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Janina Vela: The socio-political trendsetter

By MAE COYIUTO, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 03, 2021 5:00 am

Four days before publishing her “Quick Conversations on Martial Law” video, Janina Vela could already feel the anxiety kicking in.

“I was physically palpitating—my hands were shaking when I was editing,” she recalled. The 12-minute video follows Janina’s conversations with different experts: an economist, lawyer, church worker and psychologist.

Either high school or college students at the time, the interviewees shared what their lives were like surrounding the declaration of martial law 49 years ago. Along from hearing out their stories and input, Janina backs up statements with context and data from sources like World Bank and academic journals.

Knowing the high chances of getting online hate for speaking up on the issue, Janina let her thoughts drift to the worst. Scenarios from getting troll-bombed and reported to being red-tagged were all possibilities.

On the day she posted, Janina had about 400 comments—sweet, supportive messages from her regular followers. The next day, the video escalated to 1,000 comments, now with trolls. The day after that, 3,000. Two months later, it had amassed 17,000 comments with 22,000 down-voting the video. Outside her own channel, dozens of other videos have been calling Janina out for fake news propaganda.

When I asked Janina how she’s coping with the backlash, her smile lit up our Zoom screen. “I was expecting worse!” she said with relief. “I could’ve been in jail. I could’ve been red-tagged. We’re good.”

While reacting to trending topics on Twitter in front of a pastel-colored backdrop, Janina shows that news doesn’t have to be too formal or hard to swallow — that we can talk about pop culture and politics in the same conversation.

Having been a YouTube personality since she was 15, Janina exudes the charm of someone at home in front of the camera. My interview with her managed to do what has been impossible lately—stay 100% engaged through an almost hour-long Zoom call.

We often talk about that certain “it factor” that comes with celebrity. Going through her content, Janina’s magnetic appeal doesn’t seem to come from her symbolizing some unattainable glamour, but more from her making you feel like you’re part of the conversation.

This sense of connection is what inspired her to create in the first place. As an avid YouTube fan, Janina loved watching vloggers, makeup tutorials, and fashion lookbooks. And while she loved videos from Michelle Dy and Say Tioco, she was searching for content from students her age.

“I essentially wanted to see myself on YouTube,” she shared. “I wanted to see representation of black hair, living in a humid climate, with the same skin texture.” When she started vlogging, her dream was to get 5,000 subscribers and a collaboration with SM. She ticked off both goals her first year.

The idea to pivot her channel’s direction came from meeting some of her followers in person. She was at the mall when two girls approached her to say that she inspired them to be confident in their own skin.

“That confused me—I was just doing makeup and fashion tutorials,” Janina said. “Then I thought, what if I took it a step further?” From makeup tutorials, Janina started making content about inner beauty and confidence. With her lifestyle videos, Janina inserted spaces to talk about mental health. And in recent years, the evolution of her channel took a shift towards the political.

One of the things that has intrigued me the most about Janina is her choice to take up political science in Ateneo. For someone who has been immersed in the creative world (and has found much success) her whole life—why political science?

“Funnily enough, I wasn’t even supposed to go to college,” Janina said, noting that getting accepted into Ateneo was the biggest shock of her life. “I thought the creative realm was it for me and I was taking up film in senior high.”

Things took a turn for Janina when she decided to take a hiatus between Grade 11 and 12. “I was not the healthiest, emotionally. I needed that break because I had nothing else to go on with,” Janina said. “Growing up in a supportive family, I had no idea I had to be insecure about certain things. With some bashers that would point out my flaws and make comments about my personal life… The world did not shy away from showing me that I did.”

During this time off, Janina ended up reading Ambeth Ocampo’s Meaning and History and The Dictator’s Handbook. These books became the spark for her political awakening. “They taught me that politics was a game that leaders play, and I wanted to learn the rules so that the people could win,” she said. “It wasn’t even me trying to be a politician or a good influencer, it was just a Filipino who wanted more for the Philippines.”

Janina then returned to YouTube and once again stretched the scope of her content. While still covering fashion and inner beauty, Janina uploaded videos that broke down subjects like the ABS-CBN shutdown, the Anti-Terror Bill, the country’s ongoing pandemic response. Her “Trendsetter” video series was her response to assumptions that the news was too hard to process.

While reacting to trending topics on Twitter (in front of a pastel-colored backdrop that’s as warm and aesthetically pleasing as Lara Jean’s), Janina shows that news doesn’t have to be too formal or hard to swallow—that we can talk about pop culture and politics in the same conversation.

It’s odd to call a 22-year-old a veteran at anything, but that’s what Janina is when it comes to having an online platform. So after doing this for a long time—baring her soul to the online world’s scrutiny and criticism—does it get easier?

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The advice Janina often got was to not mind the haters. She was told to shake them off, that they didn’t matter. “It’s a great piece of advice, but it  never worked on me,” she said, laughing. “Imagine mo lang you’re in school and you hear people backstabbing you. Of course, you’d want to hear what they’re saying! With YouTube, that’s magnified to thousands of people.”

But going for something easy has never been a motivator for Janina. With every video she creates and posts, she knows that very few people get to speak to strangers all over the country in such an intimate setting. “You have people’s undivided attention for seven to 12 minutes. If you have that awareness that they’re listening to you, what do you want to say?”

There’s nothing more on-brand than Janina contradicting expectations. With the evolution of her content, she proves that people aren’t one-note—that we can discover multiple dimensions of ourselves over the years. That you can care about politics and keeping your eyeliner straight. That you can still face anxiety and self-doubt, but still choose to speak up about the systemic injustice you see happening.

I mean, can you expect anything less from a trendsetter?