Dennise Lazaro doesn't want an entourage. Despite being one of the biggest stars in Philippine volleyball and having just come off a tour of duty in the 2018 Asian Games, Dennise arrives at our shoot in a simple black t-shirt and shorts. No special requests, no pausing to preen for a selfie. And she's always been like this—when we first met several years ago, she had booked a gig as an ABS-CBN volleyball analyst. Dennise took the MRT.
"Why not? Kaya ko naman mag-MRT," she says with a laugh. "Hindi ko kailangan ng posse. I can handle myself."
Dennise was never one to draw attention to herself. Her high school classmates in Colegio San Agustin remember her as a gifted athlete, but one who was more sweet than swag. When the self-described introvert wasn't studying, she buried her nose in two things: books and online videos of the world's top volleyball teams.
"Someone posted my high school yearbook [page] on social media recently, and you can see it there—my write-up said I wanted to be a doctor," she recalls. "Growing up, people would ask me if I wanted to be a professional volleyball player and I'd say, 'No, I want to be a doctor.' Because there's no such thing as professional volleyball in the Philippines."
She almost gave the sport up entirely to focus on her studies, but kept coming back: "Nami-miss ko talaga eh. Hindi ko kayang hindi maglaro ng volleyball."
In Ateneo, Dennise juggled studying BS Biology with libero duties for the Ateneo Lady Eagles, still believing her destiny was to be in a white coat. But it was with Coach Tai Bundit that Dennise discovered a new kind of strength.
"Wala akong self-confidence before. Dati kapag naglalakad ako, nakayuko lang, pero nag-iiba na lang sa court," she remembers. "I got my confidence through volleyball and with the help of Coach Tai. Because of him, I was able to improve my skills and it was like, 'Wow, kaya ko palang i-reach ang level na ito!'" she says.
She continued to up her game, winning two championships with Ateneo on top of numerous individual awards. But when volleyball fever swept the whole UAAP, Dennise struggled to reconcile the frenzy of attention with her naturally introverted personality.
"Hanggang ngayon pa rin, hindi ako sanay," she admits. "Kapag may nagpapa-picture, I still feel surprised and awkward because, in my head, I'm thinking, 'Bakit kilala nila ako?'"
Right there, it's obvious that Dennise is not the type to hold grand fans' day events and spend hours with a crowd of new people, but she is grateful for what volleyball fans have done to raise the sport's profile.
"When I was younger, basketball lang talaga ang pwedeng mag-pro sa Philippines. I never thought I'd be able to pursue the sport that I love as a career," Dennise smiles. After racking up individual awards and a 2015 championship in the Premier Volleyball League (formerly known as the Shakey's V-League), she decided to move leagues and play in the Philippine Super Liga last year.
"Ever since I started, the V-League was my home. Moving to the PSL was a huge decision for me, but I'm thankful for my friends and ates in the V-League for supporting me. I felt na in order for me to grow, I needed to step outside my comfort zone," she says.
"The women I admire, they're not pushovers. They're low-key but they shine in their own light."
"The Asian Games was also a reminder for me that we still have a long way to go. Volleyball is so popular right now in the Philippines, but we also need to realize how behind we are in terms of skill level and in the development of the program compared to our Asian neighbors," Dennise says. "Yes, we're supported by the fans, but I hope there's continuous support from the government and the governing body of volleyball, too. Sana patuloy yung program not just for us but for the younger players."
When people misunderstand Dennise, it's because they mistake her introversion for coldness. But those who have earned her trust know better: that she clams up during small talk in large groups, but thrives in more intimate conversations with friends, where she can hold forth on the growth of volleyball, current events, pop culture, women empowerment, and more.
"I look up to Serena Williams. She's a queen! She's a dominant athlete and she speaks her mind on social issues as well. I hope maging as vocal [kaming mga Filipino athletes] one day," Dennise shares. "I hope someday mawala yung thinking that we're just athletes. We're more than athletes."
