MANILA, Philippines – One drag queen came as a Christmas tree, looking resplendent in glittery trinkets and lights. Another came as a balikbayan tita, ready to dole out wads of cash for Aguinaldo. Someone painted her face green as the Grinch. Of course, there was Mariah Carey – or, well, someone whose impression of the pop icon was dead on.
At BGC’s Nectar, a nightclub known for welcoming LGBTQ+ patrons, it was time again for Drag Cartel, the club’s monthly drag competition. With less than a month to go before Christmas, however, it was only apt to imbibe the spirit of the season.
In the drag world, that means a ball teeming with glamour and camp.
The category is: Gay Christmas Realness
“It’s an opportunity for the drag queens to be super festive, super glittery – even more than normal,” said Paulo Castro, who hosts Poison Wednesdays and Drag Cartel. “Sabi nga ni Mariah, Christmas is festive.”
But for Peabo Orilla (a.k.a. Queen Bridgette Olga) – a constant of the scene as its MC – the Christmas edition of the contest is more than just spreading holiday cheer. It is, after all, a fierce competition.
He said, “Ito yung bulabugan talaga sila – eksenahan, ganyan, tapos pasikatan, pa-tumblingan.” (This is a battle where they try to steal the scene, outshine each other, and pull off stunts.)
In a sense, Christmas in drag isn’t different from putting on astonishing looks and an unforgettable show for any time of the year. Competing queens are still free to do or be anything – all according to their own interpretation.
“Mas restricted nga lang sila tonight because it’s Christmas-themed,” Paulo pointed out.
Gelo Arucan, a DJ whose drag persona is Candy Whorehol, said that for drag queens, however, the possibilities are endless. Making a Christmas look or character will always go beyond the typical.
He argued, “Hindi [sila] katulad ng normal na tao, ‘pag sinabi mong Christmas, ito lang yung interpretation nila, pero ‘pag drag queen, iba-iba yung way of interpreting something as Christmas.”(They are unlike regular people, who might only interpret Christmas in a limited sense. Drag queens have different ways of interpreting something as Christmas.)
Queens in their gaudy, festive attire dazzled onlookers. Santa hats, glitter, fur, and all sorts of ornaments were the vogue for the evening. But turning looks and stunting pretty weren’t enough.
Gelo nonchalantly swore, “What makes a drag Christmas different from a basic Christmas is always the drama. We always serve and bring the drama.”
“Drag shows are always filled with drama, always filled with Creativity, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent,” he continued, echoing RuPaul.
The Wednesday crowd at Nectar packs the place easily – in its old as well as its new, present address just next door. Even here, we’re told it was still going to get harder and harder to move around as the night progressed.
A lot of them were regulars, no doubt. The club’s patrons – some in plain but oddball outfits, some in drag – were very much at ease in the way they squeezed through the crowd who wouldn’t bat an eyelash.
The snark, perhaps, might be reserved for a performance that would flop, but even that seems like a rarity in an arena like this.
These people take their craft seriously, including the newbies boldly going against their more experienced sisters.
“[At Drag] Cartel, all types of drag are celebrated: the club kids, the art kids – not just ‘yung fishy-fishy glamour,” Gelo pointed out.
Paulo said, “Kaya nga ang tagline ng Nectar has always been ‘Welcome home,’ kasi so many of the kids really feel at home and safe.”
He reminded us that Christmastime for these queens is not all joy-to-the-world, though. This was one of the ways they try to give these queer and trans people (“kids,” he calls some of them) a semblance of fuzzy holiday warmth.
“For a lot of queens siguro, it’s an opportunity to wear Christmas as a theme,” he said. “But for a lot of drag queen kids who aren’t out to their families – and some of them, even, ‘di tanggap (unaccepted) – it’s actually a sad season unlike our heterosexual counterparts.”
“Marami tayong mga drag kids na hindi makauwi or ‘di alam ng parents and family nila kung sino talaga sila.” (Many of them can’t go back to their own homes, or their parents and families don’t know about their identities.)
The Poison host added that during this season, happenings like this give them the chance “to celebrate [with] their chosen families” like, for some of them, their drag houses.
