If she wanted to, Tiffany Panhilason could brag to Hollywood casting directors about her successful dancing and modeling career.
She could tell them how she's toured the world as a dancer, performed with A-list stars like Justin Timberlake and Pharrell, and modeled for national ad campaigns, including Flirty Girl Fitness, Muscle Milk and Taco Bell.
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Tiffany Panhilason's Top 5 actors• Morgan Freeman ("his story inspires me")
• Meryl Streep ("she's an amazing actress")
• Tina Fey and Amy Poehler ("for being powerful women and comedians in this industry")
• Sandra Bullock ("her career has gone from rom-coms to drama")
Instead, when she goes to auditions, she emphasizes her acting talent.
"I don't look at it as, 'I'm a dancer and I hope they take me seriously.' I go in thinking, 'I'm an actress.' That's a challenge, in a sense, that I've taken," said the Elk Grove High School alumna.
Her approach is working. Panhilason is successfully transitioning from dancing to acting, having recently landed guest roles on "The Mindy Project," "Castle," "Two and a Half Men" and other TV shows.
"Dance is such a huge part of me, and I've been so blessed to have this career ... but I am 100 percent focused on acting now," she said. "I always knew, since I was little, that'd I'd end up here."
Born in Bacolod, Philippines ("The City of Smiles"), Panhilason moved to Elk Grove Village at age 10 so her mom could earn her master's degree at Northwestern University (her mom, Nelia Bernabe, now works for Northwest Suburban High School District 214).
Panhilason took dance classes throughout her childhood, joining the Orchesis dance program at Elk Grove High School led by teacher Lisette Rodriguez.
"(Rodriguez) was very encouraging ... and that was such a huge part of my high school," Panhilason said.
After graduation, Panhilason's family frowned on her plan to move to Los Angeles, preferring she go to college and earn a degree in dance. But Panhilason was determined to get real-life dance experience in Hollywood.
"I just have always focused on my Plan A," she said.
She quickly landed her first dancing job on the Black Eyed Peas video "Don't Lie." That opened doors for her, leading to modeling jobs, commercials, more music videos and backup dancing for Lee Ann Womack, Santana, Lil' Kim and others.
Panhilason's favorite experience was making a commercial for Disney World Resorts to the song "Celebrate You" by Corbin Bleu. She co-starred in the ad with Bleu and worked with top directors and fashion photographers, plus Michael Jackson's choreographer.
"When you're in a video, you hear the song over and over again. But this song I liked, because it captured my journey at that time. (In the video) I invite Corbin Bleu to my 16th birthday and it's an Alice in Wonderland thing," she said. "I was working with great people. It was just such a happy song about celebrating your individuality."
Panhilason appeared last month on ABC's business-pitching show "Shark Tank," with Cow Wow Cereal Milk, but her manager says she's no longer with the company.
This year, Panhilason already has a few projects in the works, which she's contractually forbidden to discuss but very excited about.
In her spare time, she helps raise money for the Kalipay Negrense Foundation, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged children in the Philippines.
"I'm grateful to be at this point, and to have a good people around me," she said.
-- Jamie Sotonoff
Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting feature, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.