Entertainment » Television

Manila Luzon :: Living the post-’Drag Race’ moment

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jun 3, 2011

From early on in the latest season of "RuPaul's Drag Race" on LOGO, Manila Luzon stood out from the crowd of competing queens. With her ever-outlandish looks (who could forget the banana dress?), unrelenting wit and a frantic-at-times energy level that produced some of the series' most memorable lip-synching moments, Luzon, a.k.a. Karl Westerberg, quickly became an early favorite. When it was all said and done, Luzon received the show's final "sashay away" and the six-foot-tall queen wound up the season's runner-up to Raja.

Despite falling just short of the top prize, Luzon, who lives in New York with boyfriend and fellow drag star Sahara Davenport, gained a dedicated following of so-called "fan-ilas" after the show's airing and is now busily jet-setting from one city to the next, including several upcoming stops on Absolut's upcoming Pride Tour.

In the midst of her busy spring touring season, EDGE spoke with Luzon to learn more about how the show has impacted her life, her drag roots in the Twin Cities and why she's proud to be an equal-opportunity offender.

Getting the love

EDGE: Hi Manila! How have the past few months been since your season of "RuPaul’s Drag Race" was on the air? What was the most surprising aspect, perhaps something you didn’t anticipate going into it, of the experience for you?

Manila Luzon: I would say I was surprised to be in the top two, let’s be real. I was thinking I was going to have people not stand me for the rest of my life, sending me all sorts of hate mail for what I’m doing, but I’ve been getting so much support from fans all over the world -- Brazil, the U.K., Australia, it’s crazy! We’re talking love from different hemispheres, honey! It’s really exciting to get so much love because who doesn’t love love?

EDGE: Fair enough! And hopefully you love traveling too, because by the looks of your itinerary, you’ve been all over the place. How tiring is it to be zig-zagging across the state as you do?

ML: It’s exhausting, really it is, but it’s great because I love getting out and meeting my fans in person. It’s worth all the hours spent in line at security checkpoints in the airport, having to pack all my drag into one suitcase that weighs under 50 pounds to avoid the extra baggage fee. I am in St. Petersburg, Florida right now and was in Boston last night. Tomorrow I’m in Orlando. The one down side is living out of your suitcase because drag takes up so much space -- I can only take 20 pairs of shoes!

First drag song?

EDGE: And how is it being in a committed relationship [with fellow "Drag Race" competitor, from Season 2, Sahara Davenport] while on the road? Do you ever get to travel or perform together?

ML: Occasionally we perform together, but I guess it is fun because I get a break from my boyfriend! [Laughs] It’s fine, really. Sahara did this all last summer so I’m kind of used to it. We’re on different ends now, though she’s still traveling and we’re doing it at the same time. It’s nice when we come home. I do wish we could get more shows together so I’m not always sleeping alone in these giant king-sized hotel beds.

EDGE: You got your drag start in your hometown of Minneapolis, Minn. Do you remember the first song you did? How was the drag scene there?

ML: The first song I did was No Doubt’s "Hey Baby." I was so young and had jut come out of the closet and decided if I’d be gay, I may as well be a drag queen too because I always wanted to be in drag since I was a little kid. I was thinking I would perform on amateur night and I would win some contests here and there. I was working my baby drag there and it really helped shape who I am today. I learned so much from the queens there at the time, they’re like my unofficial drag mothers. Then I went to New York City and it was a totally different story.

EDGE: What was it like to get your start there? How long have you been in the city?

ML: Too long. I don’t even know how long. I can’t even think of it right now because it all blends into one big party. When I moved to New York, I thought it was going to be this grand place with the lit-up marquees and Broadway signs, but it’s a very different drag scene than around the country. Most gay bars used to be a Taco Bell or a straight bar before, since New York likes to recycle its buildings. The bars might not have a stage and the bars are generally smaller so they don’t have cast shows. Most bars will hire a drag queen who does a one woman show and maybe changes her costume once, performs for like an hour of hosting and bantering with the audience.

I thought I was going to move there and get myself on a show or do amateur contests but I found nowhere to perform. What I ended up doing was I fell into the club kid scene on the lower east side and would show up in these crazy costumes incorporating drag and just kind of party. I learned you could make money doing that by hosting parties -- they just give you a bunch of drink tickets and pay you to come. That’s where I started kind of creating my looks, making some fancy, weird, wacky, out-there looks to try and get photographed in some magazines. It wasn’t until I started dating Sahara that I tried performing again.