“Kami dito. Family kami sa set,” he said.
Outside of Nectar, there have been some progress and acceptance, Gelo assumed, which he attributes to the craft getting more “mainstream” exposure – like the airtime it gets on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“Christmas is another chance for us drag queens to show our art and to be able to show our art in a different medium. Not just in Nectar,” he shared, saying that nowadays, corporate settings hire drag performers.
“Typically, conservative din ‘yan. Pero now, they get to hire queens to perform for them because they see the potential.”
On the brighter side of things as well, Paulo is thrilled that every Drag Cartel, he gets to see new faces – even some first-time drag performers.
“Kumakalat siya through word of mouth other than sa regulars natin. Maraming mga bagong mukha parati, and that’s one of the most exciting parts,” he said. (Knowledge about Drag Cartel spreads through word of mouth, other than through our regulars. There are always new faces, and that’s one of the most exciting parts.)
Queens also get additional tips in the spirit of Christmas giving, Peabo added. (So, tip your drag queens!)
As the decade comes to a close – countless replays of Sarah G’s “Tala” and other gay anthems later – Poison is celebrating their third year in the business. This was also consequently their third Christmas-themed Drag Cartel.
For their Christmastime special, competing queens were expected to take the stage for a high-flying lip sync for their lives.
Ten signed up that night, which was whittled down to 5 and then 3 by a panel of judges. One last queen was eliminated to round out the final 2 – and the winner was decided by the loudest applause.
A list of songs – interestingly excluding the ubiquitous “All I Want for Christmas is You” – was released beforehand for them to learn.
They weren’t exactly all conventional selections. There were the likes of Christina Aguilera’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “8 Days of Christmas” by Destiny’s Child, and Joey Albert’s “Kumukutikutitap.” The Mariah song of the evening was not her megahit, but a classic carol, “O Holy Night.”
The initial elimination rounds were particularly daunting. There were 6 assigned songs, but only one was chosen for each 5-way lip sync round.
Just imagine the chaos of trying to upstage not only one queen, but 4 others, all on your own.
Knowing the words was paramount. There was no room to bungle a performance, and every sort of weapon or gimmick in their arsenal had to be used: back flips, death drops, and even props.
Each queen had to step up their game to be the star at the top of the Christmas tree, shining brightly for all to see.
The Top 5 were standouts, even if 3 of them were all wearing Santa hats. One of those 3 though was such a rounded, layered character that her rise to the top 2 was nearly certain.
Morphine, a self-described “voluptuous, curvy queen,” pulled off a consistent but shapeshifting performance throughout the night as Mariah Carey.
She knew her character from the inside out. It was more than just an impression. It was a veritable character study.
It seemed that most of the competition was just a test as to who would be her worthy opponent.
That ended up being the tita-esque Lexie Las Piñas, who came as a caricature of a balikbayan relative: “very religious, very thrilled with designing the house and the Christmas tree,” as she herself described.
The final lip sync number was a bombastic showdown to “Happy Merry Christmas” by the Sexbomb Girls, and the pair was turning it out.
Morphine vogued the house down, dropped at certain beats, and even flashed her prosthetic boobs.
Lexie was flinging out play money as she precisely mouthed the words, true to being the generous tita that she is.
After a showstopper from the previous winner, the phenomenal Prince (to “Venus” by Lady Gaga, an astronomical break from all the carols), it was time to crown her successor.
This wasn’t Snatch Game, but Morphine, as Mariah, easily snagged the crown.
There was a sheepishness to her voice. But when asked about what winning took, what she had to bring the competition, only a few self-assured words were necessary from the self-proclaimed Mariah fan.
“I embodied Mariah… Kahit anong kanta, i-embody mo si Mariah.” (Whatever the song is, embody Mariah)
Even without the evening’s top prize, Lexie Las Piñas still had some profound words to share about what went down. While she’s candid about sticking to her reliable strategy – just giving her own best – for her, it’s all more than a savage competition.
“The first thing I would put on top of my list is getting to know the other girls, sharing the craft, learning from them and teaching everyone,” she said.
“We’re all family and all that.” – Rappler.com