Millions of adoring fans await her next movie. Advertisers can't get enough. That's life for Wangaratta-born Anne Curtis when she's in the Philippines, but there is calm on a quick escape to Melbourne. Does she still call Australia home?
Words by Margaret Simons
Photography by Dave Tacon
Anne Curtis would be a strong contender for the most famous Australian you have never heard of.
Coming home to Melbourne last Christmas to visit her family, she had the rare luxury of visiting a shopping mall without causing a security problem, and going for a run without being stopped by her fans. “It’s refreshing,” she says about her lack of fame in the country of her birth.
But in the Philippines, Curtis’s face looms over Manila on billboards advertising everything from cosmetics, Listerine, clothing and, until recently, San Miguel beer – an endorsement contract she gave up in order to take a role as a celebrity ambassador for UNICEF (the international charity sees alcohol promotion as inconsistent with its mission).
She has 8.5 million followers on Twitter, and has been ranked number 17 on a Filipino magazine list of the 100 sexiest women in the world. She has also won numerous national acting awards.
Just about any Filipino can engage in a discussion about her latest film, whether or not she should sing (nobody pretends it is her strength), her role in the daytime television variety show It’s Showtime and her recently announced engagement to restaurateur and food blogger boyfriend Erwan Heussaff. A video of the proposal was posted to YouTube – and tweeted, of course.
Then there is the gossip about her vigorous training regime for her next movie role, and her younger sister Jasmine – also born and brought up in Australia – who is beginning to build her own name and reputation, acting in independent films.
In a country of more than 100 million, 31-year-old Anne Curtis has name recognition at least the equivalent of Kylie Minogue in Australia at the height of her career.
Her agent, Warren Dimen of the Viva Modelling Agency, says Curtis is the leading Filipino celebrity of her generation. He says this is largely because of her dedication to hard work. “If she has to finish on a film set at 7 in the morning and report for the noontime show at 11 o’clock in the morning, she does that.”
Another factor, Curtis and Dimen both acknowledge, is that there is a “thing” in the Philippines for what she calls “halfies” – the offspring of western fathers and Filipino mothers.
Dimen attributes the large number of “halfie” celebrities to Philippines history of being repeatedly colonised – first by the Spanish and then by the USA.
“The blending of identity has become part of our culture. It seems natural. And people think, rightly or wrongly, that a Filipino and a westerner are more likely to produce beautiful children,” he says.
Curtis was born in the Victorian country town of Wangaratta and raised in Yarrawonga, the daughter of local lawyer James Curtis-Smith and his second wife, Filipino Carmencita Ojales. The couple met when Curtis-Smith was on a business trip to the Philippines.
Curtis-Smith says he was at a conference in Thailand on international insurance, came to Manila for a break afterwards and “the waitress at hotel I was staying at was particularly attractive and one thing led to another.”
Curtis already had five children by his first Australian wife. He went on to have four more by Anne’s mother. After they divorced he married another Filipina and adopted two of her children and fathered another. The eldest of his children is 47, and the youngest is eight.
His youngest daughter died a few years ago at the age of just four months. The remaining 11 siblings, scattered across the world, run an internet chatroom called the CurtisSmithies.
Anne Curtis (she has dropped the “Smith” from her name) had what she describes as a typical rural Australian childhood – riding her bike to and from school and coming home to watch the soapie Home and Away.
“I suppose like most kids I dreamed that one day I may get a role in it, but I can’t say I ever really thought I’d be an actress.”
Her family visited the Philippines regularly. When she was twelve, they were eating in a Manila fast food restaurant when she was spotted by a talent scout and offered a role in a pageant.
Her father was against the idea, but her mother, who had worked as an extra in Filipino films, encouraged it. “I am basically living out my mother’s dream,” says Curtis.
Together, mother and daughter went behind Curtis-Smith’s back to enrol Anne in the pageant, and then sign up with an agency that offered her roles in advertisements.
This led to her first film role as Princess Dahlia in the 1997 fantasy cult classic Magic Kingdom, produced by Viva Films. Curtis could not speak Tagalog, and her voice had to be dubbed.
From there, her career took off. She moved to Manila with her mother, leaving the rest of the family behind in Yarrawonga.
The culture shock was enormous. “ I missed my friends. I missed being able to ride a bike to school and all these things. But it was also lot of fun. There was a whole different world and I was enjoying it.”
She voted for the first time in the Philippines election that brought President Duterte to power.
She was under great pressure to learn Tagalog. “My agency would really really push me. They would say ‘she has to have a role where she is the daughter of the janitor and you still have an Australian-Filipino accent. It just won’t work.’ She tended to be typecast as the American cousin or the exotic friend but “I just really kept on learning and talking no matter how odd it sounded and finally, one day I was fluent.”
She continued her education initially at a conservative Catholic private school, but had to stop when she was told that her acting career was not allowed. She switched to home study and then to a public school before enrolling in a college that supported her performing career.
Since her start at the age of twelve, Curtis has had at least one movie out each year – a total of 24 – as well as numerous television roles and in recent years, three albums.
Meanwhile her father, James Curtis-Smith, retired and moved to Angeles City, two hours out of Manila, with his third wife. There he became the president of the local sub-branch of the RSL.
He became his daughter’s minder through her late teens and early twenties. Clad in shorts and an emerald green polo shirt with a picture of a boxing kangaroo on the breast, he can be seen in the background of almost every video of her touring.
“Whenever I tell people I am Anne Curtis’s father, I get kissed. I get asked for autographs,” he says.
He has now returned to Melbourne for medical reasons, and is living with his second wife, Curtis’s mother. Everyone gets along. Says Anne Curtis: “It is a very modern family… people can be quite confused by it all.”
