What the hell is Manny doing now?
For anyone who has followed Manny Pacquiao's career — especially since 2008, when he has won title fights in five different weight classes and made the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes — it's a question you've asked yourself many times. You might be flipping through channels and stumble into the Filipino champ crooning a semi-competent version of "Nothing's Gonna Change My Love for You" on Jimmy Kimmel Live; or someone might forward you a clip of Pacquiao holding a grip of celery, urging you to taste "pound-for-pound the best produce in the world"; or maybe you've glanced at a newspaper to see that he was elected to the Philippine House of Representatives.
Pacquiao's adventures in politics and entertainment tend to be equal parts goofy, charming, and inspiring. Even his political career is treated mostly as a novelty by the Western media, while many in the Philippines view Pacquiao the statesman as basically (hopefully) harmless.1 But over the past few months, I've become obsessed with following the fighting congressman for Sarangani Province's latest side project, a weekly variety show on Philippine network television called Manny Many Prizes. It's so monstrous that I haven't missed an episode since September.
Manny Many Prizes is founded on a profoundly cynical premise: The show's producers and hosts provide generous cash prizes and some spectacle for the studio and television audiences, who, in turn, reward Manny, his co-hosts, and the network with fame, ratings, and (for Pacquiao, at least) electoral loyalty. As the show's host, Pacquiao presides over this two-hour cyclone of flashing lights, sound effects, and confetti along with a phalanx of co-hosts2 and a bevy of female backup dancers whose outfits would make some of the working girls in Manila's red light district look conservative.
Manny Many Prizes typically begins with a musical or dance number, along with a couple celebrity guest appearances. The visiting artistas typically hail from Philippine showbiz, but last September Pacquiao and the GMA network also managed to land American Idol contestants Scotty McCreery, Thia Megia, Pia Toscano, and Stefano Langone. From there, Pacquiao starts handing out peso bills like they're Monopoly money. The first game, "Boksing Along," is a karaoke contest between singers chosen from the studio audience. All of them receive at least 5,000 pesos ($116) for performing, while Manny's favorite receives an extra 10,000. While the contestants belt out Beyoncé hits and Tagalog slow jams, cameras pan the crowd, which tends to be filled with working- and lower-class Manilenos who waited long hours for a chance to have Manny press a wad of cash into their hands. The cameras stop to focus on older women with glazed, happy looks on their faces and clapping men who more often than not are missing a few teeth. Another game, "Easy Manny" (sounds like "money"!), brings a dozen or so people from the crowd to answer trivia questions. Each correct answer earns cash, and the person who gets the most correct answers earns a chance to win 1 million pesos (more than $23,000) in the jackpot round at show's end. One recent "Easy Manny" question required contestants to complete a bilingual analogy: If "sore eyes"3 is to mata, the Tagalog word for "eyes," and "gingivitis" is to gilagid, the word for "gums," then "goiter" is to what? I don't think I've ever seen someone jump up and down in delight over goiter trivia, so thank you, Manny Many Prizes, for taking me there.
The most unfortunately named segment is "PacquiaOne, PacquaioWin," a play on the words pakyawan and pakyawin, which mean, essentially, to buy something wholesale. During this part of the show, Pacquiao's cohosts visit a local market to find three lucky vendors of clothes hangers, coconut juice, ladies' undergarments, or pretty much anything else that can be found in a typical Philippine outdoor market. They buy out the merchants' entire stock for the day and invite them to join the fun at Manny Many Prizes. This certainly helps the chosen salespeople, but it's also surprising that Pacquiao, who operates in a political system where vote-buying is rampant, would embrace so wholeheartedly this similarity between his last name and a word that connotes monopolizing or cornering a market to max out one's profits.
Shows like Manny Many Prizes are anything but strange for Philippine television. Eat Bulaga, one of the most successful programs in the country, has been on the air, in various forms, since 1979, and it relies on a similar mix of spectacle, humor, and handouts as Pacquiao's show. There is no true American analogue for these shows, but the closest comparison might be a blend of The Price Is Right and Maury. Willie Revillame, one of the country's wealthiest and most popular celebrities, is the king of this form of entertainment. Since 2005 Revillame has hosted three of them — Wowowee, Willing Willie, and Wil Time Big Time — on two different networks. If anything, Pacquiao's show seems tame compared to its more exploitative predecessors. Revillame's shows are known for having a far heftier freak-show quotient — Wowowee infamously featured a troupe of carolers with cleft palates — and a tendency to dredge up uncomfortably lurid details during interviews with the show's poor contestants. I'll never forget the afternoon, back when I lived in Manila, when I watched a young girl tell Revillame that she hoped her father wouldn't come home drunk that night. Manny Many Prizes, from what I've seen, doesn't go this far. It just invites the poor onstage to sing and dance, answer some questions, and walk away a few hundred dollars richer.
