ENTERTAINMENT

How the queens of ‘Drag Den Philippines’ embrace an inclusive, subversive drag

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(From left) Pura Luka Vega, NAIA, Maria Cristina, Aries Night, Lady Gagita, and Barbie-Q. Photos by KITKAT PAJARO

Illuminated by a lone spotlight in front of a full house audience in Cinema 7 at Trinoma, the eight drag queens of "Drag Den" donned their stunning, campy looks: Aries Night’s peach-nude dress; Barbie-Q’s fairytale realness; Lady Gagita’s Lynn from Las Vegas-inspired attire, representing “mga tita na nagpa-rebond dahil nakuha na ang 13th month pay,” complete with Christmas lights and an introduction that spoofs the opening lines in Filipino barangay miss gay pageants; Maria Cristina’s black and beaded Filipiniana look; Naia’s sultry red dress, serving Marilyn Monroe realness, with her own pit crew to boot; O–A’s saging couture (her “favorite fruit”); Pura Luka Vega’s Miranda Priestly-inspired outfit, accompanied by her own minions; and Shewarma’s glittery, golden look.

As if that were not camp enough, “Drag Dealer” Nicole Cordoves also mothered with her posh, panipisan-ng-tela look, “Drag Runner” Sassa Gurl in her farcical outfit change, rendering the widely debated blue and black or white and gold dress, which surfaces on Twitter every now and then, and, of course, show creator Rod Singh in her bubblegum-ish look, serving “an elevated Dua Lipa extravaganza,” as audience member Philip Lorena put it on an Instagram story.

Moments before the screening began, executive producer Antoinette Jadaone delivered a prayer, which, despite its hilarious earnestness, is quintessential Pinoy.

This was the scene at the premiere night of “Drag Den Philippines,” a drag reality television series “for Filipinos, by Filipinos” — a night capped with a standing ovation and tumultuous applause from the crowd.

The second Filipino drag competition show to be launched this year, “Drag Den” follows the recent success and enthusiasm received by the local drag scene, marking its foray into mainstream spaces — a breakthrough the community long deserved and sought after.

Prior to the show’s red carpet gala night and in anticipation of its worldwide streaming premiere this Dec. 8 on Amazon Prime Video, CNN Philippines Life spoke to seven of “Drag Den” queens who will be flaunting their best drag to become the first-ever Filipino “Drag Den” supreme.

The interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

ARIES NIGHT

Why did you join “Drag Den Philippines?”

For me, it was a no-brainer decision kasi it is a heavily Filipino-produced drag reality show. Kumbaga I saw it as something na… parang may possibility na mag-pioneer kami of something big kasi given na may other competition na pero wala pang competition na as in solely for the Filipinos, as in baklaan, kung paano talaga nagsimula ang drag sa Pilipinas, kung paano talaga ‘yung sense of humor na you’re not trying to please any other international audience.

Who are the drag queens you look up to, and how are you influenced by them?

Una, siguro sa international [scene], si Vander Von Odd, ‘yung winner ng [“The Boulet Brothers] Dragula" Season 1. And then from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” favorite ko si Violet Chachki tsaka si Jinkx Monsoon. Violet’s aesthetics tsaka Jinkx Monsoon’s mind. And sa local [scene,] actually ang pinaka-idol ko talaga sa local is Precious [Paula Nicole], even before everything, kasi for me, Precious possesses what Filipino drag is, how a Filipino drag queen should behave kasi super humble [niya], like as in saludo ako sa pagka-humble niya kahit sobrang galing niya. Hindi mo mafi-feel na parang alam niyang magaling siya. Ipapakita niya lang.

How does it feel to be a drag queen in the Philippines?

