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Venetian in Manila

June 29, 2008

Venetian in Manila

The palatial abode of high socialite Tessa Prieto-Valdes is an Italianate fantasy sparkling with works of art, dramatic painting ceilings and a walk-in wardrobe bigger than most boutiques.

By KEE HUA CHEE
startwo@thestar.com.my
BELLA” seems the only word to describe Tessa Prieto-Valdes’ Venetian palace and the woman herself as it is not for nothing that she is called “Sea Goddess”. As a child she was so pretty and vivacious everyone declared she must have been born from the foams of the sea, like Botticelli’s Venus emerging from a seashell. Even now, as a mother of four, her youthful beauty remains the wonder of all.
 
 
Tessa on the first floor of her house, where the fresco on the ceiling depicts cherubs in heaven and the phrase, ‘Let Justice Be Done Though The Heavens Fall’ .

Prieto-Valdes’ calling cards and notes are printed with stunning photos of her in various spectacular gowns bearing the legend “Sea Princess”. It’s even included in her e-mail and not surprisingly, her swimming pool is lavishly decorated with real and faux seashells and three starfish in mosaic on the bottom. I am surprised there are no frolicking mermaid statues but her maid explains there is a difference between a mermaid and a sea goddess.

Prieto-Valdes is one of Manila’s most luminous A-list socialites. She is petite, dynamic and amusing, with a brilliant sense of humour. Of course, she is as lovely as a lily and appears regularly in all the social magazines. When I was visiting her in Manila, I counted three magazines that featured her on the cover.

“Oh, Tessa appears on magazine covers every month, be it for fashion, parenting, home décor, cooking, gardening, travel, dining, wining, yachting or some lifestyle angle,” says her friend Marites Allen, Manila’s leading feng shui expert and student of Malaysian feng shui consultant Lillian Too. “I would say she’s on around 20 to 25 magazine covers a year! She is also an indefatigable fundraiser and can be counted upon to support a charity ball or gala.”

Especially if some dressing up is required!

She is seldom seen without elaborate ball gowns replete with trains. Then there are her diamond-studded false eyelashes and dainty hats. Halfway through tea, her milliner arrives with a new shipment of at least 30 small hats, each one in unique hues, fabrics and coloured crystals.

Unlike some pretentious Makati doyens, Prieto-Valdes wears real rocks and costume jewels with gay abandon. “I love bright, coloured diamonds but my preference are 30-carat stones and I like to wear 10 of them at a time. Real diamonds this size are not easy to come by,” giggles Manila’s brightest jewel.

The calendar of this mother, entrepreneur, flamenco dancer, philanthropist, theme-party hostess, celebrity endorser, reality TV debutante and former feng shui student is packed to the rafters. Prieto-Valdes is also a columnist for The Philippine Daily Inquirer, writing on what she knows best – the glitz and glamour of Manila’s high life.

The newspaper is owned by her mother, Marixi Rufino-Prieto, whom the Forbes List of 40 Richest Filipinos places as the 39th richest with assets over RM110mil, and Prieto-Valdes’ sister runs it.

Handsome husband Dennis Valdes is also from the wealthy elite and they are considered one of the Philippines’ most glamorous and good-looking couples. Then again, money marrying more money is the norm among the upper echelons everywhere.

Rival newspapers and magazines feature her exploits incessantly. Unlike those who pursue personalities and interview them, she often creates the news herself. Last November, she walked the red carpet for the Hollywood premier of Enchanted at El Capitan theatre in Los Angeles.

Her eldest son Bryan, who lives in Los Angeles, tried to warn her about the LA fashion police. Perhaps, he suggested, she should tone down her sequins, bugle beads and feathers.

 
 Patrick Dempsey, star of the movie Enchanted, with Tessa who wore her fairy outfit to the Hollywood premier of the movie at El Capitan theatre in Los Angeles, November 2007.

“I told him, don’t be ridiculous!” exclaims Prieto-Valdes indignantly. “Photographers love me for my unusual, interesting and eye-catching clothes. I am what I am and I am not changing my style for anyone.” That style included a tiara, trailing gown and to crown it all off, a pair of shimmery, gossamer wings.

Rumours swept the length and breadth of the red carpet: she was a Japanese princess, a Korean actress, a Hong Kong starlet whose sugar daddy had just purchased MGM Studios and 20th Century Fox, or a pampered darling whose father had taken over Disneyland, hence her fairy costume.

Her costume caught the eye of Patrick Dempsey, star of Enchanted and Grey’s Ana-tomy, who was later photographed with her.

“He asked me how much my gown weighed and I told him 4kg. I added that I could not pee since removing the Rajo Laurel gown and putting it back on would take an hour. And I wouldn’t be able to sit on the toilet bowl due to my wings.”

The house that Tessa built

“I grew up in this house. Of course, back then it was a 1970s house that my parents built. Mum gave it to me as a wedding present and I tore it down,” says Prieto-Valdes nonchalantly.