Then again, Pacquiao definitely lacks the smooth bedside manner that Revillame and other hosts possess. Watching Pacquiao nudge a microphone repeatedly into the face of a sixtysomething woman who can't speak because she's either too shy or too overwhelmed with emotion to thank Manny for giving her 20,000 pesos makes me feel nearly as queasy as watching Revillame host a "Miss Gay" pageant.
In the sense that you can't take your eyes off them, these shows are good television. I've given at least a couple hundred hours of my life to them, often out of morbid curiosity to see how low they'll sink, but also because I find it difficult to avoid being swept away by the riptide of games, jokes, flesh, and humanity they put onscreen. In writing this, I don't mean to ask why such crass entertainment exists — it's entertaining — but why Manny Pacquiao, one of the world's greatest sporting treasures, a beloved national icon and politician who wants to help millions of his countrymen lift themselves out of poverty, would willingly align himself with this sordid lot.
Revillame, for all his fame and charm, may be one of the Philippines' most reviled public figures. Last year, when a YouTube video of a boy performing a striptease-like dance while crying on Revillame's show went viral, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights accused the show of committing child abuse. One of the Philippines' most prominent newspaper columnists, Conrado de Quiros, has called Revillame a "monster" and condemned the show for milking its guests of "every tearful detail of their miserable lives" and making them "look as though they are the luckiest people in the world to have been the object of the show's beneficence."
So again, what in the world could convince Manny Pacquiao that hosting a variety show in the same family as Revillame's would be good for his career or, for that matter, his people?4 The answer is something dark, elemental, and ultimately, well, simple. It's about money and power.
One of Pacquiao's more badass nicknames is pambansang kamao, the National Fist. During the opening number of a recent Manny Many Prizes episode, the actress Rufa Mae Quinto introduced Pacquiao as the Philippines' "pambansang ninong." This means National Godfather, and since Manny Many Prizes debuted last July, Pacquiao has been trying to rebrand himself as such.
When children are baptized in the Philippines, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, their parents choose several godparents — ninongs and ninangs — who are often close friends or family members of the couple. The godparents attend the baptism, give gifts to the family, and hopefully form an intimate and lifelong bond with the child. By calling himself the National Godfather, Pacquiao is suggesting, without much subtlety, that Filipinos should consider him one of the most important people in their lives — someone they can count on to always help them. And if that interpretation sounds grandiose and overboard to you, here are some of the first words Pacquiao shouted to the national TV audience after Quinto's introduction: "I'm here to make you all happy and give you hope."
The truth, of course, is that Manny Pacquiao the boxer has already done more to uplift his nation than he may ever be able to do in government. There's no way to measure or overstate the pride that surges through the Philippines after Pacquiao wins a fight. The day after Pacquiao beat Erik Morales for the first time, I remember going to shoot around at a nearby municipal basketball court. Around 9 a.m., everyone working in the town hall filed out of the front door and lined up next to the court. Someone with a loudspeaker asked me to stop playing and stand in line. I did, and held the ball against my hip with one hand over my heart as the woman with the bullhorn read a short prayer thanking God and Manny Pacquiao for the victory.
On Manny Many Prizes, when Pacquiao invites a needy family onstage, provides the children with scholarships, and gives their grandmother 20,000 pesos to start a small business selling groceries out of their home, he's definitely doing something noble for that family. He gives out hundreds of thousands of pesos each week. Some of the money comes from sponsors and some, Pacquiao says, comes from his own savings. But Filipinos have seen other hosts give away mountains of pesos, houses and lots, and small-business grants. They've seen it on Eat Bulaga, they've seen it on Revillame's shows, and they've seen it every time an election rolls around, when politicians walk door-to-door through poor neighborhoods, dropping off sacks of rice or just straight cash.
People accept the gifts because they can use the bump, and of course they feel gratitude toward their benefactors, but these moments, whether they're captured by a studio camera on the set of Manny Many Prizes or by a news camera on the campaign trail, feel more transactional than transformative. As long as Pacquiao continues to fight, he'll mean more to the country as a symbol of Filipino achievement than as the pambansang ninong.
