By Guest Contributor Eric Zhang
“I am the beautiful Asian who’s taller than 5-foot-2,” Manila Luzon (né Karl Westerberg) says in her introduction video. She is one of 13 contestants competing on the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race to win $75,000, a lifetime supply of makeup, a headlining drag tour, and the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar.* She is also one of four Asian American contestants to have been featured on the series – the others include Ongina from Season 1, Jujubee from Season 2, and fellow Season 3 contestant Raja.
While drag performance has historically been tied to working class communities of color – the documentary Paris Is Burning in particular follows the tradition of drag balls in 1980s Harlem, and the significance of drag subculture in the lives of queer African American and Latino men – Asian American queens have not been very well represented in the drag circuit. The prominence of Asian American contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, thus, caught my eye. As a queer Asian American man who has dabbled in drag (inspired in no small part by Drag Race), I became interested in the ways in which these queens were represented – and chose to represent themselves – on television. While these queens are, of course, not necessarily defined by their race, two of the contestants use a rhetoric of race in their performance: Jujubee and Manila Luzon. Because Manila is competing on the current season, because her drag persona centralizes a racial discourse to a heavier extent than Jujubee’s, and because the racial politics of her performance has actively been challenged on the show itself, I will narrow my focus on her.
Manila Luzon’s persona makes heavy use of a kind of pan-Asian motif: a quick glance through her website reveals images like sushi, chrysanthemums, and Japanese katakana; costuming choices that include a cherry petal dress with an obi, a cheongsam, and a Thai headdress and brass fingernail extensions; and a tongue-in-cheek reference to Chinatown. On the other hand, her drag name explicitly marks her as Filipino – Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and Luzon, the island on which Manila is located. The discrepancy between Manila’s pan-Asian character and her identity as Filipino American, in fact, provides a key source of tension in her performance: is she relying on Orientalist stereotypes and tropes to build her character, or is she using drag to perform her Pinoy pride?