The first Pinoy Drag Supreme is an underdog

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Naia, the first winner of “Drag Den” on the political aspect of drag, the importance of support systems, and the power of being outspoken. Photo by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are the subject’s and not of CNN Philippines.

At a drag brunch in Sentro 1771, one of the restaurants along the streets of Capitol Commons in Pasig, Brian Black, known for his drag persona, Naia, emerges onto the makeshift stage — luminous in bright pink hair and a tinseled dress. Here, like most drag brunches, one is inclined to feel either of two things: relief at being able to catch drag shows without the need to stay up all night, or dread at having to wake up early on a weekend to watch one’s favorite performers. In the latter’s case, the experience is almost unanimously worth it.

I had set up an interview with Naia weeks prior and, unable to rearrange her hectic schedule, we decided to do an informal sit down at one of her gigs. Life these days has been exceedingly unpredictable for Naia. Like many drag queens, the artform’s soaring prominence has led to job bookings left and right, many of which overlap on the same dates — a far cry from the largely low production online performances she periodically did to earn meager tips during the height of state-sanctioned lockdowns.

The call time was eight o’clock in the morning, I was warned.

While getting ready backstage, I was curious to learn if Naia had arrived at the venue on time. Getting in drag is a lengthy, intricate process, and learning that she had to travel all the way from Las Piñas, suitcase and wig head in hand, I felt the urge to ask. “On time? That is a construct,” she joked.

There is an anachronistic quality to drag brunches that emphasizes their appeal. Like something illicit, decadent; a secret once kept in the dark, now finally out in the open for everyone to marvel and gawk at. A longtime fixture of queer nightclubs, drag’s seeming placelessness in daytime venues has cultivated a new viewing culture among unlikely fans. With the artform finding its way into mainstream imagination, local drag brunches opened opportunities for wider audiences to access the craft: teenagers, aunties, young professionals trying to spice up their mornings, the list goes on.

Naia was one of the first local drag queens to take on brunch gigs in Manila. Long before she debuted as a cast member of “Drag Den Philippines,” eventually winning the competition, Naia was a staple performer for weekend brunches at Butterboy in Quezon City — a queer-owned bakery cafe famous for their laminated pastries. Along with the sporadic rise of drag’s popularity and the influx of drag-related jobs spurred by the nightclub scene, Naia was a lone wolf venturing in daytime gigs.

Naia with parter Shin and Precious Paula Nicole at the "Drag Therapy" show. Photo courtesy of NAIA

Organized by a team that aptly called the project “Drag Therapy,” audiences flocked to Sentro 1771 that Saturday morning seeking some kind of healing. Some small mercy that can only be offered to them by the right mix of high energy performances and a hearty meal — if anything, a welcome distraction from the wretched humdrum of life one has to contend with.

It has been said that what drag constructs is a fantasy. A sort of reckoning with one’s childlike intuitions. For both viewer and artist, drag allows somewhat of a reckless abandon that traditional, structured artforms simply lack (or reject). Without the confinement of formalist frameworks, drag thrived in excess. Here, there is value in being expository and unrestrained and unapologetic.

And what of drag is so captivating? In his poem, “For Franz,” poet and scholar J. Neil Garcia anecdotally describes the experience of witnessing a drag performance by writing, “twirling in their lace and sequined gowns / before the tired and witless gaze. / Refusing to accept their bodies’ verdict.” In the confessional, the poet is subsumed by the performer’s aspirations of becoming something other than the self. A drag queen’s performance is not an ode, not a yearning for any object of desire. The performer themself is the object of desire; their lover, the very act of becoming someone else entirely. Later in the poem, Garcia writes, “to desire is to change, / nothing more.”

This isn’t my first time watching a Naia performance. From online drag shows on Facebook to late night performances at underground queer raves like the Elephant Party, the evolution of Naia as both performer and persona is undeniable. More than the virtuosity shaped by her constant and rigorous practice of the craft, what is most palpable is her potent self-actualization. There is a new sense of clarity absent in the early days of Naia who, while always brimming with charm and unabashed talent, was once held back by her acute awareness of her own neophyte status in the drag scene.

“Sweet girl pero palaban,” she once described herself on “Drag Den,” minimizing the grit of her own artistic identity.

