Filipinos in Paris were a handful when I arrived in my beloved City of Lights. It was spring of 1971, just before President Marcos would declare Martial Law in the Philippines and France would break off diplomatic ties with our country.
Do you think I cared? Hahaha, I plunged myself into the city’s nightlife where discotheques were just popping up all over the place. Of course, I ended up in the temple of chic during those crazy nights, Club Sept where the demimonde got to rub elbows with the likes of Marissa Berenson, Helmut Berger, Yves St. Laurent and all the most beautiful models in the world.
Going down the stairs from the restaurant to the dance floor, one had to hold on to the walls as the mass of humans pushed their way down or up, whichever way you had to go in order to breathe the intoxicating air of divine decadence.
One of those heady nights, I was introduced to Nikki Lopez, son to Vice President Fernando Lopez and brother of my good friend Junji, who would have me picked up from Bacolod to Iloilo for his birthdays celebrated in their famous house that looked like a boat. His sister, Mita, was married to our Governor Junior Montelibano at some point and would send me as a birthday gift a visiting band from Manila, who had a Mick Jagger lookalike for a lead singer.
Nikki was a towering sight, already making the Parisians look up to him since they were mostly shorter than me at that time. Postwar France did not believe in giving vitamins to their children. Anyway, in a whisper as he bent down to talk to me, he proclaimed, “Call me Emmanuele. Only stupid Filipinos who visit Paris call me Nikki.” He went on a narrative on how he admired my Tita Delia, daughter to my Lola Binit, who spent most of her time in Madrid. It was through this thread of family ties that I was later on granted a student’s visa.
He lived in a ground floor studio located at tony Boulevard de Courcelles, just across Parc Monceau where the Haute Bourgeoisie had their homes. My first dinner at his place consisted of spaghetti noodles with a rather watery tomato sauce. I didn’t yet have a taste for wine, then, and had to go to the kitchen for a glass of water. By the stove was an open can of cat food. Nikki would later tell me that he placed some of it in the sauce to add some “meat”. Well, we were all on a budget due to the dollar controls back in Manila. He was being sent a measly 150 dollars a month, then. But already, he was being invited to spend weekends in Milan by some Italian contessa or to do some pictorial for Vogue, he’d boast. Everyone in Paris was a model at that time. Even I landed in the front page of GQ magazine. Unbelievable things happened which made life fascinatingly exciting. I would see him in the street after that, since I had friends who lived just around the corner of his flat. Nikki would always be dressed up in a dramatic cape or some outlandish getup from Latvia. He created quite a stir, indeed.
Well, our paths would cross as I moved to the Marais area and he would frequent the popular cafés down my street. Upon the death of his father, he was able to get a sizeable inheritance which afforded him a life of champagne and cigarettes which were his only vices, really besides the numerous portraits he made of himself dressed up as royalty or saints, always with the signature skeletal visage and sunken eyes that dominated his paintings. He would have made a fortune today if he didn’t lose the entire collection to a fire which engulfed his Iloilo townhouse, burning the shocking pink walls down to the furniture he whimsically painted, all, everything he could lay his hands on, he painted his fantasies marvelously.
The first time I heard of Nikki Lopez was when he first arrived in Manila from Paris. His father met him by the plane and got the shock of his life when he saw Nikki descending the stairs all bedecked in pink up to the French poodle he was holding. This artiste depended a lot on shock value. Another time in a recent party in Iloilo, a wife of a national politician was introduced to him. “Oh, so you’re the famous Nikki I’ve heard of” she squealed. He gave her a curt reply while giving her a dagger look, “I’m Count Dracula de Lupescu!”
Gone is our rogue bohemian, raconteur extraordinaire, socialite, painter and artist, actor, Garbo-esque character, source of inspiration and fascination, an icon!
“What do you mean ‘icon’? I’m not dead yet, my dear.”
Emmanuele Javellana Lopez, 1941-2021. (Photos by Robin Alfing)
My Prayer: In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. 1 John 5:3-5, NIV*