MANILA -- When it was announced earlier this month that Filipino-American model Kelsey Merritt has joined Viva Artists Agency as one of its contract artists, many became excited about the news.
Will Merritt, who has been based in the US for three years now, return to Manila anytime soon to join showbiz? Will she be making movies, too?
The 23-year-old model, however, was quick to point out acting was never in her plan. Not that she doesn’t want to join showbiz.
“Viva is my new management, my representation in the Philippines,” Merritt asserted. “My contract is not going to be acting, but the inquiries about [my] possible endorsements.
“I’m not ready yet to do a full-time showbiz career in the Philippines. Sobrang love ko ang modeling. That was my dream that I really wanted to do from the start.”
Merritt never discounted the fact, though, that she will also join showbiz one day. “I was never passionate about acting. But I am actually thinking about taking some acting classes here in Los Angeles, since I’m now here in Hollywood or doing some auditions. I was thinking about doing that.”
She insists that acting is a very different industry. “I respect very good actors,” Merritt explained. “It’s not easy. If I do enter that industry, I want to be very good at it. I want to learn it first. I don’t want to go half-baked. It’s a very competitive industry. I respect the industry so much.”
Signing up with Viva is a big advantage for Merritt, who is now based in the US. “I live in America and my work is mainly here now,” she said. “I still have family and friends in the Philippines and I do want to keep in touch with my home country. So I want to go home more often and I feel signing up with Viva is a good way to go home more.”
ILOCANA RAISED IN PAMPANGA
Her mom is from Cagayan Valley, so Merritt is an Ilocana. Her dad is American. Merritt was born and raised in Pampanga, where her parents still live in the same house up to this day. She spent the last Christmas holidays in Pampanga.
Merritt has been an avid movie fan from the time she was a young girl. While the Harry Potter films top her lists, a number of local releases were memorable to her.
“The Bea-John Lloyd movie [‘One More Chance’], I cried so much when I watched it,” Merritt recalled. “I also remember going to the cinema when I was still so young and watching Anne Curtis in ‘Ang Cute ng Ina Mo.’ I got to tell Anne about it when I met her later on. She remembers she still had accent when she did that movie.”
Merritt also appreciate historical films, like “Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral,’” the life story of Gregorio del Pilar, with Paulo Avelino in the title role. And of course, her first showbiz crush, just like many others, was Piolo Pascual.
Merritt did not hide her insecurities when she started modeling at 15 in Manila. “I was really insecure because I was shorter than most models,” she recalled. “I was really young. I wasn’t really put together as the other more established models. But I learned very young and it has helped a lot with my career.
“I learned early on that if clients don’t choose me, it’s not because I’m not good enough, I’m not pretty enough or tall enough. I’m not the right person fit for the job. It doesn’t make me lesser than any models.
“Learning that early on in my career has helped me a lot when I moved to New York and I started competing with bigger figures and models. Having that mentality has really helped me.”
FOUND ON INSTAGRAM
Merritt was in second year college, she caught the eye of modeling agency director Roman Young, through her Instagram posts. Young, who discovered Canadian fashion model Mikhaila “Coco” Rocha, sent her e-mail, saying they wanted to fly her to New York to try modeling there.
“I was a bit skeptical at that time because the e-mail seemed very sketchy,” Merritt shared. “I didn’t know if I could trust that person who wanted to fly me across the globe. But I did my proper research and my dad spoke to my agent (Roman), who verified the identity of the guy who sent the e-mail.”
When Merritt turned 18, she went to New York for summer and stayed there for four months -- though she insisted, that was not the conventional way of doing modeling auditions. “I was lucky I got scouted through Instagram. If Instagram wasn’t there, I would not be where I am today.”
Usually, there’s the more traditional way of doing it. “You can submit photos to a modeling agency in New York,” Merritt said. “They’ll look through them and if they are interested, they are going to make you come to New York so the agency can see you. If you live across the globe, how are you going to see them?
“That’s where the financial part becomes very hard. You have to pay for everything and spend all those money to go to New York, without any guarantee of getting representation or you’ll get signed. It’s such a hard industry.”
Admirably, Merritt completed her AB Communications degree at the Ateneo de Manila University in 2017 before she officially moved to New York.
“It wasn’t easy trying to fight back sleep on the plane because I had so many readings to catch up on,” recalled Merritt, when she would shuttle between New York and Manila or even London and Manila, to give way to her modeling stints, while at the same time, finishing college.
Even if she had to endure the 17-hour long plane ride, Merritt knew that was not the time to complain. At that time, she already knew she was living her dream. Back in 2015, she modeled for designer Vera Wang’s Spring 2016 collection, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier.
She was 20 when Merritt officially moved to New York and settled in an apartment in Tribeca. To date, Merritt is the first Filipino model to walk for Victoria’s Secret (VS). In 2018, she graced the catwalk with 60 other VS models in the show at New York’s Pier 94.
Merritt herself was stunned with what she donned in the fashion show. It was VS 2018 fantasy bra, studded with more than 2,000 Swarovski diamonds in a silver silhouette.
“Everyone was so nice,” recalled Merritt about the VS fashion show. “There was no professional rivalry. Everyone was just so supportive. No one was putting anyone down. I was star struck and fan-girling when I did the show. When I first saw Candice (Swanepoel), I was silently screaming.”
