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Why Drag Race PH “…Better Work”

A look into the show’s massive popularity and its place in a conservative country like the Philippines.

More often than not, the Emmy-winning show is a story about triumphs against rigid norms, systemic toxicity and society-imposed limits.

H ad anyone told me back then that RuPaul’s Drag Race–a highly popular televised competition for drag queens–would have a Philippine franchise, I would have laughed at their face (or—let’s be real—behind their back.)

It’s not just because of the disappointing slew of localized international shows we’ve had in the past few years (remember Next Top Model Philippines? No? My point exactly.) It’s also because of the country’s knee-jerk reaction to anything that doesn’t fit the straight and cisgender narrative.

Check the social media feeds of this country’s biggest news outfits. Stories about anyone or anything that remotely deviates from the norms in terms of sexual preference or gender identity are often met with sanctimonious, dismissive or just downright prejudiced comments from readers. You may also check the country’s voting history; macho-posturing men known for statements that attest to their bigotry and ignorance continue to land seats in places of power—the senate being one of them. And it might be a foreign concept now but if you were ever in any of the pride parades—back when the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) wasn’t an issue and it wasn’t a health risk to gather in large groups—you would’ve noticed that there are still a handful of people staging counter-protests, condemning such gatherings as sinful in the eyes of their religion. 

Yes; the Philippines is not as bad as certain countries in terms of LGBTQ+ treatment. We don’t actively hunt down people who aren’t straight and cisgender. We don’t have laws that legalize physical harm to homosexuals on the grounds of misguided morality. We didn’t successfully have Lady Gaga banned from performing in our country just because she wrote songs that the gays like. Nevertheless, from my perspective, it still wasn’t a country that was ready for Drag Race. 

My experiences as a fan of the show also suggested that. Back then, it was so hard to find anybody who watched the show that I had to subtly slip it in the conversation and recommend it to anyone who’d listen. Finding someone who knows of Shangela’s epic “sugar daddy” monologue or what the 5Gs stand for (Good god! Get a grip, girl!) was like finding someone who finally speaks my dialect. It gave a sense of joy; it made me feel less alone. Back then, when the show only aired locally on Cable TV—in some ungodly timeslot no less—it was hard to find someone who understood what I was rambling about and could give snarky commentary on the last episode. 

These days, however, the story is different. Locally, Drag Race would trend on Twitter during and after every episode. Major networks and publications would interview “Ru girls” (contestants of the show) with Filipino lineage. I can just go to any thread and have a long conversation with a fan of the show. And now it appears that we’ll be having a Philippine franchise. The casting call for the first season was published just last month by World of Wonder, the show’s producer.

On the downside, there are more people to compete with in buying tickets for a Ru girl’s show here—Drag Race virgins, superfans, mamshies, and packs of straight girls. But, you know what? I really shouldn’t even complain. Hey. I was a drag virgin (and I identified as a straight girl) once.

I think it was my former editor who told me and my ex (hey girl) about the show in the first place seven years ago. Imagine a totally straight dude who was into nerdy, cool stuff telling me and my ex about the show with so much excitement that I couldn’t help but be curious. Eventually, we watched our first episode. It was from Season 7. That wasn’t arguably the best season but I’ll always be partial to it because it popped my drag cherry. Plus, that season had Katya Zamoldochikova, a personal favorite who is arguably one of the most popular queens to come from the franchise. 

Throughout season 7, I was drawn to her wit, vulgarity and vulnerability. Her confessionals were always a gold-mine for sound bites, and damn, she was flexible. She was also capable of being funny without being too mean to any of the other queens. I’m such a fan that I have on my bedside the book she wrote with Trixie Mattel—yet another popular season 7 queen. I also listen to their podcast whenever I’m feeling low and even stopped talking to potential dates because they thought Katya was too mainstream or likeable.  

Since then, I’ve been sucked deep into Drag Race. I’ve rewatched every season and their supplementary shows like Untucked and Pit Stop. I followed favorite drag queens on Instagram, joined the Drag Race subreddit and Facebook threads and groups, plastered queen stickers on my laptop, bought merch online and even had a lip-sync-for-your-life playlist on Spotify, which a former workmate/crush slightly complained about because he had to endure it while I was playing it on loop. Every. Single. Day. For months. Can’t say I blame him.

The best nights I’ve had involved the show or drag in some way. Like that time I watched Drag Race Werq the World and gagged over season 7 winner Violet Chachki flipping while suspended in mid-air. That time, I also saw Katya live and heard her say “pek pek” (Filipino word for “vagina”) to a crowd. And of course I wouldn’t ever forget the night I went out with friends to watch the finale of All Stars 3 at Dulo in Poblacion. The place was packed (a pandemic fantasy we now all share), and we had to squeeze ourselves just to get in and closer to the screen, screaming, jeering and drinking cocktails until the end, and then dancing the rest of the night away. 

Because of the show, I’ve learned more about drag culture and the issues involving the trans and queer community. Stuff that don’t get talked about enough here. More so, the queens on the show remind us constantly that you can always reinvent and empower yourself, face a few demons and laugh at them instead of hiding them. As someone constantly struggling with body and self-image, I am reminded to stop constantly curating myself; to celebrate myself in all my flawed and flabby glory, and just let the fuck go. 

