Jannelle So was as vibrant as the famed California sunshine when she walked into a famous Downtown Los Angeles bakery for this interview. She apologized it took her a little longer than expected to find the place, not to mention a parking space. Still familiar to Filipinos for sure, So was the face of courtside reporting for Philippine Basketball back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and believe it or not, still looks the same if not younger.
It can be recalled that So moved on to bigger sports coverage following her stint from the hard court, which included assignments at the 1997 ASEAN Informal Summit in Malaysia, the Asian Games in Bangkok and Korea, the Centennial Celebrations in the Philippines, and even the 1998 Philippine Presidential Elections. She also had the privilege to cover the career of People’s Champ and now Senator Manny Pacquaio whom she counts as one of her most memorable subjects in her journalistic career.
Jannelle So, who graduated Cum Laude from Miriam College, pursued a degree in Communication Arts because she wanted to go into advertising.
She remembered, “In college I had several internships, including one for McCann Erickson and several TV stations, and from there I realized that I liked the production and TV route more than the advertising route.”
As luck would have it, So was offered to be a segment host for a public affairs show for then President Fidel Ramos in her junior year of college. It was soon followed by an opportunity to work with Anthony Suntay for Vintage Television, which was originally the go-to channel for sports in the Philippines. From there, there was no stopping Jannelle So whose name became more and more famous as a sportscaster.
She was at the prime of her career when her family decided to move to the United States in 2000. Her mother’s petition was approved and decisions had to be made rather quickly.
“My brother was immediately sent to study at the University of Southern California, but after a year, he didn’t want to be alone anymore so my mom sent my younger sister to be with him. I, on the other hand, didn’t make the cut-off age [of inclusion in my mom’s immigration status]so I stayed in Manila,” So recounted.
Another year later, both her siblings felt so homesick that their parents were forced to sell their ready-to-wear business and move to the States permanently as well.
So was left all by herself in Manila, determined as ever to pursue her career.
“That is until my dad persisted in making me feel guilty [about being away from them],” she giggled. “But what finally convinced me to go follow them was when my dad told me, ‘You can’t say you don’t like it unless you’ve tried’.”
And so rather reluctantly, So put on hold her thriving career to complete a certificate course in Journalism from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
As one can imagine, the transition in living a “regular life” in the States when she had led a hectic schedule for the longest time in the Philippines. Since she was on student visa, So could not work outside the campus, and found herself spending the first nine months in her new home sulking.
“I would wake up at 9 am and my classes were at night so in between I wasn’t really doing anything. I sulked the whole day and during the drive to UCLA, I would blame my dad for ‘encouraging’ me to leave the life I knew behind,” she admitted.
All the same, So who is definitely not a quitter, completed the course and quickly returned to the Philippines.
“My parents thought I wouldn’t come back [to the States]anymore because I extended my trip to Manila. They were happy when I finally returned because sayang naman yung opportunity to get a year of professional training here. I was allowed to work for a year and I thought it would be nice to get American workplace experience.”
Happily, So managed to find a way back to her first love: journalism. She pursued a career with ABS-CBN’s The Filipino Channel (TFC) and somehow felt she had the best of both worlds.
“During my year of practical training as they called it, I was also freelancing for TFC as their Los Angeles correspondent,” she related. This period is what she would later call her baptism of fire because despite her years of broadcast experience in the Philippines, she faced an entirely different ballgame stateside.
“It was so tough! In Manila, you’re so spoiled. You always have a team with you and on most days, you just show up. As a correspondent in LA, I was thrust into real journalism. I was researching my own stories, securing permits, conducting my interviews, transcribing the notes, reviewing the footage, editing the video during a time na hindi pa advanced ang computer. I also had to write my own script, do my own voice over and everything else.”
In a sense, So had to be a one-woman team but in the end, she realized her training prepared her for her life’s next big development.
Grateful that a newspaper company sponsored her working visa, So who was initially hired to do sales, volunteered to contribute stories and got her byline.
One day, she heard that Channel LA18—the Asian American Channel—was holding auditions for a new host of a Filipino show, “Kababayan TV.” It goes without saying that she landed the job, which propelled her into the consciousness of Filipino-Americans in Los Angeles.
