Cover Story

Behind Billboard Philippines’ First-Ever Woman Of The Year, Sarah Geronimo

When deciding who we wanted to name Woman of the Year, the Billboard Philippines team’s immediate choice was Sarah Geronimo

There was no doubt about it. She’s been at the top of industry throughout the years, succeeding across multiple avenues of entertainment, from movies to commercial endorsements to live shows. She’s Filipino pop’s reigning royalty, earning several platinum albums and prestigious awards. She’s a top-selling performer, continuously and consistently praised for her incomparable skills on a stage. 

For two decades, there’s been no conversation about Filipino vocal excellence without mentioning Sarah Geronimo. 

In short, she’s a superstar. 

So, imagine my confusion when she said she feared people no longer knew who she was. 

In 2020, Geronimo took a break from the limelight, wanting instead to focus on nurturing her personal life. It was the first time she hit pause on what was then 17 years of incessant work. Since the 2000s, she’s been a relentless force in the industry, challenging expectations and reaching new peaks with each passing year. She did it all, seeing no stop to what she can accomplish.

“When I won [Star For A Night] back in 2003, non-stop talaga ‘yung work ko (the work was non-stop). My manager made sure that I would be a multimedia artist, so I was doing everything at the same time — movies, concerts, commercials… ano pa ba (what else…), hosting even. Lahat na ‘yun sinabak ako ng manager ko without training, so ‘yung training ground ko is the actual experience (My manager made me do everything without training, so my training ground was the actual experience),” Geronimo says, looking back at the start of her storied career with a mix of gratefulness and disbelief. 

To say the least, the hiatus — which would eventually last two years — was well earned. She took this time to learn more about herself outside of the harsh glare of the spotlight, spend more time with those close around her, foster meaningful relationships, and take on new roles that didn’t revolve around the world of entertainment. 

She began new chapters of her life that ultimately led her to settle into the woman she is today,  what she describes as “a more authentic Sarah.”

“To be honest, ngayon ko lang nakikilala ‘yung sarili ko (now is the only time that I’ve truly known who I was) because… [I’m a] late bloomer,” she laughs. “Ngayon ko lang nararamdaman ‘yung independence [ko] (It’s only now that I’ve really felt my independence), slowly but surely, especially with the support of the people around me, my husband, my parents, my friends, my close friends.”

As she characterizes it, this new version of herself is more expressive, intentional, and in control. With a renewed spirit, she is determined to live out this new stage of her life the way she wants to — and, instinctually, she starts with her music.

“What was lacking before [was] connection. Kasi (Because) before, I was given songs to record, ‘Okay, okay, yes, okay, I will record’ so parang trabaho lang siya (it was like a job), but now it’s more of expressing myself as a person,” she shares. “I need to focus on ano ba talaga ang (what really is the) authentic Sarah. I need to be true to myself; makikita rin kasi ng audience ‘yun, ng listeners ‘yun eh (the audience, listeners will see that), if you’re true to yourself.”

To mark her return in 2022, she released “Dati-Dati,” a five-minute groovy pop tune that aptly talks about cherishing past experiences while also looking forward to bigger beginnings. The single dropped alongside a music video that Geronimo conceptualized, adding that touch of authenticity she’s always wanted.

“It feels great because you have this apparent sense of freedom; ang daming options, ang dami mong pwedeng i-explore (there’s a lot of options, there’s a lot of things you can explore) now that you’re free, now that you have all this time [and space] to grow,” she says.

And, grow and explore she did. 

Beyond releasing several new singles — including “Cuore,” which features an Italian chorus co-written by actor and Geronimo’s husband Matteo Guidicelli — that all highlight different facets of her talents, she also co-directed her 20th anniversary concert last year alongside Paolo Valenciano. The show, which served as a sonic journey through the last two decades of her career, was a fitting ode to the artist she was and the artist she is yet to become.

However, this new era of Geronimo’s music did not come without its growing pains. 

Being a pop star is not easy. In a world of fast trends and quick hits, there is only so much you can do before something else comes along to distinguish your light. Like a lot of artists, this has been a thought that has often circled Geronimo’s mind, especially as she moves onto greater heights in her music. 

