The People vs. Nora Cabaltera Villamayor, a small drug possession case being heard in a branch courthouse near LAX, has received little attention in the U.S. news media.
But in the Philippines, the coverage has been so extensive, and at times breathless, that it rivals the U.S. fixation on Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart.
For her first court date recently, a crowd including journalists from Manila and fans who flew in from across the United States swarmed the petite 53-year-old star of stage and screen. A puzzled Associated Press photographer turned to a Los Angeles correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer covering the arraignment and asked, “Is she as big as Sophia Loren is in Italy?”
“Way bigger,” the reporter replied.
Villamayor is anonymous in the United States, except among Filipinos, to whom she is better known by her stage name, Nora Aunor.
On March 30, authorities say, a federal baggage screener at Los Angeles International Airport reached into her black duffel carry-on and pulled out a glass pipe and 6.69 grams of methamphetamine inside a knotted-up baggy concealed in a sock. At the time, authorities didn’t know of her celebrity, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Marguerite Rizzo.
But at home, and among Southern California’s huge population of Filipino immigrants, Aunor is called simply “the Superstar.”
Presidential candidates have been known to call her seeking an endorsement. Former President Joseph Estrada gave her a house in 1998 after she helped him with his campaign. She has been called the Philippines’ greatest pop icon.
Aunor’s legions of fans -- Noranians, they call themselves -- compare her as an actress to Meryl Streep. They have flocked to the more than 170 movies in which she has starred. As a Broadway-style belter in the style of Barbra Streisand, she has cut more than 20 albums.
Some in the Filipino press have portrayed Aunor’s drug case as if it were one of her screen melodramas.
Her fans are divided over whether to believe the government’s case but say they plan to stick by their star.
“We realize that Nora Aunor is no saint,” said Epee Rafanan, a 55-year-old San Francisco resident and officer of the International Circle of Online Noranians, a fan club.
Rafanan and seven other fan club members from the Bay Area drove overnight so they could sit in on the arraignment at which Aunor, who is free on bail, pleaded not guilty.
For that first court date, April 21, fans outside shrieked and raised placards reading “Noranians Forever” and “We Love You Ate Guy.” (Ate is a respectful term for older sister in the Philippines, and Guy is a nickname from high school that stuck.)
The fans followed her into the courtroom and filled the rows behind her. Some winked or smiled at her from their seats. Others walked over to whisper in her ear or pass her candy.
Erlinda Valderrama, a 57-year-old Baldwin Park resident who saw Aunor in concert recently, called her “a strong woman.”
“She’s going to get over it. She’s been through worse,” Valderrama said.
Corabel Ybanez, 55, also considers herself a Noranian but worries that the star has lost her direction.
Ybanez, who lives in New York City and was recently visiting relatives in Carson, thinks most people pity the actress now.
“I’m sad,” she said. “She’s practically alone, and she spends her time with friends who lead irregular lives.”
Aunor has grown so popular with Filipinos because they identify with her rags-to-riches story, said Momar G. Visaya, editor of the Asian Journal, a Los Angeles-based newspaper for Filipinos.
“She’s from a really poor, poor family in the Bicol region,” he said. “People see her as an inspiration -- if she can do it, anybody can.”
To earn money as a child, Aunor would sell water at the train station or cooked food throughout town from a woven tray carried on her head.
She became famous at 14, when she won a national singing competition.
Aunor distinguished herself from many stars of the day by acting in an understated style and speaking in Tagalog, not English. She opened the door for a new kind of movie star, Visaya said.
Fans are especially loyal because Aunor goes out of her way to recognize them, Rafanan said.
After she regaled the audience with her golden voice at a January concert in Hawaii, she signed autographs for hours.
“People at the venue decided it was taking too long, and they would like to close the gates,” Rafanan said. “There was still a long line of people waiting for her signature. Nora said, ‘Well, I’m going to continue signing autographs outside.’ She didn’t stop until the last fan.”
At a concert in Reno last spring, Rafanan recalled, Aunor walked to the seat of a 95-year-old woman in the audience and told the crowd that this woman had flown from New York to spend her birthday at the concert.
“These are older people who are saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t see you in the Philippines, but oh, I see you here. I’m so happy,’ ” Rafanan said.
Aunor, who was released on bail hours after her arrest, is continuing a U.S. concert tour, which has included recent dates in Glendale and Las Vegas.
This month, she was the guest star of a show at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut. The audience feverishly applauded her versions of “What a Feeling” and “The Impossible Dream.”
Waiting backstage in a black and fuchsia ball gown and size-2 heels, Aunor said in halting but clear English that her lawyers had instructed her not to discuss details of the trial other than to say she denied the charges.
But she did say she had reached a state of calm about it. The only time nerves got the better of her, she said, was at her second court date.
“At the preliminary hearing, I was so nervous I cried,” she said, clutching a reporter’s arm. “But then I realized, when I do nothing, I don’t have to be nervous or afraid. I believe in God.”
Aunor has been living in the San Francisco area since August 2004, said her business manager, Norie Sayo. She declined to name the city, saying she didn’t want fans to mob Aunor’s house.
Aunor said she hoped to establish residency in the U.S. because she wanted to live a more anonymous life.
“I don’t want to be called ‘the Superstar,’ ” she said. “I was happy before when I was just in the provinces.”
In Manila, she said, fans who saw her on the street would pinch her, just to say they had touched the Superstar. She never left her house to go shopping. Boutiques brought the newest fashions to her.
“California is nice,” she said. “I can do everything I cannot in Manila. I can shop. I can go walking anywhere.”
In the Bay Area, Filipino Americans might spot her at the Target or Radio Shack, but they usually leave her alone.
But she still inspired some hysteria during the Walnut concert. As soon as she stepped outside, a group of about 20 women surrounded Aunor, shouting, “Ate Guy! Ate Guy!”
All tried to hug her. Sayo had to pull Aunor free by the arm so she could sign autographs at a nearby table. As cameras flashed around the star, about 40 more people, looking delighted, waited while she signed programs, CDs and old photographs fans had brought.
Most did not mention the trial, but one fan did offer Aunor a business card. The woman told Aunor in mixed Tagalog and English to call her if she needed help because her husband knew someone in the district attorney’s office.
For the trial, Sayo has been trying to downplay Aunor’s celebrity status.
“I told the fan clubs, Don’t come anymore” to court, she said. “We just want it to come out like a regular case, nothing special.”
Aunor faces up to three years in prison and possible deportation if convicted. The trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 14, said prosecutor Rizzo.
Rizzo said she hadn’t heard of Aunor until after the arraignment, when other lawyers in the office handed her the case and told her Aunor was famous. “She’s just a defendant that I’m prosecuting,” Rizzo said.