“Happy to say I used to serve and sell ube cake to Oscar winner Patricia Arquette at Red Ribbon in Hollywood, one of my 1st jobs in America. Twelve years or so later, I never thought I’d get to interview two of tonight’s other Oscar winners Julianne Moore and JK Simmons and then cover their #oscars2015 moment. That’s my true Hollywood story.”
The journalist’s journey to the red carpet was long and remarkable.
She and her siblings grew up in San Antonio, San Pascual, Batangas, on a street named Lumang Kalye, raised by a determined single mom who “easily trusted people who sometimes got her into get-rich-quick schemes.”
Yong told Inquirer Super: “For us then, it was feast and famine, depending on which of her ventures panned out. We had good days and hungry days. There were days I had to face the wrath of the neighborhood store owner because I was sent to try to get some Ligo and bigas on credit but mahaba pa ang listahan ng utang namin, so the store owner berated me in front of everyone for having the audacity to ask for another item on credit. I had no choice, we had to try and get something to eat.”
The young Yong was obsessed with reading. The school she went to didn’t have a library, so she got her literature the only way she could—by reading Filipino komiks over the shoulders of men who were taking a break from weaving nipa hut roofing.
“My brother used to pull me by my ear whenever he caught me. I couldn’t afford to rent the komiks so I just read whatever they were reading, waiting patiently till they turned the page,” she recalled.
Yong’s family didn’t have a TV at home, so she would go around the neighborhood to catch a glimpse of her neighbors’ screens. “Sometimes they closed their doors or windows on me, but not all the time, and that was enough for me. I loved watching variety and talk shows. Celebrities have always interested me, I guess.”
The moment she saw Tina Monzon-Palma on TV, she realized she wanted to be a journalist: “It was a lightbulb moment with matching fireworks.”
But she did not tell anyone about her dream. “I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to tell me I couldn’t do it, especially because I knew their reasons would be because I wasn’t Philippine-pretty or connected or rich.”
Mrs. Garcia, Yong’s high school teacher at St. Theresa’s Academy in Bauan, Batangas, saw something in her student. “She was the first to tell me I could write. She asked me to try out for the school paper. That’s why I love teachers, they really can make a difference. I had another one, Ms. Quitain, who made me realize that I was one of the few who was not terrified of public speaking. Even when I was young, interviewing strangers never made me nervous. I’m just naturally shameless, I guess,” said Yong.
She enrolled in Communication Arts at the University of Santo Tomas. But even then, she knew that working in TV was a long shot.
“Back then the only thing I knew was how it was done in the Philippines. You had to be connected or come from the right school or background, so for someone like me—a normal-looking girl who, on some days, couldn’t pay for lunch, much less the tuition fee—dreaming of a TV career was like dreaming of going to Mars. I auditioned to be an intern at GMA News and I was rejected in the first round.”
Yong worked her way through college as a cashier at Jollibee. “That job was a godsend. Before having an income, I used to skip meals because I didn’t have money to buy food… My roommate made and sold polvoron and so sometimes one polvoron is what I had to eat the whole day. I never, ever felt sorry for myself though. It was what it was, and I was living a life that many other Filipinos were living.”
Yong is thankful to Jollibee for one other thing—that’s where she found the man she calls the love of her life. They married in her junior year; and when Yong became a mom, her husband quit school to work full-time so he could support them.
“When I was done with school, siya naman ang nagpatuloy sa college,” she said.
Yong, who juggled work and school after giving birth, didn’t get her diploma because she lacked P.E. units. She kept failing P.E. because the classes were right after her work shift and the commute often made her late for class.
She and her husband continued working for Jollibee, with Yong as store manager and her husband in the management team that would open Jollibee in Guam.
“I sort of gave up on my TV dream,” Yong recounted. Though they were miles apart, they talked regularly, which was expensive in the pre-Viber, pre-Facebook era of the 1990s. “Those calls bled us dry, but my husband and I couldn’t not talk at least twice a day. He’s my everything.”
Soon, Yong moved to Guam where she worked as marketing assistant at Guam’s Pacific Daily News, sister newspaper of USA Today.
