Larger than life: Filipino drag kings challenge the mainstream

Not a lot of people know of the drag kings in the country, but these artists are fascinating to watch as they challenge the gender binary.

With his velvet blazer, blown out hair, and dramatically drawn mustache, Landon Cider embodied swag and charisma onstage as he impersonated Robin Thicke and sang along to Blurred Lines. As videos of this 2013 performance went viral, Cider led the world to witness the intricate culture of drag, shining a spotlight on its extravagant artistry, sheer defiance, and passion for inclusivity.

Cider was an inspiration for 28-year-old Filipino drag king Samael Says CÜNT and was one of the reasons that he chose to pursue the art. “I didn’t really think I was ever gonna perform,” he shares. “I just wanted to try on the makeup [and] try putting on a new face.” But by 2021, Samael began making a name for himself in the drag community, standing out with his elegant but fierce extraterrestrial-like makeup. Despite creating an otherworldly drag persona, Samael simply sees it as an extension of himself. “[It’s] just a more confident and energetic version of myself,” he says.

Indeed, it takes great courage for Filipino drag kings to forge their paths as artists and entertainers amid the stubborn traces of discrimination in society. As they grace the stage in their high-heeled boots, these kings all dance to the same beat of resistance.

All hail the kings

Though the culture of drag has already existed for centuries, it was neither as popular nor perceived as a vein of artistry as it is today. It took the dawn of RuPaul’s Drag Race on television for drag artists to finally break into the mainstream. It was through this reality competition series that Inah Demons—a performer who describes themself as the “Tumblr sexy man of drag”—first witnessed drag as a form of art and entertainment. “Medyo bata pa ako noon. I couldn’t really go to [the] drag shows [in] O-Bar [or] Nectar,” they point out. 

(I was younger then.)

Inspired by the queens on Drag Race, Inah started out by recreating drag makeup looks as their interest in the art form grew. Now, Inah has successfully crafted an eccentric persona of signature hot red horns, a vividly painted clown face, and bloodstained clothes—a character that is equally camp and horror.

Though admittedly still a newcomer to the scene, Inah finds it heartwarming whenever an audience member would share that they were the first drag king they watched perform live. “They finally get to see this very niche group within the drag community,” they express. Samael underscores that while there are not a lot of drag kings in the country, there are less drag artists who are assigned females at birth like Samael and Inah. 

Regardless of gender, Samael asserts that every drag artist is born out of one’s “love of the art and the desire to perform.” With every performance, he takes joy in how opportunity to perform is very much out there—an opportunity that may only multiply with the course of time.

The adversity in diversity

Drag performances are not all glitz and glam. There are still days when the crowd’s false notions about the art beats drag’s true intention. Inah recalls their experience of receiving flak online due to people’s misconceptions that only cisgender men perform in the drag scene. “There’s a bit of ire or apprehension towards artists like me,” they share. 

When people encounter drag kings, their minds are filled with so many questions that there becomes little to no space for recognition and appreciation of the drag king scene. “For every one drag king, there [are] like 20 drag queens,” Inah explains. Given this offset, people tend to get caught off guard seeing a female perform as a drag king, thus leading to their hesitance to give the drag king scene a chance. “A lot of modern representation of drag tends to exclude the more radical artists who question gender,” Samael adds, evidenced by society’s seeming reluctance to accept drag king artistry.

Another misconception, Inah adds, is how drag kings are expected to be in macho drag, expected to dress like male R&B stars or even pop stars. Inah clarifies that drag should still have a bit of androgyny, and it’s “not really conforming to one gender stereotype,” since drag is about challenging norms. 

Being a drag king takes a lot of strength and courage, which goes far beyond society’s expectations to capitalize on muscular physique and instead explores gender fluidity. Drag is also a counterculture—a protest against societal norms and issues. Inah mentions that many drag performers and queer people are attacked for being activists. They explain that drag performance isn’t just about entertainment, but also awareness of societal issues. “Drag itself is a radical act and an act of rebellion against what people think is ‘normal’,” they explain.

Inah cherishes their opportunities by connecting with acquaintances, friends, and even with other drag artists through posting updates on social media. They regularly engage with the drag community in the hopes of also being seen by those interested in booking them for performances. “I can just post a look or update people on what I’m doing on the drag side of things,” they explain. Samael adds, “Education and understanding are necessary to win the fight against underrepresentation,” so drag remains revolutionary for the benefit of all. 

The next reigns

It takes courage to do drag and to use the art to inspire and inform. While Inah acknowledges that aspiring drag performers may be apprehensive of the audience’s reaction, budding artists  must focus on making their overall experience in drag enjoyable and refreshing. Samael adds that doing drag is not a decision the audience makes; rather, it is for the curious to breathe life into their interests and realize that it makes them feel alive. 

Inah  affirms that drag is a journey, and one “[doesn’t] have to be perfect from the get-go.” They disclose that drag can be done in different stages of life or with little resources. As Samael puts it, there is nothing wrong with being “your authentic and honest self”.

Crowned with authenticity and clothed with creativity, drag kings are more than just performers—they are also defenders of freedom. They encourage people to explore outside the box and safeguard gender identities against misrepresentation, and discrimination. While Inah acknowledges that it is still a rough time to be a drag artist, the growth of drag steadily dismantles the challenges faced by the queer community. Growing in strength and courage, Samael’s dream for the drag community to be full of love, diversity, and acceptance could—and should—be tomorrow’s reality. 

Daphne Bayona

By Daphne Bayona

Lizelle Villaflor

By Lizelle Villaflor

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