MANILA, Philippines – When Drag Den Philippines premiered on December 8, Filipino drag fans were still coming down from a Drag Race Philippines high, caught between wanting to see more local drag queens shine onscreen and wondering how a second, completely different drag reality show could measure up to what came before.
With titles differentiated by only one word, it’s inevitable that the two shows would be compared. In a world where most drag fans are introduced to the culture via a steady diet of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Drag Race Philippines clearly holds the advantage. The show was glossy and brightly-colored, with a well-loved format, a vast library of references to draw from, and a stamp of approval from the ultimate drag mother, RuPaul.
In sharp contrast, Drag Den is dimly-lit and set in a literal underground lair, with a totally new format that’s slightly bizarre, slightly chaotic, and at times even downright confusing. Its only connection to mainstream drag is its host Manila Luzon, a fan favorite and runner-up on RuPaul’s Drag Race’s third season.
As Drag Den creator and director Rod Singh said, the show never tried to be Drag Race. From its conception, the show has always had its own identity, based on the Philippines’ unique drag culture.
“We don’t want to be a copy of something, because we can be original, kasi meron naman tayong sariling culture, drag culture, queer culture, so might as well doon ako magfocus (because we have our own culture, drag culture, queer culture, so I might as well focus on that),” she said.
She added that the show’s format is not totally new, and is in fact inspired by pageants and barangay beauty contests.
“Siyempre, may mga members din ng community na hindi pa rin exposed sa ganitong culture, especially yung mga baranggayan, mga Miss Gay, pero ang laking bagay na ang daming tao na may familiarity agad sa concept, sa format…parang gets na nila agad during the first episode palang,” she said.
(Of course there are members of the community that aren’t yet exposed to this culture, especially the local pageants, the Miss Gay pageants, but it’s a big deal that there are so many people who are familiar with the concept, the format…they get it right away, from the first episode).
“‘Yung challenge sa amin is, in a way, reintroducing queer culture din dito sa members ng community na ‘to na hindi na rin na-expose dun sa culture na pinanggalingan ni Drag Den,” she said.
(Our challenge is, in a way, reintroducing queer culture to members of the community who haven’t been exposed to where Drag Den came from.)
Rod is a drag queen herself, and it was during her time competing in queer club Nectar’s monthly competition Drag Cartel that the seeds for Drag Den were planted.
Back then, Rod envisioned Drag Den as a monthly event that would bring the Drag Cartel to different locations – not just to clubs or bars but to abandoned buildings and warehouses. When Rod got into filmmaking and directing, the Drag Den idea resurfaced, this time as a concept for a streaming show.
Rod then brought her idea to filmmaker Tonet Jadaone, now Drag Den’s producer, and the two started pitching the show to sponsors and streamers in June 2020.
As they described it, mounting the show was not an easy ride, and it took them over a year of pitching before the show was finally announced to the public.
Rod said that finding sponsors and a streaming platform to house the show was one of the main challenges, but it was also challenging to lobby for support from the audience, especially since Drag Race Philippines had also been announced, and they had to compete with it in the audiences’ eyes.
“Mas dun talaga kami parang nagkapressure sa sarili namin, na kailangan namin gandahan kasi ibabalandra natin to as a Filipino brand, 100% Filipino-produced,” she shared.
(That’s really where we felt the pressure, because we had to make it look good because we were going to showcase this as a Filipino brand, 100% Filipino-produced.)
Despite their struggles, the show ended up being bigger than anything Rod had expected, especially with Manila Luzon coming onboard. She confessed that she felt nervous when Tonet said they should pitch the show to Manila.
“Hindi ako nangarap ng ganung kataas for Drag Den. Hindi ko inisip na I’d be working with an icon such as Manila Luzon,” Rod said.
(I didn’t dream that big for Drag Den. I didn’t think I’d be working with an icon such as Manila Luzon.)
