MANILA, Philippines – In March, Filipinos hit the headlines when a thousands-strong crowd sang Ariana Grande’s “Break Free” together at a campaign rally for then-presidential candidate Leni Robredo.
A video of the massive crowd singing the song’s chorus – “this is the part where I break free, ‘cos I can’t resist it no more” – went viral, and was even reposted by Ariana herself on Instagram.
What few knew at the time was that the chorus was initiated by one of the performers at the rally, a drag queen named Minty Fresh, who would become even more famous just a few months later.
That indelible “Break Free” moment would be a portent of things to come for the drag scene.
The pandemic had hit the drag scene pretty hard, with many performers forced to take their shows online. For an already niche industry that thrives on in-person spectacle and banter, going digital was a difficult pivot.
But drag queens are nothing if not scrappy. Many of them managed to pull through those difficult days in lockdown and by 2022, they came back swinging.
New platforms, new venues
When pandemic restrictions eased, drag hot spots Nectar and O Bar reopened, and welcomed their resident performers back on stage.
Drag shows also went beyond their usual club venues. In May, Butterboy bakeshop started hosting drag brunches (and the afternoon snack counterpart, MerienDrag) at their Quezon City commissary, literally taking drag out from under the cloak of night and bringing it into broad daylight.
Among Butterboy’s drag brunch regular performers were Naia Black – who earlier in the year had appeared in a drag-themed web show My Delivery Gurl – and Eva Le Queen. Both queens would later star on drag reality shows – Drag Den for Naia, and Drag Race Philippines for Eva.
RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing parties – like those organized by comedian Baus Rufo and drag queen Myx Chanel of Beke Nemen podcast – also became a thing. Filipino drag artists would perform sets in the middle of Drag Race episodes, giving them the opportunity to earn tips.
“It’s a different experience from the show bars like O Bar and clubs like Nectar,” Myx Chanel told Preen in a June interview. “It’s taking out the local drag scene from a very alcoholic nightlife setting to something that’s more [focused on] enjoying drag together.”
By June, Filipino drag had crept into new spaces and no doubt won over new fans. But it was in August that the drag scene really picked up steam.
Into the ‘Drag Race’ universe
On August 17, Drag Race Philippines made its premiere, and it was historic for many reasons. Legitimized by its connection to the RuPaul’s Drag Race empire, the show’s arrival excited Filipino viewers – including those who were not quite familiar with the local drag scene, but knew a lot about Drag Race culture.
Despite glaring production issues, fans tuned in week after week to see their favorite Drag Race-isms Filipinized. The show brought a global phenomenon closer to home, and by the time all ten episodes had aired, the twelve competing queens became stars in their own right, immortalized in memes and merch.
Just a week after the Drag Race Philippines finale aired, it was already confirmed for a second season – which just about speaks to how successful it was. More importantly, the show’s cast members were headlining gigs left and right, and launching their own projects on bigger platforms.
Finalist Xilhouete starred in a Netflix promo for Wednesday.
Fan favorites Lady Morgana and Minty Fresh, along with Lady Gagita (who would later make her debut on Drag Den) opened for K-pop and P-pop stars at Hallyuween 2022 in October.
The show’s runner-up Marina Summers released her new single, “Divine” in November, with the song’s music video quickly raking in views. She later turned heads with her political fashion statement at Vice Ganda’s UnkabogaBALL in December.
The Divine Divas – Brigiding, Viñas Deluxe, and Drag Race Philippines winner Precious Paula Nicole – appeared in billboards for Meta, performed everywhere from TV sets to coffee shops, and grew their loyal fanbase of “Divotos.” They’re even set to headline their own concert at the New Frontier Theater in February 2023.
A Christmas concert brought 10 out of the 12 Drag Race Philippines queens together at the Music Museum – a storied stage that has seen many legendary singers perform. Three of them – Corazon, Prince, and Precious Paula Nicole – are headed for DragCon UK in London in January 2023.
Drag’s beating heart
With more eyes and ears on them, drag queens have been using their platform for causes outside of themselves, revealing a beating heart at the center of the Filipino drag scene.
Even before she debuted as a contestant on Drag Den, at the height of the campaign season, Naia Black took to TikTok armed with looks and sources, to debunk false claims made by the Marcoses about Martial Law.
Precious Paula Nicole used her Drag Race Philippines winnings to launch a foundation and build a house for the Golden Gays, a group of elderly LGBTQ+ people in need of a home.
Drag queens were some of the quickest to raise money for victims of Typhoon Paeng.
With the premiere of Drag Den Philippines – the second drag reality show to air in the country and the first to be conceptualized by Filipinos – even more Filipino queens are set to step into the spotlight. Eight queens are currently competing on the show, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is set to conclude early next year.
Through the show, potentially more Filipino viewers will be introduced to drag.
Drag Den director Rod Singh shared that she is most excited about the viewers who end up watching the show despite never being interested in drag before.
“Pinakakinilig talaga ako ay ‘yung mga tao na never na-encourage to watch drag show, even members of the community and non-members of the community na never nanood ng drag show and never naging interested to watch drag pero napanood sila ng Drag Den because of different reasons and ‘yun ‘yung pinaka parang ‘yes!’ ‘Yun ‘yung pinakamahirap na mag-encourage ng bagong listener, ng bagong viewer, ng bagong audience,” she said.
(I’m giddiest over the people who had never been encouraged to watch a drag show, members and non-members of the community who had never watched a drag show and were never interested to watch drag, but tuned into Drag Den for different reasons. That’s the biggest ‘yes!’ It’s the toughest challenge to gain new listeners, new viewers, a new audience.)
“Siguro sa akin, there would be people na gustong i-gatekeep yung queer culture and all that pero sa akin kasi ‘yung mindset ko naman na I think ‘yung culture naman is meant to be shared…we’re just actually here to tell people not to be scared of drag or not to alienate drag because for all you know exposed na kayo sa drag even before, hindi ‘nyo lang alam na drag ang tawag doon,” Rod said.
(For me, there would be people who want to gatekeep queer culture and all that but for me, my mindset is, I think culture is meant to be shared…we’re just actually here to tell people not to be scared of drag or alienate drag because for all you know, you had been exposed to drag before, you just didn’t know it was called drag.)
As the queens’ influence and their audience expands, so does the meaning of drag itself. Many people in the Philippines still see it as comedic female impersonation involving a lot of lip syncing, but that’s bound to change soon (if not already), as different types of drag and more diverse performers are showcased.
Drag Den, for instance, has included a trans queen, Barbie-Q, in its cast. She joins Pura Luka Vega, a drag queen who has become known for her beard.
Butterboy’s drag brunch also featured its first drag king, Alpha Venti, in September, paving the way for more drag kings to make their mark in the scene.
The drag scene being pushed closer to the mainstream is a big win for the artists who have been working for years – some even for decades. Drag may have been a thankless job only a few years ago, but not anymore.
As Precious Paula Nicole said, the newfound attention is well-deserved.
“I’m hoping na ito na ‘yung simula, actually I’m not hoping, I’m sure na ito na ‘yung simula (I’m hoping that this is the start, actually I’m not hoping, I’m sure that this is the start),” she said, shortly after winning Drag Race Philippines.
“Simula na talaga siya na ma-mainstream na kami, and I really believe na deserve naman namin lahat ng atensiyon ngayon (This is really the start of us going mainstream, and I really believe we deserve all the attention now),” she said. – Rappler.com