by Michaelangelo Benigno
“Even diamonds start as coals”. So a song goes.
In the Philippine fashion industry, we find a lot of diamonds glittering underneath the bright lights of the catwalk, diamonds which were refined from coals mined from dark, obscure caves. Among the women who have graced us with their regal beauty is a Del Pilarian – Jo Ann Bitagcol. Her story of treading the path towards success is nothing short of inspiring.
Uprooted from their home in Angeles City at the height of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991, they moved to Malolos, Bulacan to begin a new life. She graduated from Marcelo H. Del Pilar High School in 1994 and then moved back to Pampanga to work at a cotton mill for two years.
It was at a panciteria where she was eating with a friend, discussing a job possibility in Manila, when Fate intervened. Designer Peter Lim, makeup artist Jay Lozada and director Jeffrey Jeturian were in the same place and, upon seeing her, opened to her to the possibility of working as a model.
Her first appearance was at the Bodyshots competition in 1996 sponsored by the Fashion Designers Association of the Philippines (FDAP). Though she didn’t won, it was enough to catch the eyes of prominent fashion designers in the country. She got her break when she was hired by the renowned Inno Sotto and producer-director Richard Tann (also a singer more known for the Hallmark cards theme song) for the lunchtime show “Fashion Watch”. And from there, she rose to become one of the most highly-sought ramp models in the industry, here and abroad, mesmerizing audiences on both the ramp and the magazine covers with her elegance and poise.
At the height of her career, she discovered her love for photography. She took up basic photography classes at the University of the Philippines-Diliman and then apprenticed for photographer Lilen Uy. A year after, she was contributing photos for numerous publications. She honed herself in her new-found craft, getting tips and borrowing equipments from top photographers whom she had befriended over the years. In 2007, she put up her own studio, JoAnn Bitagcol Photography, in Makati City. And from there, she was able to transform herself seamlessly, concentrating more on photo jobs for top companies and celebrities alike while still doing modeling during her spare time. She was able to launch her own exhibit “Tripolar” at Avellana Art Gallery in 2015, showing off her remarkable transition to her new profession.
Only a few people can stay relevant underneath the glitz and glamour of the ever-changing fashion world. For Jo Ann, who is like a diamond still being refined to the edges, a legacy that will remain forever may not be a ridiculous notion, after all.