We’re sitting on a huge sofa in a corner suite of The Upper House, as Karl Westerberg, aka Manila Luzon, excitedly blurts out, “The guys at reception Instagrammed me on the way in!” It’s undeniable that four years ago, her rapturous appearance and near-win on the third season of (counter-?) cultural phenomenon RuPaul’s Drag Race turned this former graphic designer into one of the show’s best recognised and best loved alumna. It’s a journey that she is the first to question. “[The show] has changed the landscape and made drag really popular all over the world. Who knows how long it’ll last? So that’s why I’m enjoying it as much as I can.”

Manila had spent the previous night glamming up Kee Club for their annual Avant G’Art party, the annual LGBT fundraiser for AIDS Concern, as well the closing party for this year’s Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, but she’d made the most of her day off before she flies back to L.A. by “doing all those touristy things, like the Big Buddha.” You’d have thought she’d spend the day attacking the city’s incredible supply of terrifying fashion, but the decision was made because “it was just easier to find the way to the Big Buddha, I mean everyone can tell you where it is, but trying to find something fun to buy? Much harder.”

It’s a practicality that belies Manila’s exuberant personality, and is possibly why she’s made it this far. “I used to work as a graphic designer, but after the show, doing drag took up too much of my time. My boss was like, ‘Ummm, you’re kinda missing a lot of work’. So they said they’d call me on Monday to discuss cutting back on my hours. But they never did! But I was fine with it, because I was already making more money touring the States doing my drag shows.”

It wasn’t a decision her parents were totally behind, at least initially. “My dad was really not on board, especially the dressing up thing. Then right after [Rupaul’s Drag Race] I needed to go get a laptop because I was travelling around a lot already. So my dad and I go to the Apple Store in this tiny mall somewhere in Delaware, and people started running out of the stores going, ‘Oh my God, are you Manila?’ and kept asking my dad to take pictures of us! When he saw all these people recognising me out of drag, he realised that it was OK, it was legit, and when I told him I was making more money wearing a dress than in a design firm, he was OK. He told me to keep making money, he just wants me to be successful.”

Given all that Drag Race has opened up for her, it’s unsurprising that she speaks so fondly of her time on the show. “It was like summer camp. I mean we got to do crafts, and like theatre camp, you know, something where you just get to do what you really like to do. Except someone went home every week.” When asked if it was really as bitchy as it sometimes seems, she admits the queens amp up the drama for the camera to a certain extent. “We’re bitchy cos we’re drag queens and we know that we need to put on a fierce show for the cameras. Drag is dramatic so we camp it up a little, but we almost always get along.”

On set, the queens didn’t spend a lot of time with RuPaul and Michelle Visage – “It’s a TV show, so you can’t get too close, otherwise none of RuPaul’s criticism means anything.” – but afterwards, she went on the road with Visage for Drag Race Battle of the Seasons. “She is our denmother. She’s not a fag hag anymore, she’s like graduated to become the dragmother to us all. She’s so maternal. She was always scolding us for stuff and we’d be like, ‘We’re grown men, Michelle Visage! I know it’s bad for me, but I’ll eat it anyway! Thanks, MOM!’” And even though she won’t dish the dirt on any of the girls, despite much prompting, she does admit that doing drag does not smell good. “When it comes down to it, we’re these big ol’ men running around drunk on stage, wearing a fur hat with lights on us! It gets pretty rank, but it’s covered up by Febreze and a LOT of perfume.”

These days, she’s known for her music, having released a slew of singles as well as the album ‘Eternal Queen’ last year. But for her, the music is intertwined with the accompanying videos. “My singles are really a soundtrack to my videos, where for three and a half minutes you can see me in food-themed outfits and a bunch of naked men in underwear,” she laughs. Shortly, she’ll be appearing on a special Christmas album with other Drag Race alumna. “I dunno if I should be speaking about this, cos I think it was meant to be secret until like Courtney Act Periscoped about it!” And she’s just released a new video, “It’s a song by Andrew Christian model Pablo Hernandez. It’s a parody of ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’ called ‘Bitch, I’m a Bottom’. The video’s really fun. He’s really hot, so it’ll be good to watch,” she says in her unerring deadpan. For now, she’s throwing herself into every project that comes along, and there’s no sign of stopping: “I’ve been doing it for five years now. I didn’t expect it to last this long, but I’m lucky I guess. You know, I always thought I’d be a famous artist, even in first grade. I just didn’t know I’d be doing it in a dress!”

by James Lo

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