James Reid’s neon green turtleneck sweater reflects on the surface of glass table before him. It’s nearly summer, and the half-Filipino, half-Australian star had already taken off the silver metallic jacket he wore for the photoshoot earlier. He informs us that he’s “a little bit sick,” something he apologizes for later in our conversation. The actor takes a longer time than usual to answer our questions—proof, if anyone ever needed it, that there’s a lot on his mind.
There’s The Cr3w, his upcoming concert party on April 5 with fellow Viva hotshots Sam Concepcion and Billy Crawford. There’s Idol Philippines, where he sits on a judging panel he describes as “prestigious.” There’s an upcoming film, which he can’t talk about yet; and of course, there are the countless other obligations that come naturally when you’re a celebrity of James’s stature.
And then, there is the music. The last time James came out with an album was two years ago—too long, perhaps, for some people’s standards.
“It’s been hard especially because I’m so busy,” says James. “Like, I don’t really have time to sit down in a studio and just experiment… As soon as I have time, that’s the first thing I’m going to do.”
Speaking to James, it’s never far away from your mind that he’s a top star. He is undeniably handsome, on print and in person, thanks to his high cheekbones and expressive eyes. An alum of the star-making phenomenon that is Pinoy Big Brother, James has broken free from his reality show roots and is now a household name with 4.9 million Instagram followers.
It may be a dizzying number, but it doesn’t really matter to the actor. For starters, most people can’t leave comments on his posts—only his close friends can. This has proved an effective way to weed out haters. “I don’t listen to the opinions of the people behind the fake profile. I listen to real people.”
By keeping his comments off, he also keeps a semblance of privacy, one thing he’s fought so hard to keep amidst his skyrocketing popularity.
“It’s completely against my personality, being famous? I don’t do this because I like the attention from fans. It’s against my personality. I hate the limelight. I like my privacy, but I believe I have a talent and I couldn’t live with myself if I’m not using that. But I think that’s what it takes to be able to make it in this industry and not go crazy. You can’t be doing this for the fame because that’s not gonna make you happy. Yeah, I’m doing this because this is what I like to do.”
He says all of this in a rapid-fire manner, as if it’s been on his chest for the longest time. See, showbiz was never really on his agenda. At 16, the boy from Australia entered the limelight as a housemate on PBB: Teen Clash alongside fellow foreigners like Ryan Bang and Bret Jackson. This all happened just nine years ago, in 2010. But for James, it “feels like a lifetime ago.”
“Who I used to be before I joined Big Brother, who I was in the Big Brother house, and who I am now, completely different persons. Like, if my 16-year-old self saw me now and what I am doing, he would be so scared. He would be so scared.”
“I was just a simple kid,” James explains. “I didn’t think I’ll be doing much in this life and now I honestly believe that I can change the music industry, so that’s a big jump.”
A big jump, indeed. There was a time inside the PBB house when young James didn’t even know that he could sing in public, much less make a career out of it. “Everyone was telling me, you have such a great voice, you could be this, you could be an artista, bla bla bla, but I didn’t see it in myself.”
It only started to click for him after PBB ended. James, who stayed in the house for less than two months, was suddenly a star. During the postseason live shows, he came face-to-face with a sea of adoring fans who would scream at his every move. This didn’t faze him.
“All that fear and that nervousness that I had, it would melt away. Like, when I would stand on the stage and everyone’s singing along with me, I would feel invincible. I felt more confident. That’s when I started seeing the potential that I had.”
All of a sudden, he was no longer the simple kid from Australia.
After PBB, James starred in a string of teen-oriented shows, including the musical variety show Shoutout!. He tried his hand out at songwriting with fellow housemate turned good pal Bret, with whom he released a four-track digital EP. But that was as far as it went. As anyone into showbiz would know, winning PBB is not an express ticket to success. Come 2012, James’s contract with Star Magic had ended; he signed with Viva to become a full-fledged recording artist.
His first album was released the year after. In retrospect, James says that the self-titled album “didn’t feel like it was really me.” It only had six tracks, two of which were covers. “It seemed like I wasn’t ready for it,” he says thoughtfully. “It seemed like acting what was best for me at that time, although music is what I wanted.”
