Creator and hosts spill the tea on ‘Drag Den’ Season 2

A year after it premiered, Drag Den with Manila Luzon started rolling a second season on 18 January, an achievement for the first Philippine-made drag competition series.

Produced by CS Studios and Project 8 Projects, Drag Den with Manila Luzon Season Two: Retribution will be releasing new episodes weekly on Amazon’s streaming platform, Prime Video. This also marks Prime Video’s first renewal of local content in Southeast Asia.

Filipino-American drag queen, Manila Luzon, alum of the phenomenal RuPaul’s Drag Race, returns as Drag Lord or the main host and judge, together with Miss Grand International 2016 first runner-up Nicole Cordoves and social media personality Sassa Gurl as regular co-hosts and co-judges. Manila has just won as Best Entertainment Presenter at the 28th Asian Television Awards and Best Entertainment Host at the Asian Academy Creative Awards 2023, adding ostrich feathers to the show’s cap or the much-favored fascinator.

Ten queens — Deja, Margaux Rita, Elvira B, Feyvah Fatalé, Maria Lava, Mrs. Tan, Moi, Marlyn, Jean Vogue and Russia Fox — are now competing for the title of Drag Supreme.

Guest celebrity judges to look forward to include Yeng Constantino, Bini, Rufa Mae Quinto, Alaska Thunderfuck, Alodia Gosengfiao, Andrea Brillantes and Dolly de Leon.

According to series creator and director Rod Singh and showrunner Antoinette Jadaone of Project 8 Projects, new twists are added to the show, including a new set, a new thematic storyline that follows the original one, new challenges, new songs and new rules, including the much talked about elimination process.

Singh, Luzon, Cordoves and Sassa Gurl talk about their experiences doing Drag Den and the new developments:

On the second season of ‘Drag Den’

Rod Singh: “Retribution could mean a reward. From Season 1, Season 2 is our reward. It paid off obviously. We’ve got Season 2 but it could also mean punishment… Everything paid off for us. Retribution seems like a fitting title for Season 2. But we did a season title this time kasi nga the idea was for every season, it’s going to be new game, new rules. So, it’s just like the den. Think of like Big Brother. You have the same iconic house with the same host but like different mechanics every season and different queens, different types of house or different interior. We did that with Drag Den. So, with Drag Den, it’s like the Drag Cartel will return to another den. Parang ganoon. Hindi necessary raid but the idea is that they always leave the den after the game.”

Manila Luzon: “We like to keep it new and interesting. I think the Filipino audience deserves that. We don’t want anything to become stale. Drag is something that’s always evolving. There’s always new stories to tell. There’s always different queens with different points of view. And I think that Drag Den 2: Retribution reflects that.”

On new things learned while doing ‘Drag Den’ Season 1

Sassa Gurl: “I was introduced sa drag on TV na, like online, ganyan. And I’ve had this idea about drag, and I thought drag has like a limited space, has a template and all. Going into Drag Den, I realized that drag is not a template, it’s an art. It’s freedom. And somehow I realized that in drag, you make the rules. And we apply that to the show. We make our own rules. We are not templated by anything or anyone. It’s just that this is art, this is freedom, and we express it.”

Manila Luzon: “Where I came from, as you may know, from RuPaul’s Drag Race in the United States, and that has really shaped a lot of what the public worldwide viewed as drag. And because of its popularity — and that’s been going for so long — it’s now starting to become predictable. What is great is that with Drag Den here in the Philippines, we get to tell a different point of view. We get to infuse it with our own culture here in the Philippines. We get to share it worldwide. We Filipinos are very proud to share our culture with everyone, and we’re everywhere around the world. So, it’s great to present something that’s really Filipino, something for the LGBTQ+ community and our allies to get into, be entertained by around the world. And so, I think that there’s always going to be something different, what we can provide, and something that’s really unique. I think we have that chance again this season.”

Nicole Cordoves:Siguro for me, as someone who only used to watch drag at Nektar and O-Bar and then ayun nga, medyo templated version of drag na with a reality TV show contest. Siguro sa Drag Den, nakita ko ‘yung process of paano ba nila bini-build ‘yong identity nila as drag artists especially in Season 1 where there were a lot of baby drag, pandemic drag queens because may mga similarities din kasi sa pagiging beauty queen, may mga mold tayo na gustong pasukan, mas fab drag ka ba or character drag? ‘Yung mga ganoon.

