Philippine Comedy Queen Ai-Ai delas Alas has nothing more to prove, whether in her storied career or personal life. Though constantly dotted with drama and challenges, especially in the early to perhaps middle part of her 32 years in the spotlight, looking back in segments at the 57-year-old's rise to showbiz royalty always seems to end in happily-ever-afters.

Ai-Ai delas Alas
Ai-Ai delas Alas

Take for example how delas Alas first whet her comedic chops. It was one helluva grind as she toiled the rounds of dinky novelty bars along the Quezon Avenue-Timog-Morato circuit. Nevertheless, fast forward to 1998 — her 10th anniversary in the biz — delas Alas toppled her sterling record full house gigs in the bar scene, with three consecutive SRO (standing room only) concerts at the former Folk Arts Theater. "Respect Me" in 1998, "Seduce Me" in 1999 and "Abuse Me" in 2000 were such unprecedented hits that the press hailed delas Alas the country's "Concert Comedy Queen." It was a title she would only live up to come her 30th anniversary when she finally conquered the mammoth Araneta Coliseum. Titled, "Out of This World Na Me, Araneta Na Kasi!" the visual/musical/comedic spectacle started the trend of non-OPM celebrities taking on the Big Dome like Anne Curtis and Vice Ganda.

That segment in delas Alas' career a huge triumph, nothing more need be said of her hit sitcoms on ABS-CBN and eventually GMA Network, and all the more her blockbuster filmography, led by the now legendary family comedy franchise "Ang Tanging-Ina" in 2003, which would later spawn huge box office sequels alike via "Ang Tanging Ina N'yong Lahat" (2008), "Ang Tanging Ina Mo (Last na 'To!)" (2010) and "Enteng ng Ina Mo (2011)." A double triumph again for the stand-up comic-turned-major household name.As for her personal life, which has always been an open book to all and sundry, Marites Eileen Hernandez delas Alas will never deny her heart got her into trouble many times. Most prominent and controversial of her love stories saw two failed marriages — one with a singer-actor with whom she has two children, and much later, another with an unemployed boy 20 years her junior. The latter relationship, which delas Alas publicly fought for, fizzled and ended within a month.

From these messy heartbreaks, however, emerged a much stronger and much smarter Ai-Ai delas Alas, who ultimately found peace in embracing her Catholicism tighter and closer. Finally identifying through her faith how far she can go in her comedy — the teasing, sexiness and curse words all included — in trusting supposedly well-meaning friends and enablers, and in how much of her heart and herself to give to the next man who comes along, the last four to five years of the one and only Philippine Comedy Queen, have only been a lengthy stretch of happily ever after.

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Yes, she married another younger man in Gerald Sibayan in 2017 who, aware of the public's doubt, proved he will pull his own weight in the marriage in order to support and care for delas Alas and her children in the right, just and faithful way.

Controversies never letting up on her anyway — be it some rivalry or disagreement with an established celebrity here and there — delas Alas, with the help of her constant prayer and devotion to the Lord and His mother Mary, has since sailed through the murky and unpredictable waves of life unscathed and unjaded, even stumbling upon new pursuits that make her happier in ways she never knew existed.

Ai-Ai delas Alas’ (center) weeklong trip to Manila was highlighted by her contract signing with the main owner of APCA in Singapore, Chef Niklesh Sharma (extreme right) and the Manila branch’s proprietor, Sheryl See
Ai-Ai delas Alas’ (center) weeklong trip to Manila was highlighted by her contract signing with the main owner of APCA in Singapore, Chef Niklesh Sharma (extreme right) and the Manila branch’s proprietor, Sheryl See

From Papal Award to ube pandesal

Finally finding her center amid the highs of her career and the lows of her personal life and everything in between, 2017 was certainly one of delas Alas' best. Besides looking forward to her ultimate happily ever after with Sibayan, it was around the same time she discovered her allergy to gluten, changed her eating habits and felt her healthiest in a very long time.

Best of all, 2016 was the year delas Alas was humbled to her core when to her surprise, she learned she will be conferred the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (For the Church and the Pope) Papal Award, which the highest honor the Pope can bestow to the laity.

The conferment was made possible through the recommendation of the Diocese of Novaliches headed by Bishop Antonio Tobias, who finally made public delas Alas' earnest and longtime generosity to their parish and community. Nominating the actress to the Vatican for her involvement in the construction of the Kristong Hari Church in Commonwealth Ave., Quezon City and the Anawim Lay Missions Foundation, Inc. in Montalban, Rizal, among endless other charitable works, delas Alas will forever be part of an elite gathering at the Vatican whose prominence may be likened to knighthoods conferred by the Queen of England.

Staying the course in career, married life and spiritual endeavors through the next couple of years, the pandemic also found delas Alas happy and content despite the lockdowns. She was with her family after all and the time she could make up with them, which turned from months to years, was for delas Alas, a precious gift from heaven.

