Oprah once called Charice the most talented girl in the world. David Foster likens her to a young Celine Dion. And to hear Glee creator Ryan Murphy tell it, "When that girl opens her mouth, angels fly out."
But in early March, during her first day back on the set of Glee after an eight-month absence, Charice was anxious, singing superstar or not.
"I forgot to put my Band-Aids on, because when I get nervous... look at that," she says, displaying her wrecked nails and peeled fingertips just minutes before she's set to take the stage in McKinley High's auditorium. "Right now, it's getting to me. The singing is fine, but the acting scenes? That's when I freak out."
It's been a long while since 18-year-old Charice last stepped into the colorful nerdwear of Sunshine Corazon, the Filipina exchange student whose vocal prowess so threatened Glee head diva Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) that she sent Sunshine to a crack house to prevent her from auditioning for New Directions. Now she's back with dubious intentions.
"Sunshine's going to try and help the glee club. Why? I don't know yet," Charice says. "She wants to perform with them, just like Jesse St. James did in the first season, but I don't know if she's really just nice or if she has plans..."
Here's the story: After ticking off Rachel — and then jetting for rival club Vocal Adrenaline — in the season premiere, Sunshine makes her highly anticipated return in Tuesday's episode (8/7c on Fox), titled "A Night of Neglect," where she'll attempt to save the day by offering her singing services to help the glee club raise the money they need to attend Nationals. Sunshine tries to convince Rachel and the gang that her intentions are pure. She knows what it's like to feel neglect, and she's ready to belt "All By Myself" to prove it.
After a few more adjustments are made to the stage — the mic stand has to be lowered by a lot for 4-foot, 11-inch Charice — she begins her first pass in the spotlight. In the stands, Harry Shum Jr., who plays Mike Chang and just finished dancing a swanky solo to Jack Johnson's "Bubble Toes," watches alongside some friends. "She killed that s---!" he whispers when she's done.
Charice, born Charice Pempengco, was discovered stateside by Ellen DeGeneres, who had seen her performance on South Korean talent show Star King blow up on YouTube. She flew her out — Charice's first trip to the U.S. —in 2007 to sing on her talk show. Calls from Foster and Oprah followed, and in May 2010, her self-titled debut became the first album from an Asian singer to land in the Billboard 200. (She remains something of an Internet wunderkind, too. Type her name into YouTube's search engine and behold the tens of millions of hits.)
But she's the first to describe how she had to fight for a role on Glee. It all started by begging her mom, and later her manager, to look into it. "Obviously, I'm a big fan. I'm a Gleek," Charice says. "We had just found out Season 1 was done, and so my mom and I asked my manager, like, 'Are they looking for more Asians? I'm Asian!' My manager said we'd try." Murphy, like so many others, had already seen Charice on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and agreed to let her audition.
"I was wearing my nerdy glasses and holding my laptop — very Sunshine Corazon [it turns out]," she says. "The producers talked to me for a bit and were about to send me off, and I kind of panicked and went, 'Can I sing for you? Please?' And they were like, 'Oh! Sure!' I'm really a shy person, but when I get scared, I get really hyper. So I sang and after I was done, Ryan was like, '... You're cute. You're very cute.'
"At the time I thought, 'Is that cute like a puppy or what?'" Charice says, imitating Murphy's stone-faced expression. She left for a European tour immediately, and it wasn't until her Twitter account exploded days later with messages from fans congratulating her that Charice knew she had won a role: she'd be playing Rachel's rival Sunshine —a girl not so far from herself. "When I did my first fitting, the stylists said Ryan wanted to keep me looking the way I did during the audition. They said, 'So wear your glasses and we're going to have a bunch of colorful things.' That was so awesome," she says.
But after her first episode aired, Charice wasn't sure she'd be asked back. She went on a world tour to promote her album and several months of hearing nothing from producers passed. "I wasn't really expecting them to call me again, but I waited. And then finally — finally! — they told me, 'OK, you're coming back!' I was like, 'Holy smokes, this is it! It feels like I'm doing the first episode again. It's been a while."
Thus, the nerves. Fortunately, Charice squeezed in acting classes on the off-chance Sunshine would return. "The classes made me feel better," she says, "but it's the scariest part of this whole thing."
For the day's scene, Sunshine has to convince New Directions that she can help them get to Nationals. Rachel is suspicious, and with good reason: Could Sunshine just be out for revenge? Glee executive producer Ian Brennan isn't spilling. "Sunshine will play a big role in the last two episodes. As for her true motivations in 'A Night of Neglect,' that remains to be seen," he says.
"Of course, Rachel is definitely not happy about it," Charice laughs, adding she hopes a second diva-off is in the works. "It was really fun when we did 'Telephone' so I would love to do it again. I really hope it happens."