The Hotel Jen Manila in Roxas Boulevard will be officially closing its doors this month but legendary photographer, Jun de Leon, still remembers the room number of his office back when the building was still called Traders Hotel: Room 418. Because how can he forget? He was its occupant from the 1970s to the 2000s, and likely the establishment’s most famous resident during that period. His 36-sqm office, he says, was witness to “80 percent of the best years” of his career.
“At that time, I wanted to have my own studio. So simultaneously, while I was still with the Philippine Daily Express, I started operating my studio at Traders,” says de Leon. He would hire two photographers to cover events but he personally took care of the promotional snaps, which included the photo shoots for Wyngard Tracy’s roster of talents who regularly performed at the hotel’s happening bar, El Camarote. This roster included some of the biggest names in OPM: Basil Valdez, Vernie Varga, The Circus Band, Side A, and Freestyle.
Where the stars land
De Leon’s neighbor, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, was no match when it came to the flow of celebrities that went in and out of Traders back then. Because of the photographer, the hotel became the go-to venue for the photo shoots of the country’s biggest stars. Everyone wanted to be shot by Jun de Leon. “Everybody went there. Superstar, megastar, starlet, sports personalities, presidentiables—name it,” he recalls.
De Leon has a commanding personality. When he’s shooting, he’s undoubtedly Captain of the ship, man in charge. As much as it’s amusing to watch a celebrity pose in front of the camera, it’s a treat to watch De Leon work behind it. As one editor liked to recall, when other photographers say “Make love to the camera,” de Leon's had the more forceful, “Basagin mo ang lente ko.” He doesn’t mean it literally, of course.
Once he said yes to a shoot, expect him to be waiting at the appointed venue two hours before call time—with his favorite drink, of course, a strange-sounding mix of hot coffee with chocolate. The guy is a stickler for starting a pictorial on the appointed time. Showing up late is “mortal sin.” A Metro magazine shoot involving a powerhouse cast that included Dolphy, Nora Aunor and Piolo Pascual sometime in the mid-2000s was almost canceled when Aunor was nowhere to be found at call time.
“All the stars who were part of the shoot including Dolphy came on time, except Nora Aunor,” de Leon recalls. “Since the Superstar herself wasn’t there, I decided to pack up the shoot.” It was only a while later when he found out Aunor was in fact already at the hotel lobby but was too scared to come up, knowing she’ll likely get a scolding from the veteran photographer.
Upon finding out the Superstar was already in the building, the Noranians in the room—makeup artist Patrick Rosas included—requested if de Leon could reconsider pushing through with the shoot.
“Hindi ako umiimik,” de Leon tells ANCX. “Then sabi ko, ‘Okay, in five minutes, [Nora] should be in front of me.’ Takbo ang handler niya para sunduin si Nora.” The Superstar apologized to everyone and the shoot pushed through. “Yun lang naman ang rule ko e. It’s one thing I learned from my dad. Respect begets respect.”
De Leon seriously values other people’s time. In fact, there was that episode when the day he was already at a big Gary Valenciano shoot at Traders—one that involved not only Mr. Pure Energy himself but 14 other performers included in his 2002 duets album, among them Sharon Cuneta, Zsa Zsa Padilla and Kuh Ledesma—it so happened his wife Abby Arenas, the former fashion model and beauty queen, found out she was also going to give birth.
Valenciano told De Leon they could pack up and just reschedule the shoot but the latter refused. Even when it meant he would need to shuttle back and forth from the hotel to Manila Doctors Hospital where Arenas was about to have a C-section.
“I was trying to contain the high tension during the shoot, because some of the biggest stars were part of that Gary V album,” De Leon recalls. And so he told everyone to continue working on hair and makeup while he rushed to the hospital to attend to his wife and sign a document that would allow the doctors to perform the Caesarean operation.
After seeing the procedure through, meeting his newborn child, and making sure Arenas was safely on her way to recovery, De Leon made his way back to Traders and was surprised to find out hair and makeup work was still ongoing. He tells ANCX: “I remember Gary whispered to my ear, ‘From this moment on, I will not even be a minute late in your shoots.’”
De Leon was also great at time management. In 2006 when San Miguel Corporation (SMC) signed the then wildly sought-after Manny Pacquiao to become its corporate endorser, de Leon had the challenge of shooting the acclaimed boxer for 24 different SMC brands in 4 hours. “I showed them the computation—10 minutes per brand. So on the day of the shoot, nakapila lahat doon—suka, beer, catsup etc,” he recalls. The shoot, as you may have guessed, went flawlessly.
Together with Bench founder Ben Chan and renowned talent manager Douglas Quijano, De Leon also had a hand in reinvigorating Richard Gomez’s career in the late 1980s.
The photographer recalls Quijano coming to him, Gomez in tow, asking if he could help relaunch his ward’s showbiz career. “What is there to relaunch? Ang payat-payat nya,” De Leon remembers telling the show biz veteran. De Leon turned down the offer to shoot. Movie producers were at that time looking to launch sex symbols, and the photographer would know—he was then part of Viva’s three-person committee that screened potential stars.
But it turned out Gomez took De Leon’s words to heart and would not be seen in public for about a month. When the actor showed up again one afternoon at De Leon’s office, he had a new body to show the lensman. Gomez came in nothing but a pair of trousers and Issey Miyake suspenders—no shirt on. “He leaned on my table and boomed, ‘Ganito ba hinahanap mo?’ Galit sa akin,” De Leon recalls. He shot Gomez’s manager a look and said, “Douglas, game. Showtime.”
For the shoot, they made a trip to a beach in Bataan. Holding his 500-mm camera, De Leon told his subject to take his clothes off and submerge himself in the water. “I knew the shot that I wanted. Inaantay kong bumaba yung tubig to almost reveal his privates. Then maangas ang tingin ni Goma sa akin, which was effective.” De Leon nailed the shot, of course, and showed the resulting photo to Ben Chan who was then looking for a model. Needless to say, the retail magnate loved it.
Goma would be seen first in a ¼-page ad wiping himself with a Bench towel. The next day, he would make a splash on a full-pager, wearing a cutout sando with the Bench logo on it.
De Leon shot many other successful campaigns, some of them even won awards. One such campaign shot at Traders was the Eye Bank Foundation and Visine Refresh’s “Tears of Hope, Tears of Health” which featured photographs of 52 celebrities shedding tears of joy. It was initiated to promote proper eye care. It won the Grand Anvil Award and even led to the production of a limited edition collectors’ item folio entitled “Behind the Tears.”
After his over three glorious decades at Traders Hotel, De Leon and Arenas came to a point when they knew it was time to move on. This was when the photographer got a space in Taguig which would become his first designer studio. “It was my best studio,” he says now, looking back. “It was where I shot Cory Aquino, PNoy.”
But he would also later realize it was no longer practical to maintain a studio, so he eventually decided to get a small place in Makati that would serve as his office. Asked to describe his years at Traders Hotel, he tells us, “I have no attachment to the past.” But De Leon is grateful for the decades he spent there. “Traders paved the road for me,” he says.