In the short time that Merritt has been based in New York, she has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Teen Vogue and E!
“Before I started doing this, I didn’t really see Filipino models in New York,” Merritt recalled. “It was a big hindrance to me thinking if I would be able to make it here or not.
“Being able to walk the Victoria’s Secret fashion show and shoot for Sports Illustrated, it gives way to more Filipino girls to model in New York. To say, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.’ Before, there was just no one before me whom I could look up to. I feel now that barriers have been broken and that’s just nice to give way and pave the way for more Filipinos to model in New York.”
Merritt did her first-time shoot for Sports Illustrated in 2019. Last February, she did another shoot that has yet to come out. Although modeling in New York gives her prestige and income, Merritt insisted it is never easy being out there in the catwalk
“New York is not an easy city. Modeling is not an easy industry, nor it is an easy job. I had this earlier notion that everyone is a diva and hate each other. But the stereotype that ‘Devil Wears Prada’ is not real. Everyone was so nice and so supportive. No catfights. No one was pulling anyone down. Everyone was so professional.
“There are millions of girls who fly to New York competing with the most beautiful women from all over the world, going to one city to try and make good. One way you can really make yourself stand out is to work harder. Because if you don’t, someone else will work harder and make it. Nothing just lands on your lap. You have to work hard for it.”
Yet, Merritt advised all aspiring models out there to never stop and dream big. “I come from a small town in Pampanga. I didn’t know about New York or modeling. When I found out there was a world outside of my city that I could dream so big, I made a go for it. You’ll never know where life will take you. So just dream crazy.”
Recently, Merritt posted on her IG showing her stretch marks. That generated positive reaction from her IG followers, most of whom Merritt inspired about body positivity. Since she’s a model, she is aware about the constant pressure to look sexy and maintain a toned, enviable body.
“I feel that as a model and a figure that people look up to, I sort of have a responsibility to show everyone that I’m real and I’m also human,” Merritt maintained. “I have the same things that they have.
“The stretch marks that I have or everyone has are naturally occurring in a human body. It’s not something that can be looked down upon or not something that you should try and get rid of. It seems crazy to me to edit my photos to make me look perfect, because I’m not. I try to be as authentic as I can, in any way that I can.”
Merritt attests that social media has greatly helped her modeling career. “With modeling, it’s not just your portfolio that people look at anymore. Social media has become my portfolio.
“Nowadays, clients want to see a personality behind the face. They want to see a voice behind the face. Social media has been amazing, because I get to show that part of me that they normally wouldn’t see on my portfolio. I curate my IG, where I get to show myself in a more authentic way.”
QUARANTINED IN LA
From New York, Merritt recently moved to the West Coast and experienced quarantine life in Los Angeles. “It has been really quiet,” she shared. “I haven’t really seen a lot of people since quarantine started. I haven’t been travelling at all.”
She has led a domesticated life, albeit temporarily. “I’ve been cooking and baking so much. I love cooking. Sinigang is so easy to cook. You just have to literally throw everything into the pot. Adobo is so good, too.”
She was craving for pandesal to go with her coffee in the morning. But pandesal was not always available in the LA store. “So, I made it,” Merritt beamed. “Fresh out of the oven, it was crispy on the outside and so soft on the inside. It was so good. It was so hard to do. It takes so long to make pandesal. But I was so happy I made it.”
Although she admits to be a homebody, Merritt misses going to dinner with friends. “I miss being with family and friends. I just miss the human interaction. I’m an introvert and I’m a homebody. I usually love staying at home.
“During the first month, I just thrive because I love cocooning. But on the second month, I feel I need human interaction. The first Being
She regularly does FaceTime with her sisters even at ungodly hours, at noon or at night. “It depends who’s up and I get to talk to them,” Merritt shared.
“I do Pilates, yoga and home work outs that she follows. This pandemic has been very stressful for a lot of people and for me, as well. There are times when I don’t have motivation. There was like a month when I didn’t workout. I was purely on comfort food.”
Merritt is bracing for working in the new normal. She keeps the faith that economy will be going back to normal real soon, not just in the US but also in Manila.
“We’re all just sort of feeling things out,” she said. “I had shoots the past weeks, everyone was on a six feet distance. Everyone wore masks. The makeup artist was wearing a space shield.
“That’s pretty safe as long as everyone followed the same protocol. Travelling won’t be the same. Before, I would fly to a different city every three days. I was on a different plane every third day. That won’t happen any time soon.”
Is she more Filipino or American? “When people ask me where I’m from, I always answer ‘Filipino,’” Merritt said. “It just comes naturally. I was born and raised in the Philippines. All my life I was immersed in Filipino culture. I never left the country till I was 18 for work.
“I lived here in the US for the past three years. But the minute I return to the Philippines, the accent comes back immediately. I’m not even forcing it when I talk to my siblings.”
When she first went to the US, Merritt admittedly felt so out of place. “There were just certain ways that were very alien to me,” she recalled. “There were certain analogies I never understood.
Fortunately, Merritt feels she entered the modeling industry when they are very welcoming of Asian-Americans. Ten years ago, she surmised this would probably not have happened.
Yet, Merritt has admirably adapted. And she knows she will have to do that for a long time, if she intends to stay in the international modeling industry – and enter local showbiz any time in the future.