He looks back on this time of his life with disarming casualness and honesty. He admits that his decision to try acting was motivated by the fact that he was, in his own terms, “completely broke” to the point where he wanted to move back to Australia.
“I did movies for money,” James says matter-of-factly. “I started doing Diary ng Panget and then from there my career really took off.”
Diary ng Panget (2014) marked James’s first foray into the silver screen and his first major team-up with fellow Viva talent Nadine Lustre. The film became a box-office hit, cementing James and Nadine as a loveteam and revitalizing both of their showbiz careers.
The pair went on to star in more films like Talk Back and You’re Dead (2014) and Para sa Hopeless Romantic (2015), but the real turning point of their acting careers would play out on national TV, with the immensely-popular rom-com On the Wings of Love (OTWOL). JaDine fever was in full swing.
James was on top of the world—or so it seemed. On the outside, he was the perfect leading man: charismatic and handsome with just the right amount of bad boy edge. But on the inside, he began to feel a sense of dissatisfaction that would only grow deeper in the months to come.
“During that time it was really hard,” the actor admits. “I didn’t feel like I was becoming better. I wasn’t creating, I was just doing what I needed to do. I was playing the game.
“I did everything that I needed to do to make it ’cause I wanted it to make it. I wanted to make money for my whole family. I didn’t want to worry about it ever again, so I did everything that I needed to do, and I ended up becoming a robot and it made me depressed for, like, two years.”
Listening to James tell this story, one gets the sense that he prefers not to dwell on the past, but rather focus on the present. He barely pauses before going on to say that he is doing much better these days, now that he has the financial stability and creative freedom to veto the projects coming his way.
“Now that I’ve made it, I’ve got so many projects, I’ve bought a house for my family... I’m so glad that I got to that point where I don’t have to think about it. I don’t think about how much it’s making me anymore. I just wanna do stuff that I enjoy doing.”
“I believe it’s good karma for me, [knowing] what I’ve done for my family, what I’ve done for my dad. I’m really blessed to be able to make music that I feel like making, to just create and pick roles and give my own creative input.”
In 2017, James released his third studio album, Palm Dreams—a nine-track ode to youth and love delivered via catchy R&B. The singer/songwriter calls it “bedroom music,” which stands in stark contrast from his earlier, candy pop-infused discography.
It was an immediate hit. Esquire Philippines came out with a review headlined “What?! James Reid's New Album Isn't...Bad?,” which praised James’s songwriting skills, which he put to good use on the record. “Palm Dreams sounds like an entirely fresh start for James Reid,” part of the review read.
James himself wasn’t surprised by the fanfare. “That was really the first time that I really got to express myself,” he says of the self-written album. “I was enjoying listening to it. I knew that if I enjoyed it this much, I knew that there had to be other people who will enjoy it too.”
Part of what makes the album so fresh-sounding is that none of it was calculated, unlike his previous releases. “I was just making music and one day I was like, you know what? I should turn it into an album… it was just music that I liked. That’s why I love that project so much, ’cause it was just me making music and it worked.”
The album gave James a new image: that of a sleek singer-songwriter with surprises up his sleeve. Now, he had a new set of followers who were into his style and music—but not his mainstream-friendly acting, for which he already had a dedicated fan base. Juggling these two audiences, says James, has not been in a walk in the park. But the half-Australian star is not the type to forget his roots.
“I’m not going to completely change my image and cut off the engine that made me who I am today, like all the fans, the whole showbiz industry that brought me to this level,” he stresses.
“There’s such a gap between the two audiences but then for me, that music audience, they’re not gonna watch my movies… They like my music, but it doesn’t mean I have to change my image when it comes to acting.”
James says that he struggled with writing Palm Dreams, because he wanted the record to do two things: first, hit a wider market, and second, appeal to his longtime fans, those who have supported him from the very beginning of his multimedia career. He’s not certain if he’s achieved that yet. “It’s something that I’m learning as I go along and something I’m trying to fix,” the actor/singer says.
