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EXCLUSIVE: Meet Star Magic's New "Squad Plus" Artists (Part 1)

Get to know Sam Cruz, KD Estrada, Keann Johnson, Angela Ken, Angelica Lao, Danica Ontengco, and Jimuel Pacquiao better in these exclusive interviews

The achievements of the Gold Squad from Kadenang Ginto have been nothing short of amazing. The popular group and fan fave is composed of Andrea Brillantes, Francine Diaz, Seth Fedelin, and Kyle Echarri. After impressing with their individual portrayals and chemistry as a team in the top-rated series, these four young stars proved to be worthy of all the praises, love, and support they have been getting.

As they move on to their next project, the upcoming series Huwag Kang Mangamba, a new group was formed with up-and-coming talents who could follow in the footsteps of the original Gold Squad members.

Recently, the members of the “Squad Plus”—Sam Cruz, KD Estrada, Keann Johnson, Angela Ken, Angelica Lao, Danica Ontengco, Jimuel Pacquiao, Raven Rigor, Renshi de Guzman, Anji Salvacion, Analain Salvador, Ashton Salvador, and Nio Tria—were launched as Star Magic artists through a contract signing event dubbed as Star Magic Plus. The 13 artists who were introduced not only have the looks and the talents of a star in-the-making, they also have the personality and charm that are likely to earn them legions of adoring fans.

During their virtual launch, Star Magic head Direk Lauren Dyogi told them, “This is a responsibility. Yes, we want you to enjoy; we want you to enjoy your youth and to enjoy the industry, but be responsible… Responsibility to our audience—’di lang pasayahin sila but you should be good role models.”

Meet the newly-launched artists who make up the Squad Plus in these Metro.Style exclusive shoots and interviews: 

Sam Cruz

Without a doubt, Sam is a star in the making. Her sunny, bubbly personality lights up a room and her enthusiasm is contagious. But more than that, she is both beautiful and talented.

Excited and grateful, she narrates how she learned she was chosen to be a part of the Squad Plus, “My mom, she actually just talked to me about it. She was like, ‘Hey, they want to get you for Squad Plus.’ And I’ve already always known the Gold Squad from Kadenang Ginto, and was super excited actually because it’s a great opportunity to grow and to finally follow in my mom’s footsteps.”

As the daughter of well-known actors Sunshine Cruz and Cesar Montano, she admits she is feeling some pressure as she enters the industry. She imparts that talking to her mom about it helps in boosting her confidence. “I handle it just by talking to my mom and her advice, the advice she gives me, it really, it takes away the pressure po. And just knowing that even if it could be scary at times, I will be growing, and I will be learning new things on the way.”

At 16 years old, Sam already has a lot on her plate. Soon, she will release her first single with Universal Records Philippines titled Train of Thought. She is also now in grade 10 in De La Salle Zobel, balancing her school work with current projects including mini series Unloving U and Sunday performances on ASAP Natin ’To.

Sam has always been passionate about music. “I was super young, and we had to learn this Italian song and my parents were actually very excited about it, because that’s when they found out that I actually had a voice, and it’s on tune, and we figured out that I could actually sing in the future and actually pursue that talent of mine.”

She also shares her love for acting as well as some lessons she learned from her Star Magic training that she now applies: “You really have to understand the story. You just can’t memorize the lines and the scene itself, but you have to know the overall story and once you get the objective, for example, the scene’s objective, what the scene is showing to other people, the audience. Once you understand the story fully, it’s gonna be easier.”

Sam’s love for the arts extends to writing, noting English as one of her favorite subjects, and points out her interest in writing poems, stories, papers for school, and even songs.

She’s the type who’s always eager to be productive, and quarantine helped her discover new things like baking and cooking. When everything is back to normal, though, she wants to travel to Tokyo, Japan and Europe.

Sam is such an optimistic soul, and we definitely look forward to seeing her career blossom and grow.—Angelica Tordesillas

KD Estrada

His musical prowess is what he hopes would take him far. Listen to KD’s smooth rendition of his song “Saves It,” and it’s easy to see his huge potential to succeed.

KD started learning guitar when he was 13 and eventually expanded his music skills by learning the songs he knew and singing them. He says, “I started singing whatever song I knew and it turns out my voice was okay, and I just developed it overtime po.”

