- Asela Lee Kemper
Drag Up Your Life: Filipinx American Representation in Drag Race
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Many people may have heard the term drag from the popular US reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race. Drag is used as entertainment to explore gender and breaking gender binary or, as simply defined by National Center of Transgender Equality, “a type of entertainment where people dress up and perform, often in highly stylized ways.” This term originated from British theatre in the 19th century and was used to describe men dressing in women’s clothing. Drag has also been around for centuries in Filipinx culture, as early as the year 900 when spiritual leaders like the babaylan practiced drag. Most babaylan were women, but becoming “somewhat women” was a way for male or transvestite babaylans to add to their social and symbolic status. However, in 1512, Spaniards colonized the Philippines and, during the first year of colonial rule, painted the practice of drag as “threatening” and “primitive.”
Hosted by drag legend RuPaul, RuPaul’s Drag Race is the show where drag queens compete to win the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. Since its premiere in 2009, it has received fourteen Emmys wins including Outstanding Host For a Reality or Competition Program. It has produced twelve seasons including five All Star seasons, behind-the-scenes episodes called Untucked, and three global spin-offs—Thailand, United Kingdom, and Canada. The show is available on streaming services Hulu and Netflix (in certain areas).
Today, many young folx participate in drag as an art form because of the success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, including the series’ Filipinx drag queens. There are currently only six queens that have graced the runways with their unique style of drag: Ongina (Ryan Ong Palao), Manila Luzon (Karl Westerberg), Phi Phi O’Hara (now goes by Jaremi Carey), Jiggly Caliente (Bianca Castro), Vivienne Pinay (Michael Donehoo), and Rock M. Sakura (Bryan Steven Bradford). From fan-favorite Ongina capturing the audience's hearts in Season One to Rock M. Sakura surprising new fans with her anime-inspired drag, each of the queens bring their unique perspective. Though their appearances are significant for representation, there aren’t many Filipinx drag queens competing on the show. Because of this low number of Filipinx queens, heavy issues have emerged within the Drag Race community, manifesting in drama-inducing “villain edits” and subtle colorism.
During the premiere episode of Drag Race’s twelfth season, Rock M. Sakura walked into the famous magenta workroom (or WERK room, as the show spells it) in her Sailor Moon-inspired pink butterfly outfit, glowing with excitement at joining the competition. While there were many fans who adored this new queen on the show, a handful of fans sent hateful comments towards Sakura that ranged from criticizing her crying in the first episode to comparing Sakura’s makeup to All Stars Season Three winner Trixie Mattel’s. Fan antagonism towards Sakura and other Filipinx queens show that there is a need for better representation in Drag Race.
Certain light-skinned Filipinx drag queens, such as Luzon and Ongina, have received consistent fan support since their first time on the show. During an episode of season one, Ongina revealed that she was living with HIV after winning the main challenge by starring in a commercial about the disease. Fans campaigned for her to join an All Stars season until she was finally casted in the fifth season of All Stars. Luzon also became a fan favorite in RuPaul’s Drag Race Season Four and All Stars Seasons One and Four. Drag Race fans cheered for Luzon after she nearly won the crown during the competition. They praised her humorous personality and awed over her detailed gowns, such as the famous pineapple dress from Season Two and promo photos for All Stars Season Four. Both Luzon and Ongina were painted in a positive light by the Drag Race fandom.
Meanwhile, Filipinx drag queens like Carey and Caliente were portrayed as villains on the show. Pinay was criticized for having a “resting pretty face,” and Sakura’s style was pitted against another drag queen’s. During Season Four, Caliente was consistently placed in the bottom two where she lip-synced against fellow contestants to stay in the competition until she was placed eighth for the rest of the season. In the first episode, Caliente was painted as arrogant towards the other queens, dismissing critiques on her apocalyptic runway outfit for the challenge. She was later edited as the mean girl when she spoke about not wanting to date another drag queen. Fellow contestant Sharon Needles, who was dating future Drag Race star Alaska at the time, mistook this as Caliente talking behind her back. When confronted by this, Caliente became defensive, and Needles labeled Cailente “a lost little girl.”
Carey faced a similar villainous edit, if not worse. At the time, Carey went by the stage name Phi Phi O’Hara and was known on the show for his explosive fight with Needles. During an episode when the queens were getting ready for the main challenge, Carey and Needles argued about who helped prepare for the challenge. This fight led to Carey shouting his infamous line to Needles, “Go back to Party City where you belong!”
Throughout Season Four, Carey received harsh criticism from Drag Race fans as they accused Carey of being jealous of Needles, sending death threats to him on social media. Although Carey’s portrayal on the show can be extreme and rude, it should not give the audience--more specifically drag race fans--permission to overwhelm contestants like Carey with death threats instead of constructive criticism. Overwhelmed by the hate, Carey considered quitting drag and turning completely to cosplay. Yet his love for cosplay led him to play with his creativity, which eventually brought him back to drag and to compete for All Stars Season Two. However, like in Season Four, Carey was again cast as the villain when he clashed with another drag race favorite, Alyssa Edwards, who eliminated Carey in the fifth episode. He skipped the reunion episode and blasted RuPaul and the producers for giving him the villain edit for the second time. After the episode where he was eliminated, he tweeted, “I don't feel the show, producers or host have the best intentions for me ... Sometimes TRUE actions speak louder than words, can't manipulate me if I am not there.”
Since his exit, Carey has distanced himself from the series and stopped performing at bars in drag. Earlier this year, Carey officially retired the name Phi Phi O’Hara. He made this announcement on his personal Twitter account:
“When my hobby became a job...it kind of killed it for me. I love the reaction and response I get for creating amazing pieces and characters and with drag becoming mainstream it has created a pool of 'experts' who have no experience in the art [other] than entering their Netflix login, and [in my opinion] soured the fun for me.”
