For Alejandro Atienza, more popularly known as Kuya Kim to the Filipino masses (or “madlang people” as he fondly calls them), being on TV was a fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
From being the first male to wear Lycra on national TV, voicing several Japanese anime characters, to finally becoming the face of TV Patrol’s weather report segment, Kuya Kim has successfully made a name for himself beyond the convoluted world of politics he had initially thought was his destiny.
“I like showbiz more,” Kuya Kim declared without hesitation one weekday afternoon as he sat down with The Sunday Times Magazine. He had just arrived at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel from the studios of the popular noontime program, It’s Show Time, and was preparing to be launched as brand ambassador of blood pressure monitor, Omron.
He was understandably late, but as soon as he began to talk about his life, those gathered around him immediately forgot about the wait and was instantly drawn to the man’s stories—like kids gathered around a campfire.
“I’m happy now that I’m where I am because there was a time when I really wanted to be on television. In the late ‘80s and the ’90s kasi, you had to be an Aga Muhlach or a Richard Gomez to be given a break (in showbiz or TV). Hindi naman ako pangit pero hindi rin ako guwapo, but I’m happy with how I became Kuya Kim,” began the storytelling session.
The ultra trim celebrity recalled that he started out as a “fitness guru” on TV. “I was an aerobics instructor in the TV show Muscles in Motion and was the very first male to wear Lycra on national TV! I also joined Super Body of the Philippines in 1990, pero finalist lang ako.”
Kuya Kim also became a voice actor for several children’s shows such as Ultraman, Magmaman, Red Mask and the alternate voice of Steve Armstrong of the Voltes V fame.
But as the eldest son of former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, Kuya Kim seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, and was also serving the city as one of its councilors.
Ironically though, it was through this political motivation that he eventually got his big break on television.
Kuya Kim related, “My dad was mayor of Manila, but it was his third term na, so kailangan na niya ng kapalit. I was being groomed to be his replacement; ako kasi ang panganay na anak. So I thought ‘How do I get elected?’ Hindi naman ako kilala and . . . ano ako, eh, hilaw.”
That was when he decided to approach a few friends in ABS-CBN.
“Sabi ko, ‘Give me a segment. Give me some exposure.’ Kasi like any politician, kailangan mo muna ng exposure para sumikat. My friend, who was with news said ‘Let me suggest your name, there might be something for you in the morning show.’
“My next thought was, ‘What am I going to do?’ My idea was something like the late crocodile hunter Steve Irwin. So ayun naka-sumbrero ako palagi, and I told my friend, ‘Make me the Steve Irwin of the Philippines’.”
His concept was doable since his father, being mayor of Manila City, gave him access to the animals of Manila Zoo.
“Sabi ko, hindi natin ipapakita sa ibang channel yan, atin lang,” Kuya Kim laughed. “I can play with the animals and be like Steve Irwin. Tapos ayun we eventually came up with the segment ‘Animalandia’ for Magandang Umaga, Pilipinas.”
Not long after, the segment became a hit. He soon also received a call from then ABS-CBN News lady boss Maria Ressa who became suspicious over the fact that the new “talent” was doing the show for free.
“Dahil nga may ‘vested interest’ ako, hindi ako nagpapabayad because I just wanted the exposure,” he continued. “Maria met with me and said, ‘Mr. Atienza, you know, I like you. I like what you do—but I know what you’re doing.’
“Siyempre deadma pa ko kunwari so I asked, ‘What, do you mean ma’am?’
“She said, ‘You’re running for politics—you’re running for mayor and you’re using news and current affairs for exposure. I will not allow that. But since I like you, here’s the contract. I’d like you to work for me, and keep on doing what you’re doing, but, you cannot be in politics’.”
From Mayor Kim to Kuya Kim
At that point Kuya Kim realized he had to make a major life-changing decision, so he prayed for a sign.
“By then I was interviewing people na and not just animals,” he quipped. “One day, Winnie Cordero and I were assigned to present an award to the late Ernie Baron.
“Pumunta kami sa bahay ni Ka Ernie—he was still healthy then, pero medyo malabo lang ang mata dahil nagpapatanggal pa ng katarata, so hindi pa siya makapagbasa ng prompter. We were going to give him this Magandang Umaga Bayan Award, and what happened next was a bit eerie.
“Nakaupo si Ka Ernie under a pyramid. [Baron was famous for his energy pyramids]. We were doing our spiels and the camera was rolling. ‘Magandang umaga, bayan, nandito kami sa bahay ni Ka Ernie Baron . . . Ka Ernie Baron, heto pong yung award . . .’
“But Ka Ernie was quiet. This is on film ha; naka-archive sa ABS.
“Ka Ernie called me, ‘Bata, upo ka dito.’ So umupo ako. Again this was all being filmed. And then he said, ‘Bata, ang buhay, may hangganan. Si Ka Ernie Baron, puwede na akong mamatay.’
“Biglang naiyak si Winnie, nag-iiiyak, ‘Kuya Ernie, ano’ng sinasabi mo?’
“So ako naman, kinikilabutan ako. But then he continued, ‘Puwede na akong mamatay. Kasi meron na akong kapalit—ikaw.’
“This was all captured live on TV, the crew was crying, and ang sabi ko, ‘Lord, matindi itong sign na ito’.”
But Kuya Kim still had his doubts, so he asked for another sign.