“Sweet girl pero palaban,” Naia once described herself on “Drag Den,” minimizing the grit of her own artistic identity. Photo by JL JAVIER

The quote certainly rings true for this brunch gig, at least the “palaban” part: from the exaggerated portrayal of femininity, the irreverent language, the rendering of movement, the transmutation of the body, down to her distinct “pop” style. Brian Black’s transformation into Naia is both a calculated, artistic process and a political statement; gritty as the seams of her favorite corset, the one she jokes should never see the light of day.

And as the pop vocals in Gwen Stefani’s “Make Me Like You” reaches a crescendo: “Why'd you have to go and make me like you? / Yeah, this is a feeling I'm not used to,” Brian Black completely disappears — into the moment, into the song, into Naia's full glory.

Naia as a product of political consciousness

In September 2017, Brian Black became the subject of extensive bullying on social media carried out by what is widely believed to be part of a complex, state-funded disinformation machinery. Having participated in a mass mobilization in Mendiola condemning the Marcos martial law on its 45th anniversary, a blurry photo of Brian was blasted by pro-Marcos influencers on Facebook, inviting the ire of many Duterte-Marcos supporters known to permeate the platform.

In the comment section, one user wrote, “Makinis pa kay Belo at mukhang naka rolex. ‘Di ba wow!” making a swipe at Brian’s caucasian features and seemingly bourgeois upbringing. In several others, Brian is lambasted for being queer, for being “too young” to know better, for being allegedly lured into the movement by leftist professors promising better grades, among others.

What was missing in the so-called discourse was the context of Brian Black’s politics. The fact that Brian had been independently active in progressive movements in and out of the public sphere long before that day in Mendiola did not figure into the conversation.

Having been elected into the student council in UP Diliman as the lone winning candidate of the progressive student party, STAND UP, eventually appointed as head of the “People’s Struggles” committee, Brian frequently attended multisectoral mass demonstrations condemning state-sponsored killings, labor rights violations, gender-based abuses, attacks on the press and free speech, and other forms of social and political injustices.

In one instance, Brian recalls riding a car with several friends that was being tailed by a red-plated vehicle. Being familiar with the many intimidation tactics the state routinely deployed to silence its detractors, Brian’s suspicions were confirmed when his dad prompted him about a warning from the PNP regarding his involvement in alleged terrorist activities.

First time out in full drag at Drag Cartel 2019. Photo courtesy of NAIA

This happened at the height of the Duterte administration, notable for its extrajudicial killings targeting known activists, grassroots organizers, and human rights defenders.

Recalling his experience, Brian noted that during those moments, he found comfort in the solidarity of other student activists. “It was scary, but also, alam mo kasing marami kang kasama. At the time kasi, parang okay, andami na nating nasusurveil.”

The threat for Brian Black back then, as a student, an activist, was as tangible as it gets. While such threats may have warded off people in similar situations: threat to life, to the safety of one’s family, etc., in his case, it can be argued that such brazen assault helped embolden Brian’s persona as Naia. Before he even began to explore the subversive language of drag, challenging gender norms in a largely patriarchal, heteronormative country, and even risking the scrutiny of family and peers, Brian had already experienced actual material danger from state retaliations espoused by his fearless political pronouncements. In fact, he explains that so much of his experiences having sought comfort in the community he once shared with other student activists can be parallelized with his experiences operating within the drag economy, with drag queens looking out for each other and having each other’s backs.

“There is some solace in that, pag alam mong ‘yung experiences mo — may ka-share ka nun eh. Parang, kung anong pinagdadaanan mo na nakakatakot, kasi talagang nakakatakot siya, you know you have people who are not just there to comfort you. Hindi siya comfort eh, solidarity siya. So, in the drag world, may unspoken solidarity kami,” he says.

At the 2023 UP Fair where Naia served as one of the event hosts, a photo of Brian in full drag surfaced on Twitter carrying a pamphlet from labor-oriented cultural mass organization, Tambisan sa Sining, bearing the words “Sahod Itaas! Presyo Ibaba!” More than anything, this illustrates Naia's devotion to reclaiming mainstream spaces to center important ideas despite how unfashionable and unglamorous they may seem to the average drag fan.

