What’s in a name? For drag queens, it’s part of their storytelling and the fantasy they’re inviting us to all live in. In the case of Precious Paula Nicole of “Drag Race Philippines,” there’s a very Pinoy fantasy at the heart of her story.
And I felt it after finally meeting Precious, a top four contender by the time of this release. Though still a bit shy out of drag, she’s approachable and doesn’t get fazed by random questions from fans like, “Who’s your favorite Pokémon?” (It’s Eevee, and her favorite evolution is Flareon.) As a Filipino, I’m familiar with this type of person—a professional who doesn’t leave their caring elder sibling disposition at home and is loved for it.
Becoming Precious and rediscovering Rodolfo
Precious Paula Nicole is the type of name you could expect from a sweet hometown beauty, a nod to the Pinoy affinity for multiple first names. And, perhaps, that was what Mamwa Paolo Ballesteros envisioned with the character Precious Paola Nicole Ballesteros’s debut on “Eat Bulaga’s” Bebot segment in 2005 and reintroduction in 2019.
“[’Yung] first word na Precious, di ko naman talaga siyang tinuring as name. It means precious because I feel precious being myself.”
But Precious isn’t the first drag name of the artist born Rodolfo H. Gabriel II. “My first drag name was Vodka Fierce. Inspired rin siya by Mamwa Pao. He had a teleserye [episode] before na trans show girl [’yung character n’ya] tapos ang name niya doon is Vodka. Tapos Fierce kasi idol ko rin si Beyoncé. Pinagsama ko sila,” says Precious.
Becoming Precious wasn’t a decision that she made on her own. “Sabi ng mga drag moms ko na kapag nakikita nila ’yung mga videos [ni Paola] sa YouTube and kapag nakikita nila ako in drag, parang twins kami.” After receiving Mamwa Pao’s blessing, she changed Paola to Paula, rebuilt her brand, and found new meaning in it.
“[’Yung] first word na Precious, di ko naman talaga siyang tinuring as name. It means precious because I feel precious being myself. For 12 years, na-develop ko ’yung talent at ’yung art ko. Kaya naihahalintulad ko rin ’yung Precious sa drag ko kasi nabubuo siya ng hard work, siyempre ng time, at tsaka effort. And love, of course,” she says.
As a performer, she’s got a knack for celebrity impersonation. And many remember her as the queen who has it all, pulling out various things from under her dress to emphasize her puns during lip syncs. But 12 years of drag poses its own unique challenges, especially if you feel completely different from who you are out of it.
“Before entering ‘Drag Race,’ si Precious at si Rodolfo para silang yin and yang. Si Rodolfo very introverted tapos si Precious naman sobrang extrovert. Exact opposites sila. Pero nung nag-start ’yung journey namin sa ‘Drag Race,’ may point doon na gusto kong ipakita sa mga tao na I don’t only do drag sa life ko. Gusto ko ring mahalin nila ’yung side ko out of drag,” she says. “Slowly but surely, kumukuha na rin ng inspiration si Rodolfo kay Precious nang paunti-unti. At si Precious, being so hyper, mini-mix ko sila para maging balanced sila.”
“May mga tao na kapag sinabi nila na ‘You’re gay,’ ibig sabihin [sa kanila] na you’re just allowed to fall in love with another guy. May mga ganyan akong na-encounter. Kaya hindi ko rin itinago [ang pagiging bisexual] kasi alam ko namang hindi ako nag-iisa sa ganito.”
Finding this middle ground took and still continues to take effort. Out of drag and living his life as forever mama’s boy Rodolfo, he’s beginning to feel more confident. “Hindi ako talaga nagse-selfie at nagpo-post ng picture ko [dati] kasi I don’t feel pretty. I don’t feel beautiful out of drag kasi parang nabigyan ko masyado ng effort at ng time ’yung pag-develop kay Precious. Ngayon na mas kilala ko na si Precious, kinikilala ko naman si Rodolfo as Precious. Nagbabatuhan lang sila ng energy at personality. Gusto kong maging pantay ’yung pagtingin ko [kay] Precious and Rodolfo.”
Embracing bisexuality and femininity with drag
Bisexual erasure is still an issue in 2022 and I wondered whether the bisexual drag queen felt the stigma twofold. In true Precious fashion, it seems she’s more focused on finding strength in numbers.
“I received a lot of judgment before. May mga tao na kapag sinabi nila na ‘You’re gay,’ ibig sabihin [sa kanila] na you’re just allowed to fall in love with another guy. May mga ganyan akong na-encounter. Kaya hindi ko rin itinago [ang pagiging bisexual] kasi alam ko namang hindi ako nagi-isa sa ganito. Hindi lang naman ako ’yung bisexual na nag-out sa public.”
