The first thing you notice about James Younghusband and Sari Lazaro is that they make a strikingly beautiful couple. After several minutes, when your brain finally reengages with your manners, and you’re able to stand next to the 6-foot-1-inch footballer without giggling nervously, and to shake the rising fashion designer’s hand without staring obsessively at her flawless complexion, the next thing you’ll notice is that they are two of the nicest people you’ll meet.
When the pair first arrives at the studio for their photo shoot, their entrance is so unobtrusive that no one notices until James calls out an amiable “Hello!” Even dressed casually—she, in a long sleeveless black sundress that reveals a Palawan golden tan, and he, in jeans and a white T-shirt that suit his relaxed mood—they are the epitome of a gorgeous young “It” couple who belong in the glamorous realms of pro sports and fashion. Yet, James and Sari have a distinct lack of celebrity attitude, made all the more obvious by their candor during our interview.
How candid? Little details slip out, such as how sweet, petite Sari has been boxing since the 10th grade and can therefore technically kick ass. Or how the star midfielder for the Azkals national football team and Loyola Meralco Sparks FC loves juicy Hollywood gossip, logging on to justjared.com each morning for a daily fix.
Then, there’s the life-sized mannequin named Tom, who is currently ensconced in James’ pad and scaring the daylights out of his guests. “It’s my height with hair. I’m going to put football clothes on it and have a muck around with it,” he declares mischievously.
Their openness is refreshing yet somewhat surprising, given that James and Sari have deftly managed to keep their nearly two-year relationship just below the gossips’ radar. It’s no mean feat when one half of the couple is also one half of yet another famous couple.
In the years since James and his younger brother Phil first burst into public consciousness as two of the Azkals’ most exciting players, the British-born duo’s potent combination of athletic prowess and model good looks have proven irresistible to avid fans and savvy advertisers. With gentlemanly sportsmanship and game-winning skills on the pitch, and endorsement deals that have landed their handsome visages on billboards, ad campaigns and television commercials, the soccer-playing siblings have earned bona fide stardom and heartthrob status.
While Phil embarked on a well-reported romance, and eventual breakup with a famous actress, his brother has been nurturing a relationship that has barely cracked the gossip columns and Twitter feeds, in spite of its start in the most public bastion of hip hook-ups.
“It might sound bad saying this, but I met her in a nightclub,” James begins with a laugh. “I prefer to say I met her through friends but that the location just happened to be in a club.” It also wasn’t quite love at first sight, says Sari. “It was really dark, so I couldn’t see him. According to him, there was music and lights, but I’m like, ‘Nope. Couldn’t see you.’”
Fortunately, they didn’t need floodlights to recognize their instant rapport. “We clicked,” she states simply. Neither of them was expecting to meet a potential love interest when they were introduced, but as James notes, “People go out thinking they want to meet someone and then end up going home alone. I always say you find that person when you’re not looking.”
He had just returned to Manila from Nepal, where the Azkals had placed third at the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, the team’s best finish in the biennial competition. It had only been a few months since he split up with his previous girlfriend. Sari, meanwhile, had been focused on earning a master’s degree in fashion design from the Istituto Marangoni in London, England. Back from school and single for two years, she was lamenting the dearth of decent men in her circle when friends suggested she meet a certain football player.
First real date
It wasn’t until the wee morning hours when James and Sari finally exchanged phone numbers that first time.
“It’s true and she may deny it, but she’s the one who asked me for my number,” he claims before hastily assuring, “I was going to ask for hers!”
However, their first real date was put on the back burner: Sari was heading to Korea on vacation and James was joining friends and family in La Union. Thankfully, distance and smartphones helped make hearts grow fonder.
The budding couple regularly shared texts and photos during their respective trips, and it was in these exchanges that James noticed something special. Sari’s pictures “were always of her with her family—cousins, nieces and nephews. That was when I realized, especially because I have a younger sister (Keri), that she put her family first. And that’s the way I was raised by my mom and dad, that you’re supposed to be with your family.”
Having lost both parents in the past decade and being wholly devoted to his two younger siblings, James instantly recognized in Sari an equally loving dedication to family, a quality that attracted him even more than any physical attribute.
Their first date only magnified the initial spark they felt. “I hadn’t gone out on a date in so long, but when I got there, we just started talking. It was free-flowing and we just connected,” Sari recalls. For James, it confirmed what he felt from the moment they met. “This girl is special,” he remembers thinking. “You hear things from other people, but when you get to know the person yourself, you find out what’s true about them, and that’s what happened with Sari.”
In turn, she unhesitatingly shares all the qualities she loves about James. “He’s well-mannered, very passionate, and he’s a blessing to everyone. He’s a dork, goofy and silly,” she lists them one by one. “He works hard and I’m inspired by that. He makes me want to be a better version of myself. And he’s so good to his brother and little sister.”
Still, it took several months for the pair to take the small yet significant step from “just dating” to full-blown couplehood. Surprisingly, it was Sari who was hesitant about a commitment. “You have to be wise about your decision, so that you don’t get your heart broken,” she says, hinting at past disappointments. “James had asked me a month before if we were boyfriend and girlfriend, but I wasn’t ready yet. I had to be sure that I could trust him.”
