Ex­plor­ing her Filipino her­itage and roots as a drag per­former and global personalit­y, Manila Lu­zon takes us on a fan­tasy-filled day in Brook­lyn, New York where we get to know the man behind the per­sona, the woman that she gets to be, and the hu­man be­ing t


There isn’t a more fa­mil­iar sound to any­one who grew up in any sem­blance of a Filipino house­hold, no mat­ter how di­luted by choice and cir­cum­stance, than the full-throated bel­low of a mother’s threat­en­ing voice. The rapid suc­ces­sion of words fir­ing off in a sin­gle phys­i­cal­ized huff of breath, com­plete with hands ei­ther fran­ti­cally ges­tic­u­lat­ing mid-air or propped on the side of the hip is enough to set any stub­born pain-inthe-ass to straighten their spine in saintly obe­di­ence. No hay-Diyos-ko-itong-batang-ito-ta­laga-oo was (and still is) spared, even a very young, pre-Bagets break­out mati­nee idol in the mak­ing, Wil­liam Martinez in the dark and gritty vis­ual es­say of dic­ta­to­rial protest, Manila By Night.

In the 1980 sem­i­nal clas­sic cast in the per­ma­nence of cel­lu­loid by Ish­mael Ber­nal, the vis­ceral ex­po­si­tion ex­plores the in­ti­ma­cies and con­nec­tions that com­mand the ar­ter­ies of the Manila un­der­belly, a rot­ting ex­cuse of a city en­sconced in neon lights, ironic ar­chi­tec­tural in­fra­struc­tures, and the trap­pings of the nou­veaux rich. Even be­fore the day could en­joy its re­lent­ing to the grip of the night, the film’s open­ing cho­rus of a hum of the 80s-style sedans whirring, what sounds to be a dog­like whim­per, and the mind­less drawl and mum­ble of the ado­les­cent mot­ley crew of Martinez’s turn as Alex is rudely punc­tured by the shrill of Vir­gie, his in­can­des­cent mother clad in a vivid blue caf­tan, given so much ma­tri­ar­chal pomp by the in­com­pa­ra­ble Char­ito So­lis.

While his child­hood was ar­guably worlds away from Alex in what would later be re­named City Af­ter Dark (a no-choice con­ced­ing of the film’s pro­duc­ers to Imelda Mar­cos, then First Lady and Gover­nor of Manila, who thought the orig­i­nal ti­tle spoke ill of the city), his for­ma­tive years were filled with the very same nag­ging, panic, and odd man­i­fes­ta­tions of love by his grand­mother and mother. “Lis­ten, the funny story is that my Lolo is from Cebu, so he speaks Ce­buano, and my Lola’s from…We call her Lolita, be­cause she thought Lola was too old, and she spoke Ta­ga­log, and she’s from Manila. So, they were too stub­born to learn each other’s di­alects in the house so they spoke English. So, my mother’s fam­ily grew up speak­ing English as the first lan­guage, never re­ally learn­ing ei­ther Ta­ga­log or Ce­buano,” re­calls Karl Wester­berg, ex­plain­ing, al­most apolo­get­i­cally why he can­not speak Filipino.

This in­abil­ity to speak the lan­guage of a coun­try he traces part of his ori­gins to doesn’t make him any less Filipino though. In fact, just as any Filipino-Amer­i­can grow­ing

up in the lib­er­ties of the United States would know, the rich her­itage and colorful cul­ture is very much in­grained in them, whether it be through a di­alect, a dance, or for the rest of the world to un­der­stand, de­li­cious food.


“Grow­ing up in the United States, there was a very small com­mu­nity of Filipinos that live in Min­nesota, and they grouped to­gether and formed the Cul­tural So­ci­ety of Filipino-Amer­i­cans. We would gather ev­ery week and the Filipino fam­i­lies would eat to­gether and we would put on a show. We would learn all the Filipino tra­di­tional dances, so as a child, I learned Tinikling. You know, you got the bam­boos out, and we were like, try­ing not to get our feet smashed,” he fondly re­mem­bers. “Ev­ery few years we would put on a show called Pa­mana, which was to cel­e­brate Filipino her­itage, to keep it alive, to teach the chil­dren. And we would do ev­ery­thing from you know, the ru­ral dances, the Maria Clara dances, the Singkil. Yeah, I ac­tu­ally danced the Singkil when I was a…I wasn’t the lit­tle princess. I wasn’t even the lady that held the um­brella. I was the prince. So, I had the sword I was swing­ing around,” he con­tin­ues. “But now, I am the princess. F*** the princess. I am the queen.”