Not long after the whole world was put on standstill, delas Alas, like many locked down busybodies, rediscovered her talent for baking. Borne out of her eagerness to grant her husband's wish — Sibayan suddenly had a craving for ube pan de sal, which they could only buy in the southern metro — delas Alas tweaked a recipe to her liking and pleased not only her better half but also friends and family she thoughtfully sent the freshly baked goods to. Truly delicious, delas Alas started receiving orders one after the other, even from people she didn't know, and unintentionally ended up with a thriving baking business from home. It was clearly a blessing for the actress amid a time when everyone's hopes were down. She thought, if she couldn't make people happy since all her shows were put on hold, maybe a bite of her labor of love could substitute in the meantime.

Her unexpected sideline soon grew wings with delas Alas deciding to properly pursue baking. In October 2021, she enrolled with the Singapore based Treston International College Academy of Pastry and Culinary Arts (APCA), where she met and refined her skills with the school's owner, Chef Niklesh Sharma.

Armed with a new baking arsenal, delas Alas — a US green card holder — confidently left Manila for San Francisco at the beginning of the year, not only to fulfill the rules of a US immigrant but to open her one-woman bakeshop, Martina's.

With hard work and prayers, Martina's baked goods became such a hit that time came when delas Alas couldn't physically meet the endless orders of happy customers.

Prioritizing her health, delas Alas apologized to Martina's loyal supporters and explained she needed to take a break.

Still, nothing bad or sad followed nature's message to delas Alas to slow down as the baking queen. On the contrary, the break allowed her to discover yet another passion in her sweet, sweet life amid the surprise her APCA mentor Chef Niklesh Sharma sprung on her just two weeks ago.

Ai-Ai delas Alas
Ai-Ai delas Alas

"I am now the first celebrity ambassador of Treston International College's Academy of Pastry and Culinary Arts in the Philippines," delas Alas proudly declared to The Sunday Times Magazine in this exclusive Zoom interview. Of course, her announcement needed a punch being the Comedy Queen after all, so she added, "O di'ba bongga?"

Bongga indeed, in talking more about the baking skills APCA helped her to unlock, delas Alas doubled the bongga and revealed a "secret life" she is now leading while she completes her time in America.

"Ito, na realize ko talaga na passion ko siya," delas Alas averred.

Leaving that very night for San Francisco after a jampacked week for APCA and her GMA Network renewal to boot, delas Alas can hardly find the words to describe her love for life today.

"There's really nothing more that I can wish for at this point in my life. Meron nga akong nakausap noong isang araw, super friend ko to na lalaki. Sabi nya sa akin, 'Alam mo, ang importante pala talaga sa buhay, pag-ibig. I am so happy for you kasi ikaw may asawa ka na mabait, nakikita ko na masaya ka. May buhay kang masaya dito at sa Amerika. May mga kaibigan ako na ang daming pera pero hindi masaya. So I think yun yung talagang importanteng matutunan lahat — na ang love ay napaka-importante sa buhay natin.

"Hindi lang romantically ha, pero pag ibig mo sa kapwa mo, sa kaibigan mo. Kasi maiksi lang ang buhay. Di ba hindi naman maganda na may sakit ka, or mag-isa ka lang sa buhay na wala kang kaibigan, walang nagaalaga sa iyo, walang nangungumusta sa iyo. Iba pa rin talaga ang kindness and love. Masarap mabuhay pag may love and kindness sa araw araw mo."

Take it from Ai-Ai delas Alas in the rest of The Sunday Times Magazine's exchange with the Comedy Queen. Despite all the pandemic, chaos and bickering here and around the world, putting your whole heart into whatever you are passionate about will make you happy and savor every day of your life.

STM: When you enrolled for a course with APCA, what else did you discover you could do as a baking queen besides your trademark ube pan de sal?

Ai-Ai delas Alas: Marami, yung mga sabayon [a type of dessert sauce], kung paano gumawa ng mga icing, tapos different kinds of meringue —Italian meringue, French meringue —, different kinds of cakes, different kinds of bread, at kung paano din mag flambé. Mahirap din siya, pero kaya naman.

So, you have taken this short trip home for your launch as APCA'S Philippine Ambassador.

Yes, nakaka-tuwa kasi ngayon may way na akong sabihin sa mga mahilig mag-bake na mag-enroll na sa course para mas marami silang matutunan. Nakakatuwa kapag nakikita mo yung mga kaya mo pang gawin. Siguro nga dahil may certain happiness na dulot yung pag-bake. Hindi mo siya maipapaliwanag pero just go for it!

You look so content and fulfilled right now. Can you tell us why?Siyempre fulfilled ako dahil kahit wala ako dito sa Pilipinas, kahit nasa America ako marami pa rin akong work. Then paguwi ko sa Pilipinas may work pa rin ako gaya nitong ambassadorship with APCA and sa pag-renew ng contract ko ng GMA. So I'm so blessed and God is so good kaya happy ako. Hindi lang dahil sa work kasi wala naman kaming sakit at yung mga bata, at kami ng asawa ko.