Currently, he performs on ASAP Natin ’To with other members of Squad Plus, covering OPM songs, among others. Of course, like any artist, he has his inspirations. His musical influences include Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars. “Favorites ko ’pag local, I’d say Ben&Ben, si Arthur Nery, actually si Inigo Pascual din po eh,” he adds.

Like his Squad Plus colleagues, KD is very excited to be a part of the newly-formed group: “I was very nervous and excited at the same time. Because ’yung mga katrabaho ko ngayon nakikita ko lang sa phone, phone ko lang. Getting to work with them is great.” He added that the training that they are going through for dancing and acting has helped a lot with boosting his confidence.

Aside from his passion in music, KD has an entrepreneurial spirit too, and expresses wanting to take up a business course in college.

For now, while most people are still under quarantine in their own homes, KD is making the most of this time by doing things that put a smile on his face. “Most of my time I am just posting on my social media. TikTok. I’ve been starting to learn the piano, self-taught lang po and just collecting vintage sweaters.”

Once the pandemic is over, he shares that he wants to travel to France, to experience French cuisine and visit its famous tourist spots.

KD has big dreams in and out of showbiz, and he cannot wait to witness them unfold one by one. We will be watching him grow on-screen as well.Angelica Tordesillas

Keann Johnson
Keann Johnson | Photo

Keann Johnson

At last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival, an up-and-coming actor’s dreams were among those coming true that night. The actor’s name is Keann Johnson, one of the leads of The Boy Foretold By The Stars, a BL (Boys’ Love) film directed by Dolly Dallu. The film—which won 2nd Best Picture, Best Original Soundtrack, and the Gender Sensitivity Award—is his biggest yet. 

It just keeps getting better, too. Last month, it was announced that the film is getting a limited series treatment, with the original cast reprising their roles. Early this month, Keann was launched as one of Star Magic’s newest talents. He is now a part of the Squad Plus, an extension of the Gold Squad from Kadenang Ginto, which includes beloved teen stars Andrea Brillantes, Francine Diaz, Seth Fedelin, and Kyle Echarri. 

“It’s a dream come true,” he says one afternoon over Zoom, smiling. “I’ve been waiting literally years for this moment. I’ve been preparing myself for this very opportunity.” He talks about the actors he’s always dreamed of working with—Piolo Pascual, John Lloyd Cruz, and John Arcilla—emphasizing his interest in collaborating with veteran character actors, but that he’s not really picky to begin with.

He dreams of working with any actor he can learn from; it’s clear from the get-go that Keann is filled with curiosity and an eagerness to learn, and that he navigates much of this world with wonder. “I really want to absorb all the helpful information that they can give,” he tells Metro.Style

There truly are people who know exactly what they want to do in life—Keann is one of them. Even though, he admits, he wasn’t all too keen about entering show business in the beginning, all of that changed when he became more and more immersed in the modeling world.

“I never wanted to be an actor in the first place,” he says. “I really didn’t see myself being part of the industry. [But then] my mom pushed me into modeling. Along with the workshops, there’s also personality development. You are also influenced by the people you’re surrounded with. That’s when I realized that I’m starting to enjoy this. [And that’s where my manager met me.]”

Since then, Keann has taken to improving himself, his skills, and his talents. He’s taken guitar, bass, and piano lessons. He can sing and dance. He also lights up at the mention of theater. One thing is clear as day: Keann is going places, and we can’t wait to see where he ends up.—Renee Nuevo 

Angela Ken

Sometimes, when “third time’s a charm” doesn’t work, “everything happens for a reason” may be the saying that you could latch on to. And this proved to be the case for this Squad Plus member.

“Everything that’s happening in one’s life has a purpose, masaya man ’yan o malungkot,” the fresh-faced artist tells Metro.Style. The once-hopeful The Voice contender, who got rejected thrice, found a different avenue for showcasing her beautiful voice and notable charisma on-screen. One uneventful day during our now year-long lockdown, she uploaded her self-composed song called “Ako Naman Muna” on social media platform TikTok. Moments later, the video went viral—giving her that instant fame she didn’t expect to get.