This isn’t an en­tirely new nar­ra­tive, es­pe­cially one that is col­lec­tively shared by many a gen­er­a­tional Filipino-Amer­i­can, but with charm and can­dor thrown in the mix, nat­u­rally, the room erupts in a riot of laugh­ter on the account of Karl, who has now fully taken on the per­sona of the famed, leg­endary, and dou­ble all­star drag per­sona, Manila Lu­zon. With a firm grip on the at­ten­tion of the spec­trum of hu­man be­ings all crammed at the edges of the prop­erly lit set where she now sat cush­ioned on a plush vel­vet arm­chair, she turns just a touch se­ri­ous, ex­pound­ing more on her Filipino roots. “I love be­ing a Filipino. I grew up in Min­nesota, which is pre­dom­i­nantly white, so I was al­ways dif­fer­ent. I al­ways felt dif­fer­ent,” she re­veals. “When my fa­ther was walk­ing around with his two Filipino chil­dren, peo­ple would come and give me lit­tle looks and stuff. So, I al­ways knew that I was of two dif­fer­ent cul­tures, and it was great to grow up know­ing that there was a Filipino side of me, and then the Amer­i­can side, and it was great be­cause it gave me a big­ger like, grasp of the world. I def­i­nitely had the best of both worlds. And you know, the best of Filipino food.”

No con­ver­sa­tion hinged on be­ing Filipino is ever com­plete with­out at least a mere men­tion of food, as we are a race that not only loves to eat, but feast. And Manila Lu­zon is no ex­cep­tion who rat­tles off a menu of Filipino del­i­ca­cies that have on many oc­ca­sions been served on their din­ner ta­ble grow­ing up. With­out sur­prise, she lets out a gut­tural, al­most or­gas­mic rum­ble when she punc­tu­ates the list with the adobo. “I make a mean chicken adobo, okay,” she says, eye­brows arched for em­pha­sis with one arm perched on the hip and the other lifted mid-air wag­ging her beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated fin­ger. “Ac­tu­ally to be hon­est, my mom was never re­ally a cook. She was in­tel­lec­tual. She loved to study, so she stayed out of the kitchen. Al­though ev­ery­one else in my fam­ily is re­ally a good cook,” she as­cer­tains. “But my mother does make a re­ally, re­ally amaz­ing chicken adobo. She told me the recipe, and when I be­came an adult and moved out of the house, I would call my mother ev­ery time I want to make a chicken adobo, and ask her, ‘Mom, what’s the recipe for chicken adobo?’ Even though I knew the recipe, I would just use that as an ex­cuse to call my mom.”

This spe­cial bond with his mother, one that per­haps we all in dif­fer­ent ca­pac­i­ties share with our own, has not only held up who Karl Wester­berg is to­day as an all too im­por­tant pil­lar for his life, but is also part and par­cel re­spon­si­ble for the gen­e­sis of Manila Lu­zon.


“When I first started do­ing drag, I knew that I wanted to cel­e­brate my Asian her­itage. So, I would al­ways be out in a ki­mono or like, you know, man­darin or­ange dresses, Filipino dresses,” she says. “My mother has a lot of cos­tumes from the Filipino folk dances that we would do. So, she would keep them all, and there was a time when I was the ex­act same size as my mother—I was a lit­tle bit taller than she was, so ev­ery­thing was a lit­tle bit short on me—but you know, I didn’t have any money. That was how I started.”

Even early on, rep­re­sen­ta­tion was very im­por­tant for Manila, some­thing she was cau­tious, care­ful, and con­scious about when de­vel­op­ing the char­ac­ter for the stage. A chal­lenge that still sees rip­ples and a crash­ing of waves against the firm rocks of priv­i­lege and supremacy, it was para­mount for her to per­son­ify some­one that not only a lot could re­late to, but some­one living in the mar­gins would iden­tify with.