It isn’t that Naia is braver or better than any other drag queen. Far from it. It is that just like any other drag queen, bravery has always been hardwired into Brian’s identity by virtue of his circumstances as a queer person navigating the larger political life that has long alienated people from the margins. As a queer person immersed in progressive movements, the very act of defiance is encoded in Brian’s personhood. That Brian had to be brave, as with most drag queens, is what ultimately shapes and informs his artistic sensibilities, his aesthetic preferences, and his political affinities in and out of drag.

In one instance, Brian recalls riding a car with several friends that was being tailed by a red-plated vehicle. Being familiar with the many intimidation tactics the state routinely deployed to silence its detractors, Brian’s suspicions were confirmed when his dad prompted him about a warning from the PNP regarding his involvement in alleged terrorist activities.

Of course, this isn’t to say that all drag queens are inherently progressive thinkers who are willing to defy fascist institutions the way they defy gender norms. Drag, after all, is not by default a site for complex political thought. Like most artforms, it takes actively involving oneself in matters outside artistic practice to hone your voice. This, I believe, is what sets Naia apart: an entire life outside of drag lived in solidarity with the masses.

At its core, there is no such thing as apolitical art. Even the deliberate utterance of one’s political apathy in the context of artistic production is itself a political choice driven by political intentions. And drag is certainly no different. It came as no surprise then that, upon winning the coveted title of the first Pinoy Drag Supreme, Naia would be willing to publicly demonstrate her bold resistance to the tyrannies that the Marcos regime represented, even if it meant potentially advocating against her self-interests.

“We have so much to do in this country, in a country that silences dissent... and while Marcos is our f*cking president, we have so much f*cking work to do. Should I have said that? Bawal ba 'yon? Wala tayong pake! Drag is political!” Naia confidently proclaimed on the night of her crowning at the Samsung Hall mere months into the election of President Marcos Jr., luminous and defiant as ever.

Such articulations may not directly impact the material realities of people rendered precarious by the tyrannies of the state, but it is certainly more than what can be said about many people who wield her level of influence. And if the first Pinoy Drag Supreme ought to be known for anything, it may as well be for speaking truth to power.

Acknowledging one’s privilege amid one’s celebrity

Somewhere between switching wigs and navigating the dizzying scene of fans prodding drag queens for selfies, it became apparent to the both of us that the sit down interview we had originally planned wasn’t going to happen. At least not at the drag brunch.

Joining Naia for the event were Corazon Filipinas from “Drag Race Philippines” season 1 who served as the host of the event, and season 1 winner Precious Paula Nicole.

Naia was one of the first local drag queens to take on brunch gigs in Manila. Long before she debuted as a cast member of “Drag Den Philippines,” eventually winning the competition, Naia was a staple performer for weekend brunches at Butterboy in Quezon City. Photo by JL JAVIER

Naia has never been stingy when it came to her admiration for other drag queens. Apart from the enduring friendships she has formed with the rest of the “Drag Den” cast, Naia would casually express fondness for other artists like Precious whom she would share brief interactions with between numbers. “I mentioned you in my thesis intro!” Naia candidly shared during a moment backstage.

Despite the mainstreaming of drag, there is still a lot of growing to be done not only among artists but also among audiences. She says, “Kahit ano man ang mangyari, all of us queens here in the Philippines are lobbying for better treatment of drag artists. Na maganda dapat yung pay, na kung ano mang effort nilalabas namin as queens, we make sure that the people booking us respect us, respect the artform. Kasi we all have shared experiences na binabastos kami, either during our performances or not. Touching our hair, pulling them, etc. Doing drag here in the third world, we are not making as much as they do in other countries. We are doing it for our love of the craft essentially.”

Naia explains that while the likes of her, and Precious, and Corazon, and other local drag queens who have enjoyed some kind of global attention now have enough negotiating power to demand a competitive pay, most local drag queens still find themselves having to trudge through seedy nightclubs gig after gig, fighting for spots on stage and earning ₱50 tips at dingy bars.

