Kuya Kim: From Politics to Animal Shows and Ironman

Karim Raslan - Ceritalah ASEAN

Posted at Apr 26 2017 05:40 PM | Updated as of Apr 26 2017 06:01 PM

Bert, Kuya Kim Atienza’s eight-year-old Colombian green iguana, had just awoken from slumber before being brought in to join the interview.

Karim Raslan

Bert, Kuya Kim Atienza’s eight-year-old Colombian green iguana, had just awoken from slumber before being brought in to join the interview.

Karim Raslan

The long-necked turtle is one of the many species of turtles that Kuya Kim Atienza rares on his compound.

Karim Raslan

Kuya Kim is a lifelong animal lover. His pets are often brought on his shows and children in the audience are allowed to interact with them.

Karim Raslan

The North American alligator snapping turtle is one of Kuya Kim’s more aggressive animals. This is one animal he does not allow children at his shows to interact with.

Karim Raslan

The North American alligator snapping turtle is one of Kuya Kim’s more aggressive animals. This is one animal he does not allow children at his shows to interact with.

Karim Raslan

The many lives of Kim Atienza 

Bert was not in a good mood. The eight-year-old Colombian green iguana didn't like being woken from his afternoon nap. He had his dignity and being dumped on a dining table was not appreciated. 

Not one bit. Meanwhile, his owner – Kuya ('Big Brother') Kim Atienza, the Philippines' version of the late environmentalist and TV show host Steve Irwin was chatting to me about his work, passions and the expansion of his brand – the Kuya Kim brand along with his safari hat – into the online market, including gaming and Apps. 

"I'm from a political family. My father was Mayor of Manila and I guess I was being groomed to follow him. I spent twelve years in various local government roles - from barangay chairman to local councilor. In 2004, I started appearing on television (ABS-CBN, the dominant local broadcaster) – it was a segment on animals, something I've always loved. At the time, I thought the exposure would be good for my politics.” 

“Instead, Maria Ressa (an ex-CNN journalist who current heads the online news website Rappler.com) who was the boss took me aside. Basically, she said that she knew what I was up to and that whilst she liked what I was doing, I was going to have to choose between politics and entertainment. It wasn't a tough choice and I started working in television soon after." 

In the Philippines, the trajectory is generally from news and entertainment to politics and power: witness the rise of figures such as former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada as well as Senators Loren Legarda and Ramón “Bong” Revilla Jr. In the case of Kim Atienza (born Alejandro Ilagan Atienza) – now fifty years old – the transition was reversed and he's all the happier for it. 

Kim has managed to craft an authentic and extremely engaging (dare one say cute?) TV persona. 

His weekly award-wining, Sunday morning show “Matanglawin” ("Hawkseye" or "Eye of an Eagle") has run for nine years. 

Bilingual and verging on nerdy, Kuya Kim is someone who really LOVES what he does – whether it's playing with a hula-hoop, undergoing and reporting on his own heart surgery, whizzing around on his Vespa or just hanging out with his family. 

And with over 416,000 Instagram and 3.9 million Twitter followers, there are many Filipino's tracking his every move. 

Married to Felicia “Fely” Hung Atienza – a glamorous Wharton-trained former investment banker – the couple with their three kids live in shaded compound in the heart of old Manila. 

Their house is a celebrity magnet, from the actress Anne Curtis-Smith to the newscaster Karen Davila – some of the most famous faces in Philippine public life. 

Amidst the funky mid-20th Century furniture and contemporary art, there's also a crazy menagerie worthy of Dr Doolittle: turtles, some forty dogs, countless songbirds, pythons, lizards and snakes—so much so that you have to be very careful where you sit, stand or walk... 

Kim explains: "My television equity is straightforward. I must be funny as I educate the kids. There's always an audience 'take-away' in whatever I do: and the take-away is knowledge. Whether I'm presenting the weather forecast, chewing leaves with a giraffe or grappling with a snake, I'm always focused on my audience—all those children at home that I'm trying entertain and more importantly educate." 

Kim understands that to raise awareness, he needs capture the imagination: "I have to use funny situations and jokes to explain scientific theories. For example, I swam a kilometre of the dirty Pasig River (that runs through the heart of Metro Manila), fishing out plastic, used diapers and dead animals in order to stress that the river is in urgent need of rehabilitation. That was a top-rated show! However, it wasn't so funny for me because both my cameraman and I (who swam with me) got terribly sick afterwards." 

Seven years ago, Kim—who has a hole in his heart—suffered a stroke. The setback forced him to change his lifestyle drastically. And yet in the years following the attack, he managed 7 full marathons (42-kilometres) and undertook one full as well as 7 half-Iron Man triathlons –the full version consisting of a gruelling 3.8km swim, 180.25km bike ride and another 42-km run. Interestingly each transformation – from barong to safari hat and then to biking shorts—has served to reinforce his connectedness to his audience. 

Moreover, his passions (environmentalism, animal rights and exercise) have also aligned him very neatly with prevailing global lifestyle trends, thereby refreshing his brand equity. So whilst Kuya Kim ages he also becomes cooler and cuter – something that can't be said for the Philippines' many middle-aged matinee idols. 

His latest foray is a fascinating attempt to leverage on the country's proven IT and software leadership. Working with Raymond Racaza and a host of gorgeous celebrities, he's formed a start-up called Xeleb, a tech start-up that focuses on celebrity gaming apps. It is a subsidiary of Xurpass, the Philippines' first listed IT company. 

They’re eventually hoping to roll-out across Southeast Asia. Yes, it's ambitious but given Kim's deftness at turning nerdy bits of information into celebrity gold, nothing would surprise me.