At first, it was difficult kasi people don’t really see it as an art form, more like a form of entertainment lang… ‘yung mga treatment na para kang mascot na parang [ang tingin nila] ginagawa lang namin ‘to for fun. And at the same time, thankfully naman, marami nang taong nakaka-appreciate. They show their appreciation through tipping, through their support sa social media. And kaya ko nasabi ‘yung through tipping kasi isa rin sa hindi ko gaano kagustong part of being a drag queen here in the Philippines is underpaid kami, like grabe ‘yung expenses mo from head to toe pero underpaid ka. You really have to work hard for it through tips.

What sets “Drag Den Philippines” apart from other drag shows?

As one of the few people as of now [who] knows what “Drag Den” is, I can confidently say na it is something that nobody has ever seen or experienced before kasi, even us being in that competition, super shook kami sa format, sa mga gagawin. Andun pa rin siyempre ‘yung blueprint pero still very Pinoy siya. And mas more focused kami sa sisterhood… Hindi siya ‘yung parang palakasan ng personality, pa-loud-an ng personality.

Who is your fiercest competition on the show, and why?

Actually, Naia. I saw Naia as my biggest competition in the show kasi pareho kaming medyo brainy and also ‘yung personality niya very charismatic. And si Lady Gagita kasi, oh my god, siya ‘yung… first kong pinaka-idol, second year high school pa lang ako, ‘yung telephone parodies pa lang niya, super idol ko siya. Lagi ko siya china-chat as a fanboy… Isa rin ‘tong si Gagita na ini-embody rin talaga ang Pinoy drag na hindi siya nagpa-influence sa kahit anong Western idea of drag. Binuild niya rin talaga ‘yung drag niya from the ground up.

Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

BARBIE-Q

Why did you join “Drag Den Philippines?”

Nag-post ako sa Facebook. Sabi ko, “gusto niyo ba akong makita sa mga ganitong competition?” Tapos may nag-message sa akin na trans. Sabi niya, “sana makita kita sa drag para merong kagaya natin na sumasali sa mga ganung competition.” Tapos pinush niya ako na mag-audition… Tapos tinatawag-tawagan na ako ng “Drag Den.” Hindi ko alam na ‘yung nag-message pala na ‘yun, na kausap ko palagi, na nagturo sa akin mag-audition and mag-upload, si Direk Rod pala ‘yun.

Who are the drag queens you look up to, and how are you influenced by them?

Favorite kong drag queens sina Gorgeous Dawn, Valentina, Kylie Sonique Love, siyempre si mamshie Manila [Luzon], number one [siya] kasi sobrang bait niya, sobrang artista ‘yung itsura niya, as in nakaka-star struck siya, si Marla ng Nectar, tsaka ‘yung bagong drag queen ngayon, si Olivia [Lux].

How does it feel to be a drag queen in the Philippines?

Sobrang saya, siyempre. Parang nakaka-artista. Tapos kung saan-saan na ako napunta sa Pinas. Parang nalibot ko na ‘yung buong bansa dahil sa pagda-drag queen. Tapos nabibili ko ‘yung mga gusto ko… Kasi ‘di ba Barbie collector nga ako, siyempre ginagawa kong Barbie na ‘yung sarili ko, hindi na ‘yung mga Barbie dolls… Nabibili ko ‘yung gusto ng family ko lalo na ‘yung mga pamangkin ko.

How does your drag represent the LGBTQIA+ community?

Kaya rin naman ako sumali ng “Drag Den” ay para makilala din na ang mga trans ay kayang lumaban sa ganitong competition… and I made it.

Who is your fiercest competition on the show, and why?

Actually, lahat kasi hindi ko masyadong kilala lahat. Noong nagkita-kita kami, dalawa lang sa kanila ang kilala ko, so alam ko na ‘yung capacity ng dalawa. Tapos madami pa lang magagaling na bata, na mga bagong drag [artists] ngayon. Pero ang pinaka-competition para sa akin ay si Naia and Shewarma.

Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

LADY GAGITA

Why did you join “Drag Den Philippines?”