Watch Manila Luzon’s audition tape for "RuPaul’s Drag Race:"

Lip-synching natural

EDGE: That’s surprising to me because you seem like such a natural performer and probably among the best lip-synchers on the show last season. Did lip-synching come pretty naturally to you or did you have to work at it pretty intensively?

ML: I have always been lip-synching in my mirrors and with my headphones on the subway. I love crazy, over-the-top everything so if I’m going to be lip-synching, I usually try to be kind of wacky, crazy and overdramatic about it. That’s the kind of drag I like.

EDGE: Is your over-the-top style what made you concerned you’d be getting hate mail for your appearance on "Drag Race?"

ML: The funny thing is that ever since I started dating Sahara, like five years ago now, I’ve always kind of been nervous because she is such an amazing performer. She’s a classically trained dancer who’s been doing it for years and is really funny and witty on the microphone.

I figured I couldn’t, like, jump off the stage and do the splits or triple pirouettes, so I figured I would do it with my lip-synching, performing somersaults and cartwheels with my mouth.

EDGE: You’ve mentioned before that you have a very supportive family. How have they responded to watching you on the show?

ML: I’m really blessed because my family has always pushed me to be as creative as I could be and I think it was an easy transition for them to accept that here I am on TV, being a drag queen.

I think it’s a little weird for my father because, you know, it’s not the first thing he’d wanted me to be on TV, but he’s cool about it and coming around. I was just walking in a rinky-dink mall with him and my sister in Delaware of all places, going to my cousin’s wedding, and he hadn’t really known or watched all of the episodes, but all these people kept walking up and asking to take pictures with me. I think that was a little wake-up call to him that the show was the shit, not just any TV show. My dad really is just concerned because he doesn’t want anyone to take advantage of me. He wants me to be successful.

Not Oprah

EDGE: You did receive some flak on the show for your reference of Asian stereotypes, particularly in the TV news challenge. Has that been frustrating for you to hear and be asked about so often?

ML: Honestly, I have been making fun of Asian people my whole life because I’m Asian and never thought anything of it. If you watch TV you have Mrs. Swan on "Mad TV" and the Asian correspondent on "Family Guy."

It’s out there and people freaking live for it. The feedback I’ve gotten from other Asians don’t really think it’s offensive and honestly I didn’t think it was either. I think it was more of my competitors trying to nitpick and lessen my win in that challenge in a way instead of celebrating my accomplishment.

I am offensive. I’m a drag queen and no one is taking me seriously because I’m not Oprah. I’m a man wearing a dress and wig so take whatever I say keeping in mind that it’s coming from a man dressed up in a dress and a wig. But, you know, all of the big stars have some kind of controversy swirling around them whether it’s Obama or Gaga.. or Maya Angelou.. Or Amy Grant, the most controversial artist that’s out there. If I wasn’t offensive to Asians, I would have had to put out a sex tape or been locked in a closet like Charlie Sheen was.

EDGE: You are one of the esteemed professors on the upcoming season two of "RuPaul’s Drag U" on LOGO. What can viewers expect from this go-around?

ML: Last season was the first season, so they were kind of trying to figure out the bugs and I think this season has been more ironed out. They got rid of the grading system with A’s and B’s so it’s judged more like "RuPaul’s Drag Race" where judges can deliberate and talk about who’s going to win. The set is completely shiny, amazing and glittery and it’s going to be really fun.

EDGE: And what else is coming up for you? I read on "Oh No They Didn’t!" that you are working on a Lifetime Original Movie. Was that a joke or..?

ML: I’m just hoping for maybe something in 3D with lots and lots of CGI effects. I’m trying to work up the budget for it but so far all we’ve got are three pairs of pantyhose, some eyelashes and a Flip camera. I honestly can’t imagine anyone wanting to watch my life story, it’s not dramatic -- like my parents didn’t disown me, I wasn’t a homeless teen and I don’t have any crazy disabilities like only having one eye.

But seriously, I have no idea what’s coming up for me. I’m just kind of enjoying the moment right now and slowly keeping one eye going forward because I have no idea what I’ll be doing in one year or five years but hopefully it’s even bigger and better than what I’m doing today.

Manila Luzon appears Friday, June 3 at Spin Nightclub in Chicago. She will be returning to Chicago on Thursday, June 16, and has a number of other appearances lined up throughout the country with the 2011 Absolut Pride Tour’s stops in Boston (June 8), Philadelphia (June 10) and San Francisco (June 15). Visit www.manilaluzon.com for more information.

Watch Manila Luzon’s clip from "RuPaul’s Drag Race:"

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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