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Valerie Celis: Top American “Supermodel” Actually Lipa-Born and Raised

Image source:  IMC Magazine.  Downloaded from ImageBam.com.
The name Valerie Celis will not ring a bell as far as many contemporary Batangueños are concerned; but while not exactly a household name in the United States, she is nonetheless well known to exclusive circles within the fashion industry. Not just within the United States, mind; but internationally.

Her image has graced some of the top internationally renowned magazines such as Mirabella, Harper’s Bazaar, Allure, Mademoiselle, Glamour and Vogue. Moreover, she has done runway work in fashion centers such as her base New York, Milan and Paris for world famous brands such as Paco Rabanne, Anna Sui, Chanel and Paul Gaultier1.

She has also appeared in advertisements for well-known fashion brands such as Banana Republic, Calvin Klein, Dockers and Esprit; as well as for stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Target2. She is even listed in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), having had brief cameos in two short films and one feature-length movie3.

All this success has gone pretty much under the Filipino radar, primarily because there is little material about her in the Internet for those who care enough to search; and whatever there is says she is American. A citizen of the United States, yes; but there are those in Philippine Air Force families as well as graduates and former teachers of De la Salle in Lipa City who will remember this curly-haired elementary student who carried herself with an air of serenity unusual for a girl so young.

Valerie was born to an Air Force family that used to live inside Basilio Fernando Air Base. She is the third of four children after Enrique, who used to be in my football team; and Vanessa, who was in my high school History class. Among members of the family and close friends, she was known by her nickname Pebbles; and but naturally, her younger brother Virgilio IV went by the name of Bambam after the Flintstones cartoon.

Her father Virgilio III, an officer in the Air Force, was tragically killed in a plane crash. In the mid-eighties, she and her siblings moved out of the airbase to a subdivision right in front of De la Salle Lipa with their mother Emilie. In 1985, she graduated from elementary school from La Salle the same week her sister Vanessa graduated from high school.

The family emigrated to the United States that same year, ending up in the city of Cincinnati in Ohio. Although, under the Philippine school system, her elementary education went only as far as Grade 6, after taking a qualifying test for Walnut High School, she was exempted from having to take up Grade 7. After high school, she would enroll in the nationally-ranked Design, Architecture and planning program of the University of Cincinnati. She was planning to major in Interior Design when fate intervened…

One night she was hanging out in a club at the University Plaza when a man approached her to ask how tall she was. He also told her that she should be in the modeling industry. “At the time,” she told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “I didn’t know that this was one of the oldest pickup lines around. But it turns out he wasn’t flirting… He gave me the name of the agency he worked with and told me to call them.”

The agency was Casablancas MTM, and with its training and guidance, before long modeling gigs were starting to flow. It came to the point when modeling assignments out of town started to interfere with her studies, so she had to choose between college and career.

“Eventually, I had to decide if I was going to give modeling a good try,” Valerie told the Enquirer. In 1993, she decided to go for the big time and moved to New York City, albeit after agreeing with her mother Emilie that if she wasn’t self-supporting after a year, she would return to university and Interior Design.

She didn’t need to, although breaking into the New York fashion scene was not without its hiccups. At 21, she was a tad older than most girls ambitioning to become models; and at 5' 8½", some agencies thought she was a bit shorter than what was ideal.

By October that same year, her first really big break came, a runway show for Calvin Klein, no less. Because it was a CK show, there were expectedly many industry people watching. As it happened, an employee of the women’s magazine Mirabella was watching, liked what she saw in her, and before long Valerie was doing a photo shoot for the magazine.

As things turned out, the Mirabella stint was just the prelude to something much, much bigger, something many models who had been in the industry longer than she was could only dream of. She landed a four-page spread in Vogue magazine’s fall edition, traditionally among the most popular in terms of sales.

More doors opened and Valerie was soon cover girl for the Italian magazine Amica as well as the Singapore edition of Vogue. She also had stints working with supermodels Christy Turlington and the English-born Naomi Campbell, the latter about whom Valerie said, “I thought she was friendly.”

Although runway shows were what got her noticed, Valerie said that she actually preferred modeling for print ads than these, which according to her could get wild and crazy. “Backstage, there’s all sorts of stuff going on,” she told the Enquirer. “People everywhere, clothes everywhere. People bumping into you. It’s overwhelming.”

The success continued well into the new millennium, so much so that Luis Espiritu, in an article published in the online edition of the Philippine Star, placed Valerie among a handful of Filipinas – along with Anna Bayle and Melanie Marquez – who “have reached supermodel status4.”

All the heady success did not affect Valerie one bit. Liza Marie Druck, owner of Casablancas MTM, described her to the Enquirer, “She was this shy little thing, so soft-spoken she could barely say her name. She’s more confident now, but basically the same Valerie, down-to-earth and unaffected by her success.”

Tyron Barrington from the modeling agency Irene Marie, meanwhile, said that Valerie’s special characteristic was the “calm, relaxed attitude she brings to the business. He went on, “Valerie has this peace about her. She’s also thankful that she’s been blessed with great genes.”

It’s the same peace and serenity that she’s always had with her, even as an elementary kid walking the corridors of De la Salle in Lipa; or crossing the street and walking the short distance to their family apartment at Villa Lourdes subdivision right across the school; or even when she minded the small sari-sari store her mother had in front of their apartment, even as my football players told each other loud corny jokes outside after training sessions.

Notes and references:
1 Most of the details of this article are based on the article “Model of Success,” written by Reon Carter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, July 1996.
2Valerie Celis,” online at FMD.
3Valerie Celis,” online at IMDB.
4Filipino models hit their stride,” by Luis Espiritu, November 2002, online at the Philippine Star.