I joined “Drag Den” because, first and foremost, I want to showcase my abilities and capabilities. Kasi parang other people would [say] na hanggang impersonation lang daw ang kaya ko. So this is actually a statement na hindi lang ako hanggang impersonation pero I can actually create an original concept, a campy concept… Ang pangalan ko ay Lady Gagita. Nakadikit siya kay Lady Gaga. Pero I’d like to express na iba si Lady Gagita kay Lady Gaga.

Who are the drag queens you look up to, and how are you influenced by them?

Paolo Ballesteros. Siya talaga ‘yung unang pumapasok sa isip ko ‘pag may mga tanong na ganyan, kasi I’m not actually a fan of international drag queens because I know sa sarili ko na ‘pag tayo naman ang nabigyan ng platform, feeling ko kasi mas magagaling ‘yung mga Pilipino.

How does it feel to be a drag queen in the Philippines?

Working within the country as a drag queen was really hard. I mean, ngayon nagkakaroon na tayo ng konting pansin sa mainstream media, especially noong nag-start ‘yung “Drag Race Philippines,” so nakakatuwa na little by little we are now given the treatment that we deserve, that we are longing [for] way, way before pa. It was hard kasi we’re living in the Philippines, and we are not actually accepted, particularly the LGBT community. Hindi tayo fully accepted, but we are just tolerated. We have a cruel government. We’re still living in judgment. We’re still living in a very cruel world.

Dati kasi drag queens were treated as barangay performers lang… Ngayon parang tinitingnan na siya na a form of art, na it’s not just bakla-baklaan lang. It takes passion, energy, blood, and sweat to do such a craft… Dati ‘pag nagge-guest kami sa mga TV shows, hindi kami binibigyan ng dressing rooms, sa pantry lang kami nagme-makeup… Ngayon nagkakaroon na kami ng karapatan na mag-markup ng TF [talent fee] kasi in-demand kami, and then they actually see our work as something na hindi different from the artists that we see today.

How does your drag represent the LGBTQIA+ community?

Way before, wala pang “Drag Den,” wala pang “Drag Race,” I’ve been doing advocacies sa LGBTQ+ community. I’ve been performing in a lot of Pride events… When I perform kasi, people are actually anticipating my performance because they see me as a representation of Lady Gaga, and we all know that Lady Gaga is a very political person. So I mean to embody what Lady Gaga actually possesses… I’m also doing this to express my political opinions. I’m doing this to make a little ambag sa LGBTQ+ advocacies.

What are your hopes for the local drag scene, even after the show?

Gusto ko siyang mas mabigyan pa ng mas marami platform sa mainstream media. I hope it doesn’t end here. I hope it doesn’t end with the other show and then “Drag Den.” I hope na mas marami pang opportunities ang darating sa mga drag queens in the Philippines. I hope that they are paid well.

Who is your fiercest competition on the show, and why?

When it comes to looks, I go for Shewarma. But when it comes to brains and personality, I go for Naia.

Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

MARIA CRISTINA

Why did you join “Drag Den Philippines?”

I think the tagline “for Filipinos, by Filipinos” caught my attention because I, for one, am a proponent of loving local [culture]. And from my aesthetic to my drag to what I do most exemplifies Filipino culture, and I think “Drag Den” perfectly fits… what I believe in and what I promote.

Who are the drag queens you look up to, and how are you influenced by them?

My first influence was Manila Luzon, really. I did a lot of parodies of her. I followed her… I love Shangela. I love POC (people of color) drag queens. I love Alyssa Edwards and, of course, Mama Ru. And a lot of local queens: Eva Papaya, Let Let Baltazar, my drag mother Donna Britney, Dee Dee Holliday, who is very famous because she is political, Lumina, Jaja Angeles, and Mocha Diva.

How does it feel to be a drag queen in the Philippines?

Before, it’s a tough job because we had to be visible in the community… We had to do a lot of work to be seen, to be understood. But now, given the fact that there is a rise in the drag scene brought to us by “Drag Race Philippines” and “Drag Den,” I think there is [less of a] task to introduce the art form to the majority of people. But, still, there is more work to be done. Drag is there. We just really need to work more on visibility.

