Manila Luzon of the People, by the People, and for the People

“It’s the first time I am asked to wear this when I came back,” Manila Luzon comments, pointing to the lilac contemporary Adam Pereyra terno she is made to wear for her Rank Magazine cover shoot a little over a year ago, around the time she took on a whirlwind of press runs on what was supposed to be an nearing release of Drag Den Philippines.

“Do you ever get tired that you have to do so many things when you visit the Philippines and never just for a vacation?” we ask. “Of course not,” she quickly responds, almost matter-of-factly. “I do not always have the chance and the time to visit the Philippines. Whenever I can, I just feel that there’s way too many things that I still have to do. Not just for myself. There are so many great Filipino talents I want to collaborate and work and help bring global attention to. It’s never just a job here for me.”

As we have just been introduced to the queens of the local drag pageant Drag Den, the Ru Paul’s Drag Race alum Manila Luzon, who will be hosting the long-anticipated contest, revisits the trail of splinters and bedazzles that led to her statement as an esteemed drag queen of this generation. And much like in that brief moment of realization while wearing the Filipiniana ensemble, the international drag artist expounds on the role she gamely takes on in not just representing the Filipino drag arts to the world, but in opening up doors for younger superstars-in-the-making to be recognized on the global stage.

Terno by Adam Pereyra. Jewelry by Luna by Drake Dustin. Nails by Her Tribe Nails.

Growing up, even as young Karl Philip Michael Westerberg, Manila Luzon already knew from within that she was meant for things that people did not deem usual. Much like Disney’s Cruella De Vil, who she once transformed into as a drag queen, conventions of society is not the cloak she wishes to drape on her shoulders—with it being far from the vivid and vibrant hue of her current, inalterable designed path. 

While the drag superstar is brimming with an unparalleled ardor for the craft visible in her all-out performances, Manila Luzon also lives a life behind the gleam and glow of her talent-embellished ensembles. Upon the drop of her makeup brushes and removal of her enormous wig is a Karl, a working creative and entrepreneur, who only wishes to sleep as much as he possibly can after a long day of drag. 

For people outside the drag realm, life happens when the sun rises. But, for queens like Manila Luzon, life begins when the evening sun starts to cast long shadows on the ground. While people are already preparing to conclude their day, that is the time for Manila to get in the shower and prepare for the night to come, and the transformation is never skin-deep.

Karl Philip Michael Westerberg, known to the world as Manila Luzon, poses with husband Michael Alvarez, in Adam Pereyra.

“I fly to the gig and then perform all night long for adoring fans who are throwing cash money at me for lip-syncing a song. It’s actually quite fun, and then I go to bed at like 5 in the morning or 8 in the morning, depending if it’s a good night,” says the drag superstar.

After metamorphosing into a magnificent look for the night, Manila Luzon then sets the stage on fire with her dazzle and an irresistible allure that can captivate anyone’s attention deftly. Although the entirety of the persona she exudes seems effortless, from her clever humor to her sharp and campy high fashion sense, drag queens like her, in actuality, have to prepare tremendously before gracing the stage. 

“There are so many people that have no idea what goes into being a drag queen. They just see this beautiful, overdone, extravagant creature, and they don’t realize just how much work, artistry, and creativity actually goes into making this one look that stands before you,” she divulges.

Behind the gaieties brought to the stage are long hauls of brainstorming and conceptualization, which, without doubt, translate to each of the queens’ performances. 

Dress, Thian Rodriguez. Leather jacket, Cruz MNL by Kyle Cruz. Jewelry by Luna by Drake Dustin.

For Manila Luzon, she draws inspiration from everyday objects and sees how she can integrate them into an impeccable drag, from her look down to her performances. Of note, for the drag artist, she does not find the need to always take inspiration from the depths of life, as things in plain sight can give the most remarkable impression in her looks. 