“There isn’t enough Asian rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the me­dia. Never did I turn the tele­vi­sion on and see a per­son that I might go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s me,’” she says. “So, it’s re­ally great that there’s more and more di­ver­sity that’s hap­pen­ing within the me­dia, es­pe­cially here in Amer­ica. And what’s re­ally great, what I am re­ally proud of, is that I’m not go­ing on this tele­vi­sion show, play­ing a char­ac­ter that was writ­ten for me. I get to go on this tele­vi­sion show and be my­self. So, that’s re­ally cool be­cause there are gonna be peo­ple that tune into RuPaul’s Drag Race and see this gay Asian man be­ing him­self, and they can iden­tify with that, they can love that and they can feel like they are rep­re­sented, and not just by some char­ac­ter that some white guy wrote.”

When she started to hit the ground run­ning as a hus­tling queen then, she would al­ways be la­beled the Asian beauty, which she very well stood by, in her heels, no less, mak­ing a dis­tinct and unique impression very early on. “I used that to sep­a­rate my­self from the other white girls,” she as­serts. “When I was choos­ing a drag name, I wanted to cel­e­brate my Filipino her­itage, and it was Manila, it was my first name ever.” While it was nat­u­ral, al­most pre-des­tined for her to as­sume this char­ac­ter, the ori­gin of the Manila Lu­zon we know now has an even more in­ter­est­ing depth to it than we had as­sumed. “I loved the name Manila be­cause it cel­e­brated where my mother was from, and I liked it be­cause it starts with ‘Man,’ be­cause you know, I’m a man, and it also has the same num­ber of syl­la­bles as Madonna. And since I named my­self af­ter a city, I thought: “It’s al­ready a geo­graphic lo­ca­tion, I’ll just name my last name the is­land that Manila is on. So, I chose Lu­zon.’’

From then on, the jour­ney would progress with struggle, change, and of course, vic­to­ries. But de­spite the steady rise to re­gional, na­tional, and later on, global ac­claim, Manila al­ways stayed true to her­self and her ori­gins, which speaks vol­umes of her, re­ally. “I am re­ally happy to be a part of this, and tell the world how proud I am to be a Filipino, and also to cel­e­brate di­ver­sity, be­cause I am fa­mous world­wide, ev­ery­one knows me from Drag Race. So, I feel like it’s a great op­por­tu­nity for me to be an am­bas­sador of the Filipinos. I am very proud to do it. I am a proud gay man, and I came from an amaz­ing gay com­mu­nity, and I know that there are a lot of peo­ple from the Philippine­s that don’t quite un­der­stand it or ac­cept it yet, so I want to show them that we are proud of who we are, and we are freakin’ fab­u­lous and gor­geous.”


The free­dom that Manila Lu­zon en­joys in the greater part of the world she lives in, or even the places she visits and tours at, isn’t re­miss on her. If any­thing, she is more mind­ful of th­ese, es­pe­cially with the role and re­spon­si­bil­ity heaved on her shoul­ders as part of the grander plat­form she is propped up on now.

“Here in Amer­ica, we have come so far in the last few decades, I think it is amaz­ing be­cause, you know, it’s just im­por­tant to know who you are, ac­cept who you are, know your flaws, use your flaws, strengths,” she trails off. “Well, equal­ity is a big thing for me, be­cause I just get mar­ried about a year ago to my hus­band, and mar­riage equal­ity is some­thing that I wasn’t ex­pect­ing to hap­pen for me, or for any­body. I think it is im­por­tant be­cause I grew up in a fam­ily... like, all my fam­ily, my mother and fa­ther are still to­gether, my grand­par­ents, they were mar­ried for many, many years, and grow­ing up, I knew that is some­thing that I wanted. I wanted to have some­one to share my life with, and go on a jour­ney and have some­one to share it with. And it is crazy that peo­ple don’t want that to hap­pen for a cer­tain group of peo­ple. So, the fact that we have mar­riage equal­ity here in Amer­ica is im­por­tant, and I’m re­ally ex­cited to show­case to the world that might not ac­cept it just yet, that this is nor­mal, and this is okay, and this is some­thing that should be cel­e­brated. Love is love. And I am proud to be who I am, to show peo­ple that you can love who­ever you want, and you know, that there’s noth­ing stand­ing in our way.”