“It would be easier if I just picked one audience, but that’s not what I want,” James continues. “There has to be a way to bridge that gap and I think that everyone could agree on good music, so maybe that’s what would bring them together.”
Though it’s been two years since the release of Palm Dreams, James has not been completely absent from the recording studio. He recently featured in “Filipina Girl,” the first single from Billy Crawford’s comeback album Work in Progress. The song marked the first time James wrote his own lyrics in Filipino.
“That was very different for me,” says James. He tells us that he got help from Nadine, his girlfriend of three years, with whom he shares several Instagram-famous pets and a picturesque home.
In an early March episode of Gandang Gabi Vice, James let it slip that he was living with Nadine—a fact that the actress refused to confirm nor deny since 2017.
“I wasn’t even supposed to say that,” James says with a grin. “I’m always so honest, so I was like, ‘So we’re living together... sh*t.’ Everyone was screaming. I thought you guys already knew. Isn’t it obvious? Like she’s always taking pictures in my house. Clearly we’re together.”
While Nadine was never vocal about her living situation, she always gamely answered questions about other aspects of her relationship with James—such as disagreements, which according to her were few and far in between.
James confirms this, saying that he can’t remember the last time he fought with Nadine. “It’s funny, people say that arguing is part of a relationship… I don’t think it is.” Part of it has to do with the fact that they’re both entertainers, whose lives are so irregular in ways non-showbiz people might not understand.
“I would tell her, like, I’m in the studio tonight, I’m gonna be home, I don’t know, like after midnight.’” says James. “She knows that. She knows how it is, so she’s like ‘Okay, it’s fine. See you at home.’ Same with her: ‘Taping tonight, probably won’t see you until 2 a.m.’
“We know what it’s like, and there’s not that many people that can understand what I have to go through on a daily basis like Nadine does.”
While their off-screen partnership is solid, the couple have taken much of the past year pursuing their own creative projects. Their last movie, Never Not Love You, was released in March 2018; aside from that, their only major collaboration has been “Summer,” a track on Careless Music Manila’s digital mixtape. [Careless Music Manila is the recording label James founded in 2017.]
James credits these separate pursuits as some of the reasons why he and Nadine are still going strong. “For me, it’s important for a guy to let her do her thing so that she can grow. It’s the same for a girl to do that for a guy, let him do his thing, let them chase what they want. Insecure people won’t let that happen. They think, ‘They might outgrow me.’ But you have to do that. That’s what we do for each other.”
The singer-songwriter says that he and Nadine have worked hard to get past their insecurities—and have since recognized that being in a long-term relationship means not just loving your partner, but loving yourself as well.
“You need to love yourself,” James stresses. “’Cause for me, that’s what breaks relationships apart, insecurity. But if you can’t love yourself, then you have no right to love someone else. That’s what Nadine struggled with at the start. But yeah, in the end, if you don’t have that self-love for yourself then you put those insecurities on the other person. You expect them to make up for what you lack.”
It’s mid-afternoon now, and our conversation with James winds down, meandering to the lighter topic of travel. He says he wants to take a nine-day hiking trip to Nepal soon, when he’s got enough time. But James is in no rush. It reminds us of something he said earlier in our interview, when we asked him how much his confidence has grown since joining PBB.
He said: “It’s grown so much. I can literally do anything. Yeah, honestly I feel like I can do anything. The only thing is time, I just need time to do it, but I’m not worried. I’m enjoying what I’m doing now.”
As a parting request, we ask James to write a letter to himself five years from now. He writes:
“To my future self,
I love you.
I promise to take us around the world and beyond.
I promise to love and spread love.
I will give you a life worth living.”
- James Reid
TEXT & INTERVIEW: Shara Cayetano
PHOTOGRAPHER: Melo Balingit
SHOOT PRODUCER: Irene Mislang & Anna Pingol
ART DIRECTOR: Stephen Jan Cruz
MAKEUP: Mac Igarta
HAIR: Rhod Rubia
STYLIST: Bang Pineda
BTS VIDEO: Courtesy of Viva Artists Agency