Things you can tell just by looking at her: Merritt’s beauty seems almost impossible—it’s not just for billboards along EDSA, it’s for billboards all over the world. I’ll qualify: in a nation obsessed with fair skin and perfect profiles, Merritt is the supreme wish; for every local kid who’s ever pinched a clothespin around their schnoz, hoping to grow that perfect nose, it was probably Merritt’s they had in mind—there’s a freckled lift and tilt to it that slays in profile. Up close, it’s all about the eyes. For an international audience, she’s something of an exotic specimen—not quite Western, and not quite Asian. New York by way of Manila. Suited to any market.
We all now know that she’ll be the first Filipino to walk in the Victoria's Secret Fashion show this year. Prior to this, she’d done three e-commerce shoots for the Victoria's Secret sports line, as well as an editorial shoot for their main line of business: night clothes, lingerie, and men’s dreams. We could do a full stop there, but that would be an injustice—she’s the it girl in more ways than one and in more countries than one; for the skeptics among us, she’s half-American but all Pinoy.“Whenever I work in New York, people ask what my ethnicity is. I say ‘Filipino.’ I keep forgetting to say I’m American kasi I grew up here,” she says, “I’ve lived here all my life. I only went to the States when I was eighteen and that was when I was recruited for work in New York. So in my head, I’m Filipino.”
It should also be said that it was Manila that prepared Kelsey for New York—a fact that comes up on more that one occasion. “I’m so glad na I started modeling here in Manila and obviously I feel like insecurity is really unavoidable, it’s inevitable. And I’m glad that I was able to overcome that—I had a new mindset that when I got to New York, like, I was secure in myself.”
Manila also taught Kelsey how to strategize. While still in college at the Ateneo de Manila University, she juggled her studies with an international modeling career. “Before when I was in first year and second year, I was only worried about work in Manila. When I went to New York, I had to worry about flying to New York and schooling in Manila,” she says. “So, like, if I would have a job that would require me to fly to New York, I would have to miss a whole lot of school.”
Any other kid her age would have folded. Multiple demands on her time and attention meant multiple pressures. Kelsey learned how to strategize. “You’re only allowed a certain number of cuts,” she says, “so I really had to count down, like, tally all my requirements, which was hard kasi you’re jet-lagged—if I have a deadline, I have to stay up and finish a paper. That’s why it gave me so much anxiety.” In her case, it was the good, driving kind—Kelsey graduated a mere 0.1 away from an honorable mention. Hers are hardcore supermodel smarts—not unlike Cindy Crawford graduating Valedictorian from her high school and earning a chemical engineering scholarship to Northwestern University. Or Lyndsey Scott's mad coding skills.
Kelsey could very well be the poster girl of a supermodel ethic we haven’t totally seen since the 90’s. It entails the kind of rigor a world-class athlete reserves for the Olympics. It means training at a place called the Dogpound where models go to sweat, shed, and rip. That the place isn’t called Hard Candy, or Saddle Row, or anything just as genteel or sugary, only goes to show that the establishment means business. This is where Victoria’s Secret models go to train, and where they might bump into Hugh Jackman while he’s tearing a hamstring training for the next Wolverine movie. It’s also the establishment where you can see Kelsey rolling up an inclined bench, or drawing at insanely long elastic bands to sculpt her abs into the kind of perfection reserved for marble or bronze.
This kind of rigor is only softened by Kelsey’s unexpected girl-next-door vibe. It’s Giselle Bündchen by way of Jennifer Aniston or Drew Barrymore. Her voice still bears traces of her kolehiyala days, shifting easily from straight English to Taglish, our third national language. Want to hear a Victoria’s secret? She’s a little ghetto, she says, when she’s with her friends. “You know what?,” she says, “Like if people know me, my two best friends [for example], they’re so funny because they call me kanto. “I guess I’m simple in that way, na I love home, I love isaw. She continues, “my God—friends will say I have a very weird laugh, it’s very deep—like whenever my friends hear it, they say, ‘hindi talaga bagay sa iyo.” Kelsey also lets us in on another secret: “I feel like I have a sweet addiction. I’m a cookie monster.” She can gorge on a chewy New York delicacy from a place called Insomnia—six sugary treats at a time. “I buy the six-pack and that’s my treat. [I tell myself] ‘you worked hard, now you deserve six cookies.’”
But maybe the real secret is that Kelsey is full of surprises—she can tell you she’s ghetto in one breath, and then talk passionately about her advocacy in the next. Her biggest fans know that she’s a conscientious environmentalist and that she’s a strong advocate of a plastic-free world. “So I went to this seminar in London for La Mer,” she says, “and they had a guest speaker. She was an ocean conservationist, and so she was talking about plastic—it’s ruined the oceans, it’s killing the whales. So, like, being from the Philippines, we are like one of the top contributors to plastic pollution in the oceans…” Her voice trails off, and there’s a glint in her eyes. You can’t tell if it’s just the light, or the jetlag or something inside that’s just turned hardcore. “It struck home,” she says, “I just got emotional. I didn’t really know anything about it before. Then I did research.”
As far as advocates go, Kelsey says that she isn’t a rally frontliner, or a preacher with a pulpit. She isn’t one to force an agenda, preferring instead to lead by example. “If I don’t use plastic, I’m not gonna look down on you for using plastic, that’s your choice. But I feel like if I do my own thing, then I’ve inspired people to do it. I’ve not forced them to do it.” She continues, “I don’t want to be like, you’re using plastic, Oh my God, you’re such a terrible person.”
As the interview draws to its inevitable close, it seems that there aren’t enough hours in a day to be Kelsey Merritt—international model and soft activist, and, as we soon learn, someone’s significant other (because, of course, she’s taken). “Well, I’m dating someone new,” she says. No real surprise that he’s a pro-swimmer, and an Olympic gold medalist. “He’s won gold twice,” Kelsey says, in that voice you reserve for your first college crush. “It’s very, very new.” She sounds guarded like New York but giddy like Manila. For a moment, it’s easy to forget that this is the same girl who wanted to be a Victoria’s secret model, and made it happen with little more than smarts and homegrown grit. She’s wildly driven, but at this moment, she’s also endearingly kilig.
Those who know her best, like the insanely talented photographer and influencer, BJ Pascual, seem sure of her future. “I think that it’s given naman that she’s super stunning,” he says, “but I think that what makes her stand out talaga is her personality and her drive,” he says. “If she wants to accomplish something, she does everything to get there.” Pascual continues, “I’m so proud of her and everything she’s achieved at this point. I know she’s worked really hard for it—she didn’t just, like, wait for everything to land on her lap.”
When asked where he sees Kelsey in ten years, and whether she’ll be lodged into heights like the great feathered and haloed angels on the runway,
Pascual says, “I’m pretty sure, and it’s going to come sooner than that. In ten years baka ibang level pa.” When you ask him what that next level is, it takes him a nanosecond to answer: supermodel. You take one more look at her, and you know the future’s a gamble, but you’d bet on it.
Photographs by BJ Pascual
Photos and story first appeared in Metro Style.