National Obsession: The Dark Side of Filipino Love Teams

The Filipino language takes pride in its wide collection of “untranslatable” words. But the most intriguing one of them all has to be kilig. When you ask someone to explain what the term means, they almost always pause to collect their thoughts, attempt to link the feeling to physical sensations — butterflies in the stomach, goosebumps, irrepressible shrieks — and concede, claiming that it’s simply a powerful feeling that transcends syntax and semantics. And I guess it’s true, considering the fact that it is this very idea that fuels the country’s entertainment industry. Here in the Philippines, major television networks tap into the ordinary citizen’s insatiable need for romantic stories with happy endings and produce what we refer to “love teams” — young men and women referred to as a portmanteau of their first names, paired based on their chemistry, and made to star in series and movies as well as launch the occasional album or line of merchandise.

This institution in Philippine show business has been around since the silent film era, with Mary Walter and Gregorio Fernandez serving as the pioneers. Since then, power couples have been formed, broken up, and partnered off to other prospects in what seems to be an endless loop: no generation has gone without one! For instance, it was Amalia Fuentes and Juancho Gutierrez for my own lola (grandmother), Sharon Cuneta and Gabby Concepcion for my mom, and Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla (Kathniel) for me. And no, I’m not accepting any counterarguments.

While they are fundamentally no different from one another, their cultural impact seems to get stronger over time. Love teams serve as effective launchpads for the careers of celebrities who want to make it big, as they eventually go on to be some of the most influential figures in the country. In the process, large amounts of profit are generated, and more often than not, real-life relationships are born, much to the delight of us curious onlookers. But for a phenomenon that banks on our dreams of experiencing a pure, unadulterated love, the side it’s hiding behind closed doors is a full-on nightmare.

Being part of a love team is a contract that binds two people not only to each other but to the management companies who painstakingly plan out, then control their career trajectory and the fans who would fight to the death to ensure they stay together forever. They are turned into a product of the media that is fed to the masses, with their every movement picked apart and blown out of proportion. Before these fledgling actors are propelled to stardom, they enter the industry in the hopes of making a name for themselves and taking on projects that interest, enrich, or improve them. But being stuck with the same person and forced to rehash the same kind of projects until audiences grow tired could be very limiting. 

It’s rare for both parties to fare just as well in their individual endeavors, and even more so for them to have a life separate from each other in the public eye. When Nadine Lustre, one-half of reel-turned-real couple Jadine, decided to try her hand at something new with her 2019 fantasy film Ulan, she was met with critical acclaim but negative box office performance. The PHP7 million grossed by the movie pales in comparison to the PHP120 million earnings of Diary ng Panget, her big-screen debut with James Reid five years prior.

It doesn’t help that those in love teams are always expected to take their professional relationship to the next level. Having onscreen chemistry does not automatically equate to offscreen feelings and it’s difficult to force celebrities to be together when they would rather go after somebody else. If they refuse to cave into external pressure or go their separate ways, this could even mean the end of the road for them. 

Supporters often abandon pairings that don’t make it to the end, citing disappointment and betrayal of trust as reasons. Recently, some of them have even made rather vitriolic attacks against those they once claimed were their idols for life. In 2017, Maine Mendoza broke the hearts of AlDub supporters everywhere by admitting that she and Alden Richards were nothing more than good friends. To this day, she and her current boyfriend remain on the receiving end of very scathing remarks. The one that alarmed me the most came from a supporter who claimed that “they made her who she is” and the very least she could do to repay them was be with the man they wanted for her.

I’ve been an avid fan of our most popular love teams: I’ve seen and ranked every movie in Kathniel’s filmography and am currently typing this article with Jadine’s three best duets playing on loop in the background. I know and experience how they bring joy and even hope to Filipinos around the world. So obviously, it would be hard for me to get on board the idea of its possible dissolution. 

I guess it is our responsibility as active consumers of media to take away the toxicity that surrounds this concept and give celebrities their artistic and personal freedom back. We can definitely afford to be more compassionate and gentle towards them: to let them make the content we enjoy so much without expecting anything else to come out of it, to allow them to venture out of this comfort zone for the sake of their own growth, to stop nitpicking everything they do just because we can, given the advent of social media.

After all, we don’t own them: never have, never will. The fact that these love teams were formed primarily to cater to our fantasies tends to warp our perception of who they truly are. We must keep in mind that before they are halves of our cherished onscreen couples, they are artists. And before they are artists, they are people just like us.