Happily, the moment finally came—on July 10, 2012, to be exact. James had just returned from Singapore and was preparing to leave for England the same evening. “She asked me, ‘Are we officially together?’ So we clarified it that night,” James recounts. The date now serves as their official anniversary.
The two have taken their relationship one day at a time, learning how to balance their lives as a private couple with his status as a public personality. As the object of countless female crushes, James attracts amorous attention wherever he goes, but Sari isn’t fazed. “She’s very cool and patient about it. Whenever we’re stopped and asked for pictures, she volunteers to take it. She doesn’t get jealous of other girls,” he says gratefully. Sari elaborates, “When you’re young, little things can bother you, but I’ve learned to let it go. I don’t worry about where he is or what he’s doing. That’s why I can stand apart when he’s approached by girls and do my own thing.”
Doing their own thing with each other’s full support is their focus for 2014. “It’s all going to be about work this year, and that’s fine. We’re still young, so we want to establish ourselves, career-wise,” explains Sari. “It’s good to hang out, but I think it kind of affects our work, so it’ll be more our lifestyle to look after ourselves instead of going to clubs and bars,” James concurs.
Since completing her fashion degree from Marangoni in 2011 and returning to Manila, Sari has established a reputation among clients for designing softly romantic bridal entourage gowns.
“I love a lot of draping and a classic, elegant look. I don’t like it too edgy or funky,” she describes her design aesthetic. “I really love to create. It keeps me alive and it’s therapeutic.”
Although she has yet to design a bridal gown (“It has such intricate details, so it has to be perfect. I want to hone my skills first”), Sari’s growing clientele has inspired her to open a shop in Makati City, featuring ready-to-wear bridesmaids’ dresses. Her boyfriend couldn’t be more proud of her endeavors and makes every effort to show it. When his training and game schedule allows, James enjoys accompanying Sari to clients’ weddings to watch her creations walk down the aisle, much to the delight of fellow guests.
For her part, Sari enthusiastically attends football games at home and even some abroad, including the Hong Kong friendly last June when James scored the heart-stopping, game-winning goal. “When I met him, I knew nothing about football. Now, I watch him all the time—he’s so good!” Does she have a glamorous game day outfit, à la Victoria Beckham? Sari laughs, “Oh, no! Just shorts and shirt—I want to be comfortable. When it’s a big game, I’ll wear a team jersey.”
For his part, James’ love of football extends beyond the playing field. In 2010, he and Phil established The Younghusband Football Academy (TYFA), followed by the Chelsea FC Soccer School Philippines two years later, to promote the game among Filipino youth. With their programs flourishing, the brothers recently received approval to build the first artificial turf field in the country at Circuit Makati, on the site of the old Santa Ana racetrack. Pleased to see the growing popularity of the sport, James is even more determined to maintain its momentum. “I want to arrange more football clinics for the kids. The only way they’ll improve is by playing,” he says.
With his commitments as a professional player and as a youth coach, James acknowledges the difficulty in finding enough time to spend with Sari. “Football is still new here, so there’s no set schedule or season. That’s the hard thing. She’s been very patient.”
Sari agrees that coordinating their schedules is a challenge, but she insists, “You get used to it and you understand what’s important. He’s raising his little sister with his brother—that’s important. He works so hard, and I respect that.”
Between the upcoming launch of Sari’s new atelier and James’ schedule with the Azkals this year, including games in Indonesia, India and Saudi Arabia, the couple plans to make the most of whatever alone time they can carve out for themselves. In the past, they’ve managed jaunts to London and Ibiza, Spain, as well as meeting up in Hong Kong and Bangkok during away games.
But for beach-loving Sari, nothing beats a local getaway filled with sun, sand and surf. “It’s something close to my heart, what I love doing,” she confesses. Whether they spend the weekend at their favorite beach in Batangas or Christmas in Coron, Palawan, as they did this past holiday, James has a simple itinerary: “It’s just sunbathe, eat and drink.”
They unabashedly announce their intention to be homebodies this year, vowing to keep it low-key with dinners at home with friends, quiet evenings watching DVDs, and introducing each other to favorite activities. “I got her more involved in comic book movies,” James declares proudly of her newfound interest in such films as “Iron Man,” “Thor” and the “Dark Knight” series. Sari also indulged his inner gamer, buying him a console for Christmas. “Our friends joke that she got me another girlfriend,” he says cheekily, “At least she knows where I am!”
While he’s occupied with games, Sari quietly plots to draw him into her interests. So far, she hasn’t had much success. “I box and do Plana Forma, and I keep trying to get him to come,” she says.
Just as James converted her into a comic book fan, Sari hopes she can also steer him toward her favorite film genre. Last Halloween, James dressed up as the mysterious main character-with-no-name from the cult film “Drive,” complete with the off-white satin jacket emblazoned with a golden scorpion made famous by the movie’s leading man. “I just really wanted to wear that jacket,” he concedes. But Sari astutely picked up on a sure-fire strategy: the Ryan Gosling connection. “‘The Notebook.’ I’m going to make him watch it…”
She contemplates her strategy as the other women in the room nod knowingly. In this very normal, very un-celebrity relationship, the footballer may have all the moves, but the designer has all the game.