Text by Alison Cruz & Wax Galang
Gone are the nights when the local drag scene flourished on the busy streets of Manila.
For seven months now, drag queens have been dragged to hell and back just to make a living, sustain the art form and preserve its political relevance amid the ‘new normal.’
Turing Quinto, a former drag artist at O Bar, one of the few occupational spaces for drag performances in the Metro, never expected that the demise of the live drag scene would put her sanity at stake.
“I underwent depression. I would look at my makeup and feel nothing,” laments the artist.
What was once a booming industry that had just penetrated the mainstream at the turn of the decade has now become a voyager in the uncharted territory of social media.
‘Drag me to hell’
When Metro Manila was placed under lockdown on March 15, many queer clubs, mostly in Taguig and Makati, temporarily closed down due to the health scare and the subsequent lack of customers. Now, drag queens are taking their art to the digital world to make ends meet.
For many drag artists, drag is both their passion and profession, with the likes of Turing depending on her employment to feed nine mouths.
This is the same with student drag queen Aries Night from UST, who juggles both school and work as the breadwinner of her family.
Financially, drag queens rely on tips from customers, especially if they aren’t regular performers for an establishment. Tips, however, are an unstable source of income as they don’t always come pouring in.
Eva Le Queen also mentions that being bound to a contract has its pros and cons. Even as bars continue to pay them regularly, they are prohibited from seeking opportunities in other establishments.
‘I will survive!’
“Drag is like wild grass. It thrives everywhere,” Mrs. Tan, a drag queen and a UP student, says.
For Eva, drag in the ‘new normal’ is surviving as it adjusts with the changing times.
The inevitable shift to digital can make Philippine drag independent from bars and nightclubs to further its entry into the mainstream, she says.
“Kapag nasa bar ka kasi, hindi lang ikaw ang pinupuntahan. May mga naglalasing at nagkukwentuhan,” Eva continues.
Mrs. Tan adds that the online set-up shines a brighter spotlight on the drag scene as it can be watched anywhere across the country.
On the flip side of survival, Aries believes that online drag favors only those who can afford it.
Yet, as she enumerates the additional expenses for a drag queen at such a stagnant time, Aries acknowledges that drag is still at its peak now, with the artform opened to a new audience.
‘I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive’
Even with all the buzz surrounding online drag, the fact remains that its performers still face countless challenges.
The ‘new normal’ brought a new set of prerequisites for drag queens to thrive. What were once dispensed by bar owners are now left for the queens to figure out.
Space constraints limit the quality of their performances, especially those of group acts. Mrs. Tan gripes further that the digital stage is especially unforgiving given the country’s poor internet connection.
“Masikip talaga,” complains Aries, who lives together with Mrs. Tan.
Drag performers working from home found themselves suddenly needing to invest in laptops and phones with high-quality cameras, as well as equipment like ring lights, speakers, microphones and backdrops. They also have to subscribe to Zoom’s paid features for their performances.
“Hindi ako makapag-musicals at Disney! Ang lakas mang-copyright,” remarks Mrs. Tan.
Musical pieces are barred by Facebook resulting in queens spending sleepless nights searching for remixes, because using original studio recordings may merit a more unpleasant outcome for their accounts.
“Nakakalungkot nga noong una akong nag-[Facebook] live, wala pang sampu ang nanood,” Turing agonizes as she ponders why she lacked a high number of followers — Facebook, before the digital shift, was her avenue for personal matters and not work.
To resolve this, queens work their padded buttocks off without monetary compensations just to establish a following. Only then can they plead for tips.
Ultimately, drag queens in the digital realm still offer shows for free. Heightening their social media following only meant an increase in potential tippers, although basically, they’re still living off of chances.
‘Nobody can drag me down’
Thanks to the hit TV reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” what were once only known as impersonators or “show girls” are now given more visibility.
However, the blinding standards which the show has displayed for 11 years have become rigid and limiting. This somehow puts drag queens in yet another box.
And so, Eva took this as a golden opportunity to give birth to Drag Playhouse PH.
Initially an initiative to revive the local drag scene amid the pandemic via Instagram, Drag Playhouse PH was conceived by Eva to provide more events outside of the nightclub setting for new and experienced drag queens.
With Drag Playhouse PH as a game changer, drag queens are given opportunities to prove themselves as artists on platforms that transcend space and time — free and out of the box.
And with its newfound presence in the local scene, drag queens get to fight not just for equal rights, but also for proper representation and better working conditions.
“The representation of both drag queens and the whole LGBTQIA+ community is [sadly] not enough for people to fully understand who we are and to see us as equals worthy of being seen,” says Eva.
Drag queens in the Philippines have always been heavily exploited. With around 12 hours of perfecting their looks, rehearsing their performances and catering to guests, they are paid P300 or less per gig. This is a far cry from how much drag queens earn in countries like Singapore, making at least P15,000 after just four hours of performing.
Eva wants to change this by creating more opportunities beyond the nightclub and bar setting. By doing this, not only will the queens get higher chances of receiving better pay but they may also be seen as artists in their own shows, not just as impersonators or comedians.
“Wala nang monopolya ‘yung mga business establishments, bars sa kung magkano talent fee mo,” says Eva.
Drag is political
Drag has always been political. Gender-bending in a conservative and patriarchal society that rewards masculinity is a political stance in itself.
“Drag is a testimony of people who want to live their life the way they want to, which should be the case for everyone regardless of sex, color, race and religion. Regardless if it makes other people uncomfortable, ” Eva says.
Worship the Gays, who is also a well-known activist, emphasizes the historical and political impact of drag queens.
“Lumaban ang mga trans at drag queens sa discrimination at homophobia. Sila ang lumaban sa Stonewall at tumindig para sa karapatan ng LGBTQIA+ community,” they say.
And for them, now is the perfect time to use drag to forward calls for change. Especially when the current administration condones injustice and violence against members of the community as witnessed in the pardoning of Joseph Pemberton, who killed transwoman Jennifer Laude in 2014.
The future is DRAG!
“Visible pero nananatiling mahirap,” Turing says of the local drag scene’s situation today.
The queens spotlight the importance of investing in drag that is free and inclusive to prioritize representation and construction of spaces for the LGBTQIA+ community.
They share a common thread — the desire for drag to successfully penetrate the mainstream and have it viewed as a valid gender expression, a cultural art form, a legitimate profession and most of all, an integral part of any sociopolitical movement.
Of course, turning these dreams into reality will need the respect of allies and a market supportive of their artistry.
“We are not clowns in a pretty dress. We are not supposed to be made fun of. We are entertainers, we are artists and the things that we do should be taken seriously,” Eva says.
The art they produce deserves not only to be seen, but also compensated for.
“Give artists what they deserve. Compensate them well. Support your local drag scene. It’s not easy to do drag,” Mrs. Tan asserts.
After all, they are not just eye candies. They are strong statements dressed fabulously. But most importantly, they are people with lives to live.