Pero dito sa Drag Den, I feel like more than the world-building ng set na ‘yon, they allow the contestants to really live out their fantasy and become ‘yung best drag selves nila. We allow that creativity na this is the world na kayong bahala kung paano niyo gusto i-craft ‘yong sarili niyo, ‘yong artistry niyo.

Ang sarap lang ng feeling na ganoon pala ‘yung…parang ang empowering niya na you can reinvent yourself as constantly as you can, as much as you can, and watching them do that really… ayan pa-drag na ako.”

Manila Luzon: “I think that what’s really interesting, I think what people really like about drag is that it showcases that, like, you can wake up a certain way and you can transform yourself. Others be like, from how you look, just how you feel, like from your mood to — you know — like I have a big job interview, so I’m gonna put on this really like amazing outfit that makes me feel really confident, I’m gonna go out there and like really have the power to make people like live in this fantasy that I want to create. And drag allows you to have that. And on our show, you know, we have 10 different queens and all these different kinds of challenges that offer them opportunities to try something new, to transform to something new. And we get to watch it and be entertained by it.”

On diversity and casting

Rod Singh:Sa amin kasi, for example, ako personally, when I think of diversity, hindi na siya first in mind na kailangang may ganito, may ganyan, the performative aspect of diversity. So, since it’s a queer show, we get to view the queens according to their talents. For example, we have an AFAB (assigned female at birth) queen, but we made sure that she’s not there just because she’s an AFAB. You have a variety of AFAB queens out there. So, what we did was we made sure that having her in the casting wouldn’t sound like a tokenistic approach. She’s just there because she’s a woman. No. You’ll see why she’s there, despite some people would say nadapat may mas better’ but no, I think we were able to see it that way that diversity comes from that. And another layer when it comes to diversity is that we make sure that everybody has access to us.

“So, if they can’t reach Drag Den, kami ‘yung lalapit sa kanila. So what we did for Season 2, for example, I personally went to the provinces. [I went to] Iloilo just to scout drag queens out there. Because a lot of the queens from the provinces, they have an impression that this is just for the Manila queens because they have access to the production, to the set and all that but I traveled to Iloilo, [Season 1 winner] Naia went to Cebu, other queens went to… We were like, ‘So have you tried looking for drag artists they audition for Season 2.’ So, that’s what we did; we approached them and told them to audition. Because we make Drag Den accessible to them. We did pre-shows, for example, because when we talk about diversity, it should be like diversity not just based on gender because it’s a queer show. We look at economic aspects as well because we’re in the Philippines, you know, drag is really expensive. So, we try to see it that way, that we’re not gonna judge them according to the value of their drag kasi resource is a problem.”

On Filipino drag

Manila Luzon: “I think one of the things that impresses me the most about Filipino drag is that through the resources, the limited resources, it makes the queen be even more resourceful. The creativity is even more. Like, if you look at the poster for our show, I’m wearing water bottles that were cut up and spray-painted and designed to look like, you know, trippy, you know, Avatar flowers. And I mean, how Filipino is it to like make an outfit out of or make something out of old plastic bottles. So, I mean anyone can do drag, and that’s what I think the message is. Hopefully, we’ll get to see different versions of it.”

On the new elimination format of Season 2

Manila Luzon: “Which I was very against, by the way, because I really like the idea of giving the opportunity for the queens to showcase what they have until the end, but the fans really wanted the stakes to be higher. And honestly, it does make the stakes higher. The drama’s more because like, you know, they might be eliminated. We give some of the power to the queens, so, like, it’s not just us… Every episode is like a little bit different. So, yes, I was like…I want to be fair.”

Rod Singh: “Personally, as well. We originally created Drag Den with the no-elimination format. As we have said, this is for Filipinos by Filipinos, we need to like consider how the fans felt with the first season. As much as I, you know, I’m also sad with that, but then we realized that ‘pag napanood niyo ‘yung Season 1 to Season 2, you’ll figure out na parang okay, so the origins of the Drag Cartel are like bakit walang elimination format is because these queens will eventually be part of the second season, but it’s like the Drag Agents on Duty, like a regular judge.”