Though Precious feels she has to prove herself to avoid judgment, she hopes that fellow bisexuals know that what’s more important is knowing who you are. “Kasi may mga tao na hindi pa sila sure kung ano ba talaga sila. Gusto ko lang rin i-represent ’yung mga tao na confused [or naging confused sa] kung ano ba talaga sila.”
If Precious doubted her sexuality, did she also struggle with expressing her femininity prior to drag? “Meron akong picture dati, hindi ko maalala [pero] pinakita lang sakin ng tita ko, na nakapang-girl ako [na damit] when I was a little kid. Before she passed away, ni-remind niya ako, ‘Naalala mo dati, ikaw ’yung ginagawa kong Barbie doll?’ Inisip ko baka sign ’yun,” she says with a giggle. “Baka siya rin ’yung gumagawa ng way before kasi alam niya na bata palang ako feminine na ako.”
Fear was what’s on the surface of the memories that she could more easily recall. Growing up, Precious kept her SOGIE a secret—only finding space to express her femininity in high school performances. “Pero takot parin ako that time [kasi] kapag na-bully ka hindi mo alam kung anong pwedeng mangyari sayo.” It wasn’t until she came out and was accepted by her mom that she learned to embrace her feminine side.
It was that acceptance and a first encounter with a drag queen that made her realize femininity wasn’t something she should hide—and if she does get judged for it, she could handle it, too. “Sobrang na-amaze ako. Tapos nakita ko siya nung wala siyang makeup, sabi ko, ‘Oh my god. Ang galing.’ Doon ko naisip na I can dance and paint,” she says.
Precious isn’t also shy about admitting that her drag queen ex-boyfriend, who’s currently dating a member of Precious’ glam team (we’ll let you all make guesses), also made an impact on her decision to pursue drag.
Making good on his promise to support her, he even lent Precious his drag wardrobe and makeup when she started out. “Isa siya sa mga naging inspirasyon ko and I’m really thankful na hindi niya ako pinigilan. Kasi before talaga, akala ko mahirap ’yung papasukin ko na life. Hindi naman pala. Madi-discover ko na bagay pala ako as a drag queen.”
Coming out and coming together as family
And so Precious started on a path that would lead her to TV guestings that eventually became a vehicle for her to come out to her family. “In 2014 or 2015, akala nila sa call center ako nagwo-work kasi lagi akong puyat,” she admits. “[Then,] pinalad kasi ako na makapasok sa finals [ng competition sa ‘Eat Bulaga’]. Wala kaming choice kundi ipakita kung ano ’yung itsura namin out of drag sa TV.”
“After ng grand finals, may na-receive ako na call. Si mama tumawag. Sobrang proud daw siya sakin kasi nakita nila sa TV na masaya ako sa ginagawa ko,” she recounts. “And even my lolo na sobrang strict. Before, nagsabi siya sakin na ayaw niya akong maging bakla. Kapag naging bakla daw ako, magpalit na ako ng name. Pero parehas sila na natuwa…and wala naman silang choice,” she says with a laugh.
As for her siblings, she feels lucky that she didn’t need to come out to them and didn’t need to justify how drag was her bread and butter. After all, Precious is simply following her mom’s constant advice: “Kung saan ka masaya, ’yun ’yung gawin mo.”
After winning the contest, Precious published a long post on social media to reassure everyone that she’s still the same person—only that she chose a career she hid but is now open about. Still, it came as a shock when she got to do drag with her baby brother on the “Drag Race” makeover episode.
“Di ko talaga siya inisip na dadating sa drag family resemblance kasi napaka-introvert niya. Hindi siya palalabas ng bahay, madaldal siya kapag kami-kami lang eh. Sobrang nakaka-overwhelm na nakuha siya ng ‘Drag Race.’ And to perform pa with me, naka-heels siya for four hours sa buong taping. ’Yung shoes [sa] sobrang liit sa kanya, tinape na namin sa binti niya kasi natatanggal,” she says, still with a tinge of surprise.
“Ang nakakatawa, doon ko lang nakita na mas confident [’yung kapatid ko] sa akin. Mas matapang siya. Nung sasalang na kami, panay akong tanong sa kanya, ‘Okay ka lang?’ Sabi niya, ‘Oo naman. Ikaw, okay ka lang?’” she says. “Nakatakda siya na mangyari.”
