She has been marketing various products since her teens. But now, image model Deniece Millinette Cornejo is struggling with her most difficult pitch yet, one aimed at defending her name and reputation.
In an interview with the Inquirer earlier this week at the poolside café of a luxury condominium in Makati City, the 22-year-old projected a take-charge persona, hoping to overturn the unsavory perceptions arising from that fateful incident last month.
Showing up wearing sunglasses and a flowing black cardigan over shirt and shorts, Cornejo declined to be photographed because “papatayin ako! (“I’ll get killed!)”—though she made it sound like a joke. She said she was giving the interview against the advice of her lawyers and friends—and without the condominium management knowing she was in the building.
The model shot into prominence after a black-eyed Vhong Navarro claimed he was the victim of an extortion scheme devised by Cornejo and businessman Cedric Lee at her condominium unit in Forbeswood Heights, Bonifacio Global City, on Jan. 22.
Cornejo has accused the actor-comedian of raping her, with Lee saying he and a group of friends caught Navarro in the act, hence the beating.
The two camps have since traded criminal complaints, but Navarro apparently scored points after the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) issued statements doubting the rape allegation based on its evaluation of security camera footage at the condo.
Still, Cornejo stands by her story in the Inquirer interview, though keeping her voice down to avoid drawing attention: “Why would I say I’m risking my life here if I’m not telling the truth? I’m afraid as hell. If I said I’m telling the truth, whatever you say, I’m telling the truth. Period. I was raped. And no one should question it.”
But instead of being seen as the victim, Cornejo conceded that she was getting the opposite treatment. The bombardment was heaviest on her Twitter and Instagram accounts, sometimes even on her mobile phone, where people called her “pokpok (sluttish)” or threatened to throw acid on her face.
“The people’s perception is really like that. After you get raped, it’s still your fault. It’s really sad,” Cornejo said in Filipino.
Cornejo said she had yet to find a new pad. As of Wednesday, “friends” had let her stay in their condo unit. “I’ll get into trouble with the management if they find out I’m here. They might ban me here.”
She declined to detail how she got a unit at Forbeswood, which she had been occupying for only “a week” before the incident happened. “Before, I stayed with a business partner, also an endorser.”
With the help of her friends, she said, she started looking for a new place in Manila. But when the manager found out about her identity, they were turned away.
Cornejo chose not to stay and lie low at her family’s home in Antipolo City because “I’m protecting them.” The only daughter and eldest in a brood of four, she said she would rather keep loved ones at a distance because “the more I’m with them, the more they would be dragged into this.”
“Babatuhin ang family ko (My family will be under attack). My dad (a seaman) is working in the States and a lot of tears will be shed the moment he returns. Will his company take him again when it is being reported here that I’m working for a syndicate? It’s hard. My future, my life and that of my siblings are at stake here.”
She said her brothers, who are still attending school, were also being bullied online as a result of her case.
“There’s something wrong. It’s time to stand up for my family, for Christian values, for my principles,” she said.
And, yes, she’s the granddaughter of former GMA network executive Rodrigo Cornejo, but Deniece said she had no show biz aspirations despite getting offers from GMA and rival ABS-CBN, Vhong’s mother studio.
Cornejo described herself as a fledgling fashion entrepreneur with a “marketing mind.” Her parents have given her a “comfortable life” but “I still want to be independent.” She tried to start early by “selling all sorts of things in school.”
Cornejo is in her senior year as a “working student” in La Salle College-Antipolo, taking up hospitality and restaurant management. “I have no bad record,” she stressed, referring to her grades. A consistent honor student in elementary and high school, she also dabbled in art, music and sports.
She started out selling contact lenses to friends and classmates at age 16, then moved on to selling clothes purchased abroad. She later went into styling, then modeling for print and TV, building up a network of clients and business contacts.
She put up an online store, Dark Closet International, and found celebrity patrons. This was how she met Cedric’s sister, Bernice, about four years ago, she said.
“This is why people misinterpret me. I want to be friends with people who have experience in business; that’s how I learn. I don’t question their past, what they’re doing. What’s important is that you respect me, I respect you,” she said.
Yet she maintained she was not privy to the business dealings of the Lees.
Cornejo also takes pride in being a “motivational speaker.” Her most recent speaking engagement was at the 12th Student Advertising Congress of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, which was held in Baguio City in December.
“My topic was about being ‘a walking brand,’” she said. She defends her endorsed products by banking on her own clean image. “I have a good reputation. I don’t go out. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I don’t party. Even Vhong knew—it’s in my [complaint] affidavit—that I don’t really drink. Maybe wine, socially. You have to start within yourself. That is one factor (to consider) to be an effective brand endorser.”
Cornejo said none of her modeling clients had pulled out because of the Jan. 22 incident, but noted that her online shop had received no new orders since. Again, she said, “my future is at stake here. I don’t want a company to be traumatized (sic) because of questions about my credibility.”
On a more personal note, she said she adheres to a “high standard when it comes to guys” and that “all my exes are achievers, from decent families.”
“My last relationship was last year, and we broke up because I’m so busy,” she said. She strongly denied being romantically involved with Lee. “He’s married na. Nakakainis ang show biz talaga (Show biz can be so annoying). And he loves his wife!”
She insisted that Navarro was “just a friend” whose advances she never entertained because he’s from show business and because the actor was a father.
In her complaint affidavit, Cornejo said she met Navarro in 2011 when she attended a promotional event for a shoe brand Navarro was endorsing. From then on, he started to communicate with her online and through text messages.
She said she “always declined his invitations” and never had sexual relations with Navarro.
Cornejo said it dismayed her to see that public attention had been focused more on Navarro’s mauling rather than on her side of the story.
“The subject is rape, not the mauling…I’m being left out of the picture. Focus on the subject because that will affect the story. Why focus on the mauling? So that the public will be enraged?”
“I don’t want to question the mauling. I don’t care about it. I care about what he did to me. That’s what’s important to me. It’s so traumatic,” she said.
But Cornejo declined to comment when pressed on the NBI’s statement that the possibility of her being raped that night was very slim based on the security video.
“Even if I defend (my case) now, I would still be under attack, so I’d rather keep quiet. Let the court decide. We will soon explain our side.”
“They should keep this in mind: I have a clean image; I worked hard for my reputation. And how can this 22-year-old be the mastermind of everything?” she said.
Cornejo said she initially agreed to drop the rape charge because Navarro had profusely apologized that night. “I didn’t want this to get any bigger. I’m a very busy person. Move on!”
But when Navarro mentioned her name in an interview in a Sunday talk show, “I was surprised. That’s so unfair. I can forgive, I can help. But this time, I should fight for the truth, right? I can’t remain silent when I’m the one being portrayed as the liar.
“Why do this to me? I gave him a second chance,” she said. “He needs to face not only the consequences but also the truth.”