Some might think that this is ironic if not absurd. How can a person who makes a living by hiding their natural features inspire someone to embrace who they really are? It’s simple: drag queens aren’t just drag queens when they are on the show. Among the strong points of Drag Race is its capacity to humanize these “glamazons” as RuPaul herself would call them.

Katya—for one—isn’t just this flexible character who presents herself as an unfiltered Russian hooker; on season 7, she was an obviously knowledgeable man constantly struggling with anxiety while sharing bits of his past struggles with substance abuse. Popular season 4 contender, Latrice Royale, wasn’t just a “large and in charge,” self-empowered black woman. She was also a Compton-raised, black man whose struggles in life afforded him the capacity to grace the show with empowering words of wisdom some Redditors have called “phrases from the gay Bible.” “Let me explain to you what a bitch is,” she once said. “Being in Total Control of Herself.” And then there’s Season 13 winner Symone. Right off the bat, she enters the show in a dress made of Polaroids of herself. Underneath that, we met a geeky, endearing man from Arkansas who managed to overcome her struggles with self-doubt and ultimately find in herself a winner. The crown she got at the end of her season was just something of a formality it seemed.

These are the stories that have been coming to the show since it first aired on February 2009; we’ve been seeing people who find solace and success through their art. And if you are a young queer kid struggling with something—from body issues, to sexuality to almost everything that people like us go through on a regular basis—seeing this is like seeing not just who you are but who you can be. And it is empowering.

Additionally, drag is also an expression of self-autonomy. A lot of drag queens present to you a version of themselves unbound by norms and expectations. Drag queens might not show you who they are physically but a great number of them freely show you who they are internally. For a number of them, to put on all that make up, all that fabric and all that hair is tantamount to going naked and proud. And the show also walks us through that thought process. But these aren’t the only reasons why I keep watching Drag Race.

The show has also kept recent pandemic life—which was particularly brutal after losing my mom and being diagnosed with ulcer and anxiety—thoroughly entertained and sane. With Drag Race All Stars, UK, Canada, Down Under, Holland and Espana happening one after another (and maybe even the local version next year,) I’m thankful for the respite and ridiculousness that the show brings. 

It’s a fitting effect. Drag queens tend to hide or alter their features through make up. They use glitter and rhinestones to make homely pieces of fabric exceptional. We shouldn’t really be surprised that a show about them can make you forget about life’s less attractive attributes.

Pinoy drag excellence courtesy of (left to right) Manila Luzon, Jiggly Caliente and Ongina
These days, it isn’t a surprise to me why Drag Race has become a massive hit. I’m also not surprised as to why superfans are excited for the Philippine version. The US version of Drag Race has given a preview of Filipino drag thanks to Ongina, Manila, Phi Phi O’Hara (who now goes by his birth name Jaremi,) Rock M. Sakura and Jiggly Caliente. So, we have an idea of what to expect from the local drag scene which is also brimming with fabulous queens who are gorgeous, witty-as-fuck, and competitive. 

That said, I do hope the show doesn’t end up being sanitized because what makes Drag Race so much fun is the filth, the irreverence, the wit and the creativity. I don’t want any of that censored because of some organization—pardon my French—being a sensitive little bitch. 

What I want to see is a celebration and a parody of Filipino culture. I want to see Imelda Marcos, Kris Aquino (funny to see both names side by side), Mimiyuuuh, Roderick Paulate, Gloria Diaz, Mystika, Cherie Gil and Maricel Soriano represented on the Snatch Game, the recurring challenge on the show where the queens impersonate another public figure while answering questions. I also want reimagined popular local parlor games as mini challenges like patintero, langit lupa or that game where you have to tie a string with an eggplant on your waist and thrust your hip. I want local pageant and acting challenges featuring Marimar and Mara Clara and iconic scenes from old movies like Bituing Walang Ningning and afternoon game shows, with plenty of grinding, slapping and cursing. I want queens reading each other in English, Filipino, Bisaya, Bicolano, and swardspeak.

I want design challenges where the queens have to use Manila paper, cellophane, piña or other indigenous materials, and themed ball challenges featuring the three islands or popular local spots. I can already see it now. “Category is: Manila Girl!”

I want OPM lip sync songs from Sarah Geronimo, Imelda Papin, Moonstar88, VST, Kyla, Regine Velasquez, Jaya, and Lea Salonga. I want hot Filipino models on the pit crew. 

I’ve got to be realistic though. It’s probably not going to be smooth-sailing all throughout. I expect production issues, questionable judges and judging, and some form of backlash from the fans. I also expect a lot of homophobic comments toward the show. Basically, I expect a regular season of Drag Race.

No season is perfect. No show is perfect. But for all of its imperfections, Drag Race has earned 19 Emmy wins and 39 nominations. Together with its non-US iterations, it has become a platform for over 200 queens and has earned a massive following across the globe. It has also challenged gender and societal norms, uplifted the marginalized and has become a source of fun, distraction and thought-provoking conversations that have rippled beyond its once lowkey reach. And now it’s here.

Are we ready for it now? Perhaps most of the country isn’t given our generally conservative leanings but that just makes the timing perfect. That’s what Drag Race and drag in general is partly about, after all—showing up for those who aren’t prepared for you and making them gag.

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