Ang daming feedback na napakaganda. Ang daming natuwa at naka-relate,” Angela happily recalls. “Itong kantang ’to ’yung door na nag-open sa’kin [to enter show business].” She then got a message from Dreamscape, inviting her to join its growing family. Fast forward to today, she has now joined a group of fellow up-and-comers to watch for in the industry. Even before she got discovered, Angela knew she belonged to the world of performing arts. “Natural na sa’kin ’yung mag-perform, kahit sa school or sa family gatherings. Nakaka-fulfill ng heart kapag sumasayaw or kumakanta akobasta nakikita ko ’yung mga taong masaya sa ginagawa kong performance,” she shares.

Although she wants to become a multi-talented star, music is what she is most passionate about. Angela shares how, at age 12, she penned her first song—a worship song. But it was only two years ago, when this 18-year-old mustered the courage to upload a few of her other original tracks, as well as some song covers.

Now, with a promising music career ahead of her, the young artist is determined to go nowhere else but up. “S’yempre, kung mangangarap ka na lang din, ’yung mataas na. Dream project ko talagang magkaroon ng concert kapag nagtagal na ako sa industry,” the bubbly girl reveals. She mentions Moira dela Torre and folk-pop band Ben&Ben as her biggest inspirations. 

When asked about the kind of artist she wants to be known as, Angela’s answer is clear as day: To be a positive force of her generation and the next ones to come. “Gusto kong makita ng mga tao na hindi lang basta-basta ’yung mga ginagawa kong kanta. Gusto kong maramdaman nila na hindi sila nag-iisa sa buhay. Gusto kong matandaan nila ako as a friend—na kahit sa mga kanta ko sila kumapit, may makikita silang hope sa bawat araw na maririnig nila ang mga lirikong sinulat o himig at kanta ko,” Angela enthuses.

Big things truly await this talented young star. We’ll see more of her in the coming weeks and months, as she joins the New Breed Singers of ASAP Natin ’To and is set to work on an OST track that will be part of an upcoming teleserye.—Mariel Abanes 

Angelica Lao

This bubbly and beautiful talent is all set to win Filipino viewers’ hearts. Check her out on TikTok to get a glimpse of her on-screen presence. TikTok, for Angelica, is not just a pastime, it has also helped her discover her talent in dancing. It is also through this platform that she made people stop and notice her. 

From TikTok, she is now a Star Magic artist. Angelica is thankful for the opportunity to be a part of Squad Plus, and is excited to work on dramas as well as work with young stars like Liza Soberano and Enrique Gil.

Gusto ko po mag-MMK, mag-ASAP, at magkaroon ng movie with Star Cinema,” the newly-launched artist shares. She points out JC Alactara’s Maalaala Mo Kaya episode, where the BL series Hello, Stranger actor starred in the retelling of his own life story, as her favorite. 

Staying at home these days amidst a pandemic proved to be beneficial for honing her acting skills and maintaining her positivity. Angelica says, “Nanonood ako ng mga Netflix shows and films para ma-improve ko ’yung acting ko... plus, quality time with my family.” She also adds that aside from the acting workshops with ABS-CBN, she also tries to train herself in acting by practicing in front of the mirror. 

When the pandemic becomes a thing of the past, Angelica would like to visit fave local destination Boracay as well as other countries like Japan and Switzerland where some of her relatives live. 

Today, Angelica is experiencing everything for the first time—from contract signings to interviews to photo shoots. She admits feeling the pressure, but the fact that she enjoys the company of her fellow squad mates makes things easier and lighter. 

Kapag kasama po sila nawawala na ’yung anxiety ko po, parang mas nagiging, ‘Hay, okay, kasama ko na sila,’” she shares. “Marami ka po talagang magiging kailbigan, marami kang masasabihan ng mga problema mo po.”

Angelica has not only found a platform where she can share her talents, she has found a family with the network and her fellow new artists as well.—Angelica Tordesillas

Danica Ontengco
Danica Ontengco | Photography by Rxandy Capinpin

Danica Ontengco

What started out as a YouTube channel turned out to be the key to entering the entertainment industry, a dream Danica has had since she was a kid. This talented artist shares wanting to be an actress early on and even went to play Mama Mary when she was little in a school production. “I remember ’yung lola ko nung napanood ako, biglang umiyak,” she recalls.

