Faith, Love, Time, and Donita Rose | Bonus Issue
She was at the top of the world as an international star... and then she wasn't. How Donita Rose has moved on from betrayal and heartbreak with her humor and her faith intact.
When I was thinking about relaunching FireQuinito.com, I figured I wanted to write about sports, yes, but I also wanted a space that I could use as a laboratory, where I could sharpen skills that I hadn’t really used in a while. In my role as an editor and a media executive over the past decade, I found myself progressively busier with various other responsibilities on my plate, leaving me with little time to do my own reporting and writing. For the That’s Entertainment piece, I conducted four different interviews, including a lengthy one with former MTV VJ Donita Rose that had so much meat on the bone that I figured I could try to develop into a nice mini-feature, even though this has nothing to do with sports. Enjoy!
Midjourney: “Faith, love, time, and Donita Rose”
AS THE LARGEST CHRISTIAN NATION in Asia, you’d figure that in a given day in the Philippines, there would be thousands, maybe millions of young voices saying a prayer for a shot to make their showbiz dreams come true.
To hear Donita Rose tell it, her entertainment career also began with a prayer, but it was much more interesting than that.
Describing herself as “a very American girl from Clark,” she was 15 years old when she was busted by her parents for smoking marijuana. “That was the first time I had ever tried it. And I got caught on the first try.”
That would be bad for any set of parents, but it was especially so for Donita’s: her dad was an American airman, her mom a Filipino who taught at one of those schools for US military brats. To scare her straight, they sent Donita to the emergency room at Clark Air Base, where she chanced upon a dramatic scene of a wife crying beside her husband’s gurney.
“I don’t know if I was high or something like that,” she tells me with a laugh during our Zoom conversation. “But I was contemplating life and I was very reflective of what I did.”
Donita remembers saying a prayer, asking God to help her find a purpose in life.
That prayer would be answered three days later, in the form of, oddly enough, Randy Santiago.1
The Cavett family2 had gone to Manila for a December shopping trip and decided to make a detour to Broadway Centrum to watch “Lunch Date,”3 the GMA noontime show at the time. Donita made her way through the cramped Broadway bleachers with her friend Sandra, a blonde and blue-eyed girl from the air base. “At first the cameras focused on us as we walked into the audience area, because it was like a novelty thing to see Americans4 come into the studio,” Donita says. Reacting swiftly, Randy Santiago quipped, “Ah dumating na ang siyota ko!” (My girlfriend is here!) to the delight of the crowd.
After the show, Donita’s mom would thank the cameraman for focusing on her daughter. The man told her mom, “You should watch a show later called ‘That’s Entertainment.’ Your daughter would probably enjoy it because she’s a teenager.”
Donita, the American girl from Clark, had no idea what That’s Entertainment was, but they all went back that afternoon anyway to see what was up. During the show, she found herself under the spotlight once again. This time, teen heartthrob Romnick Sarmienta made his way to their seats to start serenading Donita and her friend with a song number.
“After singing, he said, ‘You see that guy on stage? That’s German Moreno. He discovers talents, and he’d like to know if you want to join the show.’” Donita looked back at her mom, who was eagerly giving her the thumbs up sign.
“So I just looked back and said, OK. That was it.”
DONITA STILL HAD to sing “Radio Romance,” the Tiffany song, for her audition — “And I was really terrible!” — but the star builder behind That’s Entertainment seemed determined to bring her into the fold.
“Kuya Germs asked me, ‘Do you have any talent?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you speak Tagalog?’ ‘No.’ ‘So what can you do?’ ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘OK, you’re in.’”
She and her brother made it, and were assigned to the Friday group, which allowed them to travel to Manila from Clark at the end of each week so they could be on the show on Friday and for the Saturday competitions.
They would take part in live workshops on television, doing segments like “That’s News,” where they would try to become news anchors; “That’s Modeling,” which allows the members to walk the stage like a runway, and also doubles as a way for them to thank their hair, makeup, and clothing sponsors on the show; “That’s Acting,” where Kuya Germs shows a clip from a movie that’s out in the theaters, and the members would act it all out; and of course, the usual singing and dancing.
Donita quickly found a niche. “Since I was very Americanized, I’d like to think that I was one of the pioneers of hiphop dancing in the Philippines,” she says. Record labels record would hire her to perform with dance groups like Hot Legs on variety shows like “Eat Bulaga” and “GMA Supershow” to promote their latest dance singles.
But Donita’s real claim to fame — “for the wrong reasons,” she adds — is her acting in the workshops.
“We would be given a few minutes during the commercial break to memorize a dialogue. And then we’d have to do heavy drama, and then recite the lines and you know, act out some famous scene from a movie,” Donita recalls.
“Since I couldn’t speak Tagalog, I’d have to beg someone next to me and say, ‘Help me with this.’ They were trying to teach me what the lines mean in, like, five minutes,” she adds.
Soon enough, it would become her trademark on the show.
“My brother and I were the last, we were always the last because it’s always funny. I would try so hard!” she says, but it never worked. “I’d say my lines and like, people would have no idea what I’m saying. But to them, it’s really funny.”
Her brother would eventually quit showbiz, but Donita’s angelic face soon paved the way for movie roles. She bagged a couple of lead parts, as well as prominent roles as the leading lady in action films. But producers quickly realized that she was too quirky for the much older action stars, so in subsequent films she would end up being paired with the comedic sidekick instead, allowing Donita to stretch her chops some more.
Comedy also allowed her to thrive on the fiesta circuit. While That’s Entertainment mainstays were paid only a small stipend to appear on the show, the television exposure made them coveted guests at fiestas in remote towns, where organizers were willing to pay them tens of thousands of pesos for a handful of song and dance numbers.
