With a wisp of moustache and an increasingly confident tenor, Philippine singer Jake Zyrus proudly talks about being a different person from his former self, global teenage music sensation Charice Pempengco.
Before revealing his transgender identity in June, Zyrus was the pride of the mainly Catholic nation, a diminutive girl belting out ballads on the US TV series Glee and duetting with Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli.
But Zyrus, now 25, said Charice’s success never felt right prompting him to make a rare, courageous move in the conservative society by announcing he was a man.
“I felt like I had a wall. I could not express what I wanted to say, what I wanted to show. I could not show who I really was,” Zyrus told AFP in an interview ahead of his first concert slated for next month.
“A lot of young people will kill for all those achievements. I was happy with the achievements but I was not happy with who I was. Now I feel so light.”
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In a nation where same-sex marriage and divorce are outlawed, Zyrus admits his journey from the pigtailed girl in a dress to a man was a long and painful one.
He has been in the public eye since rising from poverty to becoming a YouTube star whose covers of pop hits landed him on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Barack Obama’s pre-US presidential inauguration galas and Oscars parties.
Zyrus first came out as a lesbian in 2013, a statement he now calls a “lie”.
“I thought that would be enough. For us here, you were either lesbian or gay. I was afraid that if I explained who I really was, people would not understand,” he said.
The decision to announce his transgender name on social media drew praise - but also ridicule.
“[It] is a very empowering image especially for individuals who are ‘closeted,’” Anastacio Marasigan, executive director of LGBT rights group TLF Share, said. At the other end of the spectrum, a popular Filipino television presenter laughingly compared the gender transition to “climate change”, while the local edition of Esquire magazine was forced to issue a public apology after mocking Zyrus’ name.
Before coming out, Zyrus had his breasts removed and began taking testosterone shots.
“I was still a child, that was already my dream,” Zyrus said, adding sex reassignment surgery was another goal.
“This is the first time I decided it did not matter whatever negative things other people say because this time what mattered to me - my priority - was myself.”
However Zyrus, who started out by joining singing contests to help his single mother, had struggled to find acceptance from his estranged family who he said was deeply influenced by their Catholic faith.
The star said he attempted suicide three times because of his family’s reaction to his decision.
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“I know someday they will understand that I am not doing this to ride on a fad, because I am being stupid or because I have an incurable disease,” Zyrus said.
He added: “It’s because simply this is who I am.”
Zyrus has turned to a support system composed of fans, friends and mentors including Canadian producer David Foster and Winfrey.
“Even before we did the interview, she said, ‘You know I am so proud of you,’” Zyrus said.
Zyrus is attempting to start his own career despite criticism that his gender transition destroyed the voice that made him the first Asian solo singer to land a top 10 spot on the Billboard 200 albums with 2010’s Charice.
“I feel silly if I compare myself to her,” Zyrus said, adding he views Charice as a sister.
“People just said Charice had a golden voice because she hit high notes. It’s more than that. For me, the real golden voice is when you hear a person singing, you feel it. It’s from the heart.”
Zyrus says he is focused on introducing himself to a Philippine audience, but dreams of having an international following.
He admits it will be tough without the looks and height other male singers bank on.
But he insists his message is not just for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
He explained: “It’s not just about you coming out. It’s more than that. It’s about your confidence in your self, the strength, the pain, the struggle.”