Danica is now a member of the Squad Plus. She is also known for playing Alisson, the sister of Rachel (Sofia Andres) in La Vida Lena, a hit show on iWantTFC. She is enthusiastic about being a part of ABS-CBN’s newly-formed group, and cannot wait for more exciting things to happen to her and her showbiz squad.

But her journey to this point in her life was quite challenging. She narrates, “Nu’ng una ’yung mga inau-audition ko mga commercial, tapos I got rejected a lot of times. There was this one time that I auditioned for a big company po tapos I got rejected. I got super sad about it kasi I planned for it.”

It was around that time when she decided to start her own YouTube channel, which was eventually discovered by her current manager, Ogie Diaz. Her channel now has more than 600,000 subscribers. She became serious about vlogging about four years ago, and it has given her a purpose in life. 

Du’n ko po naisipan mag-upload ng videos sa YouTube. I started with covers, ’yung guitar covers and singing po, tapos nakita ko na I’m getting views po so tinuloy-tuloy ko lang po yun.”

This digital savvy lady also shares that she is a gamer. Recently, she also started streaming videos on her Facebook page. Right now, her game of choice is Mobile Legend, and notes that it becomes more fun when she plays with friends.

Like many others, Danica’s travel plans were put on hold because of the pandemic, but when all is well, she would love to travel to California. “Gusto ko ma-visit ’yung California, kasi parang ang dami kong napapanood (vloggers) na dun sila nakatira, so I wanna experience it.”

This creative content creator has long been making waves online, so it’s nice to see her grow and evolve as an artist now that she’s under Star Magic and ABS-CBN.—Angelica Tordesillas

Jimuel Pacquiao for Metro.Style
Jimuel Pacquiao | Photography by Rxandy Capinpin

Jimuel Pacquiao

As the eldest son of global boxing icon and senator Manny Pacquiao, Jimuel basically grew up in the public eye. But now, he’s ready to step out of his father’s shadow and make a name for himself, as he joins the new breed of stars under the newly-launched Squad Plus, the extended group of the famous Gold Squad.

“I’m happy kasi, for me, it’s a good start,” Jimuel shares about this new venture. “I am encouraged to try it kasi I find acting interesting, too.” Throughout his younger years, he’s been focused on making it in the world of sport, aspiring to be a great boxer just like his dad. But offers to go the artista route were on the table, and he thought that letting those opportunities go would be such a waste. “Sabi nga nila, while you’re young, keep trying other things and see what fits you best,” the 20-year-old says.

Now that he’s taking acting seriously, Jimuel reveals that a role in an action film is one of his dreams. “I’m a big action guy. I wanna be known for that,” he tells Metro.Style. “I can say na dream role ko talaga ’yun, bida man ako o kontrabida.”

He has been preparing for the new chapter in his life as a Squad Plus member. He has attended workshops, and started a YouTube channel where he gets to practice speaking in front of the camera, to interact better with his fans and followers. 

Although showbiz takes up much of his time today, he remains committed to his first love: boxing. Through proper time management, Jimuel is able to juggle his passions just fine. “There’s a time for everything,” he explains. “I also have a dream of being an athlete. So I always look for time to train, kasi it’s very important to practice, get better, and stay in shape.”

The ultimate advice he’s taking with him to the glamorous world of being a celebrity is a simple yet powerful reminder: To not fake it.

Lagi nilang sinasabi na just be myself and there’s no need to put up a mask,” Jimuel states. He adds that staying focused on improving oneself is also key to being successful in this journey.

The up-and-comer is now streamlining projects that will be launched this year. Apart from his showbiz commitments, Jimuel is also looking forward to the reopening of boxing tournaments. “Maybe people would see me [in the ring] soon,” he ends.—Mariel Abanes

Check out the Part 2 of this feature below:
EXCLUSIVE: Get To Know The Up-And-Coming Artists Of "Squad Plus" (Part 2)


EXCLUSIVE: Get To Know The Up-And-Coming Artists Of "Squad Plus" (Part 2)

Produced by Grace Libero-Cruz

Photography by Rxandy Capinpin, assisted by Austin Cortiguerra

Special thanks to Star Magic and Thess Gubi