And then there were three
As one of the biggest homes of drag in Metro Manila, it’s no surprise that Precious found her footing at O Bar. But the road to resident queen status was far from easy. “I started in O Bar na wala talaga akong talent fees for six months. I entered O bar na lahat ng araw nila may regular performers na scheduled for that day. Hindi sila welcome na magpapasok ng panibagong queen that time,” Precious recalls.
“Ang TF ko dati, lagi lang nanggagaling sa tip na pinaghahati-hatian namin. Minsan ma-swerte na ako na may mauuwi ako na P300 to P500.”
“Sini-secret ko pa sa family ko. Hindi ko rin napopost sa social media ko na pini-pursue ko na ’yung drag. For six months, lagi lang akong parang salimpusa. Ang TF ko dati, lagi lang nanggagaling sa tip na pinaghahati-hatian namin. Minsan ma-swerte na ako na may mauuwi ako na P300 to P500. Eh, sa Marikina pa ako [nakatira] noon so ’yung [bayad sa] taxi ko P350 or P350, abonado pa ako minsan pagkauwi ko.”
But Precious rose to the challenge after being promised a permanent spot if she improved. “I was a dancer before, but as a male dancer. Pagdating ko sa O Bar, para daw akong nagpapanggap na bakla. Kasi ’yung itsura ko Beyoncé, [or at least] sa fantasy ko mukha akong Beyoncé. Pero ang napapanood [na performance] ng mga tao ay masculine, barako. Para daw akong naglalaro lang. Akala ko dati ’yun na ’yun eh,” she admits.
She eventually became a regular and has zero regrets, believing that she had to go through all of that to get where she is now. “Para [akong] nag-enroll sa school kahit hindi ko alam kung makakapasa [ako].”
While Precious has been doing drag for a long time, the birth of the Divine Divas is fairly new. “’Yung Divine Divas nagstart siya nung pandemic. Pero I’ve been friends with Brigiding for eight years and si Viñas naman for six years,” she says. Before the lockdowns, the trio spent out of town and out of the country trips together. But they, like everyone else, were forced to stay indoors and find another source of income.
“Before kami nabuo, I was doing Facebook Lives for a number of weeks and kumikita talaga ako sa mga live [online] shows. Triny rin ni Viñas mag-isa, so nagfa-Facebook Live kami halos sabay. Si Brigiding, para siyang nashock sa nangyayari sa lockdown. Hindi siya nagda-drag. Hindi siya nakikipag-usap sa amin masyado. So kami ni Viñas sabi namin, ‘Puntahan natin si Brigiding and try natin i-convince siyang mag-Facebook Live,’” she says.
They immediately realized that they had a hit on their hands. “First [online] show pa lang namin [as Divine Divas], lahat kami nagulat sa ganda ng tanggap ng tao sa amin. Para silang nanunuod ng TV show. And ’yung kinikita namin minsan mas malaki pa sa regular sahod namin sa bar. Doon na kami nag-start mag-plan habang hindi pa nago-open ’yung bars. ’Yung friendship talaga ’yung naging way para mabuo siya.”
The life of a RuGirl that loves to give back
Despite the success of her online drag performances, Precious was still at a financial disadvantage when she joined “Drag Race PH,” which made her undermine her chances. And yet she still made it to the top four.
“Ang goal ko lang talaga dati ay wag lang ako ma-Porkchop, ma-Vangie,” she says, referencing two “Drag Race” queens who were famously eliminated on the first episodes of their seasons. “Ayokong maunang umalis kasi alam kong nandun ’yung Divine Divas. Alam namin na magkikita-kita kami doon. Hindi ako prepared na magtagal sa competition. Gusto ko lang makasama ’yung Divine Divas,” she confesses. “‘Swinerte tayo, mga misis,’ sabi nga ni Viñas. Marami pang stories na hindi ko pa nasabi sa loob. Kasi may mga journey doon na halos wala na talaga akong savings. In-enjoy ko lang ’yung competition kaya siguro nagtagal ako.”
“Kung ano man ’yung issue [ng ibang queens], issue na lang nila ’yun. Ang akin is to enjoy, get to know them more. Para ma-inspire ko sila, kailangan ma-inspire rin nila ako.”
Since the show aired, her confidence has gone up along with the number of invites to perform at “Drag Race” viewing parties, mall shows, music festivals, and more. But it doesn’t mean she takes it for granted nor allows herself to become complacent. “Feeling ko mas polished ako [ngayon]. Nagna-nails na ako,” she says proudly. “Kasi dati ayokong nagna-nails eh. Nakakailang. Pero nung napanood ko ’yung sarili ko sa TV na naka-nails, [narealize ko na] kasama pala siya sa fantasy. Kailangan meron.”
