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Ylona Garcia on Her US Career, Being “Underrated,” And Choosing Adobo Over Ty Dolla $ign

Ylona Garcia
James Francisco

Ylona Garcia is well aware of what her fans have been saying since she moved her music career to the United States—“underrated,” “finally getting her due,” “she’s gonna be big.”

“Are you sure? Are you sure they’re talking about me?” gushes Ylo to Complex Philippines. Fandoms and hyperbole go hand in hand, but the hype this time isn’t unfounded. 

Music videos for “Entertain Me,” “Vibin,” and “Don’t Go Changing” each have millions of views, even more on streaming platforms. She’s partnered with Valorant, sang the “Lupang Hinirang” at an LA Dodgers game, and performed at festivals around the country. All this, and more, is shared with her 7 million followers on social media.

Ylo has clearly done well for herself, especially for an artist who wants to leave a mark in a place where “everybody’s just doing their best to survive.” But even with her win streak, the 21-year-old rarely celebrated in our conversation, as if there was still a nagging, missing element behind the milestones.

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Ylona Garcia – Complex Philippines

“I’d like to be more authentic to who I am,” shares Ylo. She painted a picture far too common with people pleasers: doing what everyone thought was best for her, instead of following her gut. With the new culture and a whirlwind of producers, collaborators, and time zones (“I feel like I just time-jumped”), no one can blame her for letting others take the lead.

But that was Ylona Garcia in the past. The present-day version is more self-assured, which she credits to a good support system and self-discovery shaped by trials and tribulations. The journey is something she hopes to capture in an upcoming EP, which teases as more personal than her previous outings.

“It’s me acknowledging the things that I never had the courage to talk about,” she shares. “Everybody can look forward to someone who is still extremely stubborn to dream.”

During her brief return to the Philippines, Ylona Garcia caught up with Complex PH to talk about her move to the US, working in fast food despite her 7 million followers, missing out on Ty Dolla $ign thanks to Chicken Adobo, and more.

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Ylona Garcia – Complex Philippines

How’s the showbiz life in the US? Was there a culture shock?

Yes, there was. For me, the culture shock was how people treated each other. I feel like in the Philippines, everybody kind of treats each other like family, and in the States (and this is just from my experience), it feels like everybody is just doing their best to survive.

You made a buzz when you moved overseas. I remember the headlines of you in a McDonald’s uniform.

Yes, it was during the lockdown that I moved back to Australia and got a job at McDonald's.

Did anyone recognize you at work?

Yes, there was quite a lot. So my coworkers at McDonald's had actually searched me up before my first day. By the time I got on my first shift, everyone looked at me like there was something on my face the entire time (*laughs*). 

When I asked if there was, they said that they were surprised that I decided to apply for a job at McDonald’s.

Because you have 4 million followers on Instagram, they were probably like “Why are you here?”

They were. And I was like, why not though? Why can’t you work at McDonald’s? I love the food and I get it for free. How does that not automatically make you want to get that job? I was also learning about business at a college I was studying at in Australia and I was always fascinated by the business of  McDonald’s in particular.

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Ylona Garcia – Complex Philippines

So how’d you go from fast food to a career in the US?

Pursuing a career in the U.S. had always been my goal. I’d been continuously working on music, and when the timing was right and I got my visa, I had to, unfortunately, resign from McDonald's so I could move to the States.

What's the mentality behind saying “Fuck it, I'm going to try my hand in a completely different country.”

Exactly that, because if it's your dream, why shouldn't you go for it?

If I'm just going by your Instagram feed, I’d say it’s been no misses, all hits so far. It’s one milestone after another.

No, no, no, no, let’s backtrack real quick. I am just as human as everybody else and I have probably made more mistakes than most, but I do my best to make up for it and learn from it too.

What don’t people see on Instagram?

I guess what people don't see are the full amount of hours I spend in the studio, trying to work on myself, not just as an artist, but also as a human being. Of course, people don't get to see me sleep like back in the Big Brother days, that’s for sure.

Speaking of Big Brother, celebrities are usually 50/50 talking about their past work. Some cringe, some see it as a foundation. How about you?

Big Brother was wild because when they introduced me as a housemate, I had a mask on and I didn’t know where I was. All I knew was that there were a lot of people whispering, and I was like “Where am I, what am I doing, who am I?”

The next thing I heard was Robi Domingo and James Reid as the hosts saying, “Introducing our next housemate, Ylona Garcia!” and then they took my mask off. It was my first-ever TV show and it was wild.

I quite enjoy the questions about the past because it reminds me where I started. I think it’s incredible that people remember that [phase] and that they’re still following my journey now. I do cringe about my journey every now and then though, I’ll give you that. I’m like “Wow, I thought that was cool to wear or say.” But it’s a foundation for who I am now.

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Ylona Garcia – Complex Philippines

Is there a specific artist you’d like to work with in the US?

The first one that comes to mind is definitely Ty Dolla $ign. Here's the thing though: If they don't want to work with me, that's fine. If you can give me like 30 minutes of your time to just let me learn from you, that’d be great. 

I can be a fly on the wall at the studio or at your concert. All I’m asking for is 30 minutes to learn from you as an artist.

Who’s the artist you’ve met that blew your mind?

Okay, so this story is more like a missed opportunity. So I was at a birthday party of my friend who works at a radio station. Ty Dolla $ign was there and I completely missed him. I was too distracted with Chicken Adobo. It was so good. See, my favorite thing about being Filipino is the food, but it’s also my weakness. 

I’ve also missed out on Josh Levi. He was at a release party and every time I would go up to this man, he always seemed to be missing. It happened throughout the party. It was crazy.

I wanted to tell him how much of a fan I am of his music. I heard he’s also a Batman fan.

Ben Affleck is the best Batman by the way.

I don’t know about that one. I think Christian Bale really captured the essence of Batman and Bruce Wayne.

Hold up, who is the best Joker?

Heath Ledger, definitely, or did you want me to say Jared Leto?

Did you want to say Jared Leto?

Your fans repeatedly echo the sentiment that you’re finally getting your due in the US. What’s your reply to that?

I think my fans should be writers. They are, honest to God, better writers than I am. The way that they find different ways to say the same things is insane. They always seem to top the last thing that they said, and I'm just like, “Wow.” Maybe you guys should be the artist and I'll be your fan.

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Ylona Garcia – Complex Philippines

We’ve talked about Ylona Garcia the artist. Where else will we see you in the future?

I’m enjoying the gaming space quite a lot. Gaming has always been a bonding space between me and my siblings.

I’m so grateful for the first experience I had playing Valorant alongside Fuslie and the other players. Everyone was super nice and her community on YouTube was incredibly nice. They were poking fun quite a lot and providing me with tips. I’m hoping there’s more of that.

Other spaces I would love to dive into would be film. I’m not sure though if I’d be an actor, but I would love to learn more about making a film behind the scenes.

I didn’t realize this before until my friends pointed it out, but I would watch films in three different ways: first as a casual viewer of whatever the movie has to offer, second from an actor-to-actor standpoint because of my experience on television and numerous acting workshops, and the third through the cinematography and falling in love with how they decided to piece everything together.

I find film really interesting and how they score it as well. It’s just beautiful.

Photography: Wilmark Jolindon
Art Direction: Alexandra Lara and James Francisco
Interview and Story: Gelo Lasin and Xavier Bautista
Hair: Nadynne Esguerra
Styling: Bryan Laroza 

Location: Bulb Studios

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