“I’m getting older so parang hindi din totoo ‘yun na (it’s not really true that) you have all the time in the world to make materials. Syempre (Of course) as artists, our goalis [really] longevity, to stay in the business for as long as possible but you know, the reality is… may saturation period din (there’s also a saturation period),” she shares. 

On top of that, with a whole pandemic between her last release and “Dati-Dati,” Geronimo was unsure if people still remembered her. 

“My fear [then] was ‘shucks, kilala pa ba ako ng mga tao?’ I would see parang how people would spell my name, wala nang ‘h’ — ‘Sara,’ ganon nalang — so parang, ‘Oh my goodness, hindi na nila ako kilala,’” she recalls. 

(My fear then was ‘shucks, do people still remember me?’ I would see how people would spell my name without an ‘h’ — ‘Sara’ — so it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, people don’t remember me anymore.)

“I took a break and then I released new songs, and then I felt like people weren’t appreciating the materials I was releasing,” she continues. “Parang, paano ba ‘to (How do I do this), should I continue? Should I adapt? Halimbawa (For example), TikTok is the gauge [whether] a song is a hit or not, so should I adjust? Should I create a song that’s fit for TikTok?”

Never the type to waver in hardship, Geronimo shares how she never lets these thoughts cloud her mind for too long — instead, she uses her doubts and worries to rekindle her love and passion for music and performing. 

“I just remind myself to relax and just focus on my love for music and ano bang purpose ko (what my purpose is), why am I doing this — not to be famous, not to be rich, but to be an inspiration. ‘Yun talaga (That’s really me) to be an inspiration sa mga tao (to other people).”

It was at this point in our conversation that I asked Geronimo if, by her own standards, she thinks she’s “made it.” This is an artist who has become the benchmark of a great singer, inspired a whole generation of performers, and has risen to be one of the most notable figures in the industry — and yet, as humble as ever, she says: “Let’s just say [that] my dream of being an artist, being a recording artist, having my voice heard by people, yeah, it’s come true. Parang dun lang ‘yun; it will stay there. Ganon naman talaga ang art eh — parang never kang masa-satisfy (That’s what art truly is — you’ll never be satisfied).”

She continues, “As an artist, I seek growth, maturity. ‘Di ba, hindi naman pwedeng kalat-kalat lang ‘yung movements dyan, parang as long as you’re enjoying, okay na. Hindi eh, kasi they expect growth and maturity from you, too. Ang tagal ko na sa industriya, 20 years so ‘di ba dapat lang nag-e-evolve tayo, nag-i-improve.”

(As an artist, I seek growth, maturity. It’s not like, you can’t mess up the movements, like as long as you’re enjoying, it’s okay. It’s not like that. They expect growth and maturity from you, too. I’ve been in the industry for so long, 20 years, so of course we have to evolve, improve.”

Truth be told, while the Sarah Geronimo we see today is the most authentic she’s ever been, it won’t be the same Sarah Geronimo we’ll see another 20 years down the road. She’ll continue to grow, find bigger and greater ways to expand her artistry, and test the limits of what she can achieve. She’s not the kind of artist that settles down — and definitely not the kind people simply forget  — but she’ll always be an artist fueled by her genuine and unequivocal love and passion for music.

“I dream of doing this for the rest of my life,” she closes with a laugh. “Let’s just say, for as long as possible. I love music and the desire to pursue it is constant. Yeah, of course there were times I lost motivation and inspiration because we all go through personal issues in life, but bumabalik pa rin ako sa love and passion ko for music, for performing (my love and passion for music, for performing, always comes back).”

This story originally appeared in the Billboard Philippines’ special Women in Music print issue, dated March 22, 2024.

Styling by Daryl Chang, assisted by Kurt Abonal and Maria Paz Gamus. Creative and Fashion Direction by Daryl Chang. Art Direction by Nicole Almero. Hair by Raymond Santiago. Makeup by Gela Laurel. Photography assisted by James Bautista, Arsan Hofileña, Crisaldo Soco, Alex Capongcol, & Phil Nicdao. Shoot Coordination by Mikaela Cruz.