If CARLA DUNAREANU sets out to do something, you can count on her never doing things by halves. Including eating pizza.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

It’s a moment of serendipity.

Just when we ask Carla Dunareanu what her diet is like, our art director interrupts to ask if pizza (and not some fancy gluten-free version, but regular Pizza Hut) is okay for lunch. Carla lets out a whoop: “As long as there’s no pineapples on it!”

Never mind we’re at a fi tness- themed shoot. Never mind that after lunch, she’ll be shooting in crop tops and skin tight leggings, demonstrating workout steps. Carla is down for the pizza, because “I’m led by my stomach.” She caveats that she doesn’t typically have unhealthy cravings, and because she’s always full of energy and constantly moving, that makes for some pretty speedy metabolism. Yes, we’re jealous.

The term energiser bunny was made for Carla. The 30-year-old envelops you in a hug as if you’re a long lost friend, even if she’s never seen you before (which was our case). She bounds around the studio between takes, stealthily popping sweets. When Kendrick Lamar starts pounding from the speakers, she fl icks her hair and get down to the serious business of striking poses. 


It’s just as well that Carla has as much energy as she does, because her schedule doesn’t leave much wiggle room (at one point, we feared that this interview might not happen). Her role as career woman Ananya on Channel 5’s family drama Kin means her day starts at 5am. She starts fi lming at 7.30am, hopefully squeezing in a quick workout (push ups, squats, lunges) in her dressing room if there’s a long enough lunch break. Shooting wraps at 5pm, before she heads home for dinner and a run. She plays with her cats, and sleeps between midnight and 1am. And it all begins again at 5am.

As for the running, until a couple of years ago, she hated it. “I thought it was the most boring sport I could think of,” she exclaims. Not surprising considering her childhood consisted of more competitive sports like swimming and dabbling in hockey, netball and volleyball. So she did what not many people do when they hate something: she signed up for a half marathon. But it was the four months of training that converted her from running sceptic to evangelist. 

“The more you do something, the more it becomes routine,” she explains. “I stopped counting the kilometres and started thinking about the bad day I had, or all the things that I didn’t have time to think about in the day. Running became the time that was just for me. And I loved it.” It soon became her go-to for that much needed dose of mental clarity, and today she tries to run two or three times a week. “The distances vary. I run until I’m tired and I listen to my body. Part of the reason why it clears my head has to do with the intake of oxygen. Breath helps with clarity.” And by the way, about that half marathon – she completed it in two hours 36 minutes. 


 The thought of running (or doing any kind of exercise) after a 5am wake up call and full day of fi lming is enough to make anyone balk. Carla gets it, but she’s also not buying it. “People are put off by the exertion you have to do,” she says. “A lot of my friends say, don’t want lah, I’ve been working all day. But you know, so have I! That’s not an excuse.” Because at the end of the workout, even the most doubting of Thomases will agree that they feel great. “Everyone has the same response of, thank goodness I did that. You’ve got the endorphins, you’re pumped. Then you treat yourself to a good meal.”

Carla, who is big on listening to her body and what it needs, sees fi tness as also a form of self-love. “Working out is something you give to yourself,” she explains. “You’re doing something that no one else can do for you. It’s about loving yourself and sometimes love hurts and you need to push harder, but it always pays off .”

Recently, she’s been experiencing some back pain, so Carla’s on a mission to do more regular yoga sessions. But she’s focused on the bigger picture – the yoga complements her running habit, which makes for a more holistic exercise routine. “Yoga is all about stretching and releasing that tension, which is complementary to running which is all about power, strength and endurance,” she elaborates. “If you’re gaining muscle you need to relax them, otherwise they become tight. You may be toned and in great shape, but if the muscles are stiff  and non- functional, there’s no point.”


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Running may bring mental clarity, but there’s something else (or rather someone else) that brings Carla focus. His name is Boom Gonzales, and their love story is the stuff  of movies. 

Girl, 22, moves to Manila for a brand new work opportunity with a radio station. Girl meets her on-air partner, and sparks fl y. After over two years of hard knocks in a new country and a year of dating, she gets an email from Singapore, asking to host the SEA Games. “It was a national event. The fact that Singapore was playing host and wanted me to represent us, I just had to do it,” Carla remembers. “And that was it. I quit my job, said goodbye to my boyfriend, and left Manila in tears. But taking that step would be better than not doing it out of fear. And here we are today – I married the man I left behind.” 

The couple continued years of long distance, before getting hitched last December after six years together. For someone whose love language is physical aff ection, it was hard work. “I’m a fi rm believer that you’re put in positions to learn the lessons you need to learn. And I learnt not to be so attached to the physical,” Carla says. “It tested me to build foundations in other important ways, like trust, communication, respect, admiration.” 

She sees the man she describes as “the calm to my storm” once a month, and the pair have no foreseeable plans to move back to the same country. With Carla’s career on a upward trajectory in Singapore and her husband doing well as a radio DJ, business owner and sports commentator in Manila, it’s a marriage that thrives on mutual support, albeit at a distance. 


It seems like Carla’s done it all. She’s acted since she was 11, in a fi lm called Gourmet Baby that made it to the New York Film Festival. She’s been in musicals. She’s travelled around the world as a host. She’s even won Best Comedy Performance by an Actor/Actress Award at the Asian Television Awards in 2016. But 2019 brings one more challenge – her work for housing charity Habitat for Humanity, with whom she will be going on her fi rst home build later in the year. 

The charity conducts volunteer trips to diff erent parts of the Asia Pacifi c to build homes, and locally, also off er home-cleaning for those in need.  “People think, I’m just one person, I can’t get involved,” says Carla. “So I’m excited to make this cause more visible, and show them that there are so many ways to be part of the big picture.” 

The call to do more came when she was hosting a travel show called Special Delivery. Teaming up with an organisation called Climb to Change a Life, one episode involved Carla carrying a little disabled girl up a mountain in Thailand. The child had cerebral palsy, was mute and partially blind, and she was a 20 kilo precious cargo that Carla had to carry to the summit. “It was so surreal. I was running on adrenaline, because I knew that nothing in this world is going to make me drop her. And when I got to the top, I was bawling. It was a metaphysical transformation.” 

The Habitat for Humanity team in Thailand noticed her fervour, and coincidentally, back in Singapore actor Paul Foster had suggested Carla’s name to the Singapore team. It was kismet. “All sides pointed to my lending a voice for something so important. You can only impact if you’re passionate.”

And passion is not something she’s lacking in. At the shoot, she lifts her arms and laughs towards the camera. There’s a glimpse of a tattoo on the inside of her arm. “It says pamilya,” she sparkles. “It means family in Filipino. I got it done just before I got married.”

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