Just before our interview with Naia Black, the 26-year-old rising drag star—and “Drag Den’s” self-proclaimed baby girl from Las Piñas—was on Instagram Live, answering questions from fans and followers, eating a burger from Burger Machine. Direk Tonet (Jadaone, a producer on Manila Luzon’s “Drag Den,” and acclaimed director of hits like 2014’s “That Thing Called Tadhana” and 2019’s “Alone/Together”) stops by. “Si Direk Tonet!” Naia’s fans exclaim in the chat. “Ayan, si Direk Tonet,” Naia acknowledges, blasé and cool, yet excited and humble still to be in the presence of creatives like her.
After Naia’s live, as the clock struck 5 p.m., she enters our Zoom meeting, ready for about an hour or so of chatting about who Naia was before she started doing drag, who she is now in her rise to stardom, and who she wants to become moving forward. Full disclosure: Naia—born Timothy Brian Black—and I have known each other since we were in our teens. (We went to high school together, and, as she proudly exclaimed in Butterboy that one time, were each other’s prom dates.) But this is not a story about our friendship; it’s not even fully just about Brian. This story is about Naia: a drag queen to watch out for—and a drag queen we’ve long had our eyes on, ever since her early gigs in clubs like O-Bar and drag brunches on Basa St. for Butterboy.
At 26, Naia Black has walked the BYS Fashion Week, hosted drag shows over rainbow croissants and sausages at Butterboy, and emerged as a bonafide reality TV star with her appearance in “Drag Den.” On the show, Naia is on the younger side of its eight contestants, joining contemporaries Pura Luka Vega, O-A, Barbie-Q, Lady Gagita, Aries Night, Shewarma, and Maria Cristina in creating looks for the Amazon Prime Original’s Main Drag Showdowns and consequent Dragdagulan Battles. In the second episode, Naia finds herself at the bottom of the leaderboard—but this is no hindrance to her. “I’m the bottom,” she exclaims proudly on her Instagram Story, while footage of “Drag Den’s” latest episode glistens on the television behind her.
Naia, who is often touted as “Brian Black’s final form,” wasn’t always here. Before her, there was Tanya Sativa; and, if you could believe it, Brian only started doing makeup in 2018—a mere four years ago, and a mere two years before the pandemic. But for as long as he could remember, Brian has always had a natural curiosity for and propensity towards the female form. He would always be drawing, even at a very young age—ask his parents and they’d tell you, he said—images of females. “It started when I was really, really, really young. I mean, literally in grade school pa lang I was already drawing girls. I could only draw girls. I found guys boring. I found male bodies boring,” Naia says, pausing.
“Well, now I find them exciting,” she laughs. “[But] I just had this natural gravitation towards [it.] And I think that proved to be very useful now that I’m doing drag. I [don’t think it’s] useful because I’m doing drag; [it’s] what led me to doing this artform.” Growing up in Las Piñas, Brian attended a small science-oriented school before entering the University of the Philippines Diliman, where he took up Broadcast Communication. One day, he stumbled upon an episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and everything followed from there.
During his time at the state university, Brian had been heavily involved in org work, extracurriculars, and activism. His political awakening was during the Aquino administration; he was an active member of STAND UP (Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP) and UP Children’s Rights Advocates League (UP CRAdLe). He ran for student council, becoming head of the People’s Struggles Committee. To Brian—and Naia, for that matter—becoming a political being was part of the fiber of their being.
Over the pandemic, for example, during election season, Naia was on TikTok educating social media users and debunking fake news about the (first) Marcos regime. In her drag, she’s combined Olivia Rodrigo and the strongman 16th president of the Philippines in one spectacular look in collaboration with queer designer Salad Day (otherwise known as Willar Mateo). So, yeah: When it comes to her political beliefs and how she is as a political being, Naia isn’t kidding around. “I do have a lot of strong beliefs and one of those is that we should all strive for equality somewhat—Hello??? I find it funny vocalizing it,” she says. “It sounds almost obvious to me.”