“Nagpunta ako sa Malate Church, and nagdasal na naman ako. Sabi ko, ‘Lord, ‘Lord, isa
pa, isa pang sign. Medyo malabo pa, pero nakikita ko na’.”
His next “sign” came a month after Ka Ernie’s gave his “anointment.”
On the eve of Kuya Kim’s birthday, January 23, he got a call from Noel Ferrer, the show’s line producer, telling him that Ernie Baron had suffered a heart attack and died.
“My God! He died the day they were preparing for my birthday. A birthday and a death—parang may kapalit. Sabi ko, ‘Lord, yun na yun.’ Ang linaw, ‘no!”
But just as he fully realized his calling, he also knew he had a problem. How would he tell his dad?
At that time, Mayor Atienza had been preparing for Kuya Kim’s campaign and even had his posters out already.
“Pinipinturahan na yung mga pader and kinakampanya na ako nun. How do you say no to three generations of politicians? My lolo [Jose J. Atienza Sr.] was politician, my dad was politician, and I was being groomed as the next politician, as the next mayor.
“Ang hirap ‘nun kasi tatay ko yung tatalikuran ko! Paano ko sasabihin sa kanya ‘Dad hindi ikaw ang papalitan ko, kung di si Ernie Baron’.”
He called for a family dinner hoping to tell his dad about the situation but the former Manila mayor already knew what his son wanted.
Kuya Kim recalled, “Bago pa ako magsalita sabi niya sa akin, ‘Huwag mo nang sabihin. Alam ko na. Ayos na. Masaya ka diyan. When I watch you on TV, I see your happiness.
And sa iyo na ‘yon, OK na ‘yon. Your mom and me, your family, we are so happy for you. We’ll be OK.’
But does it mean he has really left politics for good?
“Absolutely, I’ve cut off my ties with politics,” he replied with finality. “When I signed my contract with ABS-CBN, part of the contract was for me to have a press con and to denounce politics. I have nothing to do with politics anymore.”
How about in the future?
What if a government position were offered?
He explained, “They say showbiz is ma-pulitika, but that’s nothing compared to real politics. In real politics, they like to kill your character or your body. Sa showbiz, intriga lang ‘yan,”
“But as far as personal intrigue, wala. Family man ako and hindi ako takaw sa intriga,” he gave his word. “I’d rather be Kuya Kim than Mayor Kim or Senator Kim. I’m happy being Kuya Kim, Matanglawin.”
Besides the career switch, Kuya Kim is also living a second life of sorts, after making an astounding recovery from a stroke that almost killed him.
“Three years ago, I had a stroke that affected the left frontal lobe of my brain, I almost died. The cause of the stroke was congenital—meaning, I was born with a hole in my heart; and that hole was a symptomatic.”
Ever the walking encyclopedia, he continued, “Did you know most strokes occur in the early morning while we are in the bathroom? Mine was around 8 a.m. and I was preparing for Showtime. I was in the bathroom and all of a sudden, like a switch, my mind just went blank. I lost my memory. I lost my cognition. I lost all sense of where I was and who I am.”
Kuya Kim informed that when a stroke hits the right side of your brain, it debilitates you physically—you get week and black out.
“Kapag sa left frontal lobe naman, that’s part of the brain that’s in charge of cognition, memory, language,” he compared. “I couldn’t speak! I wanted to shout and call for help but I just couldn’t. I knew what to say but I couldn’t say it.
“At first I thought I had been drugged or poisoned. My instinct was to run outside and as far I remember I was running around the house naked and panicking. The next thing I thought was wear pants so I could go outside the house and find help.”
His driver saw him and rushed him to the nearest hospital, the Philippine General Hospital (PGH).
“Naku! Doon ako muntik mamatay!” Kuya Kim exclaimed. “But don’t get me wrong ha, PGH has the best specialists, the best doctors in the Philippines, but, don’t ever go to the emergency room—you would die,” he said candidly.
Thankfully, his driver called his wife Fely who immediately contacted an ambulance that brought Kuya Kim to the Makati Medical Center within two hours.
“I was very lucky because the clot in the left side of my brain burst into seven little pieces so nakaikot ang dugo, otherwise it could have been a massive stroke—I would not have been a ‘vegetable’ but I’d be blank and emotionless.”
It was not just a life-threatening moment, but also another life-changing experience for Kuya Kim.
“It was then that I realized that life is like a switch. In just one click, your life can be taken away from you as simple as that.
“The stroke made me realize that health is wealth talaga. What would I do with family, fame and fortune if I were bedridden or dead? Life is a miracle. Everything else that I have is a bonus.”
After a successful surgery, he was advised by his doctors to monitor his blood pressure, three or four times day. “I know the importance of taking good care of the heart and I know the importance of monitoring blood pressure because at one point, my life was dependent on it.”
“Healthy diet and exercise helped me recover, but more importantly that incident made me appreciate the value of living a healthy life,” Kuya Kim added.
“One of the best advice I received came from Ka Ernie Baron when he told me, ‘Kim mahalin mo ang trabahong minahal ko katulad ng buhay ko.’ The other one I read from a book, and that is, ‘To live in the now, and that is how I am living my life.”
His bucket list includes finishing the Western Australian Ironman in good time; to participate in two of the top marathons in the world, the New York Marathon and Boston Marathon; and do a 10-kilometer swim once in his life.