What went on behind the scenes of ‘Drag Den’

NAIA is the youngest contestant in the show.

It was a monthly underground drag contest at a bar in Taguig City that gave the idea for its creator and director Rod Singh to produce Drag Den.

This and other snippets of the Filipino-produced drag competition series that were not included in previous episodes were revealed in a filler episode aired on 19 January, a week before its finale.

The competition’s Drag Lord Manila Luzon, who rose to fame after joining the groundbreaking RuPaul’s Drag Race, introduced the bonus episode “#DragOutSpecial.”

“Drag Den is one of the most fun experiences that anyone can have in drag. It’s taking the underground drag scene and bringing it to the forefront. I’m so excited that people are going to see a side of the Philippines that has always been here, but hasn’t been seen yet,” Manila said.

Singh related how Drag Den started. A video clip and photos showed Singh competing in a drag contest at Nectar Bar in Bonifacio Global City in 2018.

“Drag Den started as an event idea from my experience joining an underground drag contest called ‘Drag Cartel.’ It was a monthly drag contest sa isang (in a) club sa (in) BGC. So, it started as an idea that I want a reality pageant na mga (in which) drag queen ‘yung (are the) contestants. Nag-start siya napakaliit lang na konsepto (It started out as a very small concept) to a point na, yes, we have this,” the transgender woman filmmaker related.

Maria Cristina is known for the drama she stirred.

The ‘barangayan’
“We want to be glamorous and we want to elevate ourselves to what we see on the screen, and in the theater. And that fantasy is created in lots of other drag reality shows. This show is different because it kind of peels back the curtain, and it allows you to kind of see what it really is for. It’s grittier, it’s more real and a true representation of a lot of drag seen around the world and especially here in the Philippines,” Manila shared.

According to Singh, she wanted the barangayan to be incorporated into the show.

The barangayan is a feature in many small gay beauty contests in barangays around the Philippines. It is a showdown among contestants, who can dance and perform stunts to impress and entertain judges and audience. Often, it can be a literal riot where physical jabs and fights are not uncommon.

The name may be an allusion to “nagka-barangayan,” an event in which an aggrieved party lodges a complaint at the barangay hall and the accused party is invited to air their side. Many incidents lead to altercations, shouting matches and even riotous airing of dirty laundry, with neighbors watching, amused.

“They say that drag is not a contact sport, but hey, you’re in the Philippines and I must say that drag here is a contact sport,” Singh quipped.

“Barangayan for me is camp but to some people barangayan could be trashy, ratched (uncouth),” she said, considering it “very unique to the Filipino queer community.”

In Drag Den, the “Dragdagulan” segment is their version of the barangayan, in which two or three competing queens try to outshine each other while swinging a large wrecking ball shaped like a morning star, which can be used as a weapon.

Shewarma is one of the three finalists.

Sharing the spotlight
Manila Luzon revealed that with the show, she wanted to provide a venue for Filipino drag queens to showcase what they are capable of.

“When I was asked to host Drag Den, it was a dream that I never knew I even had. I have been working as a drag queen on TV, gaining an international audience for years. And now with my platform, I’m able to create a space for up and coming drag queens who have been working just as hard as I have, but haven’t had a space to showcase what they do. It’s so great for me to come back here to the Philippines as a foreigner, as a Filipino-American to come here and shine a spotlight on these talented Filipino queens,” Manila said.

It was difficult learning the Filipino language late, Manila added, because she was not able to learn how to speak it growing up in the United States, even though her mother is Filipino. Now, she has learned just enough to get by. She also expressed her desire to learn more about Filipino gay lingo.

Manila recounted the day she arrived in the Philippines — bringing many pieces of luggage because she was not sure what she could find here. Fortunately, there are ample choices of cosmetics, she said.

Singh shared the reasons why they chose Nicole Cordoves and Sassa Gurl as co-hosts and co-judges.

Host Manila Luzon (right) with guest Mela Habijan.

Contestants and other aspects of the show
The 33-minute episode also talked about the concept behind the set design, which garnered positive reactions. It also included the guest judges or Drag Enforcers — Catriona Gray, KZ Tandingan, Eula Valdez and Francis Libiran — talking about their experiences being in the show.

Manila and Singh also shared the experience of looking for contestants. Over a hundred performers auditioned through TikTok Reels. The episode showed the reactions of some of the successful auditionees during the top seven revelation by Manila on 13 September 2021.

Singh said they were able to narrow down the contestants to 12, but eight were able to make the cut — Maria Cristina, O-A, Naia, Aries Night, Lady Gagita, Barbie-Q, Shewarma and Pura Luka Vega — who were gifted with Jojo Bragais shoes.

On the first episode of Drag Den, Manila revealed that there would be no elimination of contestants.

Producer Antoinette Jadaone also became a guest judge.

“The idea behind the no-elimination format is I think ‘yun ang susi para ma-achieve ang gusto kong klase ng (the key to achieve my idea of a) sisterhood,” Singh said.

However, three finalists were chosen by Episode 6 — Maria Cristina, Naia and Shewarma. They were the focus of the last portion of the episode. Lady Gagita also revealed her disappointment about not being chosen. When the top three was announced, she broke down.

Snippets were shown of past performances by the top three and glimpses of their personalities, as well as comments from judges and fellow contestants.

“I’m looking for someone who is able to show their journey, show that they have capabilities of growing because ultimately, when they leave this pageant competition, I want to see them continue to grow and continue to inspire,” Manila revealed.

On the other hand, Singh said, “We’re looking for someone who will best represent Philippine drag supremacy to the world stage and this is despite being labeled as the underdogs kasi ganoon si Drag Den. Who knows, maybe we’ll rise one day as the supreme.”

“Hindi pa tayo tapos manggulat (We are not yet finished creating surprises),” she added.

Drag Den will be holding a grand coronation night and finale concert on 26 January at 6 p.m. at the Samsung Hall of SM Aura Premiere in Taguig City. The series shows on the Amazon streaming platform Prime Videos.

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