From Biñan to Bryant Park, Charo makes waves.

Overwhelmed is how Charo Ronquillo feels about her life these days. As early as 19, she has lived the dream of every model aspiring to strut down the catwalks of New York Fashion Week, or jet across the Atlantic to do shoots in Paris. The lass from Cabuyao, Laguna, has harbored these dreams since she was 12.

We all know her story—as the winner of the Supermodel of the World Philippines contest in 2005, she went on to place third in the international competition, bagging a $100,000 modeling contract with Ford Models. Her first international stint: the 2006 Fall/Winter New York Fashion Week shows for Nanette Lepore and Kenneth Cole, among others. Then, she modeled for designer Chloe Dao, the winner of Season 2 of Heidi Klum’s reality show Project Runway. Charo has also graced the pages of US and French Marie Claire, US Glamour, and Spanish Vogue, and has done print campaigns for Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s.

It’s Charo’s “special kind of beauty” that make her easy to book, says Ford Models’ booker Craig Lawrence. “You don’t see tremendously many girls that look like her. Clients love something different. They like her because she photographs really well,” he adds. Charo says people mistake her for Brazilian or Hawaiian. “Being Filipina helped me a lot, because of our versatile features,” she says.

You’d think all this could go to her head and she’d act like a diva, but when we meet her briefly in April in Manila during Philippine Fashion Week, she comes across as unaffected and respectful. “Good evening po,” she says, when we are introduced. We like her already.

“I’m so happy and proud being a Filipina making it big in New York. It’s a dream come true, [getting the] things I always asked for since I was young. I’m so thankful it’s [been] granted,” she says. Her biggest gifts to herself: renting her own apartment just off Times Square and a laptop, which she uses to communicate with her family in the Philippines and Bahrain.

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Charo is the third of four kids. Her father Venerado passed away when she was eight. Her mother Nora, to make ends meet, worked in Bahrain. The kids were left in Laguna and taught to fend for themselves at an early age. This instilled independence in Charo. Her mother has since remarried a Bahrainian, and the Ronquillo siblings grew by two with the addition of her stepbrothers.

“My parents taught me how to be strong, to believe in myself, that I can do whatever I want to do as long as I don’t hurt anyone. They taught me to always pray. Even though they’re miles away, they’re still in my heart and mind. They always support me, win or lose,” says Charo.

She’s inspired by other young models, such as Australian Gemma Ward, who is also Charo’s age now, but hit supermodel status at age 16, and Canadian Daria Werbowy, 23, both on Forbes’s top 10 list of the world’s richest models. But Charo thinks the inherently Pinay traits of confidence and hard work helped her succeed in such a short time. “Hindi nagpapatalo [ang Pinay]. And, our faith is strong. I always put God first, and put my best foot forward in everything I do. And be professional all the time,” she adds. Lawrence attests to this: “Every client that books her says she’s one of the easiest girls to work with—always happy and positive,” he says.

A typical day in NYC. At 7 AM, she makes herself a breakfast of cereal, yoghurt and fruit and a cup of tea or hot chocolate. Then it’s off to the New York Sports Club on 49th and Broadway, a short walk away from her apartment. “I do 30 minutes of cardio, then weight training for my arms and thighs. I also do Vinyasa yoga and I swim. I want to try kickboxing,” she says. She knows the right diet and exercise are vital to her profession. “ [Modeling] is hard, so my mind is set. I have to maintain my weight and keep my skin beautiful. But it’s all worth it,” she says. She heads to casting calls or confirmed jobs for the day. “I also go to church every day after sundown, either at St. Patrick’s [Cathedral] or at St. Mary the Virgin, in front of my loft. If I have free time, I hang out with my friends.”

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What she loves about NYC. “It’s such a great place. You can visit art galleries, museums; walk or ride a bike around Central Park; watch hockey, and concerts of course. I never get homesick,” she enthuses. “I want to live here! I hope my family can, too. That would be fantastic. Five years from now... I hope I’ll still be modeling and have established myself in this business,” she adds.

On men and dating. “I’m single and I’m not dating anyone. I don’t think I can—I have to concentrate on my job. I just started here so I am really focusing,” she says. Do men try to pick her up? “Next question, please,” she replies in jest. She’d rather tell us about meeting Uma Thurman in the elevator on her way to a casting call, or seeing actors Steve Buscemi and Ben Affleck up close at a Ford Models’ company dinner on Wall Street.

Future dreams. Charo was a business management freshman at the University of Perpetual Help in Biñan, Laguna, when her life changed. “I want to continue my studies in New York University or Columbia University,” she says. She’s also toying with the idea of taking up culinary arts. “I love to cook now,” she adds.

Ford booker Lawrence has big plans. “I want to make Charo a household name one day. With her looks, coupled with her personality, she can be a big [name] model and open up the door for other Filipina models.”

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” is the tune Charo now sings. “Being in New York is the greatest experience so far. You wouldn’t make it here if you weren’t strong. My mom told me I can do anything, face any kind of problem and I get what I want life if I am strong. And now, I am here.” We look forward to the day she becomes a household name, and we hope it’s soon.

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(First published in Marie Claire, September 2007; photo courtesy of Charo Ronquillo and CalCarrie’s International Models Philippines)

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