Compared with the way Sakura, Carey and Caliente were portrayed, Luzon received more empathy from the fandom. Fellow competitor Naomi Smalls sent Luzon home during the makeover challenge on All Stars Four. Many fans and queens thought Luzon would be the front-runner for the crown until Smalls won the lip-sync battle and eliminated Luzon. After the episode aired, Smalls received numerous racist remarks from drag race fans for eliminating their fan favorite.
While fans have certainly played a part in stoking racial tensions online, the negativity surrounding Drag Race can also be attributed to their colorist tendencies when handling queens of color, especially Black, brown, and dark-skinned queens. Colorism is defined as prejudice and discrimination towards people based on skin color, not to be confused by racism which discriminates individuals based on racial background. Queens with darker skin complexions (Carey and Caliente) were painted as bullies and confrontational towards other competitors that were often white queens. Yet queens with lighter skin tones (Luzon and Ongina) received love and support from fans that would attack on their behalf if anyone (Smalls) attempted to sabotage their favorite queen. While there is plenty to discuss about Drag Race’s conflicted relationship with race, especially its fandom, one cannot deny how Filipinx drag queens are treated on the show.
Given the conversations surrounding how Filipinx drag queens are depicted on Drag Race, it is obvious more attention needs to be given to Filipinx representation on the show. Drag Race alum queens have emphasized this need by showcasing their heritage and style both in and outside of the show. When Ongina entered the werkroom for All Stars Season Five in 25-pound pearls over a gold outfit inspired by the female Filipino superhero DARNA, all of the contestants were in awe of her overdue appearance. She posted her gorgeous look on Instagram and explained, “The look was inspired by our female, Filipino superhero, Darna, but exaggerated for drag to represent beauty, strength and individuality.”
Ongina continued to represent her Filipinx culture during the runway theme “Love The Skin You’re In,” where she dawned a feathery nude gown that was inspired by The Sarimanok, the legendary bird representing good fortune for the Maranao people of Mindanao, and Ibong Adarna, a folklore about love, sacrifice and fantasy. She explained in the Instagram post, “Coming back 11 years later, I wanted to show everyone my growth as an artist and the love, sacrifice, fantasy and beauty I have invested in my drag as Ongina. I also wore this dress to embrace my culture again and really love the skin I’m in.”
In 2016, Caliente revealed that she was a trans woman which made her, at the time, the fifth queen from RuPaul’s Drag Race to come out as trans after Sonique, Carmen Carrera, Kenya Michaels, and Monica Beverly Hillz did (Peppermint later revealed herself to be trans on Season Nine). After appearing on Drag Race, she began different projects, releasing a hip-hop mixtape and snagging a recurring role as Veronica Ferocity on the hit FX show Pose, which chronicles the lives of Black and brown queer and trans community members of ballroom culture in the 80s and 90s.
Recently, Caliente and Luzon hosted a digital drag event titled Pinay Fiesta Queens, a benefit show for Filipino frontliners and The Home of the Golden Gays, a Philippine non-profit organization that provides support and care facilities for elderly drag queens and other LGBTQ folx. The show featured 16 queens including Prince De Castro, Tila Pia, and Dee Dee Holiday.
In 2016, Carey went viral with his photo series titled 365 Days Of Drag, where every day he posted pictures of himself in different styles of drag, as well as cosplaying characters from video games and cartoons. This project showcased Carey’s artistic style and versatility with his craft, and he continued with another series based on a Harry Potter theme. Most recently he started a new photo series titled The Trailblazing Woman, which highlights important women in history as part of a campaign titled “Drag Out the Vote.” The campaign encourages communities to vote for this year’s election, and was co-founded by drag queen and RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 12 competitor Brita Filter.
Sakura was the first San Francisco drag queen to appear on Drag Race since Honey Mahogany in Season Five. She was embraced by fans after her shocking elimination during the fourth episode and they hoped to see her in a future All Stars season. Pinay, who hasn't participated in drag since Season Five, lives a quiet life as a wigologist. However, he, along with Sakura, Luzon, and Ongina, uses his platform to speak up against the controversial junk terror bill and encouraged his followers to educate themselves about the situation.
In the Philippines, a large number of local drag queens regularly showcase their craft in their community. Drag figures like Crispulo “Pulong” Luna and Walterina Markova continue to practice drag despite living under American and Japanese occupation. After Japanese occupation, drag became more mainstream through movies such as Ang Tatay Kong Nanay Ko and established pageant competitions like Miss Gay Philippines. Today, Filipinx drag queens explore drag as an art form to express themselves and the community, such as Dee Dee Holiday and Eva Le Queen, who utilize their drag to express themselves and speak up for human rights.
Whether they appear on a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race or come up from the local drag scene, Filipinx drag queens deserve to be represented on media in a way where they can be seen as respected artists, not as villains.
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Asela L. Kemper - Oregon
Co-Editor Chopsticks Alley Pinoy
Asela holds a BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Emerging Media & Digital Arts from Southern Oregon University. She holds many positions including poetry reader for Timberline Review (also as a copyeditor for poetry), Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Marías at Sampaguitas, contributor for Royal Rose Magazine, and poetry editor for Ayaskala. She has also previously published in SOU Student Press, Flawless Mag: The Border Issue, Silk Club: QUIET, Reclamation Mag, and No Tender Fences. Asela uses her passion for creative writing to open conversations on diversity and identity in literature. As an Asian American, she uses her platform to engage and uplift underrepresented Asian American artists. She resides in Oregon, USA with her family.