What's you're life like in America? Who do you live with?Wala akong kasamang kasambahay, kami lang ni Gerald. Na-eenjoy ko naman siya. Kahit naman dito sa bahay, kung wala akong yaya, ako din naman ang nagluluto saka mahilig din naman ako maglinis at maglaba. Hindi problema sa akin yung ganun. Is your husband enjoying living there too?Oo enjoy siya. Kunwari kapag day off niya dun niya ako tinutulungan. Yung laba naman dun, ilalagay mo lang sa washing machine. Ako naman mahilig din ako magplantsa. Ayoko ng gusot na panty, gusot na shorts, lahat pinaplantsa ko.

How does your schedule work with needing to spend time in America and of course your newly renewed contract with GMA?

Alam naman ng GMA yung situation ko so pinagbigyan nila ako. Ang alam nila na kaya kong gawin three months doon tapos three months uuwi na ako. Pero ngayon, sa pagbalik ko doon, may show ako on September 3 sa Texas tapos may show ulit ako September 24 and 25 sa L.A. para sa Kapuso Anniversary.

In between those dates, what do you do?Babalik ako sa "secret life" doon (giggles). Nung hindi ko na kinaya yung volume ng orders para sa Martina, sabi ko parang gusto ko pa ding mag-work habang nadoon ako kaya pinasok ako ng mga kaibigan ko sa isang home for seniors.

Ang job ko is to entertain the residents and to make their life good, para may quality ang life nila habang nasa loob sila ng facility. Ako yung nagiisip ng mga activities for them. May do's and don'ts pa rin yun kaya mag-aaral at magte-train ka because of the federal law and the state law. I'm happy to say na kakapasa ko lang ng exam at training. Parang napakaganda ng pakiramdam kasi 'yung remaining days ng mga residente sa facility na matatanda at mga senior, napapasaya ko sila.

Can you let us in on the do's and don'ts of your job that is still wonderfully related to entertainment?Kunwari kapag nurse ka, sila lang ang pwedeng magsubo ng pagkain sa kanila. Pag activity

director ka tulad ko, hindi puwedeng magsubo sa mga seniors.

Noong bago ako, hindi ko alam kung ano ng aba ang gagawin ko. Ang coordinator namin Pilipino, ang pangalan niya is Leila. Since pareho kaming coordinator, tinuturuan niya ako ng mga bagay tulad ng mag-ooffer kami ng coffee sa mga residents, ganyan. So yung iba kapag malungkot, habang nagbibigay kami ng coffee, nag-iimbento ako paandar kaya may music na ngayon!

Umaalingawngaw sa buong facility yung music kaya nag-ooffer na rin ako ng may kasamang dance. Naloloka ngayon yung mga seniors. Parang, "Sino siya? Saan siya galing? Bakit ang bubbly niya?" So sinasabi ng mga Pilipino nurses sa kanila, "Artista yan sa bansa namin. Sikat po siya doon. Tapos nagugulat ulit yung mga seniors."

What other activities have you designed for them?

Monthly kasi required ng state na kailangan meron kang event, weekly month or monthly para pang pasaya. So kunwari pag meron kayong event, pwede ka mag costume. Kunwari Halloween, syempre naka costume ako, hindi pwedeng hindi.

Marami naman akong dalang costume kaya bongga na lang din.

We know your adoptive mother sadly passed away during the pandemic. Does working with seniors help with the healing?

Yung mga kakulangan ko sa biological mom ko, na hindi ko talaga siya nakasama kasi ayaw din naman niya magpunta dito inilalabas ko na lang sa mga seniors. Sanay na ako sa gaunun kasi dibe taon-taon for my birthday, naglilingkod ako sa Missionaries of Charity. Aso every birthday ko, pinupuntahan ko talaga yung mga matatanda and kids, pati na rin every Christmas.

Are the majority of the residents at the home you work in white?

Iba-iba rin, marami ring Pilipino. Mga Portuguese, Mexicans, Black. Yung mga Pinoy, nagulat ako na nakilala nila ako. Hindi ko yon inexpect kasi yung iba doon napakatal nag wala sa Pilipinas. Pero siguro, dahil sa GMA Pinoy TV, nakilila pa rin nila ako, and nakaka touch talaga.

How long do you see yourself working as activity director?

Tingin ko forever. Pag umuwi dito sa showbiz, pag nandoon naman activity director and on the side, kaya din.

You know, ilang beses ko talaga tinaggihan tong project na ito. Kasi unang una, paano pag may show ako, parang nakakahiya naman doon sa facility na ako pa ang absent. Ang maganda, yung mga boss ko mababait, pinapayagan din nila akon na pabalik-balik. Nakikita naman kasi nila na super work naman ako when I'm there. Todo talaga na parang yung mga araw na absent ako, nandoon pa rin ang energy ko.