“I wanted to build my dream house. At first, I wanted a Versailles chateau, then a Russian Tsarist villa, then a Holy Roman empire style with turrets and parapets and a moat. But Venice is my favourite city so I decided to go for a Venetian palazzo.

“Dennis and I went to Las Vegas to stay at The Venetian and to Venice to check out the architecture and to buy furniture.”

But not before throwing a party – a demolition party!

“The girls were given hammers and the men sledgehammers and they were asked to break everything they could lay their hands on. Of course, all the valuable stuff had been stored away. Debris and dust flew everywhere and we had so much fun. Every newspaper declared it a truly smashing party!” grins Prieto-Valdes. A few naughty guests even sent her a bill for labour charges since they claimed they had done all the demolition work!

“I told him, don’t be ridiculous!” exclaims Prieto-Valdes indignantly. “Photographers love me for my unusual, interesting and eye-catching clothes. I am what I am and I am not changing my style for anyone.” That style included a tiara, trailing gown and to crown it all off, a pair of shimmery, gossamer wings.

Rumours swept the length and breadth of the red carpet: she was a Japanese princess, a Korean actress, a Hong Kong starlet whose sugar daddy had just purchased MGM Studios and 20th Century Fox, or a pampered darling whose father had taken over Disneyland, hence her fairy costume.

Her costume caught the eye of Patrick Dempsey, star of Enchanted and Grey’s Ana-tomy, who was later photographed with her.

“He asked me how much my gown weighed and I told him 4kg. I added that I could not pee since removing the Rajo Laurel gown and putting it back on would take an hour. And I wouldn’t be able to sit on the toilet bowl due to my wings.”

The house that Tessa built

“I grew up in this house. Of course, back then it was a 1970s house that my parents built. Mum gave it to me as a wedding present and I tore it down,” says Prieto-Valdes nonchalantly.

“I wanted to build my dream house. At first, I wanted a Versailles chateau, then a Russian Tsarist villa, then a Holy Roman empire style with turrets and parapets and a moat. But Venice is my favourite city so I decided to go for a Venetian palazzo.

“Dennis and I went to Las Vegas to stay at The Venetian and to Venice to check out the architecture and to buy furniture.”

But not before throwing a party – a demolition party!

“The girls were given hammers and the men sledgehammers and they were asked to break everything they could lay their hands on. Of course, all the valuable stuff had been stored away. Debris and dust flew everywhere and we had so much fun. Every newspaper declared it a truly smashing party!” grins Prieto-Valdes. A few naughty guests even sent her a bill for labour charges since they claimed they had done all the demolition work!

 
 Sculpture of a reading man made from a gigantic safety pin, in Tessa’s home.
 

The two years it took to construct her dream palazzo gave her more excuses to party. “We had a big one halfway through construction. All the guests had to wear hard hats and promise they wouldn’t sue if a brick fell on them! It was the messiest party I ever threw.”

This was followed by the pre-moving in, house-warming and settling down parties. “I entertain a lot and I enjoy moving the furniture around each time so regulars always see something new and not feel like they were returning to the same old place. My house décor is in a permanent state of flux which is very me. I collect what I like at the spur of the moment and redecorate often.”

Winged angels and cherubs stare down from the ceiling and alcoves as I walk up the staircase. The ceiling at the top of the landing boasts more spectacular murals of angels with the Latin phrase Fiat Justicia Ruat Coelum (Let Justice Be Done Though the Heavens Fall) in the middle.

Dennis explains: “That phrase was the opening sentence of a newspaper article during the infamous Erap (former president Joseph Estrada) corruption trials and I thought it was the perfect expression for what was happening at that time, so we had it painted onto the ceiling. It seemed so appropriate as the trompe l’oeil featuring angels was representative of heaven.”

Apart from murals, the couple collects paintings and sculptures. Near the staircase is a brilliantly executed sculpture of a reading man made from a gigantic safety pin.

“This is by Raymond Fernandez from Cebu and is my favourite. His hands are formed to hold a book and I usually leave a real book there. Let’s see what he is reading today ... oh it’s the Kama Sutra,” says Prieto-Valdez.

The couple’s bedroom is lush, warm and inviting, made more enticing by an oil painting of a couple hugging each other. They appear to be two men. Smirks Prieto-Valdez: “You think so? Hmm, well perhaps it’s a constant reminder to my husband not to try anything funny!”

Behind their bedroom is her closet, which is the size of a Tokyo flat, while her husband’s is more modest. Her bathroom is as big as a London bed-sit while his is smaller and more practical.

“My husband always says he has only 3sqm in this entire house and that his bathroom is where he can relieve himself in peace.”

I point at some boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts nearby. Prieto-Valdez shrugs: “They are empty boxes used for a photo shoot. We own Dunkin’ Donuts in the Philippines anyway.

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