“I loved seeing those reporters working. When I left the assistant job, I brazenly asked the newsroom’s two Filipino-American assistant news editors, David Crisostomo and Lalaine Estella, if they could give me a trial run as freelance news reporter.”
With her balls of steel, her determination and a piece she wrote for Inquirer’s Youngblood column as her writing sample, Yong was given her first assignment: a feature on gospel songwriters. The editors liked her work, and she became a full-time features writer for the paper.
Although they loved Guam, Yong and her husband moved to California in 2000 with the help of her husband’s employers, Katty and Alex Uy. “They sponsored our green cards for no other reason than them wanting to give us a chance to make a life here.”
Yong was on the hunt for another job and, after realizing how difficult it was to get hired, grabbed the first opportunity—selling bread and giving tours at the Disneyland California Adventure’s Boudin Bakery.
“My first trip to Disneyland was backstage for the orientation, so the image that stayed with me was that of a cast member dressed as Snow White taking a smoke break in the cafeteria. It was an easy job but the commute was awful,” she said.
She also worked as travel agent before applying as a store manager at Red Ribbon Bakeshop in Hollywood, the place where she served ube cake to Patricia Arquette. “I also served Franka Potente of ‘Bourne Identity.’ I wanted to impress her, so I offered to write ‘Happy Birthday’ on the cake that she bought. In my excitement, I gave my right hand a pretty bad paper cut from the cake box. The blood was dripping, and when I couldn’t stop it, I wrote on the cake with my left hand. My writing was hideous but Franka, God bless her, just laughed and told me to take care of my cut.”
On her days off, Yong was a journalist, a freelance reporter for Philippine News, which she says was the only national Fil-Am newspaper in the United States at that time.
In 2004, Yong met Ging Reyes, then ABS-CBN’s bureau chief for North America, at a vigil for Sharon Anne Santos, a Fil-Am employee of Warner Bros. who had gone missing and was eventually found dead. Yong had been covering the story for Philippine News. “Ging said she has read my work and requested to join my interview with the case detective.”
The next day, there was a voice mail from Ging, asking Yong if she’d be interested in doing freelance work for Balitang America. “Ging gave me my great chance and made me believe that I have a place in TV. She hired people based on capability and potential,” said Yong.
Although she works independently, Yong is also thankful for the support of her other mentors from ABS-CBN—“Nadia Trinidad; Manila desk editors Miranda de Quiros and Cherry Cornell; and our bureau chief here, Paul Henson; and the ‘Balitang America’ team.”
She added, “I’m also very thankful to the ‘TV Patrol’ producer, whoever she/he may be, who first called me ‘ABS-CBN Hollywood correspondent,’ because that has become my title.”
It was a reorganization that led Yong to pursue Hollywood stories. “I created the Hollywood beat for us when hard news and community assignments dried up. I worked hard on developing the niche through the years, planting the ABS-CBN mic flags wherever I cover. Many of my interviews became ‘first-on-Philippine-TV’ reports.”
But not everyone welcomed Yong’s entertainment reports. “When I first filed Hollywood stories on ‘TV Patrol,’ I received a few cruel tweets. Some said I’m ugly and that I shouldn’t be on TV, much less cover Hollywood. I kept some of those tweets to remind myself that no matter what, maybe my presence as a non-model TV personality can inspire other young girls who look like me, who are dreaming and working for a career in TV.”
The mean tweets did not stop Yong. “Those were only in the beginning… These days, majority of messages are from happy fans of the celebs I interview, relaying their appreciation for featuring their idols on local shows.”
Her first big celebrity interview was with Kris Allen, who won “American Idol” in 2009. “It’s one of those things where I thought, ‘I’m just going to try. I don’t have anything to lose.’”
To her surprise, the show’s PR team approved her request and her interview went viral “within the ‘American Idol’ fandom.” “That was the first time I had an inkling that maybe I have a future in Hollywood celebrity interviews.”
Six years ago, she became the first Filipino TV reporter from a Philippine network to cover the Primetime Emmys. In 2013, she became the first reporter from a Philippine network to cover the Oscars.