For all the strides, leaps, and bounds that our gen­er­a­tion gets to en­joy to­day, be­ing the hu­man be­ings we right­fully and truly de­serve to be, Manila Lu­zon is quick to re­mind us of the struggle it took to get to this point where we are to­day, de­spite it be­ing far off from where we should be. “You know, I feel like what hap­pened is peo­ple re­ally got com­pla­cent. They kind of started to feel like, ‘Oh, things are good, I’m com­fort­able, I don’t need to fight for things, like, I’m just gonna keep my­self quiet, and ev­ery­thing is just gonna stay the same,’” she ex­presses. “I think that now, the po­lit­i­cal climate is chang­ing, it’s get­ting a lit­tle darker and stormier. Now, I feel like peo­ple are start­ing to re­al­ize that the fight has to be fought longer. It’s not done. We’re not done fight­ing. I think it is im­por­tant that we all learn who we are, know who we are, and just kind of ac­cept that, and learn to re­spect other peo­ple, tol­er­ate other peo­ple. And in this kind of en­vi­ron­ment, where you know peo­ple are try­ing to hold other peo­ple down be­cause they want to ei­ther push peo­ple down to feel like they are higher. I mean that’s un­ac­cept­able, and I feel like we are get­ting a nice push back to that. So, the more peo­ple who want to push other peo­ple down, the more we are go­ing to re­sist them and fight.”

The con­vic­tion for Manila Lu­zon is nat­u­ral and heart­felt, not only be­cause she wraps her­self within what is ideally the

con­fines of a safe com­mu­nity re­plete of judg­ment, bias, and in­dif­fer­ence, but moreso be­cause the very art form that she prac­tices, tak­ing it to many nooks and cran­nies of the world, is rooted in re­sis­tance and dare we say, rev­o­lu­tion.

“Drag is al­ways gonna try to push limits. It’s just so weird to have a man, dress­ing up as a woman, and you know, we like to push bound­aries, like to make peo­ple ques­tion,” she ar­tic­u­lates. “And be­cause of RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul, I now have been in­tro­duced to a whole au­di­ence around the world and within the con­text of the show, I get to do what I get to do. And be­cause of that fan base that I gained, they get to lis­ten to me out­side of what RuPaul’s Drag Race has to of­fer. In my real life, I have way more to say, and it’s amaz­ing that I have this au­di­ence that come from this TV show, that now fol­lows me and is in­ter­ested to what I have to say more than you know, what I have to wear.”

That isn’t to say that the le­gions of Fani­las aren’t wait­ing with bated breath as to what coo-coo cou­ture looks she will turn out at her next show or Drag Con. But this job, this art has be­come a way of life for her, toss­ing out any shred of nor­malcy out the win­dow. Not that Manila Lu­zon can be boxed as nor­mal, be­cause clearly, she is far from it—and we mean that as a com­pli­ment of the high­est or­der.

“Drag is ex­haust­ing. It con­sumes my life. I think about drag all of the time. It’s like one of those things where I can’t clock out at the end of the day, and then just go re­turn to my nor­mal life. Now, drag is my ca­reer, and be­cause I was on RuPaul’s Drag Race, I have fans all over the world. And I get to travel around the world and per­form for them…And that is amaz­ing. It re­ally mo­ti­vates me to keep do­ing what I do at the best that I can.”


For all the glit­ter and glamour, the feath­ers and fan­tasy, the pomp and personalit­y of drag, it is in its very essence a fun­nel of self­dis­cov­ery, as it as a stage for self-ex­pres­sion. Even for some­one as leg­endary as Manila Lu­zon has be­come to her fol­low­ers and fans, es­pe­cially in the coun­try, drag has served as an ex­er­cise of com­ing into her own.

