Sonya (right) with co-stars (from left) Tiffany Hines, Natalie Ramsey, and Suzie Pollard
Twenty-one-year-old Sonya Balmores is one of the stars of Beyond the Break, a drama series set in Hawaii about four young female professional surfers, their friendship, life, loves and challenges. Sonya plays Kai Kealoha, a shy but talented local girl set to become one of the country’s surfing greats. Sonya feels she couldn’t be luckier in bagging this role—though she’s now based in Los Angeles because of her work, she was born and raised in Hawaii, and is an avid surfer herself.
“It’s so exciting to be on Beyond the Break,” says Sonya. “I’m very blessed and grateful. I love that audiences all over the world get a glimpse of Hawaii and the surfing culture. I love meeting people and hearing the stories of how they fell in love with Hawaii or surfing.”
Among others, she co-stars with David Chokachi, a former cast member of Baywatch. David plays Justin Healy, a surfing legend and now the girls’ surfing trainer. Being in the company of celebrities in a popular show hasn’t gone to this young girl’s head. In fact, she sometimes forgets that she’s now a celebrity herself.
“It’s weird because I know I’m just a normal person. I watch TV and can get star-struck by celebrities too,” she says. “This one time at Starbucks I was drinking coffee with a friend and a lady came up to me and said, ‘I love your show, I watch it all the time!’ and I was like, ‘What? You do?’ Then I realized she was talking about Beyond the Break and so I recovered and said ‘Thank you.’ I sometimes forget that I’m not the only person with a TV.”
Sonya is grateful that her career is going well, and is happy that it makes her family proud. “I have so much support back home. My mom sort of has a photo shrine of all my work in my old room!”
FILIPINO ROOTS AND FAMILY
Sonya says she takes after her dad Abraham, a Filipino who was born and raised in Hawaii. “I’m a really tidy person and I like to work very hard, I learned those things from my dad. Family is very important to us too, we love to have big family gatherings with lots of food.” Sonya says she also has a good business sense and an independent spirit that she says she got from her Irish-American Indian mother, Malana, whom she considers one of her role models. Though her parents are now divorced, the family remains a close-knit group that enjoys hanging out with each other—eating together, being at the beach, and surfing. She’s particularly close to her older sister Lila, from whom she learned how to model. Sonya’s mother has since been remarried to a man of Portuguese-Filipino descent. All these Filipino connections have made Sonya curious about her roots. “I haven’t been to the Philippines yet but I have a feeling I’ll be there one day soon. I hear there is good surf there! I’d love to learn more about my heritage too.”
IN THE LIMELIGHT
Sonya started modeling for print at age 13, but her big moment came when she bagged the Miss Teen Hawaii crown in 2004. Then as a high school senior, she went on to represent her state in the Miss Teen USA pageant that same year where she made it as first runner up. “I loved being onstage!” she recalls. “The lights, the crew, the director, the choreography—being part of a big production is amazing and it’s thrilling to perform in front of a live audience. Pageants aren’t just about the crown, it’s entertainment!”
On the cover of Outside magazine.
In 2005, Sonya landed on the cover of three of the biggest health, fitness and lifestyle magazines in the US—Women’s Health, Foam (a beach and surfing lifestyle title) and Outside (also a lifestyle magazine focusing on health, fitness, travel, outdoor gear and culture). “It was an honor to model for those magazines,” says Sonya, proudly. “Their readers are interested in taking care of their health and looking their best and I’m glad to be a part of a group of young healthy women who nurture their bodies.”
With so much tabloid space being devoted to the foibles of other young celebrities like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Filipino-American Vanessa Hudgens, Sonya feels that sometimes it can be too much. “I actually feel bad that celebrities are stalked and bothered so much and that the public expects them to be perfect, no one is perfect. I admire the celebs and professionals who try to stay out of the tabloids—they want to be known for their work not for who they’re dating or where they like to buy groceries.”
While she realizes that media’s nosiness comes with the territory, she believes celebrities like her can only try their best to always be portrayed in a positive light. “I bet it is extremely difficult to grow up in front of the world, like how these ladies have had to do, but I do believe it’s possible to stay out of trouble. In young people’s situations, I think it’s all about who your friends are, if your friends are productive, ambitious, and supportive of you, you’re bound to make good decisions that you, your friends and your family will be proud of. I’ve definitely strayed from the straight and narrow at times but the people who love me have always been there to gently rebuke me. I only know what keeps me sensible and that’s my faith. Serving the Lord Jesus Christ as a witness in the world means I have to be accountable for every single action of mine.”
ON BEING UNIQUE
Proud of her ethnicity, Sonya believes that while it sometimes limits showbiz career options, it opens other doors too. “Sometimes casting directors can’t put me in a category, which is good because then I can be perceived as any kind of ethnicity.I think everyone experiences type casting no matter what ethnicity you are. I’ve learned to accept that I have something no one else has and it’s awesome! Many of the clients I’ve modeled for are in love with my ethnic background and it makes me very proud to be an example of what Hawaii is like: a big melting pot.” What’s important, she says, is that she’s doing what she loves and is proud of it. “I like to focus on being healthy and doing things that make me happy. If I feel like I look my best then I’m not going to change who I am, no matter what people in the business may demand of me. I’d only respect the opinion of people close to me anyway, like my family. What they think of me matters the most.”
Hanging out with her castmates in between takes.
SIMPLE GIRL, BIG DREAMS
The sweet girl-next-door from Hawaii still considers herself a simple surfer girl who’s now learning to adapt to the LA culture. “I still don’t enjoy wearing high heels, but I wear them to interviews, auditions, and events. But even with my pageant experience, I’m still not used to walking in them. I have changed a bit, though—back home I never wore makeup, but because California isn’t as humid as Hawaii, I wear it almost every day now.” She misses Hawaii and surfing with her family and friends, she says, and is glad that she’s able to go home during holidays. There’s a lot more she’d like to do. The pageants have opened up so many doors for her and she’s looking forward to traveling to Africa, Australia, Brazil, and of course, the Philippines. “I’d like to write a script, learn to play bass, record an album, get married, have three kids, own my own home and business, do more missionary work overseas.” One big project she hopes to achieve in the future is a drama and arts program for children in Kauai, her hometown in Hawaii. “There’s so much possibility—the sky is the limit!”
(First published in Marie Claire, December 2007; all photos courtesy of Star World)