Hats Off To Ongina
It is always delightful when someone can turn their chance at fame into a wonderful platform that helps educate others on, raise awareness to, and support others with HIV/AIDS. RuPaul's Drag Race Season 1 star, Ongina, has done just that.
On March 11, a tribute to the diminutive and striking drag queen will be held at San Francisco's premier gay club, Trigger, entitled Hats Off To Ongina, and benefiting Asian and Pacific Islanders Wellness Center, Black Coalition On AIDS, and the Native American AIDS Project, which features performances by Pollo del Mar, Sandra O. NoShedi'nt, Landa Lakes, Mercedez Munro, Miss Rahni, Kitty Tapata, BeyonSoy, Anjie Myma, and this interviewer.
In preparation of this meet and greet benefit, I caught up with Ongina at home in Los Angeles in hopes of finding out about those hats, the impact of her HIV status announcement, how she has stayed relevant after RuPaul's Drag Race, and what major goals lay before her in 2010.
BeBe: I read somewhere that in your initial exposure to RuPaul you had thought of her as a real woman rather than a drag queen. How do you think your fans actually see you?
Ongina: I think my fans definitely view me as an artist. And I think they see me as a gender illusionist. A gender illusionist doesn’t mean you have to have big hair and sequined gowns. Every performer has a drag persona that they believe in, and for me it’s really being a bald drag queen with head pieces and stuff. I don’t limit my self from wearin’ wigs, I just rather not because really sweaty under there.
BeBe: I know all about that.
Ongina: I mean anyone who puts on a pair of pumps and eye lashes is considered a drag queen whether you have hair or not. You see when I was growing up I thought RuPaul was just a really tall woman. And I will always see her as a beautiful woman. I think my fans see me more as an artist.
BeBe: How did your fabulous hat trademark come about?
Ongina: It all started when I lived in New York. When I first started drag I had hair. I actually had tracks glued to my hair. At that time I had gotten my hair straightened in the salon because my hair is naturally curly. It was very Rihanna with my bangs. And I felt very fabulous. But then I started to shave my head because my hair started to fall out from being overly processed. And I thought I could create a persona with having a "bald weave". And then I was introduced to a couture hat maker who designs hats for runway shows and editorial magazines, Baby Phat, Heatherette, Britney Spears and that sort. I went over to his apartment and went wow, he’s amazing. I asked him if maybe I could wear one of his hats someday, and he said, "Sure. You can where them whenever you want to." So that kind of sparked my love to being creative and stepping outside of the box. Instead of me wearing a different kind of wig every time I go out, I wear a different kind of hat.
BeBe: you mentioned your artistry. It’s like you wear art on top of your head as an extension of that.
Ongina: It really comes from my love for fashion. I work in the fashion industry. I am really big on spending my money and not eating for a week as long as I have my fashion, especially my love for woman’s fashion. So I thought why should I settle for wearing men’s fashion when I could wear women’s fashion and rock it just as hard as any woman could and would.
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Watch this interview with Ongina from StyleITOnline.com:
The HIV Status Announcement
BeBe: You’re known for your hats, but your make-up is fierce. As winner of the MAC Viva Glam on RuPauls Drag Race, is there any hopes that you will be the second drag queen with a MAC supermodel contract?
Ongina: Well, I was an honorary spokesperson for them when I won Viva Glam. And, it entailed traveling to New York to donate money to the Harvey Milk School and the Hendrick’s Institute in New York City and I was their honorary spokesperson. I hope being an honorary spokesperson will grow into something else later. But the experience I have had thus far has been amazing, so I am definitely not cutting myself short. And I am hoping that they will see that I would love to represent their company because I believe in it. Especially as a person living with HIV, I want them to know that it (what Viva Glam does) is something very close to my heart.
BeBe: On that subject, during the presentation to you for winning the Viva Glam Award on the show, you made your HIV status known to millions of people. Why did you make that announcement then?
Ongina: Well, I feared disclosing my HIV status for the same reasons any other positive person would fear disclosing their information to strangers and especially your family: because of the stigma and all of that that goes along with it. But it was really a chance for me to explain why I was so emotional about winning. It really hit home with me. It really hit my heart. Emotions just overflowed and it came out, and I’m very happy that it did. It’s another step in people knowing who I am. I don’t have anything to hide about who I am. I can go on living with HIV, and inspiring people that you can lead just as glamorous a life as you want to.
BeBe: Your family did not know prior to your announcement on television. How are they now with their support of you and your HIV status?
