Growing up in a sleepy Minneapolis suburb in the 1980s with a Filipino mother and American father of German-Swedish descent, drag queen Manila Luzon knew at an early age that something about her was “other.”
“I knew I was different because everyone around me was white,” she told VICE via Zoom while quarantined in a London hotel. She was in the city to shoot a new TV show. “I wasn’t like anyone around me, including my immediate family. I didn’t look like my father, or my mother, or my cousins on either side; the only person who looked like me was my sister.”
As Karl Westerberg, he was a shy, “creative little kid” who was always dreaming and liked playing by himself. As the fierce drag personality Manila Luzon, she was runner-up in the third season of RuPaul's Drag Race, has appeared on the show’s many spinoffs, made guest appearances on TV shows including General Hospital, AJ and the Queen, and EastSiders, and toured most continents. (Manila Luzon uses she/her pronouns in drag and he/him pronouns when out of drag).
Growing up mixed race opened Manila Luzon’s eyes to the possibility of two parallel worlds. By the time her drag persona was born at 20 years old, she knew that what had once made her “other,” was also what made her special. And so she made being different her shtick.
“When I started thinking about doing drag, I knew I wanted to use my heritage as the thing that sets me apart from other drag queens,” Manila Luzon explained.
“When I started thinking about doing drag, I knew I wanted to use my heritage as the thing that sets me apart from other drag queens.”
With her signature blonde-streaked black wig, breathtaking — or as fans of RuPaul's Drag Race would describe them, “gag-worthy” — costumes, and playful humor, Manila Luzon is one of the world’s most recognizable drag performers. Her heritage is present in her distinctive style of drag, which strikes the perfect balance between campy fun and flawless artistry. Her name itself is a reference to the Philippines’ capital city Manila, located in its largest island Luzon.
“I grew up with a lot of Filipino pride,” Manila Luzon said, explaining that joining the Cultural Society of Filipino Americans in Minnesota with her mother had a major influence on her childhood. “In my day-to-day, I saw more of my white family but every week, the Filipino families would gather and we’d learn traditional folk dances, like the tinikling. It was fun, not only because it was where I met my Filipino friends, but it was also where I first discovered my love of performance.”
“When I started doing drag, I researched different forms of Asian culture and felt inspired to celebrate and honor my Asian heritage,” she added. “And, of course, I chose the name Manila Luzon, after the city where my mom grew up.”
On RuPaul's Drag Race, Manila Luzon famously parodied controversial former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos in the show’s “Snatch Game” celebrity impersonation challenge, while many of her “lewks” have been inspired by different Asian cultures. More recently, in 2019, she featured in Philippine department store SM’s holiday campaign, spoofing her favorite Filipina aunties or “titas.”
Manila Luzon is not the only Filipino drag queen to have slayed on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Other notable contestants of Filipino descent include Jiggly Caliente, Ongina, and Rock M. Sakura. Manila Luzon said that the outstanding Filipino representation on the show is no coincidence.
“Filipinos make beautiful drag queens,” she exclaimed. “Filipinos also love pageants and Drag Race is the ultimate drag pageant. We love Miss Universe, girl. We have parties for these things. Jiggly Caliente will get in full geish with rhinestones on her eyes, just to watch it.”
Looking back, Manila Luzon is grateful that she had the opportunity to grow up under the influence of two diverse cultures, admitting her parents did a “great job” of introducing her to both and letting her “live both of them as my truth.”
She admitted that she was more reluctant to come out as gay to the American side of the family.
“My Filipino family is Catholic and very religious, but their feelings for me did not change. I had always been me, so when I came out as gay, they were like, ‘Oh, well, that makes sense,’” she chuckled.
Manila Luzon said this Asian side of her is something she is very much proud of, and is thus hurt by the recent spate of Asian hate across America that increased during the pandemic.
“My heart goes out to the Asian people who are experiencing all this hatred just because of the way they look,” she said, adding that she feels a special affinity with the Filipino healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. Her aunt, a nurse in New York, planned to retire last year but has carried on working through the health crisis.
“These Filipino nurses and doctors are amazing and brave. They’re going into work to fight against this virus, then riding home on the subway not knowing if they’re going to get attacked or spat at. It makes me angry and upset,” she said.
The pandemic has also impacted Manila Luzon on a professional level. Whereas previous years had consisted of nonstop traveling, touring, and performing, 2020 was spent almost exclusively at her home in Los Angeles. It has also prevented her from visiting the Philippines.
There’s an unmistakable excitement when she talks about the country.
“Oh my God, in the Philippines, the drag scene is outstanding,” she enthused. “The queens love the fantasy of drag so much and put on these amazing shows.”
Manila Luzon said that one of her lifelong ambitions is to one day get involved in a Philippine version of Drag Race, for which she argues there would be no lack of fierce performers. While there are too many to name, Manila Luzon hinted that some of her favorites include national celebrity Vice Ganda, Brigiding “Gigi” Aricheta, and her “Filipina drag wife” Katkat Dasalla.
“I can’t wait to go back,” she said. “Whenever I do a show in the Philippines, I feel like I’m at home with my culture, like I did when I was a kid dancing the tinikling. Even though it’s not fully my country, I’m embraced and accepted. And I’m proud to be able to share my Filipino culture with the world.”