What sets “Drag Den Philippines” apart from other drag shows?

I don’t think there is a difference with “Drag Race Philippines,” but I think the commonality is that it both celebrates the artistry of Filipino drag artists… As long as both are celebrating the art, differences don’t matter.

Who is your fiercest competition on the show, and why?

With the great words of my mentor, Daddy Rupert Acuña, he always tells us that the greatest competitor you have will always be yourself. The show taught me that I am not competing with anyone else. I have to overcome competing with myself.

Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

NAIA

Why did you join “Drag Den Philippines?”

I think I saw “Drag Den” as an opportunity for growth because, when they were doing the auditions, I was not even two years into doing drag. It was only after filming had wrapped na nag-second birthday ako as a drag queen. I just saw it as a massive opportunity for me. I didn’t want to let it pass. I didn’t think I was ready for [“Drag Race.”] I didn’t have money, so I couldn’t shell out so much money on costumes and whatnot to join competitions like “Drag Race.” So when “Drag Den” came about, I was like “maybe I can join this and see where this takes me.” I was so scared before because I really didn’t think that I was ready for it. But I still did it, and I’m happy about it because I got to grow from that experience.

Who are the drag queens you look up to, and how are you influenced by them?

Honestly, I always tell this to people, one of the first drag queens that I was totally enamored by was Brigiding. Because I met her in 2017, and I saw her perform. I loved her energy, and that’s the kind of energy that I imbibe in my performances kasi high-energy bitch din ako. Gagita was [also a] kind of inspiration because she was the social media star of, like, when YouTube was still starting out, nandun na siya. Matagal na ‘yung presence ni Lady Gagita, so nakaka-inspire. Pero kailangan na niyang magpahinga, feeling ko (laughs).

Honestly, the first time I did drag, I was trying to emulate a look by Aquaria. When she went to the Philippines for “Aquaria at SM,” hindi ako nakapunta sa event na ‘yun at all kasi nagte-thesis ako. Pero when “Drag Cartel” came noong December [2019], tapos na ako sa first draft ko, pwede na ako mag-compete, I recreated the look that she was wearing… out of SM plastic bags and then may "contractual service" na nakasulat.

How does your drag represent the LGBTQIA+ community?

It’s my philosophy kasi in drag to release your inner child. That’s how I feel whenever I’m in drag. I feel like it’s just young Brian playing dress up, and I wish I had done this sooner. I wish that the world was kinder to young queer people, so that I wouldn’t have so many repressed thoughts and feelings noong bata pa ako up to high school. So it was only in college where I really got to explore. Now I feel like I’m still experimenting with myself. I’ve learned so much of myself through Naia. And that’s what my drag represents. It’s your freedom of expression to be yourself, while also using your platform for the greater good and to, you know, help contribute to a change in society because we weren’t born to a place that is so kind to people like us. I think it’s our job to make it kinder for the next generation.

What are your hopes for the local drag scene, even after the show?

I don’t even hope for it, but I know that the drag scene will boom. It will continue to boom. It’s booming right now. Andami ng baby drag queens. Andami nang opportunities for drag queens like me and for the older drag queens as well, who have been doing this for a long time. Now they’re getting the recognition that they deserve after so, so long. And, sure, it’s becoming more mainstream. There are pros and cons to that. Part of the pros is that there [are] more opportunities and more gigs and more respect towards the drag community… They view drag as an artform like how we’ve always seen it as people who do drag. I think some people still think that drag is simply a comedy act, which it can be, but for me, it’s a lot more than just comedic relief… That’s what I hope for the drag scene naman na we become more open to the newcomers.

What sets “Drag Den Philippines” apart from other drag shows?

I think “Drag Den” is a lot more brave in what we’re saying, in what we’re presenting, in what we’re fighting for. It’s not washed down. It’s truly Pinoy culture, and the cast is representative of a diverse range of drag that you can find in the drag scene here in the Philippines.

Who is your fiercest competition on the show, and why?