Ongina: They are amazing. As I said during the Season 1 reunion show, my Mom was disappointed, not for me being HIV positive, but for me not telling her prior. Because she is my mother, she says she will help me through anything. No other person can offer you the kind of love and support of a parent.
BeBe: Your visit here to San Francisco on March 11 is in support of three local HIV service organizations. What other HIV/AIDS organizations have you supported, and mean a lot to you?
Ongina: Well, currently I am working on a web series with LogoTV.com called HIV + Me where I interview HIV positive people. It’s sort of a way to raise awareness and share their stories. We have 5 episodes up right now. I’ll be in New York on March 20 to shoot another 5 stories. It really helps people who are also HIV positive. I was in San Francisco last year for the United States Conference on AIDS with Cleve Jones. That was an amazing experience sitting on a panel with Cleve Jones. I have traveled all over the country doing benefits for HIV/AIDS. In California, I do a lot of equality benefits. It’s hard living as a minority, gay, HIV positive man, so I try as often as I can to do these kinds of benefits.
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Watc Ongina perform at Glamlife @ Estate in Boston. December, 2009:
BeBe: We are in the mist of Season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and you are as relevant today as you were during Season 1. Why do you think you have been able to maintain relevance when so many other contestants have had their 15 minutes of fame and disappeared?
Ongina: I think you will find however they edited me on the show is exactly how I am in person. I think all of us were edited as we were. I think when people find a personable person on reality TV, they sort of develop a relationship with that person even though it’s on TV because there is so much realness. I am really lucky to have been on the show and to have become a household name.
BeBe: What do you think about the group of girls that are on Season 2?
Ongina: These girls are definitely a lot more brutal in Season 2. I think it is a good thing for the show to have taken a chance on this type of cast. Now that the show has a following, they can take risks. I don’t want to offend anybody when I say that the show is about looking for the next RuPaul so they are definitely going to choose people who are closest to (being like) Ru. That is probably the mentality they had when casting for Season 2. I think half of them are mean. They have very strong personalities. They have a few with mediocre personalities, and maybe one or two of them are nice. I do know a couple of the girls from being around Los Angeles, and those are exactly the way they are on TV.
BeBe: Do you have a favorite winning hopeful for Season 2?
Ongina: I really like Jujubee. She’s funny. She’s awesome. I think she is very beautiful. Her transformation is great. I recently had a chance to perform with her in Boston in December where it was like minus two-degree temperature. And, she’s a riot.
BeBe: I know you like to perform to Beyoncé. What is one of your favorite Beyoncé songs you like to throw at us?
Ongina: I always look forward to performing Beyoncé, because, let’s face it, she’s a big ol’ drag queen (laughs). I love her because she is a performer who gives 100% when she is on stage. She’s amazing in concert. Her songs really connect with me. I perform her ballads and her dance mixes. I don’t try and perform like her, but I do try and give the energy she does. That’s really how your audience relates to you. One of the songs I like performing, even though I don’t know the routine, is "Single Ladies", and I like doing "Halo". I like doing "Halo" as the Virgin Mary where I have sex with Jesus Christ on stage. It’s very Trannyshack. I also like performing to Katy Perry.
The Goal And Message
BeBe: You have so much going on, and it is so great to have represent so much in our gay community, but what major goal have you set to accomplish in 2010?
Ongina: I really want to go out there more, and put myself on a platform so people can understand what I’m living with, and they can educate themselves. It’s still very hard, as you know, where people look at me funny because I am HIV positive. And I really want people to know that being HIV positive isn’t a bad thing. But if you are negative, you should do all to stay negative. I want people to know in a nationwide delivery that life goes on, no matter what life throws at you.
Ongina For those in San Francisco, they will have an opportunity to personally share her message on Thursday, March 11 at the Hats Off To Ongina benefit for Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center, Black Coalition on AIDS, and the Native American AIDS Project at Trigger beginning at 6pm.
Story continues on the following page:
Watc Ongina perform at South Carolina Pride, September 2009:
As an actress, BeBe was introduced to film with a lead role in the independent film "Under One Sun" with her character dealing with religious, racial and gender issues. Additionally, she appeared in the campy musical "Devious, Inc" (Australian Film Festival, San Francisco Short Film Fest) also adding additional vocals to the musical soundtrack. Both of these performances led to her selection for a lead role in Aisha Media’s next short film series, "Con-tin.u.um" to be released in 2012.