It certainly doesn’t bode well for them that in western liberal democracies like the US, a country deemed to be a haven for queer expression, there is a growing sentiment against drag artists that has now evolved into official policy in certain states. And while there seems to be no equivalent yet in the Philippines, it is worth noting that we live in a neoliberal, neocolonial country whose political foundations are broadly patterned after American ideas. This means it isn’t too farfetched to imagine a political future where western antagonism against drag artists eventually trickles down into our own national conversations. Moreover, legislative efforts that seek to protect queer Filipinos from discrimination such as the SOGIE Equality bill still sit unmoored, plagued by its alleged lack of urgency as argued by lawmakers like Sen. Joel Villanueva.

In the eyes of its critics, many of whom emerge from the far right, drag represents the worst of the LGBTQIA+ community — a microcosm of everything detestable about queer people. And in a country whose moral values are defined largely by its predominantly Christian population, this weird little corner in the spectrum of queerness where all gender expressions are welcome can so easily become the target of hate.

Drag artists experience this vulnerability two-folds. It is not only a matter of how they express themselves out in the open, but also of livelihood. This means that apart from being beholden to some kind of public acceptance in their own individual, isolated lives, enough to warrant protection and basic rights, they must also be pleasant and appealing enough to earn an audience, to “deserve” a living wage that puts roofs over their heads and food on their tables.

“My experience as a drag queen is so privileged kasi I just skyrocketed into this comfortable position,” Naia pointed out. She recalls having randomly visited a small queer bar in Poblacion with a few friends and being blown away by the virtually nameless performers. “We were just intrigued, tapos may drag queens pala. Tapos ang galing nila!”

Nonetheless, Naia believes that we are still taking a step towards the right direction. That the community, in her words, “rises to the tides” so to speak, where anytime a drag queen is elevated into the realm of artistic relevance, accruing cultural capital, opportunities, and by extension, profit, there must be a ripple effect that uplifts everyone else — there has to be — all while maintaining that despite her privileges, it took a lot of hard work to get to where she is, just that she got there at the right time and under the right circumstances. In the same breath, Naia confessed, without delving too deeply into the interior design of her own anxieties, that it did take a lot of therapy to come to terms with her insecurities. To become a version of herself that isn’t inhibited by her own worst judgment.

Naia performing at the Elephant Party in June 2023. Photo by JL JAVIER

Naia credits much of this privilege to her support system, underscoring how the tiniest bit of support from family and friends, even in intangible ways, can truly spell the difference for a drag queen’s career: her parents showing up to her graduation while she was clad in full drag, friends tipping her at early morning gigs, her boyfriend designing garments and accessories for her shows, etc.

With barely any time left to flesh out her colorful stories about drag, the brunch gig was over, much to the dismay of the fans who had flocked to the restaurant that Saturday morning. Thankfully, Brian and I, along with a group of our other friends, had set up an out of town trip to Los Baños that same weekend — a perfect venue to continue the interview. Ambling about listlessly, trunk filled with flamboyant clothes, we drove to Los Baños along with Pam, a close friend who also organizes drag events in Southern NCR, and Shin, Brian’s boyfriend of six years and a constant creative collaborator.

Wading through the usual Laguna traffic exacerbated by the longest domino of car collisions I had ever seen, we arrived at Nomina Nuda early evening that same Saturday. The Los Baños-based art space founded by artists and curators, Jael Mendoza and Cristian Tablazon, was also the site where the latter came up with a series of film installations that feature the work of Naia, including “Reliquia” which was exhibited in 2021 at the Casa della Confraternita in Udine, Italy, and “Aria (from Study for Nine Figures and Voices in Search of a Spectacle),” exhibited at the M+ Mediatheque in Hong Kong the same year.

Naia credits much of this privilege to her support system, underscoring how the tiniest bit of support from family and friends, even in intangible ways, can truly spell the difference for a drag queen’s career.

The second film installation, “Aria,” was also included in the duo’s curatorial project, “THE BODY IS A CIRCLE, WHICH COMES HOME IN THE HANDS,” which was exhibited at the Gravity Art Space in Quezon City in 2022. I remember walking into the gallery during opening night confronted by Naia's blown up face flashing from the projector, lip-syncing some Italian maudlin mirroring the martial-colonial entanglements of the Philippines. I found it both bewildering and amusing to see such a pop culture staple become the focal point in what is often considered to be “high brow” art. But there she was, this woman — a spitting image of Brian Black who, just months ago, was crying at a drinking session because he didn’t feel certain in the drag persona he created, now suddenly so poised and swanky and overflowing with a discerning sense of self-assurance.

