FFE Magazine

The epic battle: Nora Aunor versus Vilma Santos

Photo from Spot.ph

Philippine show business loves to cook up intrigue in order to feed the Filipino’s need for drama. It is no wonder that rivalries between stars, albeit fictional fights and jealousies, often exist. As far as the 1950s where it were Gloria Romero and Nida Blanca who were put on the spotlight, to the late 90s where Judy Anne Santos and Claudine Baretto were pitted against each other, Filipinos just love putting actresses side by side and turning them into an endless debate of who is better. To this day rivalries still exist with new celebrities, and this will probably continue until the end of time. However, none of these can ever really match the epic battle between the Superstar and the Star For All Seasons, Ms. Nora Aunor and Ms. Vilma Santos during the 70s and 80s.

Humble beginnings

Nora Aunor has a classic rags-to-riches story. Born in Iriga City, Camarines Sur to a poor family, she worked as a vendor of cold water once and joined singing contests to earn a little. She won several singing contests prior to her big break in acting. One of her most prestigious singing triumphs was winning the Grand National Finals of Tawag ng Tanghalan (1967) where she sang ‘Moonlight Becomes You.’ After guesting in different radio programs, and with a record label behind her back Nora became a professional singer and recording star. Eventually Sampaguita Pictures discovered her and that was the beginning of her fame as an actor.

Vilma Santos, on the other hand, entered showbiz at a very early age. She was encouraged by her uncle to audition for a movie entitled Anak, Ang Iyong Ina’ in 1969 alongside Gloria Romero. As she went to Sampaguita Pictures’ studio, she saw a long line of little girls. Thinking it was for the same audition, Vilma decided to queue as well only to find out it was for another film, ‘Trudis liit,’ in which she got the lead role and received a Best Child Performer award for in 1963. This sparked her career in the film industry.

70s and 80s

Photo from pelikulaatbp/blogspot

Nora Aunor’s dark skin and petite frame worked to her advantage as she shattered the conventional fair-skinned and statuesque image of beauty in the 70s and 80s. This made her a role model and source of inspiration among many Filipinas. Along with her golden voice, piercing eyes, and raw acting talent she quickly upstaged Vilma in the eyes of the masses. She immediately starred in films and won many awards, though many critics said she did not always deserve.

Vilma Santos then decided to make a crucial career move by taking on grittier roles – the rape victim, the burlesque dancer, the mistress – roles that her rival opted not to do. This decision turned Vilma Santos’ career around, as audiences saw her range as an actress and versatility to slip into any character. It was also her portrayals, which made the characters memorable in the film industry (Darna, Sister Stella L., etc.)

Singing versus dancing

Nora Aunor was first a singer before she became an actress. She was known as the ‘Lady with the Golden Voice,’ and has released more than 360 singles and 50 albums. To date, Nora Aunor’s cover of “Pearly Shells” (1971) is still one of the best -selling singles in the country.

Listen to Nora Aunor sing Superstar by the Carpenters

Vilma Santos tried her luck in singing as well. She released a song called ‘Babycakes’ in 1971. Although her voice was adequate, it was no match for Nora Aunor. Vilma instead focused on her dancing prowess, which helped her snag the role of Burlesk Queen in 1977.  Her dancing skills often captivated the public in her  production numbers on her variety shows, VIP (Vilma in Person) and Vilma! as well.

Watch a young Vilma Santos dance in Burlesk Queen


Both Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos have earned their keep of awards. According to Ed Uy of Manila Times,

“It was Nora who became the first Filipino actor to win an International acting award in a Major Film Festival for The Flor Contemplacion Story (Cairo, 1995). Nora also has the most number of Best Actress international awards and nominations, and is the only Filipino to be featured by HBO in a documentary film about the lives and achievements of the world’s greatest actresses (1997). For all her contributions, Nora received the Centennial Honor for the Arts (1999) from the Cultural Center of the Philippines. 

Nora’s opus Himala was chosen by CNN as one of the “10 Best Asian Films” of all time from the provisional list of 18 great films (September 2008), while Bona was cited as one of “The Best 100 Films in the World” by the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, USA (1997). 

Vilma on the other hand, according to her Wikipedia entry, is recognized as the longest reigning box office queen. She received the title Star for All Seasons for being the only one among her contemporaries to have demonstrated “the unique ability to translucently essay in her roles the changing mores and values of the Filipino woman.” 

Personal Lives

Both actresses married exceptional actors and fine gentlemen in the peak of their careers.

Nora Aunor married Christopher de Leon in 1975. This marriage produced a son, actor Ian De Leon. The couple also adopted four other children, actors Lotlot De Leon and Matet de Leon, and Kiko and Kenneth. Unfortunately the couple separated and had their marriage annulled in 1996. In 2007, Nora Aunor was rumoured have wed her manager and confidante Ms. Norie Sayo in Las Vegas.

Vilma Santos married Edu Manzano in 1980. This marriage also produced a son, actor and television host Luis Manzano. After four years, the couple divorced. In 1992, Vilma found love with Senator Ralph Recto and this happy marriage has given them another son, Ryan Recto.

Throughout the years, Nora Aunor’s personal life was filled with controversy. She was caught in several financial problems that eventually forced her to leave the country and suspend her acting career. The actress took an 8-year hiatus inthe US to sort her issues out. Unfortunately, while abroad she was then again caught in a drug-related case until a local television network was able to help her in 2011. At present, Nora is slowly returning to cinema as she was in two

2012 Metro Manila Film Fest entries, Thy Womb and El Presidente.

Vilma, on the other hand, seemed to have has a good hold of her life. She continued her education and was successful in her transition as an actress to politician. Throughout the years, Vilma has continued to endorse local brands, occasionally star in box-office films, and  continually receives recognition for her public service as current governor of Batangas City.

National Artist Drama

Early in 2012, the search for the next National Artist in Drama sparked another controversy between the two stars. Both had been nominated for the honor, but only one would be deserving, or so many say.

Noranians and Vilmanians immediately defended their idols and justified why they should receive the prestigious award.

Although nothing has been decided, other nominations also included former President Joseph Estrada, veteran actor Eddie Garcia, and the Kind of Comedy Dolphy.

The National Artist award is given by the President of the Philippines and is screened by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It is given to any Filipino who has made significant contributions to the development of Philippine arts in the fields of  Dance, Music, Theater, Visual Arts, Film and Broadcast Arts, Literature, Architecture and Allied Arts. 

Regardless of who receives the prestigious National Artist award for Drama, it is a fact that both Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos are exceptional women, actresses, and pioneers of Philippine cinema. Whatever cosmic rivalry exists between Nora and Vilma does not matter because they are some of the brightest stars that continue to illuminate the world of film and art.



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