At my mention of her Miss Universe-worthy pageant walk on the show, she spoke about the amount of practice it took and continues to take. “Mas iba na talaga ’yung [lakad ko] kasi mas napag-aaralan ko. Hanggang ngayon, naga-aral parin ako maglakad sa bahay eh. For me, kailangan mo pa rin siyang gawin nang gawin at i-improve. Ako, honestly, hindi ko pa rin nakikita ’yung best ko.”
Is her dedication to her craft the reason why she didn’t have time to beef with her fellow RuGirls or is she truly a queen who stays in her own lane and doesn’t ever “feel like a plastic bag.” “Isa lang yata ’yung naging drama ko sa competition. ’Yung nagpa-stir ako sa first episode na hindi ko na talaga maalala kung paano nangyari,” she says. “Allergic kasi ako sa bad confrontation, mga away. Kung ano man ’yung issue [ng ibang queens], issue na lang nila ’yun. Ang akin is to enjoy, get to know them more. Para ma-inspire ko sila, kailangan ma-inspire rin nila ako. Ganun lang siya. Kahit naman outside ‘Drag Race,’ ayoko na nai-issue ako at nadadamay sa ganun. Kaya siguro ’yung tingin nila sakin, napakamalumanay lang. Parang Charo Santos.”
Precious is also known for her generosity, regularly helping the Home for the Golden Gays. We saw her give gifts to kids while dressed as Maria von Trapp. And more recently, she met her fellow Bicolana, former Vice President Leni Robredo, when she donated to Angat Buhay for those affected by Typhoon Karding. All of these, she believes, are also extensions to her work as a drag queen.
“Aside from impressing customers, mas naituro rin samin ni mama na kailangan nagbibigay ka para ’yung blessings tuluy-tuloy lang at umiikot. Mas masarap kasi sa pakiramdam. Bata palang ako talaga, gusto ko talaga na nagse-serve ako sa mga tao.”
With this willingness to serve, it’s no wonder she’s also a fan of the former VP. “Alam mo ba, mas na-starstruck ako kay Madam Leni kaysa kay Ate Reg,” she divulges about their meeting. “Di ko alam kung paano ko siya titignan nang diretso kasi parang nameet ko si Mama Mary. Ganun ’yung feeling ko that time.”
“Nakakaloka si [Madam Leni.] Nagsasalita pa siya in Bicolano, eh sa hometown ko hindi naman talaga kami fluent. Natutuwa ako sa kanya na parang super interested siya na makilala ako. Siyempre napaka-busy niyang tao and maraming tao na gustong ma-meet siya. Sobrang overwhelming and I’m grateful na na-appreciate niya ’yung mga ginagawa ko,” she gushes.
The next Precious chapter
When I ask Precious where all her energy is coming from, considering all the back-to-back performances she’s been doing while the show is airing, she points to her heart. “Akala ko pagod na pagod na ako pero pagdating ko sa show, biglang may [energy pa]. Siguro kasi dahil ito talaga ’yung gusto kong gawin. Lumalabas lang siya nang kusa. Hindi ko na siya kailangan pilitin. Alam na ng katawan ko kung kailan ako magtatrabaho. I just feel na ito talaga ’yung para sa akin.”
And in case anyone forgot, she has drag mom responsibilities, too. “Meron akong mga baby drag queens na inaalagaan na hopefully makapasok sa mga susunod na mga seasons.”
With great fervor, she tells me that she wishes she could go on tour. “Gusto kong mag-tour, hindi lang sa ibang bansa kundi sa Philippines. Galing ako sa Cebu last week. Nakita ko kung gaano kaiinit ’yung pagtanggap ng mga Cebuano sa 12 ‘Drag Race’ queens. I’m hoping na [magtuluy-tuloy] siya at magkaroon ng mga provincial tours kasi gusto ko ring i-share sa mga tao na maganda rin kami sa personal,” she says, tacking a joke at the end that doesn’t mask how much she wants this.
“I’m really grateful na grabe ’yung love na nare-receive ko kasi anlayo kasi niya sa buhay ko before. Ito na talaga ’yung time na makikilala na talaga ’yung drag ng Pilipinas. Akala ko dati hanggang doon na lang kami sa bar. I’m really honored to share my talent sa mas maraming tao.”
If there’s one other person who’s making a mantra and brand out of the phrase confidently beautiful with a heart, it’s Precious Paula Nicole. And precious she truly is.