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Toni Gonzaga details her journey to stardom as she celebrates her 20th showbiz anniversary

Two decades into a stellar career, Toni Gonzaga remains one of the most influential personalities in the country. She is a true superstar, a multi-hyphenate who never stops to inspire us in everything she does. Toni’s stories – as an artist, daughter, wife, mom, and woman – is worth listening to. 

As she celebrates another milestone, the Ultimate Multimedia Star shares all the ‘feels’ with King of Talk Boy Abunda in this episode of I Feel U.

Toni is always honored to be interviewed by Tito Boy, though they have quite a mentor-mentee relationship. She would have to say that Tito Boy shaped her into the talk show host she is today. Reminiscing on their first encounter, way back Toni’s first interview on The Buzz as an official Kapamilya, she said it felt surreal then, “Parang nakahiwalay ‘yung kaluluwa noon.

“Ito na ‘yung mga legit na interview. Boy Abunda na ‘yung kaharap mo, artista ka na talaga,” she thought then. Toni recalled how overwhelming it felt. And as early as their initial conversation, Toni already took down notes from the veteran host, “What I learned from that interview is to never let your emotions talk for you. Kasi I was very emotional during that time.” 

Toni had a simple, happy childhood with sister Alex Gonzaga. And those little memories keep them grounded especially when overwhelmed by pressure or when they feel ungrateful. 

Others may think that to have a superstar status exempts one from worry. Toni thought it’s the other way around, ”Tama ‘yung sinabi nila na the more money that you have, the more problems that you will have. So, minsan mami-miss mo rin ang kasimplehan ng buhay. Kasi as you elevate in life, your problems elevate also.”

Sibling rivalry was never an issue to the Gonzaga sisters, especially on Toni’s part. “There was never a time na nainggit ako kay Alex. Siya ang may ganu’ng syndrome sa akin noon. Inaamin naman ni Alex ‘yun,” she said. Her parents saw her potential at an early age, thus the special attention she got from them, “Minsan ‘pag pinapakanta ako, si Alex kakalong sa Daddy ko para hindi ako panoorin.”

The year 2000 was the most challenging time for her family. Her mom resigned from work thinking her showbiz career would be enough to carry them through. But, in that year, Toni was laid off from the only regular show (a weekly sitcom) that supports them financially. Her grandmothers from both sides passed away. Her father lost in his political bid. Toni would describe that phase as the “year of loss.” 

After the year of breakdown, Toni got her instant breakthrough in 2001 when she joined the rival network’s long-running noontime show, following the popularity of her soda commercial.

Prior to her hosting career, Toni’s entry to showbiz was via joining the Metropop singing competition. Groomed as a singer since she was little, Toni thought it was the ticket to ultimate stardom. She was full of child-like confidence. But she got a taste of reality, “Natalo ako. Sobrang sakit pala. At 13 years old, nakaramdam ako ng first heartbreak ko. Hindi ako maka move-on.” She has now realized that defeat serves its purpose, “Tama lang pala na puro rejections noon.

Born Celestine Gonzaga, Toni thought a screen name would pave an easier way to stardom. She settled for Tintin Gonzaga. But her Daddy Bonoy didn’t like its appeal, “Tintin ‘yung pangalan ko tapos sobrang payat ko. Parang ‘yung Tintin na ‘yun, mahiyain, walang tiwala sa sarili. She went through a lot of rejections. So, parang bugbog ‘yung Tintin na ‘yun emotionally when she was starting.”

Daddy Bonoy, who wanted male kids and liked the idea of giving his daughters masculine names, thought ‘Toni’ has a better superstar appeal. Toni sported the new screen name at 16, a year before she landed the soda commercial with Piolo Pascual. That’s when she felt more empowered, like she’s a new person ready for bigger things. “Medyo nare-reject pa rin pero dahil Toni na ang pangalan ko, mas may confidence na ako.

Toni went on to discuss the life-changing ‘I love you, Piolo’ commercial. Kismet at its finest, she was originally cast as the “back girl” or what they call the “ekstra.” While waiting for Piolo, the team was screening all the girls on the set, still in search for someone who can deliver better. Toni, then addressed without a name, was given a chance to try. In an instant, she was cast as the lead. Toni ran to the comfort room to cry out her disbelief. For the first time, after years of rejection, she finally got a major ‘yes.’

Totoo ba ‘to? Ako ba talaga ‘yung pinili? Hindi ko ma-process, so tumakbo ako, humagulhol ako kasi hindi nila alam na that was the first time somebody accepted me,” she recalled. Her parents, who were outside with Alex, were clueless of the sudden changes. Alex knew it was her sister screaming ‘I love you, Piolo,’ but Mommy Pinty and Daddy Bonoy didn’t want to believe until they’re asked to sign the contract.

Toni thought she’s just an inch away from stardom. She tried to audition for other commercials, but it didn’t work the second time. “Ang mali pala noon, kapag masyado ka nang kilala sa isang commercial, hindi ka na kukunin,” said Toni, who would be addressed as “si I love you Piolo” for two years.

Bakit back to zero na naman ako?” she thought until they got a call for a TV guesting. She was cast for a small role in a Vic Sotto sitcom, “Tapos ‘yung makeup artist ni Bossing, biniro niya ako na, ‘Uy! Natutuwa sa’yo si Bossing. Ita-try ka daw sa Eat Bulaga.’ So, mas lalo kong ginalingan. Pero four months, six months, hindi naman tumawag.

The waiting drained her hopes. Sixth months since her guesting, Toni’s Mommy Pinty received a call from one of the noontime show’s executives. Toni joined the show on a thrice-a-week schedule. Falling in love with the program and the camaraderie with the hosts, she requested to report daily, even without more exposure or salary increase.