On similarities and differences between drag and beauty pageants

Nicole Cordoves: “Similarities? Oh my God! We always do things bigger. Like every labas naming, kailangan mas malaki, mas pasabog and literal na pasabog. ‘Yung mental preparation… when I was talking to Russia Fox backstage — kasi I always have those moments with the team — ’yung mga kaba namin during our pageant journey sobrang pareho, ‘yung mga inhibition, ganoon. So watch the show to know more about it kasi it comes in layers per episode. And then ‘yung na-appreciate ko din with this platform na Drag Den, kung pumupunta ako sa mga viewing party puro bilat, puro girls. ‘Pag sa beauty pageants naman, puro beks. So tuwang-tuwa ako kasi nag-intersect ‘yung worlds namin. ‘Tapos, I feel like in this season we also highlighted that na paano mo nagi-intersect kasi parang first, it was women empowerment and now it’s the rainbow community like we’re fighting for the same cause, in the same way and it’s just that nauna kami. So, wala eh, kailangan tulong-tulong lang talaga tayo dito. So hoping na ‘yung mga issues na-raise nga like si Russia Fox, mga trans queens. Parang sana sa mga similarities na ‘yon, makabuo tayo ng bridge.”

Manila Luzon: “Drag is a celebration of what everyone loves about femininity, women, beauty, something that women have the power to do. And it’s something that I as a homosexual man, it’s something that I love to incorporate in my life and in my artistry. So, to have Nicole as like our beauty queen, you know — they’re on set with us — it like really legitimizes what we’re doing and it really adds that Filipino flavor of like how much we love pageantry. I mean, it’s great to be there and I feel like I’m a beauty queen too.”

Nicole Cordoves: Pero iba ‘yung (But it is different) experience watching a drag show from my perspective. I feel kasi parang iniisip ko kung ‘yung mga insecurities ko bilang babae pero sila like ‘di ba kailangan nila ng (that I think of my insecurities as a women but they need) some sort of transformation to an extent pero kaya nila (but they can do it). So, why can’t I be confident with myself? If I see them and they show me how, anyone can be however you want to be. Sana ma-break ang mold sa pageantry (hopefully, the mold in pageantry will be broken) because we’re too templated na.” 

On comments about the show

Rod Singh: “We listen to the feedbacks naman. Kahit hindi naman kami personally tina-tag, ako, I’m really looking for like how can we improve the show kasi we don’t do this for ourselves lang naman. We do this for them as well. Well, we put the drag queens first because this is for them. So, anong ‘yung gusto nila? What are their fantasies? We do that first and then we try to incorporate kung ano talaga ‘yung gusto ng audience, because we won’t survive without our audience. We won’t be given another chance if we don’t have our audience with us.  So, hopefully with the adjustments made and the improvements that we’ve done from Season 1 to Season 2, we hope to get more and to bring in more audience, from audiences na hindi pa namin nagi-get from the first season.

“I think naka-apekto rin kasi that there is another show before us. So, we needed to do like the reintroduction as compared to like when Drag Den was originally announced. There were no other drag shows. So, we didn’t have anything to explain. We didn’t need the audience to unlearn what they knew about drag and all that. So, we were like we came in as the challenger. So, we got that much comments. But we appreciate also the good things about the comments naman, ‘yung mga nare-receive naming magaganda. But then again, when it’s good it doesn’t make noise.

“So that’s the sad thing about it, you know, you don’t get the support that you need because you’re doing it right. And we don’t want to do that just to get the support that we need, because I think it defeats the original purpose of why we’re doing Drag Den. We want it to be there for the queens and if it’s not just gonna be like, you know, let’s play around with these queens so we can make more noise. I think it’s a disservice to the queens that we’ve asked to come to Drag Den. It’s like we’re inviting them over, hindi siya ‘yung parang ‘This is Drag Den, you should do what you were told.’ It’s like ‘Can we ask you to come in our show and raise our show with your drag and your presence?’ So parang ganoon siya sa amin nag-o-operate.

“It’s a hard thing to navigate altogether. You know, I am not used to competing in a scene where you were deprived before. ‘Di ba, we were deprived of these contents before, we were deprived of these opportunities before. And now that we have not just one, but two, here we are, you know, pitting these two shows against each other, and we don’t have a choice, because it’s what the audience wants. And it’s sad.”          

Manila Luzon: “But ultimately, it just shines more spotlight on the Filipino drag artists. And we’re just so lucky that we have Prime showing this worldwide. We’re so lucky to have that these queens came and they are so brave and came onto our show. They’re putting everything of themselves out there to be judged by the world for our entertainment. We’re so lucky to get to show this, and I’m so proud to be a part of it as well.”