comes naturally to her.

When wanting to become Charisse, one just needs to think of what class and propriety is all about. The sweet voice, the graciousness, they all come together in one person.

Look, Charisse’s image is not of one to the manor born, if you know what I mean. But she was born to a feisty father, a hero in his own right, a champion of press freedom.

“Yes, I have a journalist’s blood,” said Charisse, when I visited her at the City of Dreams. “We had a community newspaper called Sunday Punch.

“What happened then was the newspaper had an expose on payroll padding. It was about a councilor who wanted to stop the presses, but the printing press people told him to talk to my dad. So, he went to my dad to tell him to stop the story. My dad said no. The guy smelled of liquor. And then he shot my father. He was convicted but instead of murder, it was homicide.”

To honor his memory, a street was named after Ermin Garcia Sr. in Cubao, Quezon City. Interestingly, it is the same street where Charisse has lived for a long time.

Charisse in the mid 1970s as PR officer of Century Park Sheraton.

A Mass Communications wannabe

Charisse had originally aimed for a career in mass communications.

Charisse grew up in Dagupan where she finished high school at the Blessed Imelda Academy. (Yes, you read it right, and heard it right if you’re the kind who mumbles what they are reading.)

“Our school was eventually renamed Dominican School. It was founded by the Congregation of the Religious Missionaries of St. Dominic,” recalled Charisse. “Then, I went to Maryknoll. Most of my schoolmates and family friends went to UST or UP, so I intended to go to UP, but when my father found out that I had to undergo physical examination, he didn’t like it. So, he said let’s go to Maryknoll. He was very impressed with a lady from Dagupan who was a graduate of Maryknoll. Her name was Edna Torio. She ran a school in Dagupan.”

“Our first year college was general AB course. In our second year, we had to choose our specific course. We were shown the curriculum and I saw that Communication Arts, a new degree, did not have Math. So I chose it. And the subjects were English, Communication, and everything in line with communication. So, I said, ‘Ay, this is for me.’”

Communication Arts was the closest to her high school dream. Or her father’s dream for her. “My dad would ask me questions about what I wanted to become. And he would encourage me to become a journalist. When I was in high school, I joined this Voice of Democracy Contest. So, when I was filling out the application form for college admission, he said you can say you want to become a journalist.”

Charisse Chuidian at the City of Dreams with Amba Marcos, Francine Arias and Romina Gervacio.

Sub promo girl at ABS-CBN

After graduation, she worked at the ABS CBN, which was only a few minutes away from their family home.

“I was a copy writer for program promotions. There were promo girls before, remember? So, we would write the copy for them, the spiels,” she shared.

Being a promo girl was glamorous. “So, when someone was late or someone couldn’t make it, they would pull me from the office. What? Do not worry, they said, you know what to say, ikaw naman ang sumusulat eh (You’re the one writing it, anyway). So, I would pinch-hit if somebody was sick.”

I asked Charisse if she enjoyed her job. She replied, “It was showbiz, so it was fun. Our office was near a production room so we would see people running around. And then you would see all these actors and actresses walking into the lobby. Showbiz people like Pilar Pilapil, Maya Valdez. It was a different world. I left ABS-CBN in 1970.”

A boss named EZ

A different kind of ambience awaited her at Ayala Avenue. “I told myself I had a real office. We were at the Insular Life Building first. Then we moved to the Makati Stock Exchange.”

It was her first job in public relations and her boss was Buddy Gomez. Yes, that Buddy Gomez of the Malacañang press office.

“What happened was when I was in ABS-CBN, our Dean of Communications in Maryknoll, whose name was Wolfgang, called me up. He said there was an opening in Ayala for PR, ‘So why don’t you go? He prodded me to go and give it a try, so I did. So, I met Buddy Gomez. I think there were three who interviewed me. They gave me an entrance test and an essay test right there and then. And so, I was taken in. I lasted for four years.”

The big boss of Ayala Corporation then was Enrique Zobel or EZ, although she reported directly to Buddy Gomez. Among her duties was to arrange parties and conferences.

Of EZ, Charisse recalled, “Oh, we all loved him. He was one person that I adored. I really looked up to him. He was in the office early at 7:30 in the morning and he would leave the office at 4:30 in the afternoon.

“I remember he had his own helicopter, so once he said we were going to Calatagan to see this project of the Ayala Foundation. So, he brought me and his secretary and we were on the chopper. So, we were waiting for the pilot and then, he sat on the pilot’s seat. And then he said, ‘Huwag kayong matakot, marunong akong magpalipad.’ (‘Don’t worry, I know how to fly a plane.’) Malutong ang kaniyang Tagalog. (Roughly translated: ‘His Tagalog was crisp, spoken like a native speaker would.’) So, he flew the helicopter up to Calatagan. Punta Baluarte was just starting. He housed us there, and every morning, someone would pick us up to have breakfast in his house. And when we drove around the buggy in his hacienda, he knew everyone. Like he would ask them, ‘Kumusta na, Ka Tibo? (if that was the name – How are you, Ka Tibo?), ‘Magaling na ang anak mo?’ (Is your child well?) The people loved and respected him. He was so down-to-earth.”