“I love to sing, but I can’t sing.”
Western men fathering children with Filipino women is a sensitive issue. The slums of the Philippines are full of the abandoned children of such relationships. During his time in Angeles, Curtis-Smith worked for the mothers for free, writing letters to the fathers seeking child support. “Amazingly sometimes you get very good results,” he says.
A few years ago, Curtis was offered a role in a film about such children. She turned it down because her father told her the upbeat sentimental storyline was not an accurate reflection of reality. “I couldn’t do a film that was a lie about something so close to me,” she says.
ON THE DAY of our interview last year, Anne Curtis was on set in a suburban house in Quezon City, commandeered for shooting scenes for her latest movie, Bakit Lahat ng Gwapo may Boyfriend?, which translates loosely as “Why do All the Handsome Guys have Boyfriends’. It is a light-hearted rom com about Kylie, played by Curtis, a young woman who has a propensity for falling in love with gay men.
The movie was due to be released on 19 October – just two weeks later, but there were still five scenes to record. Everyone seems extraordinarily relaxed in the circumstances, including Curtis herself. She has been working all day, and the crew will go far into the night, but she is giggly and charming, her steely dedication visible only in passing, when she deflects questions about her wealth and her politics.
Her agency and the television network to which she is signed control her life, she says. She has to ask permission to go on holiday.
The next movie, she predicts, will involve a lot of running away.
And there are some things she is not allowed to talk about. She voted for the first time in the Philippines election that brought President Duterte to power. But she won’t say whether she voted for him. “I’m not meant to talk about politics,” she says.
She can’t entirely avoid the turmoil of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, however. After the president named celebrities and politicians allegedly involved in the drug trade, Curtis’s agency, Viva, published test results showing she had a clean bill of health.
Meanwhile the next movie on Curtis’s schedule is to be called Buy Bust. The title suggests a political theme. The words “Buy Bust” mean an undercover police operation to buy drugs, and then arrest the pushers. In Duterte’s war on drugs, these operations seem to routinely end with the wholesale shooting of the suspects. So is the film political?
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen the script,” she says. Instead, she is wholly absorbed with a rigorous training schedule. The movie, she predicts, will involve a lot of running away.
CURTIS'S FIRST FILM role in Magic Kingdom earned her just 1500 pesos – about A$40. She won’t say how much she earns now, but the Filipino celebrity magazines estimate her net worth at US$10 million.
Nevertheless, she has so far failed to break through internationally. Her first US film, Blood Ransom, was released in 2014. It was a low budget vampire genre flick, and she accepted a much lower fee than usual in order to take part. Curtis played a woman in transition between the living and the dead.
The reviews were mixed. The New York Times commented that Curtis “suffers nobly, with full lips and heavy eyelashes, parading in leather and occasionally acquiring fangs, a veiny complexion and flaring red eyes. She is not without charisma, but this is not her proper vehicle. It would be interesting to see her in a role of more down-to-earth dimensions.”
“I think an Australian audience would find it amusing…. People just love these scenes that are overdramatic.”
And generally, that is what she plays – with an overlay of high drama. Her greatest critical success was for her role in the movie No Other Woman. Clips on YouTube show Curtis’s face awash with tears in almost every shot. She played the other woman in a love triangle. “It was lots of drama, lots of emotion. It would be very funny, I think, for an Australian audience. I think they would find it amusing…. People just love these scenes that are overdramatic.”
Another critically acclaimed film was the black comedy The Gifted, about two bright but ugly girls who undergo a predictable transformation in response to the arrival of a handsome boy in school.
In recent years, Curtis has become increasingly involved in charitable work. She began by building school classrooms after finding out most public schools in the Philippines are so overcrowded that teaching is done in two shifts a day, with children as young as five starting school at 3pm and working through into the evening.
Last year, she became a celebrity ambassador for UNICEF mobilising support and money for the most vulnerable children and families, those living in abject poverty.
And early this year she released a book, Anita the Duckling Diva, as a fundraiser for UNICEF. The book, written with the help of established children’s author Augie Rivera, is about a duckling, bullied by her friends when she tries to sing in front of an audience.
This touches on the most controversial aspect of Curtis’s otherwise stellar career – her singing. She has released three albums which have been best sellers, and frequently sings on stage and on It's Showtime. Though she admits: “I love to sing, but I can’t sing.”
“Even if I’m not good at it, I still pursued my dream…. I think I have improved a little bit.”
“I thought my followers would be able to relate to Anita the Duckling Diva, because even if I’m not good at it, I still pursued my dream…. I think I have improved a little bit. I did have to take some lessons. I think I’ve improved a lot.”
Not everyone agrees. The comments on social media about her voice are scathing.
ASKED WHETHER SHE feels Filipino or Australian, Curtis said she is a perfect blend – half and half. In news likely to break hearts among her Filipino fans, she says that when she marries and has children, she would like to raise them in Australia.
And is this likely to happen soon?
Despite the very public proposal from Heussaff, no date for the wedding has been set.
She has clearly made some tentative plans, however. When she was last in Richmond, she thought that her husband’s style of Asian restaurant would fit well in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond. “I think he could do something there. I’d make him find something to do.”
In the meantime, on her latest visit to Melbourne, she planned to splurge on Australian food – she misses pies with sauce, roast lamb and Tim Tams. Curtis acknowledges that coming home to live in Australia would be almost like a fairy tale in reverse. Yet she likes the idea of auditioning for Australian roles.
“I don’t know if I’ve got the confidence to try and break into the industry in Australia, but then why not? Maybe Home and Away at last?”