Naia takes this belief system with her wherever she goes—as she advocates for equality, fairness, and justice (looking damn incredible and hot while at it, too), she always makes sure that newbies venturing into the world of drag feel comfortable within the community. “Apart from the cynicism, there is also the hope that we could better the system,” Naia says, referring to systems within and outside of drag.
“I think in my drag I try to do that as well. I try to further an environment that is more friendly towards newcomers. It’s me. It just makes sense—as a children’s rights advocate, I’m also kind to the people starting drag. You know, the baby queens kuno, because I was there and I know what it feels like so I’m very empathetic.”
But part of Brian and Naia’s political nature is the very fact that, plainly and simply, they are queer. And like many queer adults, Brian didn’t know what being queer meant until they found themselves in an environment where they can explore their own queerness. For Brian, it was college. UP had provided him a space to find himself. “I didn’t know what being queer meant to me until I was in college, because I had a lot of repressed feelings in grade school and high school, what with surrounding myself in a Catholic school,” he says.
“I don’t think I was able to explore my true self. And now I’m exploring what I like and what I want to do with my life. I think being queer means you’re allowing yourself to be yourself. Really, it’s that simple. It’s that freedom that allows you to not give a shit about what other people will think. Obviously that’s what we want for the whole queer community. And it’s tangible for me now.”
“Being queer is allowing yourself to be yourself and express yourself in however way you want! That is why as Naia, I wear the shortest dresses. Gusto ko nakikita panty ko. I’m allowed to do such things now. If I were a kid I would love these. Being queer is just releasing that inner child. Being queer, to me, is freedom of expression, allowing that inner child to shine and take the lead and finally let her be heard.”
“Drag Den,” surprisingly, came before Naia Black ever even got the Butterboy gig. She finished filming the show first before she’d become known for hosting the queer-owned bakery’s weekly drag brunches. And when “Drag Den” revealed the cast of eight that would be competing on the show, Naia’s phone was buzzing nonstop. “It came to a point na I just didn’t wanna use my phone muna. I didn’t know what to do. I’mma put you guys on hold first,” she said then, laughing. “On the day that “Drag Den” did the cast reveal I put my phone down, I did some ukay shopping and I made music. I was making techno beats and I was just trying to find an outlet for my anxious self. Hindi ko alam kung paano mag-deal with the rise to stardom,” she says honestly. “College doesn’t prepare you for being a drag queen.”
“[But] this anxiety is very grounding. It reminds me of who I am and not to lose touch of why I fell in love with the artform in the first place and not to let everything get to my head,” Naia says. “To answer your question, how am I dealing with it? I’m just trying to find other outlets for my artistry. Music, designing more outfits, making more performances, conceptualizing stuff with my boyfriend (Miyamoto Shin, also an artist). I’m surprising myself as well with what’s happening now.”
“[In ‘Drag Den’], you’ll see a journey. ‘Drag Den’ as a competition is still part of my formative years as a drag queen,” Naia says. “I came into the competition not fully knowing myself and I left it having a deeper sense of what makes Naia tick.”
Whatever happens on the show—and a pioneering one at that—we know that this is just the beginning for Naia. “I hope I’m an inspiration for other young artists not to get in their heads masyado but to inspire them to keep creating, to keep doing what you want to do. Put yourself out there. Because before I was so anxious about doing that. When I joined ‘Drag Den,’ I wasn’t even two years doing drag.”
Naia would say that her journey in drag may not look similar to other artists.’ “I made my own path. I did my own thing. I was always open to all the opportunities that came my way. Kahit mababa ’yung TF, go lang nang go. I tried to put myself out there because that’s what my therapist told me to do,” Brian laughs—guffaws, even.
“I’m just very grateful and happy. There’s really no secret formula to it. I think I was just putting in the work and having a kind disposition and treating your peers and colleagues with kindness. That’s how I made it to where I am now.”
Photos by Neal Alday
Story by Renee Nuevo
Styling by Edlene Cabral
Makeup by Naia Black
Creative direction by Nimu Muallam and Neal Alday
Produced by Zofiya Acosta
Layout and design by Ella Lambio
Assisted by Amrie Cruz and Levenspeil Sangalang