That's the problem with Manny Many Prizes — it reeks of politics. Pacquiao has stated his intention to fight two or three more times and hopefully end his career by defeating Floyd Mayweather Jr. His second career will be in politics, and the show will allow him to keep his name in the public consciousness and promote the image of Pacquiao as the country's generous godfather. Pacquiao plans to run for governor of Sarangani Province, the district he currently represents in Congress, in 2013 or 2016. In 2022, he's angling for the Vice Presidency, although by then he'll be 42, old enough to run for President. Pacquiao also has spoken passionately about his desire to be different from the traditional Filipino politician, who distributes gifts and jobs to loyal followers but mostly uses the machinery of the state for self-enrichment. Pacquiao says he will be the politician whom people can trust and rely on — their ninong — and I want to believe him.
But every time I watch the old-school patronage on display in Manny Many Prizes, it gets a little harder to put my trust in Pacquiao's inherent goodness. It's as if Pacquiao thinks the best way to alleviate the economic hardship that blankets whole Philippine provinces is to buy stuff for people — a jeepney to start a transportation business, a house of one's own, a community health center. These all make a difference, but Pacquiao would need to fight Mayweather something like 500 times to earn enough money to "PacquiaOne, PacquiaoWin" the country out of poverty.
Instead, the country's systemic challenges require policy solutions, and so far in his lawmaking career, Pacquiao has had little impact in that realm. Last year, he was in the headlines for being one of the congressmen who missed the most sessions, although few people held it against him, since Pacquiao's absences were related to training for his fights. He did speak out on one major issue, a reproductive health bill that has been held up in the Philippine legislature for years. The bill would guarantee access to information about birth control and family planning, as well as access to contraceptives, and its passage would probably do more to alleviate poverty in the country than a 30-year run of Manny Many Prizes. The Catholic Church opposes the bill, and so does Congressman Pacquiao, a devout Catholic. If Pacquiao had merely refused to support the bill due to his religious convictions, that wouldn't have stirred much controversy. But instead, he chided couples who used contraception and encouraged them to employ "discipline," like he and his wife Jinkee did. Soon after Pacquiao came out against the RH bill, it was revealed that Jinkee had been taking birth control pills since the birth of their fourth, and youngest, child.
Pacquiao's political aspirations and career trajectory lead to one frightening question: If he retires sometime in the next two years, how will he maintain his income? Pacquiao's generosity is as legendary as the straight left he's used to knock out so many opponents, and he'll need to keep raising money to keep up the image and the responsibilities of the pambansang ninong. Here's a conservative account of his expenses, from Gary Andrew Poole's 2010 Pacquiao biography, PacMan:
His trio of American co-managers receives 20 percent of his purse, while Freddie Roach earns 10 percent. A chunk also goes to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for taxes, and another chunk is for promotional fees at Top Rank. Pacquiao spends hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money for tickets. He has to maintain a fleet of vehicles, a handful of condos, apartments, and houses, and pay the freeloaders, and give his money to the poor. Pacquiao's spending habits, it is argued, have been good for Top Rank because Pacquiao must continue boxing to earn even more money.
If Pacquiao isn't raking in a $20 to $30 million purse twice a year, where will the money to wage electoral campaigns in 2016 and 2022 come from? The traditional Filipino politician would spend the time between elections using the power of his office — often in less-than-ethical ways — to raise funds for his next campaign. Pacquiao's boxing income has helped him maintain a clean reputation through his first two years in office, because he doesn't need to divert government funds to side businesses or accept kickbacks from illegal lottery syndicates. Beyond that, I believe the hype about Pacquiao's desire to be an honest politician and serve his country. But there will come a time when the boxing money faucet stops pouring, and all the hundreds — if not thousands — of people who look to Manny Pacquiao for their livelihoods will pressure him to find a way to keep the train moving, to keep giving out Manny's many prizes. Great men, compassionate men — national heroes like Manny Pacquiao — have faltered under that kind of stress.
The godfather Manny Pacquiao wishes to portray on Manny Many Prizes is a kind and beneficent ninong who helps his people. But there is another, less uplifting version of the ninong-godchild relationship in the Philippines, and sometimes I wonder if it isn't a better fit for Pacquiao. It's not uncommon for children to have 15 or more godparents, and a baby's biological parents will often invite a city councilman, mayor, or even congressman to become one of their child's ninong. They aren't expecting a lifelong bond, just an envelope stuffed with cash — in many cases, the politician doesn't even attend the baptism and just sends a proxy to deliver his kind wishes and some money. When contestants on Manny Many Prizes queue up and Pacquiao walks down the line pressing bundles of peso bills into each person's hand, are they thinking of Pacquiao as the kind of ninong who will always be there for them, or the kind who shows up at the baptism, drops an envelope, and scoots off to another engagement?
As a Pacquiao fan and a man who has come to think of the Philippines as his second home, that's a question I'm willing to ask, but one that I don't think I'm ready to answer.