MANILA, Philippines?She insists, not with regret, but with quiet satisfaction: "My life is completely different now."
Once a singer on the cusp of international stardom, Maricris "Cris" Bermont turned her back on show biz, to devote her time completely to her church, Word Community, her husband and five children (and now, six grandchildren).
A born-again Christian, Maricris says she sings only in church now, and that guesting in concerts (like a recent Bimbo Cerrudo show at Teatrino) come rarely.
"I'm enjoying life; I have time to stop and smell the flowers," she says and adds, in jest, "with the help of my husband's savings."
The husband is retired investment banker Gerry Garcia, who "spoils me and our kids." The children are Deena, Mike, Jim, Raffy and Cristina. Mike is a banker; Raffy is a youth pastor.
Not that she's idle.
She's always busy with church activities, like outreach programs for women prisoners and orphans and counseling the heartbroken.
She also took more voice lessons. "When I sing for the Lord, I want to be at my best."
Something's clear to her: "Show biz somehow prepared me for all this. It makes me realize [exactly] how great God is."
Indeed, hers has been a life filmed in dazzling technicolor.
Little did the St. Paul colegiala suspect that, her joining an amateur singing contest on TV would irrevocably alter her journey.
She had previously guested in ABS-CBN shows directed by Mitos Villarreal. "I came out in 'Stop, Look and Listen,' with Pilita Corrales, Eddie Gutierrez and Liza Lorena. I was one of their favorites then."
When a talent search was cooked up in 1977, Cris joined, but didn't win. "I think it was Ding Mercado who won," she says.
As luck would have it, composer Dero Pedero, formerly of the vocal group Gentle Rain, had caught the show.
Cris recounts: "He somehow got my telephone number from the studio. Then he hired me to sing his commercial jingles for Breeze detergent and Colgate toothpaste."
Dero relates that the French-Russian-Filipino mestiza stood out from the crowd. ("I'm Jewish," she quips, "and proud of it.")
Dero insists: "Who could ignore her with that gorgeous head of curls? She looked exotic!"
Ah, the hairstyle was a story in itself, Cris points out.
"[Stage director] Leo Rialp suggested that I have my hair frizzed. No one else could pull that off daw, [and] that would give me identity."
New Zealander stylist John Burke, who ran D'Sweeny salon at the old Mandarin Hotel, was behind her modish Afro, à la Barbra Streisand in "A Star is Born."
"He told me that two clients [immediately] wanted to copy my hairdo," Cris says. "He said he had refused because it didn't fit their face shape."
Metro Pop '78
Pedero notes that Cris had "chutzpah-a cheerful confidence that few Filipinos possess."
Plus, Pedero adds, "She's a mezzo-soprano and the timbre of her voice sounded foreign. I felt she was the right girl to sing my song."
The song was his entry in the first (1978) Metro Pop Music Festival: "Narito Ako Umiibig."
On competition night at the Folk Arts Theater, however, Cris was shaking like a leaf.
Laughing heartily now, she quips: "When I saw the First Lady [Imelda Marcos] sitting in the audience, I almost peed in my Badong Bernal gown!"
Vividly, she remembers that Bernal dress. "It was blue Chantilly lace with gold lamé."
Dero had instructed her to play with her gown, to sashay and shine onstage.
"We came in third; Hajji Alejandro won that year for Ryan Cayabyab's 'Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika,'" Cris says.
Metro Pop led not only to a solo album under Blackgold, but also to a slew of shows at the Manila Hotel and the famed Calesa Bar at Hyatt Hotel.
In the early 1980s, upon learning that Burt Bacharach was set to perform at the Manila Hotel, Cris volunteered to be the front act.
"Bacharach's show was moved back because of some bombings at the time; meanwhile, Tony Bennett flew in."
Of course, she gladly became curtain-raiser for the US crooner, along with the Reycard Duet, at the Folk Arts Theater and the Manila Hotel.
She has nothing but praise for, and fond memories of, the international stars.
"Tony Bennett actually sat in the audience to watch me perform-he was so nice. The Reycard Duet made me feel at home, though they were already big stars in Las Vegas. They didn't treat me like a newcomer."
When Bacharach finally made it to Manila, Cris was seated in the front row. "He didn't [require] a front act, but I met him at the Manila Hotel after-party," she recalls. "I remember he was very shy. I told him that I always sang his songs in my shows ... though now I can't remember if I actually did."
At the Calesa Bar, she was backed up by pianist Rudy Francisco. "I loved that stint. I started Thursday nights, then I was asked to sing on three other nights. I had to [say no]; that would have been too tiring!"
A year after Metro Pop, she was named Aliw's Most Promising Entertainer. "I was in the US then, and I was told to come home pronto because I had won," she says.
She was frequently on the road, headlining concerts organized by the First Lady, Philippine Airlines and the Ministry of Tourism. "I even sang for Princess Margaret once," she says.
The highlight of her globe-trotting was the 1982 International Festival of Song and Voice in Puerto Rico.
Good friend and fellow singer Becca Godinez and [Becca's] then-husband Morris Albert brought her to the fest.
Singing Butch Monserrat's "Hello, Here I Am," Cris went through the proverbial eye of a needle in said competition.
"On the first night, there were 54 contestants which was whittled down to 27, then 14, then 7, then 5..."
Finally, Maricris Bermont emerged victorious. When her name was called, her sister Sally was ready with the camera. "But she was so excited, she jumped while taking my picture, so naturally it came out blurry," Cris says.
With that triumph came offers to do concerts and albums in Latin America.
Wind of change
"I was supposed to go around promoting the song, but I told Becca I would rather stay in Manila," Cris says. "Slowly, I was changing-the Lord was calling me."
Without thinking twice, she turned her back on the prospect of international fame. She remembers the turning point: "My friend Jeannie Z. Marte made me realize there was life beyond show biz. She brought me closer to the Lord."
That was over 25 years ago, Cris says, and she has been positively, overwhelmingly pleased with her decision.
"I am, by no means, perfect. Every day is a struggle, but I have peace and contentment in my life. I don't desire material things. Would you believe I own very few pieces of jewelry?"
The way she put it didn't require an answer.