Her other role model isn't from sports at all. "I love Leni [Robredo]. She's very well-spoken kahit yung ibang tao kung anu-ano na lang sinasabi sa kanya. Being the Vice President of the Philippines, her family is pushed into the spotlight but she handles it well," Dennise says, adding that she and Tricia Robredo got to spend time with each other in medical school. "And to be a single parent to three daughters, her strength is admirable."
"The women I admire, they're not pushovers," Dennise adds. "They're low-key but they shine in their own light."
Dennise has also found a kindred spirit in her longtime boyfriend, pro basketball player LA Revilla, who used to play for the DLSU Green Archers. Their love for the low-key shows in, well, what they don't show. The last time Dennise posted a couple photo on her Instagram feed? December 31, 2017.
"I don't post everything online. I only post snippets, a few happy moments, pero hindi lahat. Nakuha ko rin sa kanya 'yon, na you don't have to please everyone. Just because some people want to see what you're up to, doesn't mean you have to show it all," she says. "I want to have something that's just ours. That's also how I am when posting about family. It feels special when I get to share time with them and nobody else can comment on the moment."
In their own world, Dennise and LA eat Korean BBQ, have a two-person book club going—"Should I say this? LA started Crazy Rich Asians and I was the one who finished the entire series," she laughs—and love their quiet Fridays in, thank you very much.
"I'm always happy when I meet someone new and they say, 'Okay lang, awkward din ako.' In my head, I'm like, 'It's my people! It's my tribe!'" she says.
Over the years, Dennise has learned to embrace her introversion—to see it not as a flaw but simply as one of the things that make her unique. "This is me, and that's okay," she says.
The paradox is that accepting her introversion was part of her journey towards a quiet kind of confidence where she's assertive and vocal when the moment calls for it.
"I'm more confident now. I still don't walk into a room and suddenly chat with everyone, but I've learned to be more vocal with my thoughts. I'm straight to the point and tanggap 'yon ng friends ko, like Alyssa [Valdez]. We balance each other out in our friend group," she shares.
"To be empowered means that whatever field that you want to take on, you can be confident and believe that you can do it."
When they travel together to train and compete, her teammates also understand that Dennise needs her "me time" to de-stress after a busy day. That's code for her reading a book and attempting to do Korean-style 10-step skin care, although she admits she didn't have the energy for it at the Asian Games: "Sobrang pagod, minsan toner tapos moisturizer tulog na!"
More importantly, at 26 years old, the pro athlete and Pantene ambassador has a sense of purpose.
"After I took a leave of absence from medical school, I was 50-50 about going back. That's when realized that it really isn't for me. If I were to do it half-heartedly—my future patients don't deserve that," Dennise explains.
Now that volleyball is an actual career option, Dennise wants to see how far it can take her. "Mas nakilala ko sarili ko dahil sa challenges," she adds. "Dahil biglang tumaas ang popularity ng volleyball in the Philippines, it feels good to know that more people are appreciating the game. We're reaching people as far as Mindanao and even Filipinos abroad. That tells me it's our responsibility to try to do our best to be role models, especially for the kids watching."
"In an industry pa where sports are dominated by men, people are seeing that women do well and deserve equal treatment, equal opportunities, equal everything. Kailangan lumawak yung pag-iisip ng lahat," Dennise asserts. "More and more, women are not put in a box anymore. Now we can chase our dreams."
Not that it's a choice simply between medicine and volleyball at this point. Dennise is hoping to do more TV and event hosting, and she learning more about business through a food stall that she and LA put up together—armed with the knowledge that she can face the challenges that any of these paths may have.
"To be empowered means that whatever field that you want to take on, you can be confident and believe that you can do it," Dennise says. "That's what strong women are. We grow and change while also staying true to ourselves."
SITTINGS EDITOR: Retty Contreras
ART DIRECTION & PHOTOGRAPHY: Jico Joson
ART DIRECTION ASSISTED BY: Mixi Ignacio
SHOOT COORDINATION: Lou Ferrer
SOCIAL MEDIA: Andie Estella
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HAIR: Francis Guintu
MAKEUP: Muriel Vega-Perez
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