Beyond the Glitz and Glamour: How Philippine Drag Has Evolved throughout the Years
Embedded in the beauty and fashion are centuries’ worth of history and a roaring protest.
With the success of Western TV series Ru Paul’s Drag Race, it wasn’t long before drag became a pop-culture phenomenon, with some artists crossing their once small niche of cult following in bars and nightclubs to starring in hits like A Star Is Born and Tales of the City. However, the existence of drag goes further back than the art form’s appearance on mainstream media. In fact, history has chronicled the difficulties faced by its early pioneers, as they practiced their art in times of homophobia and traditionalism.
Although today’s society is a far cry from the past, it’s fair to say that present-day drag artists still face challenges of their own. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic canceling in-person events, the local drag community got pushed outside of their safe haven of clubs and into a new and alternative online environment — ultimately raising the possibility for these performers to lose both their livelihood and their medium of self-expression.
And so we ask: How does the highly progressive art form not only survive but even thrive in the Philippines, with its history of die-hard conservatism? And more importantly, is the pandemic catastrophic enough to result in the final bow of the performance art?
A Herstory of Philippine Drag
Before drag hit the main stage of Philippine media, it was already customary for precolonial Filipino men to dress up in women’s apparel. With the arrival of the Spanards in the 1500s, however, acceptance for Philippine homosexuality and effeminacy were put to a halt. The birth of machismo, or aggressive masculinity, came not long after this, and it later led to the mass execution of homosexual Filipino men. The centuries that followed were marked not only by Philippine-Spanish conservatism but growing homophobia as well.
It was not until the late 1900s when drag was first featured in local media. Through the works of famed comedians, the artistry was introduced as a pantomime to Philippine cinema. Works of the Comedy King, Dolphy Quizon, were the first to bring light to the local drag community as he portrayed hyperfeminine homosexual men in films like Ang Nanay Kong Tatay (1978). Similarly, by 1993 early forms of the artistry found itself in daytime television with Eat Bulaga!’s segment Doble Kara. Running for seven years from 1993 to 2000, the program starred contestants who had “one-half of their body dressed in male clothing, while the other half was dressed in garments for women.” In the study “The New Manila Sound: Music and mass Culture, 1990s and Beyond,” James Gabrillo mentions that “drag’s ostentation and theatricality — its camp style — certainly felt at home in Eat Bulaga!’s atmosphere of kitsch performance and parody” with regard to the Doble Kara segment.
While these performances gave the drag community a voice, it unconsciously limited the image of the art form. These portrayals branded the craft as a mere form of entertainment, later paving the way for the misconception that Philippine drag is but a cheap brand of comedy.
How Modern-Day Drag Is Taking Center Stage
Today, local drag is celebrated for the art form that it is. As Filipino drag performers continue to push barriers, it’s apparent that these artists are more than the cartoonish, comedic caricatures they were once framed as. If anything, the evolution of drag has proven the field to be far from an avenue of shallow slapstick entertainment. Instead, it is a medium of storytelling and protest — art in its truest and most unapologetic nature.
While lip-synch performances, stand-up comedy skits, and impersonations are staple acts in the drag community, artists in the field are no longer limited to the “entertainer” label.
In an interview with COMMONER, Drag House PH founder Eva Le Queen describes her artistry as something that “tries to tell a story and tries to tell conversations around certain issues.”
“What [drag artists] do is a big middle finger to the world, a heteronormative world that tells us that we couldn’t be what we want to be,” Le Queen said. “What makes drag different is that it is liberating because it comes from a community that has been so oppressed for so long, it is reflective of the LGBTQIA culture, ng mga marami naming pinaglalaban (of our manifold struggles).”
As an art form, drag has an expressive nature that has provided performers with an outlet to express their stand on both personal matters and sociopolitical issues. The rise of the art form has also been attributed to how the community has courageously used its voice in challenging social ideologies through their looks and performances. Additionally, because drag incorporates aspects of camp and fantasy, performers are able to communicate their message in a manner that is more palatable to the public.
Myx Chanel (aka Shawn Landayan) shares, “[Drag] is very much for everyone. At a certain level we all put on a costume, like our work uniforms are a costume to present ourselves a certain way that is different from the version of who we are in our own personal lives. Uniforms are like that. When you put on a uniform you’re putting on a persona that is not exactly encompassing who you are in your real life, but transforming your outside to look a certain way.”
The Show Must Go On
With the lack of a proper government response to the pandemic, both the nightlife and live events industries have been heavily economically burdened.
Fortunately, drag artistry has found a home in online streaming apps like Kumu, Facebook Live, and Tiktok, among others.
“I would say that the pandemic has forced drag queens out of the bar and club scenes,” Eva La Queen says. “In the past kasi, wala ka naman makikita na Filipino drag queen other than sa loob ng bar. (In the past, you wouldn’t find drag queens anywhere else but inside bars.) Queens found no choice but to find somewhere else to thrive and social media has been a great help.”
The heightened online presence has enabled the artistry to be more visible in popular media while providing more opportunities for artists to showcase their skills.
In a sense, the shift to online platforms has allowed drag performers, queens most especially, to wholly take the reins over their artistry. Eva Le Queen shares, “For the longest time, clubs have monopolized drag talent in the Philippines; they control the compensations, where a drag queen gets to perform and gets to be seen, what they do with their art; it’s been suffocating. I would say that the pandemic has proven that drag is a matter of access and that we really are artists of our own. ”
However, these silver linings come with caveats and repercussions of their own. According to Myx Chanel, drag queens still try to look for other sources of income mainly because not everyone has been fortunate enough to earn as much as they did before. Older queens who used drag as their source of income have especially been hit the hardest.
“It’s nice to see the attention being given to the local community, but you can’t eat attention. You can’t use attention to buy wigs, makeup, and costumes, which are also expensive. I just hope that attention turns into revenue eventually,” they add.
Drag and Beyond
Whether it’s through independent social media platforms or via traditional media with programs like TV 5’s Lunch Out Loud: Drag Queendom, the success generated by the art form proves that drag is here to stay.
For both Eva Le Queen and Myx Chanel, the current state of local drag is only the beginning. Institutions like Drag Playhouse PH, which started the hashtag #KeepDragAlive, and Spaces PH have become pillars for the growth of the community during the pandemic.
“In the past year and three months, everyone has gotten a taste of drag.” Myx Chanel says. “It’s become more accessible now and I think people are going to start getting a taste for it as we move forward. So hopefully that continues as we move forward because that means more jobs in the industry.”
The evolution of Philippine drag demonstrates how the artistry is not for the faint of heart. Beyond the glamour and opulence lie centuries of collective resistance, dissent, and strength — qualities it carries to this day.
Though the drag community is fruitfully making its mark in society and making strides at a time when the live events industry remains at a standstill, support from the public through attending virtual drag shows and tipping artists can be done to amplify the many stories these performers have yet to share.
Bianca Buita is an AB Psychology sophomore at the Ateneo de Manila University. In her free time, she enjoys going on runs and broadening her perspectives through reading and writing.