An expert on screen, and with production experience to boot at that time, So even took charge of marketing the program for advertisements. She thrived in Kababayan TV over the next seven years, delivering inspiring news about Fil-Americans, snagging prestigious awards along the way from including the New America Media Award for Outstanding Community Reporting for Television.
Without a doubt, So was making waves abroad and while she was initially reluctant to leave her thriving career in the Philippines, she now has no regrets.
“When you risk small, you win small. It’s small and manageable but you don’t benefit too much from it. However when you risk big there’s a bigger chance of winning big and that’s how I define what I did,” she enthused.
She also believes it was worth to exchange her career in the Philippines to be with her family—what she considers as life’s most important thing.
“I talk to my parents four, five times a day and I really think that when you’re with family, you can’t go wrong because they guide you and help you.”
Admittedly, moving to a new country is difficult, but for So, having a good foundation and being anchored on that always helps in achieving success.
“It’s so easy to get lost but if you remain anchored, for me it was my family and my faith, you will remain steadfast, even if you are swayed by others.”
Filipinos in the US
Her experience as a Fil-American journalist enabled So to encounter stories of Filipinos living in a foreign land. Some touched her, some made her proud, but she came to one realization.
“America is not for everyone,” she declared. “You can have a dream but you have to keep on working on that dream, and not too many people are willing to do that.”
She went on to say that most Filipinos fail in the United States because they allow who they were in the Philippines to define them in the new land.
“Especially those with stature in the Philippines, they won’t want to start from scratch. But that won’t work here in the States. You’ve got to swallow your pride.”
So affirmed a truth she had long carried out in life, as evidenced by her many successes.
“Moving anywhere and leaving your comfort zone takes grit and determination. The challenges you face at the beginning builds your character. For me, wala na talaga akong babalikan sa Pilipinas, so I did everything I can to make it work here.”
On the flip side, she proposed, “The good thing about America is that if you are willing to work hard, you can live comfortably. You don’t have to be this big fish in a small pond na kailangan you have to know everyone to succeed. You don’t need that here, you just need a certain toughness and resilience.”
Despite her success, So has also found peace in LA, “I find peace in doing the ordinary, like here, even Hollywood stars do their own household work. I have also learned here that what you do as a job doesn’t define who you are.”
Being Mrs. Perkins
More than finding success in her job, it was also Los Angeles that brought So her life’s greatest joys: her husband Lester Perkins, and her 20-month-old daughter, Lily Jade. She wed Perkins, a creative director for CBS company, in 2014 and gave birth to their daughter in 2015.
Today, So is gripped with a brand new purpose. “I love being a mom. I’ve always had an idea of what it was like to become a mom and it’s all I imagined it to be and more. It’s difficult but it is also very rewarding. At 20 months, my daughter’s personality is coming out and it’s so cute.”
So now schedules her days around Lily Jade, and while she enjoyed her time on red carpets, she is quick to say she no longer wants to be there.
“Before I was always hustling but now there’s this little life that depends on you. To your child, you are the world and that is more than enough for me. You know we all want to make a difference in the world and when you become a mom, you are instantly making a difference in this person’s life because this baby will grow and that will be your legacy.”
But of course So’s first love never truly went away that despite taking a hiatus from 2014 to mid-2017, she has taken on a new project.
“God has a plan talaga. This has been in my heart since the end of 2014 but plans kept falling through, and I realized that in the middle of my once hectic life, I asked God for a break to be a wife and mom. So I relished in the answered prayer and enjoyed the moment until the right time came.”
So was talking about her show, which now airs over Lifestyle Network and The Filipino Channel. The program stemmed from her vision to elevate Filipino-American production.
“I want to show people that it can be done. One of my biggest frustrations in my former job was that I knew we were getting advertising money but it wasn’t being reinvested into making the show better. So people were not motivated and the equipment was old. I kept fighting for things but you can’t really get what you want by asking it from other people—you have to create it. If you want something done, do it yourself. Don’t expect other people to easily hand it to you.”
During her almost three-year break, So went back to what mattered the most: good conversations and good interviews. She sought them and did them, and her features continue to air on “So Janelle.”
Asked what advice she has for those like her who have had to make tough decisions and new beginnings, So replied, “I’ve always said, stay for a year because so many things can happen in a year—and that’s still my advice. Don’t give up and prepare yourself, be willing to work, don’t be afraid to start from scratch and throw out your ego.”
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