Book seller

Then, Charisse moved to a foundation. “My brother used to hold a position in the office of Father Lagerway. I was going to be the head of a department at the Communication Foundation of Asia (CFA). It was a small company but it was a move up. It happened that when I left, EZ was out of the country,” shared Charisse.

She was Special Services Director at the Communication Foundation of Asia. I was looking after the sales of the books that they published. Parang PR, but it was more sales and I thought it wasn’t for me because we sold books published by CFA. We would talk to companies or institutions so we could publish books for them. I stayed less than six months because, then, the hotels came.

“The president of Alcantara, the ad agency, called me up. He was asking if I was interested in taking a job elsewhere. It was a hotel daw. He said, ‘And we know that they’re looking for a PR manager and we offered to help find one.”

“I was interviewed by the GM,” recounted Charisse. “Then, I was interviewed by the owners, the Martels, Tony and Rudy. They asked me what my experience in hotels was. I said none, except as a guest. They said never mind. Anyway, I knew about public relations work, they said. Then, I was invited to a party even if they had not hired me yet. I think they wanted to check how I would behave in a social event.”

Stranger to Lifestyle news hens

If she had any qualms, it was that, Charisse relates, “I was new in the industry. I didn’t know any media person. So, we had to start from scratch before we opened. There were the likes of Jullie Yap Daza. She was already the Jullie Yap Daza. So, I called her and I introduced myself. ‘I am Charisse Garcia, I am the PR manager of a new hotel that is opening. May I invite you? I would like to meet you.’

“I had to introduce myself. So, the first time we met, it was at La Mancha, that restaurant with a windmill. She was very nice. After that, I called Ethel Timbol and Deedee Sytangco. Next, I called up Letty Jimenez Magsanoc and Tere Orendain, and so on. The press ladies all warmly received and supported me, a greenhorn, thus starting decades of friendship and relationships that I value to this day.”

Century Park was fun. “I was always awed by the lavish productions and preparations for big events, like when the atrium of Century Park Sheraton was converted into one big banquet and performance hall for the Opera Ball. We had mammoth productions like Chefs on Parade organized by the Hotel and Restaurant Association of the Philippines for which I would chair the publicity committee.”

There was also a special bonus for her while working at Century Park. She met her future husband, Jun, who was working in the same hotel. They would have a daughter named Cara.

Charisse’s transfer to Mandarin Hotel in Makati, where she would meet more friends and level up to more exciting heights, came about because, “Our sales director in Century Park, who moved to Mandarin, asked me to move to Mandarin. I said what for when I could just wait for my retirement. I told GM Michael Gibb that since I had been with Century Park for 16 years, I could either stay put or I move to the corporate division.”

“I was flown to Hong Kong for a day to also be interviewed by Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group’s PR head, after which followed an offer I couldn’t refuse,” she said.

BUSINESSMAN Bob Miller and Charisse.

Working at Mandarin gave her a new and different high. Every year, the hotel would host its iconic Chinese New Year celebration. They also launched an exciting interactive hotel buffet called “Paseo Uno.”

Most unforgettable was when she entertained Andrea Bocelli at Mandarin. “Then, his impresario, Mrs. Rosemarie Arenas, invited us to her private beach. I sat next to Andrea Bocelli as he quietly hummed and sang a few lines. He was singing to himself, actually but at that magical moment, everything for me stood still, save for Andrea’s voice. This once-in-a-lifetime experience was, of course, made possible by the fact that I was working in a prestigious hotel.”

As a public relations director, Charisse has met international celebrities and leaders, even from way back her Century Park days. The list includes Claudia Schiffer, Sergio Mendes, Beyonce and, yes, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Eventually, Mandarin would close its doors, and Charisse moved to her next hotel stint. Today, she is the vice president of Public Relations of the City of Dreams where, once again, she continues to be a leader in the hotel public relations field. Again, she has received international celebrities, as well as the billionaire high rollers of the world of casinos. She also received Robert de Niro, who co-owns Nobu, the iconic trendy and chic Japanese restaurant.
This is a new game for Charisse, and yet she remains the same lady as she was in the 1970s — sweet, humble and refined.

Finally, I asked her what she would advise our young career-oriented women who would pursue the same path that she had taken. Charisse said, “First, never be complacent. Always be hungry to learn and on the lookout for ideas, be aware of the goings-on in the city and in the industry. Keep up with the trends and evolve with the times. Be truthful, because this helps you earn credibility and the respect of everyone you deal with. Do not be contented with ‘puwede na.’ (good enough). What’s worth doing is worth doing right.”

Charisse’s is the story of a hometown girl who came to Manila to pursue her studies, graduated from college, and went on to work in big companies, until finding herself a place in the hotel industry. If she stayed long, it’s because she never gave up. She has also been consistently credible.

For those who want to succeed in the social world, here’s a tip from Proust: It’s not about yourself, it’s about the good that you do. Charisse never called attention to herself despite all her high-profile jobs. She just worked conscientiously, and they noticed her. And, of course, it pays to be pleasant. As naturally pleasant as Charisse.

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