Although Manila Luzon has already crafted an immense amount of looks, it is still a challenge for her to come up with something that is new for the eyes of the spectators, “It’s a hit or miss; sometimes, like when I have to be creative, when I have to come up with an idea, it’s like pulling teeth.”

With that, when a concept suddenly crosses her mind, she promptly makes a note of it or sketches it down to make sure she brings it to life. Just like her costumes and now well-established name in the drag community, being Manila Luzon also started from an idea.

Although she barely remembers her first transformation as a drag queen and humorously says that her looks from the start were not as gorgeous, that first look is what propelled her to the icon she is now. Even the first song she lip-synced to, while not by choice, brought her to the path of her dreams. 

Silicon sculptured dress and top, Kelvin Morales. Jewelry by Luna by Drake Dustin. Nails by Her Tribe Nails.

As the trailblazer she is, Manila Luzon shares her biggest self-discovery from her drag endeavors that has impacted her life out of it, “The fact that you could do all of these things, like put on hair and makeup, and how that made you feel, that feeling remains when you take it all off.”

“I can dress like a beautiful goddess, and then at the end of the night, when I take it all off, go to bed, and wake up, I’ll still feel like that fierce goddess, even though I have lash glue in my eye and probably all my makeup on my pillow,” the Drag Den host furthers. 

While Manila Luzon has already marked her spot in the drag community, she looks forward to sharing the same platform of representing the Philippines in the scene. Drag enthusiasts are not the only ones who have marveled on the recent release of the newest local drag competition, as she, herself cannot wait to introduce Filipino drag to the whole world. 

“I’m excited for people to get to experience the talent we have here in the Philippines, and I’m happy to get to sit in the front row and watch all of these amazing drag queens perform,” the Filipino drag icon enthuses. 

When asked about what separates Filipino drag queens from those in the competitions she has been in, she sprawls with bursting conviction and a wink and says, “Right off the cuff, the thing that separates Filipino drag queens from drag queens from the rest of the world is that Filipino queens are more beautiful, I’m not gonna lie. We have some gorgeous queens here, like above and beyond some of the most beautiful queens I have ever seen.”

“But no, I really think that the queens here in the Philippines are so dedicated, and it makes me, as a drag queen from America, think like I should step up and work harder,” she adds.

Photographed by Jerick Sanchez.

With Manila Luzon having witnessed the international scene herself when she joined the global drag phenomenon that is Ru Paul’s Drag Race, she affirms that Filipino drag queens are to be taken seriously, as they can go head-to-head for their artistry, and an identity that is already intact and well-rounded.

The drag queen only wishes for people to see the intent behind all the makeup, lip syncs, and transformations from the show, “I hope that after people watch our show, Drag Den, they’re inspired to express themselves more freely and openly. If a big old man like me can put on some makeup, some nails, and a bunch of these sparkly stuff, and feel like this amazing unstoppable fierce person, I hope it inspires people to think like ‘I can do that too’ and to introduce that to their way of living.” 

In the coming months, Manila Luzon will set foot on the stage with a new, diverse bunch of queens and showcase to the world what Filipino drag really is, which to her is a journey and an exploration that she has marveled at. With such an ever-evolving community, anticipate more Filipino drag queens to dominate the scene and bring forth breathtaking talents. 

Produced, creative & fashion direction, and interview by Leo Balante

Photography by Jerick Sanchez

Styling by Leo Balante

Makeup by Manila Luzon

Hair by Jona Quinn

Fashion by Thian Rodriguez, Cruz Manila by Kyle Cruz, Kelvin Morales, and Adam Pereyra

Jewelry by LVNA By Drake Dustin

Nails by Her Tribe Nails

Shot on location at the New Monarq Studio

Shoot assistant and behind-the-scenes photography: Jharwin Castañeda

With acknowledgments to Erickson Raymundo, Jeff Vadillo, Caress Caballero at Cornerstone Entertainment Inc., Drake Dustin Ibay, and Michael Alvarez