“I just love the fact that we can just take the things around us and pretty our­selves up, you know? Paint our faces so we can look beau­ti­ful. I mean, it wasn’t un­til i first put my­self in makeup, when I went to my mother’s makeup drawer, got her lit­tle pal­ettes out, and started paint­ing my­self up, that I looked into the mir­ror and I saw beau­ti­ful per­son look­ing back at me,” she muses. “It was a big deal for me, be­cause I haven’t re­ally felt pretty be­fore. And then I re­al­ized, when I have done it sev­eral times, af­ter I washed my face off, and I re­turned to my nor­mal self, I still felt beau­ti­ful. So, drag re­ally helped me ac­cept who I am as a per­son, and loved who I am.”

This is also why, be­ing a fig­ure that peo­ple look up to, es­pe­cially young boys and girls, Manila Lu­zon is noth­ing but en­cour­ag­ing of the free­dom for hu­man be­ings to just be—who­ever and what­ever it may be. “I love it when I see lit­tle boys and girls who are dab­bling in drag, I love that. It’s so cool. It’s some­thing that I wanted to do when I was a lit­tle boy that I just did not had the re­sources or the knowl­edge about to do so,” she says. “I think it’s great that kids are do­ing it a lot ear­lier, they are ex­plor­ing… that’s okay. It’s safe. It is great be­cause they get to learn about them­selves at ear­lier age and ac­cept them­selves in ear­lier age, and then it re­ally pre­vents a lot of peo­ple from hat­ing them­selves. They just learn to love them­selves and learn to ex­press them­selves ear­lier in life so it doesn’t—you know they don’t pulled in and snow­ball into hate and re­sent­ments and un­hap­pi­ness. It’s just nice to see that you know, peo­ple are more com­fort­able with that. And when peo­ple are more com­fort­able in try­ing to new things, I feel like it opens up their minds to ex­pe­ri­ence the world in a greater form.”

To­day, the art and legacy of drag has not only taken on a uni­verse, but a true life of its own, bar none. Emerg­ing from the seedy and grimy un­der­ground of the nightlife and protest, it has now re­vealed it­self to be a bea­con for many, cast­ing a guid­ing light when and where nec­es­sary. How­ever, for some­one in­stalled as an all-star (a dou­ble one at that), an icon, and a leg­end in her own right, Manila Lu­zon is al­most a lit­tle too sheep­ish to take it all in, which is cu­ri­ous es­pe­cially for a per­sona that is larger-than-life.

“I mean, I don’t think of my­self as like a pi­o­neer in any way. I re­ally feel like just an­other lo­cal queen, that just so hap­pened that got a re­ally great break,” she clar­i­fies. “I love go­ing to the Philippine­s. The Philippine­s has some of the best queens ac­tu­ally. They put their heart and soul into what they do, and it is in­spir­ing to me as a per­former to go to the Philippine­s and see the lo­cal drag queens do­ing shows that are much grander than I have ever imag­ined for my­self.”

Need­less to say, Manila Lu­zon has al­ways found a home in the Philippine­s, be­cause more than be­ing a cel­e­brated hero­ine dripped in the finest hot cou­ture (avail­able on iTunes, wink), she gets to come full circle and com­plete a part of her jour­ney so to speak. “It is so cool, be­cause first of all, they named the city af­ter me. That’s so sweet,” she says laugh­ing out loud. “No, se­ri­ously, it makes me feel closer to my fam­ily, to my roots. I’m not from the Philippine­s, but that is where my her­itage is from, so I re­ally love com­ing there, and I love to see what it makes me feel for my fam­ily. I imag­ine what it was like for my mother, so it re­ally does feel like I am with fam­ily.”

Just as this story be­gan, it will end with fam­ily, be­cause isn’t that what is es­sen­tially Filipino? Wher­ever the roads of life may take us, what­ever the cir­cum­stances may be, and whether it be cho­sen, or­ches­trated by fate or bound by blood, we will al­ways have and re­turn to the nu­cleus of our fam­ily, just as Manila Lu­zon has, for­tu­itously true on all counts, by day and well af­ter the city goes dark.

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