“Looking back, parang shit, muntik pa tayo maging YouTube series, muntik pa natin i-shoot na parang ganito lang yung budget. Having Manila sa amin, parang lumaki nang lumaki nang lumaki kasi alam ko na kahit ginagawa namin siya for a Filipino audience, dahil nandun si Manila, foreign audiences are coming in to watch Drag Den,” she added.
(Looking back, it was like shit, we almost became a YouTube series, we almost filmed with just this budget. Having Manila with us, the show got bigger and bigger, because I knew that even if we were making it for a Filipino audience, because Manila was there, foreign audiences would be watching.)
Manila coming onboard put the pressure on Rod to deliver a show that even foreign viewers could understand, without compromising its core. But as it turned out, the drag superstar could not have been a better fit for Drag Den.
Tonet shared that from their very first meetings, Manila had insisted that she would only be a part of the show, and not its star.
“Gusto niya yung spotlight nasa queens. She’s just there as the host, to be part of the stage, but hindi siya yung stage, she will share the stage with the queens…. Nung pumasok na si Manila, swak eh, swak yung vision, na parang alam niya kung anong pinaglalaban ng show, so nung pumasok siya, hindi naging malabo yung vision ni Rod,” Tonet shared.
(She wanted the spotlight to be on the queens. She’s just there as as the host, to be part of the stage, but she isn’t the stage, she will share the stage with the queens…. When Manila came onboard, it was a perfect fit, she matched the vision, she knew what the show was fighting for. When she joined, Rod’s vision didn’t get confused.)
Rod’s goal to expand the meaning of drag trickles down to the show’s cast, which is made up of eight queens, each with their own distinct styles of drag – from the avant-garde gender-bending of bearded queen Pura Luka Vega, to the kawaii sexiness of trans queen BarbieQ, to the political and pop culture references of Lady Gagita, and everything in between.
“Sa start palang gusto namin diversity. Dapat diverse yung mga queens (From the start, we wanted diversity. The queens needed to be diverse). You can tell one queen from another,” Tonet said.
Rod shared that aside from having distinct styles of drag, the queens they chose also needed to be well respected by their fellow drag artists, because they would ultimately be representatives of the community, whether they liked it or not.
“Ang mindset ko naman is kapag nagawa yung show…wala na kayong choice magiging representation na kayo ng community. So kami as creators, kailangan dun palang may responsibiity na, pasok na doon, na alam mo na kahit sino sa kanila, magiging proud ka na they represent members of the community,” Rod said.
(My mindset was, once the show was done, you didn’t have a choice, you would be representing the community. So us as creators, we had the responsibility to choose, so that you would be proud of any one of them representing the members of the community.)
With a bigger audience than Rod ever imagined, Drag Den has the opportunity to make even more people fall in love with drag, specifically, Filipino drag – which goes beyond the drag we see on Drag Race, or even in drag hotspots like Nectar and O Bar.
“Ang role lang ni Drag Den is mas palakihin pa yung perspective ng mga tao sa drag kaysa ikulong sa, ito ang drag queen, ito ang drag show, ito ang drag competition. Drag Den is very much that show na ipapakita sa ‘yo na ang lawak pala ng drag, hindi pala natin siya pwede ikulong,” Rod said.
(Drag Den’s role is to expand the perspective of people on drag, instead of containing it into, this is a drag queen, this is a drag show, this is a drag competition. Drag Den is very much that show that will show you that drag is vast, that we can’t contain it.)
“Drag Den is somehow being the anti-culture to an existing culture,” Rod said. “[It’s] challenging and risky pero hopeful tayo na sana maappreciate ng mga tao yung effort natin to be more inclusive and redefine their definition of drag (but we’re hopeful that people will appreciate our effort to be more inclusive and redefine their definition of drag),” Rod said.
As of this writing, Drag Den is now two episodes in. New episodes drop every Thursday on Amazon Prime Video. – Rappler.com