This is a weird way to answer it, but I was kind of intimidated by how calm Barbie-Q was during the whole competition. It looked like she was just having fun. At that time, I was so stressed. And when I was stressed, I just looked at her… So parang hindi ko gets ‘yung mga taong ganun na chill lang… kasi nangangarag talaga ako… I think Barbie-Q was pretty authentic to herself.

Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

O–A

Why did you join “Drag Den Philippines?”

Fame whore kasi ako (laughs). Siyempre, may clout ‘yan kasi andun si Manila [Luzon]. Sumali talaga ako para makilala ng tao kung gaano kasama ‘yung ugali ko, kung gaano ako kaganda. Parang kasi kulang ng ganda sa community natin (laughs). Gusto ko lang talaga ipakita na star ako.

Who are the drag queens you look up to, and how are you influenced by them?

Sa international, favorite kong queens sina Bob the Drag Queen, Monique Heart, tsaka si Trixie Mattel. Tapos sa local, favorite ko sarili ko. Hello?

How does it feel to be a drag queen in the Philippines?

May times na parang “gusto ko pa ba talaga ‘to?” Pero, at the end of the day, fulfilling pa rin kasi talaga. Ito talaga ‘yung gusto ko. Every time na nagpe-perform ako, ang sarap sa feeling.

How does your drag represent the LGBTQIA+ community?

Half-Arab kasi ako, so both parents ko ay Muslims. Unfortunately, ako ‘yung magre-represent sa kanila… ‘Yung pagiging religious ng parents ko [ay may] malaking impact sa akin, so gusto kong sabihin sa mga gays, sa lahat, na hindi nade-define ng religion kung importante ka o hindi kasi growing up, ayun ang naramdaman ko.

What are your hopes for the local drag scene, even after the show?

Sana itigil na. Tama na ‘to. Naglolokohan lang tayo (laughs). Sana more blessing tsaka more gigs to everyone kasi deserve naman ng lahat. Tapos ‘wag na sana kaming kuriputin. Jusko, ang mahal mag-drag ha… Hindi talaga ‘to mura. Mukha lang siyang madali kasi parang ‘yun ang kailangan namin i-portray.

Who is your fiercest competition on the show, and why?

Si Manila [Luzon] kasi, hello, kilala na siya… Sikat na din siya tapos Englishera pa siya kaya parang, “shet, ang hirap!”

Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

PURA LUKA VEGA

Why did you join “Drag Den Philippines?”

It was more logical, I feel. They announced the auditions first, and then the way it was packaged was something that appealed to me, saying that this is for Filipinos and this is for the underdogs. Because, to be honest, drag came from a place of oppression. It resonated with me, so I was drawn to it.

Who are the drag queens you look up to, and how are you influenced by them?

Some of the drag queens that I look up to are already in the reality shows, some are my colleagues actually. I mean, the likes of the Divine Divas, even Eva [Le Queen]... For the international scene naman, I really look up to the queens who challenge the idea of drag like Sasha Velour, not so well-known na si Evah Destruction, and other bearded queens.

How does your drag represent the LGBTQIA+ community?

I feel like it’s a very bold statement to say that I represent a particular group, but I do want them to take [something from] whatever I wanted to show… Gusto ko na makuha nila [ang sentiment na] they are valid. There’s so much shame, I feel, in just trying to be yourself nowadays. We want to teach queer individuals that it’s okay to be who you are. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Bearded or femme, why not? Or if you’re trans, why not? You can still engage in the art of drag.

What sets “Drag Den Philippines” apart from other drag shows?

Expect differences in opinions. We’ve been very political. And it’s true what Sassa [Gurl] has said before that it has a lot of political and social commentaries. I think it also solidifies that drag is indeed political. That’s the main message the show wants to really address.

Who is your fiercest competition on the show, and why?

I think, myself. No, really, I don’t think I should compare my drag with anyone else’s drag ‘cause it’s like a fingerprint. Every drag is different.