“I would go and get the shyest person in the crowd, in tsinelas and sando,” Donita says. “And I would serenade him tapos lalandian ko siya. And the crowd would go crazy!”
Her comedic timing would eventually lead to her role as Barbie Doll Dinero in the classic sitcom “Ober Da Bakod.”
“I never intended to be a comedian,” she says, laughing. “That’s just kinda how it happened.”
UNTIL THAT POINT in her career, Donita was just going with the flow. That was until a spot for the new MTV VJ opened up. She knew, more than anything, that this was the opportunity for her.
She remembers walking at a mall in Makati with her friend Mo Twister when she saw a poster for the audition. “I literally wanted to rip it and pull it down so that nobody else would see it. Because this was mine. That's what I wanted to do.”
And she was right: the American girl, honed for years on Philippine television, was perfect for the gig.
As a VJ on MTV, Donita’s broadcasts were beamed throughout Southeast Asia and large parts of China, making her a heartthrob and a television icon to millions of teenagers across a big swath of the world.
Behind the scenes, Donita’s rise to international superstardom coincided — though, as a woman of faith, she probably wouldn’t characterize it that way — with her decision to dedicate her life to God.
“There was a lot of things that I’ve done in my life up until I was 23, you know, things that were bad and I regreted. And I think there was a lot of maturity that took place before MTV happened, which made me realize that if I get this opportunity, I’m not screwing this up,” she says. “I'm not messing around, I'm not going to party anymore. I'm just going to focus on God.”
So while VJ Donita was tearing it up on our television screens, Donita took the opportunity go in person on faith-based mission trips, speaking at school campuses and other places all around the region. “And my thing was, ‘Lord, use me use me in a seemingly secular place for Your Kingdom.’”
LEAVING MTV AFTER SIX YEARS was a bittersweet decision for Donita Rose. She hesitates a bit before, in a moment of candor I’ve never experienced in all my years interviewing celebrities, she opened up about the exact reason why she left.
“I met somebody. He became the love of my life back then. And I thought it was time to get married. I was 29 years old, and I wanted to wait until marriage before sex. So we were kind of in a hurry both to get married and have sex,” she says.
The choice had been clear in her mind: “Either I stay with MTV and I sin, I fall for this guy, I end up having sex with him and I’m gonna regret it. Or by faith, I leave the job of my dreams and trust that God is in control.”
That faith would be tested during Donita’s marriage to her first husband Eric Villarama, which would end after a decade and a half in a very public and a very ugly manner. In a 2018 episode of the ABS-CBN daytime talk show “Magandang Buhay,” Donita basically detailed the story of how she caught her husband cheating on her.
One would certainly understand if Donita lost a little faith after her ordeal, and she admits that after her marriage ended, “I was very depressed for a while.”
It didn’t help that there was this constant reminder to her from fans about what she had given up just to be with the man who would end up betraying her trust and breaking her heart. Every so often, someone would come up to Donita and tell her, without any hint of irony or self-awareness, “Alam mo, paborito kita nu’ng sikat ka pa.”
She has learned to take it in stride, joking that if she ever had the time, “I would write a book about how to go from being popular to to unpopular.”
When Donita tells me these things, she says them as a matter of fact, with neither bitterness nor strain in her voice. Her faith helps, of course.
“It doesn’t hurt me because I know where I stand, I am who I am,” she says. “Whether I’m popular or not popular, whether I’m rich and poor, I am secure. I am a child of God.”
DONITA ROSE MOVED BACK to the United States at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when showbiz opportunities in Manila had dried up and, she admits, “I didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life.”
“You know, I did have a failed marriage and I thought at some point that my reputation and my identity is ruined, only to realize that God had so much more in store for me,” she says.
She found a new career as a corporate chef, a natural fit for someone who’s always been passionate about cooking and who spent her MTV years traveling all over Asia and sampling the cuisine of the region. She chuckles at my question when I use the term “reinvention” to describe the new chapter of her life.
“I laugh at the term reinvention, kind of like, you know how Madonna always reinvented herself. I always did it out necessity, kind of like, you know, to try to plan ahead and think, you know, how can I make ends meet? Especially when people would always say, you know, beauty doesn’t last forever. And, you know, you're only good as good as your last project. So I was always kind of trying to look ahead, like, ‘OK, what am I going to do with my life?’”
Moving back to the States also allowed her to spend more time with her family, especially her teenage son JP, who recently graduated from high school.
Donita also found new love in the person of Felson Palad, a gospel singer who shared both her passion and her faith. They married last September and have started an entertainment company called Talents Expo, an allusion to the biblical parable of talents.
“We produce many concerts and events, and we have a lot of fun,” Donita says. She has even gone back to her performing roots. “He’ll ask me to sing a song and I’ll do a little bit of comedy here and there. It’s wonderful. It feels like playtime everyday, it doesn’t feel like we’re working.”
Donita hopes to return to Philippine television soon. “I've been working on my health and dieting and exercise and eventually going into the acting realm again,” she says.
When she returns, she figures, everything she had gone through would actually help her.
“All of the heartaches and pains that I've experienced since then, have made me a better actor,” she says. “Marami nang hugot.”
It’s hard to explain this to kids today, but for a moment there in the late ‘80s, after the release of his hit single “Babaero,” Randy Santiago was the shit. People would mutilate their five peso bills and draw shades on Emilio Aguinaldo to turn him into Randy Santiago.
Her full name is Donita Rose Cavett, which answers all those old “How are Donita Rose and Axl Rose related?” jokes — yeah, no relation.
Aside from Randy Santiago, Lunch Date also featured among its hosts the singer Keno, immortalized in Parokya Ni Edgar’s “Yes Yes Show.” (Tulad ko at ni Keno at ni Benedict Aquino…)