Comparing showbiz then and now, Toni said it has become more competitive overtime. She used to just enjoy everything when she was a newbie. “Enjoy na enjoy lang ako tapos noong ika-10th to 15th year ko, nakikita ko na grabe naman ‘yung competition. Sobrang competitive ng mga kasama mo tapos mape-pressure ako na kailangan kong galingan kasi baka bukas wala na ako dito sa industriya.

Nami-miss ko ‘yung innocence ko sa industriya, noong bago ka pa lang kasi wala ka pang alam masyado. Gustong-gusto mo ‘yung feeling na everything was a first.” However, the scary part of living the dream is getting used to it and forgetting how you started. 

Toni quipped that her only dream then was to have a name, literally. For about six years, most people and the production crew still didn’t know her as Toni. She was simply identified based on the color of the clothes she’s wearing, “’Yung babaeng nakadilaw, nakaano, sabihin mo dito siya humarap.”   

Despite the many rejections and straining on the way to success, Toni never thought of quitting. Passion kept her moving. “If you are passionate about something, you will endure all the heartache because you will look forward on that day na makatuntong ka lang sa studio, sa stage. Hindi mo iindahin kung ilang sugat ang matamo mo.

Toni’s music roots remain a big part of her life today. She starts the morning listening to music to set the tone of her day, “It sets the mood, my vision, my feelings.” After all, singing is her first love. Toni worked as a lounge singer at 16, begging the late Rudy Francisco to give her a spot even though she’s a minor. Besides supporting the family financially, she just wanted to sing. 

Toni has quite a memorable journey as a lounge singer. She remembers singing a Jaya song while the latter was in the audience. Sharing more anecdotes, she said she wanted to sing modern hits like that of Britney Spears and Cristina Aguilera but those aren’t the types to be performed in a lounge. She would learn from Rudy what standard songs are. 

Growing up, Toni’s singing coach was Daddy Bonoy, who told her to always keep her voice modulated like how Martin Nievera does. Toni’s pre-concert ritual is vocalizing while running on the treadmill to strengthen her stamina. When suffering from jitters, she presses herself on a wall to control the nerves, a technique she learned from theater stars. She also engages in positive self-talk to soothe her fears before a performance.

In 2006, Toni experienced her first hit, “We Belong.” She was juggling five shows at that time, so busy that she didn’t noticed her song becoming popular. “It was, maybe, after a few years kasi ‘yung mga kasama mo kinakanta siya sa harap mo. I-a-associate nila sa akin ‘yung ‘We Belong,’ tapos doon ko lang mare-realize.”  

“We Belong” reminds Toni of being a new Kapamilya – a season of both fresh beginnings and trials. Toni would recall the hate comments after moving in to the Kapamilya Network, “I got so many statements from people who said na ‘Malalaos na ‘yan. Hindi pa man sumisikat, laos na ‘yan. ‘Ambisyosa siya! Paano siya mapapansin sa ABS, nandiyan ang lahat ng magagandang artista.’ ‘Hindi ka naman makaka-level sa ganda ng mga artista nila doon,’” 

It was the era of the likes of Kristine Hermosa and Claudine Barretto, who are admired for their flawless beauty and stellar appeal. People thought Toni won’t manage to keep up with the glamor. Toni seemed convinced by the naysayers that she thought her Kapamilya stint will only last until the one-year contract ends. “Sabi ko, mag-iipon na lang ako. Kasi siyempre napalipat naman din tayo dahil maganda ang offer,” she admitted. What she thought as just a one-year career went beyond she can imagine. Her first major concert paved a bigger way to stardom.

Asked about her dream collaboration, she mentioned OPM icons Regine Velasquez, Gary Valenciano, and Martin Nievera, although she gets to occasionally preform with them on ASAP Natin ‘To.

Toni celebrates her 20th showbiz anniversary with a full-length film “My Sassy Girl,” a remake of a hit Korean movie. She said she already gave up on this dream until she got a call from Viva’s Vic Del Rosario. “Nagiging emotional ako kasi ‘yun ang mga bagay na hndi mo ine-expect na mangyayari sa’yo. Kasi iniisip mo ‘pag nag-asawa ka na, sasabihin nila ‘Hindi na siya bagay diyan. She’s past that age,’” shared Toni. Yet, this film and her 20th anniversary remind her that nothing is impossible when God is involved in the scene.

Tito Boy had to segue about Toni’s past romantic life. The public knows how she captivated many of the industry’s finest leading men. “There was a time na ang daming nagkaka-crush sa’yo,” he told her. He added that Toni is so self-deprecating. She was even nervous when cast in “Four Sisters Before the Wedding” alongside Blockbuster Queens Bea Alonzo, Angel Locsin, and Shaina Magdayao. She thought she wouldn’t keep up with their beauty and skills. 

Toni mentioned that she didn’t really see herself as someone adored by men because her family never saw her as one. For instance, her cousins had hilarious reactions when Sam Milby declared having a crush on her. “Lalo na si Alex, ‘huh? Hindi kaya sinasabi niya lang ‘yan kasi ikaw lang napapanood niya sa PBB?’ Ako naman, ‘Oo nga, ano?’ Pero hindi ko nararamdaman noon, eh.” 

Add to that the sheltered parenting style of Mommy Pinty and Daddy Bonoy. “Ginagawa ko ang ‘You Are The One,’ si Daddy ang driver ko. Gumagawa ako na nakakakilig na eksena, ‘yung Daddy mo nasa gilid.”

Toni further talked about hosting – her home. “Parang may sense of this is me. You get to share your mind, yourself to people without putting face or being someone else. Take it or leave it. Love me or hate me for this but this is who I am.

Check out this video and join the ‘mapusong kwentuhan’ as Toni celebrates her two decades in the industry.