“The truth is, I never set out to make history. It didn’t occur to me until my Fil-Am friend Winston Emano, who works as a publicist in Hollywood, told me that I was the first,” said Yong.
Yong remembers her first Oscars coverage: “You have the biggest stars passing by, and you have no time to process that you’re breathing the same air as your idols. It was a blur of producing, writing, doing interviews, uploading footage, editing, even doing social media work. Unlike other reporters covering big events, I don’t have a team to write and produce and do all the other things for me. It’s tough work, but it’s satisfying after it’s finished.”
Her red-carpet pack always includes SkyFlakes crackers, because “you don’t have access to food for about five hours when you’re in those big events.”
She’s met and interviewed some of the biggest and hottest names in Hollywood: Sandra Bullock, Adam Sandler, Russell Crowe, Ethan Hawke, Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston, Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Andrew Garfield, Zooey Deschanel, Julianne Moore, Chris Hemsworth, Johnny Depp, Chloe Grace Mortez, George Clooney, Jessica Chastain, Lena Dunham and more.
“When I’m working, though, I don’t get star-struck. But I haven’t interviewed Ryan Gosling so maybe that will change,” she quipped.
Yong first met Jennifer Lawrence at her first Golden Globes coverage in 2010, just after she had finished watching “Winter’s Bone” and reading “The Hunger Games” trilogy. “When I got to interview her (thanks to Inquirer columnistRuben Nepales, who sent her to me when he saw me frantically calling out to her), I told Jennifer she would be the perfect Katniss and asked her if she liked the books. Turns out that was the first time a reporter asked her about it. She wasn’t evenbeing suggested for the role by the fans at the time.
“But after seeing ‘Winter’s Bone,’ I just saw her as Katniss, and so I was happy that she enthusiastically answered my question. Fan support and calls for her to be cast as Katniss grew after that, some of the books’ fans told me,” said Yong.
Yong ended up in Movie Magic Magazine’s “The Making of ‘The Hunger Games” special for being the first reporter to link Jennifer to the movie.
Being a Filipino reporter in Hollywood has its challenges. “Sometimes you’re stuck in the nosebleed section of the red carpet, the very end where the superstars rarely stop to do interviews. This was especially true in my last two years covering the Golden Globes. Even though my Globes reports are viewed widely by a global Filipino audience, that’s where I’m placed. It’s heartbreaking but you just have to make it work somehow.
“That’s why this recent ‘AskHerMore’ online campaign, where stars called on reporters to ask more substantial questions, stings a bit because I’m always ready to ask stars more, but if they never go to our spot, how can we? The big stars usually do only the major networks, where they’re asked to do things like mani-cams instead. That’s why I like junkets because there, we have scheduled time with the stars.”
But Yong’s biggest challenge is juggling her crazy schedule. She regularly stays up till midnight or wakes up at 5 a.m. (“Sometimes I do both”) to do her script for Balitang Showbiz, her daily entertainment segment on TFC’s Balitang America. She covers events, does interviews and makes arrangements for upcoming stories.
On top of that, Yong works full-time for an American company eight hours a day—yes, she still has a day job. “It’s super tiring but I can’t give it up yet. I don’t earn enough in reporting to make a good living in America, unfortunately, and I don’t get benefits because I’m a freelance reporter. But that’s my long-term dream: to earn enough in TV that I can quit my other job so I can focus on my passion for creating engaging and entertaining content.”
There are many things Yong loves about her job. “ABS-CBN/TFC gives me creative freedom to produce my content, and I have met many wonderful people because of it. Sometimes I also get to travel. Lionsgate/Pioneer recently sent me to Berlin to interview Johnny Depp. That is the coolest sentence I’ll ever get to write, I’m sure.”
But for Yong, the best thing about her job isn’t the chance to rub elbows with A-list stars. “Through it, I’m able to earn extra money to support my mom and sister. I’m their only source of financial support and they both have medical challenges. Knowing that my hard work means they get to have medical attention when they need it, makes all the sleepless nights worth it.”