All of these projects were developed long before Naia's rise to fame, which is less a testament to how earnest and unequivocal the belief her friends have in her, and more a demonstration of her tenacity and desire for artistic exploration — though both are certainly true. Naia has a gift, yes, but more than that, she has a hunger, the kind that propels people to lengths unseen. It is this hunger that has taken her to a global platform and it’s the same hunger that continues to catapult her to places, whether it is a stage to perform in or a state of resistance to conventional ideas.

The power of being outspoken

During the last episode of “Drag Den Philippines” where they announced her as the winner, Naia repeatedly proclaimed herself as an underdog. “When I said that on the show, I was referring to how I felt on the set and before even coming to the show. I already knew I wasn’t going to be the most ‘known’ one, I wasn’t the most ‘prepared’ one, per se. Not even the one who has spent the most time doing drag. The whole competition, never akong nakita as a threat ng mga competitors ko. And I always kind of felt invisible,” she shared, squirming and laughing as she recalls her basketball jersey look on episode one.

“Parang inaccept ko na lang na no matter what I do, I will never be seen as a threat, so I’m just going to do my own thing. I’m just going to have fun. I was just happy to be everyone’s friend,” she adds.

To this day, fellow queens from her season still poke fun at the seemingly minimal effort she put into her aesthetic during the time of filming, something Naia finally has the heart to laugh about. In one tweet promoting auditions for the second season, Lady Gagita joked, “Go mag audition na kayo, mag basketbol jersey lang kayo, sure win na yan.”

Naia responded to the quip by joking, “Instant ROI” complete with a pink heart emoji.

On joining “Drag Den” she shares, “Parang inaccept ko na lang na no matter what I do, I will never be seen as a threat, so I’m just going to do my own thing. I’m just going to have fun. I was just happy to be everyone’s friend.” Photo by JL JAVIER

At a time when audiences have taken it upon themselves to anatomize every aspect of a public figure’s life, every error and deficiency laid bare to ogle at and contemplate and intellectualize, Naia chose to surrender to her instincts. She stopped seeing the platform as a competition, and instead, started treating it as an opportunity to have fun without realizing that she had inadvertently immortalized her joy, committing her unshrinking selfhood to permanence — and on a global streaming platform, of all places.

The choice to audition for “Drag Den Philippines” was similarly intuitive for Naia. I remember she once shared that if she ever made it on “Drag Den,” at least she would become part of something that was being done for the first time. And this choice certainly paid off, not only in terms of Naia's victory in the competition, but also in terms of what she was allowed to do and feel and say in today’s increasingly volatile political climate.

“Drag Den was very outspoken and walang malabo. As in talagang ‘eto yung nangyayari sa Pilipinas ngayon [na] nararamdaman natin yung effects. And I was not shocked because the vibe on the set din was like, ang tapang ng drag natin sa Pilipinas in general. We didn’t feel the pressure of catering to a specific audience. It was like, ‘you can say whatever you want,’ yun lang yung prompt na binigay sa amin,” expresses Naia.

Naia points out that when you put drag in the context of show business, there may be some tendency to curate, to filter, and to water down the intrinsic subversiveness that comes with the artform, all to appeal to the mainstream. “What we did was binida namin yung pagka subversive ng drag, binida namin yung inherent political nature that comes with being a drag queen.” Ultimately, Naia hopes that drag artists continue to speak up, all to amplify the broader queer movement’s assertion that pride is indeed a protest.

Naia's gift isn’t so much that she can do wig reveals and complicated dance moves in six-inch platform heels, contracting her facial muscles to accurately mimic the words to a song. Naia's gift lies in her ability to offer young queer people the same sense of comfort and solidarity she once found in her communities — as a gay boy, as a student activist, and as a drag queen. When “Anna Wintour” by Azealia Banks starts blaring from the speakers, her go-to song, the spotlight fixed on her illuminating stupor, she looks back at the audience with enough glassiness in her eyes to reflect the possibilities of what they, too, can become. When Naia opens her mouth, you can almost hear her sing.