What pushed Jamil Crescini to the drag persona Shewarma was, quite simply, the stage.
“Sa theater talaga ako. ’Yun talaga ’yung past na ginagawa ko,” he explains. “Nung nawala ’yung theater sa akin noong pandemic, naghanap ako ng bagong stage.”
A former artistic director of Teatro de Letran, Crescini tried drag for the first time in February 2020. Seeing his ex thrive in drag (you might know the drag businesswoman Morbucks) made him think he could do it too. So he competed in that month’s Drag Cartel, Nectar Nightclub’s regular competition for baby drag queens that’s become a sort of incubator for future drag stars, and perhaps to no one’s surprise, won first place.
And then the pandemic happened. “Sabi ko sa sarili ko, ‘Ano ba ’to, ayaw ba ni Lord sa akin ’tong eksena na ’to?’”
Yet he soldiered on. A theater actor now without a stage, he found virtual drag shows a tantalizing opportunity to continue performing.
Shewarma, in essence, is like another theater costume that Crescini can don, another character to play on stage. “Si Shewarma character lang siya. Hindi talaga siya si Jamil. So when I put on my makeup, pads, costume, si Shewarma siya. Medyo malayo si Shewarma and si Jamil. Mas matapang si Shewarma and mas loud. Si Jamil ay tahimik, timid.”
But the power of drag isn’t just about the performance. Crescini explains that the day he first performed in drag was also the day he came out to his family. “Umuwi ako sa bahay ng naka-drag. And then sabi ko sa kanila, ‘I’m gay.’ Gulat sila.”
Why did drag give him the power to come out that day? “For me, sobrang hindi ako natatakot pag naka-drag ako. Sinasabi ko ang lahat na gusto kong sabihin. Nabubuo talaga ako pag naka-drag kaya kaya ko talagang mag-come out sa family ko.”
Shewarma, in her own terms
If it isn’t obvious enough, Shewarma is a play on shawarma, her favorite food. It’s catchy and it tells you a lot about the queen: Middle Eastern (Crescini is Filipino-Arab), witty, and fierce.
“Pag sinabi mo ’yung name, Shewarma, parang, ‘Shewarma?’ Mapapaisip ka why. ’Yun pa lang. The name itself is a [unique] brand.”
And who is Shewarma really? “Shewarma is very fierce and sobrang palaban. Sobrang competitive,” she laughs. “Competitive siya sa competition, sa loob ng ‘Drag Den,’ and hindi siya pumapayag na lalabas siyang pangit, lalabas siyang kulang. Dapat lagi siyang [may] buhok. Ang vibes na binibigay niya is very Middle Eastern pero Filipino by heart. Siyempre, dito tayo pinanganak.”
Shewarma is unapologetic about being a fairly young queen. “Yes, I’m a pandemic-born drag queen,” she says. During the filming of “Drag Den,” she had just been doing drag for a year and eight months. But despite her rookie status, she already has an extensive relationship with other queens.
Her drag mom and fellow “Drag Den” top three was Maria Cristina who was her director at Teatro de Letran. Xilhouete regularly pulls her for makeup gigs. (Notably, she had a hand in Maricel Soriano’s Kinang Inay transformation.) And she regularly performs with Min Ortiz and Odasha in the drag group She Mod, which first started out on Facebook Lives and now performs at venues like Nectar and Butterboy. “’Yun ang masaya kasi nag-grow na talaga ’yung group namin.”
It was the latter relationship that led her to competing in “Drag Den.” She wasn’t even planning to audition. Aside from being very green in the industry, Shewarma was hesitant due to a death in the family. “Kamamatay lang talaga ni lola. One month pa lang siya dead so wala akong planong sumali sa kahit anong competition dahil mentally hindi ako prepared [na] iwan ’yung family ko.”
But Ortiz and Odasha kept urging her. When she finally relented and began to tape her audition video, she decided to take it seriously. “Sinabi ko sa sarili ko, ‘Sasali ako dito para manalo, kasi bakit pa ako sasali kung hindi ako mananalo?’”
The “Drag Den” experience
How was her “Drag Den” experience? She remembers being starstruck by Manila Luzon—because she was so tall. “Ang tangkad niya kahit hindi siya naka-heels. ’Yung tangkad niya ’yung naka-heels na ako.”
Out of the drag enforcers, her favorite was Mela Habijan, whom she learned a lot from. “Gusto ko siyang kasama [at kausap] sa bahay. Feel ko kahit one week kami mag-usap sa bahay, ang dami ko pang matutunan and madadalang mabuting asal sa labas ng bahay.”
“Drag Den” also brought her closer to other queens, especially Aries Night, who prior to the show was just a work acquaintance and is now a super close friend. She stresses that the reason why she chose to battle it out with her in the first episode was specifically that they weren’t close. “Hindi naman ako ganung friend. Kaya siya ’yung keri ko lang mapauwi kasi hindi naman kami ganun ka-close.” On the other end of the spectrum, she finds it funny that she ended up fighting Odasha on the show. “Pinag-usapan namin na pag may nag-away sa amin sa loob, warlahin namin. Ending, kami ang nag-away.”
However, she does recall feeling heartbroken when Francis Libiran guest judged an episode. Not because she didn’t like him (far from it), but because she felt let down by her performance. She actually wants to be a designer and she plans to pursue fashion design after “Drag Den.” In fact, she designed a lot of the designs she wore on the show. “Ginawa ko talaga siya by hand, by glue, like ’yung mermaid to siyokoy ko, ako ’yung may gawa. Itong wedding gown, ako ’yung may gawa. And ’yung ibang mini challenge, ako ’yung may gawa. Sana makita niyo ang finale [look] ko. ’Yung dulo, ako ’yung may gawa nun.”
Thus the disappointment. “Kaya sobrang na-heartbreak din ako. The designer, tapos nag-rank seven ako. Ano ba ’to, ’yung dream ko bang maging designer, i-pu-push ko ba ’to?” But now she thinks of it as yet another hurdle she had to overcome. “Parang ’yung drag, di ba? Nag-drag ako and biglang nagka-pandemic. Tinignan ko kung i-pu-push ko pa rin. Then nasa ‘Drag Den’ na ako and I’m one of the top three finalists.”
Reflecting on that, she believes you should follow your instincts and “tuloy mo lang kung alam mong mag-go-grow ka dito.”
While speaking about her relationship with designers (her favorites are Danielle Manila who designed her sacred heart look for the OVP and Roman Sebastian who was behind her balot look), I offer that trust is especially important between designers and drag queens. She agrees.
“Hindi biro ang measurements ng drag. Kagaya ko, ’yung bewang ko 30, ’yung balakang ko biglang nag-fo-forty six,” she says laughing. “So buti may mga magagaling tayong mga designers sa Philippines na kinakareer ’yung measurements ng drag, kahit sobrang likot.”
She talks me through two looks from the show. One is the jejemon look, the Supreme tag-filled ensemble she wore to symbolize a Philippine holiday. Designed by supersonicsiomai, it’s inspired by the jejemon hypebeasts who go to Simbang Gabi not out of religious obligation, but to show off their looks. “Hindi naman nagsisimba, nagsisimba lang para umoutfit,” she laughs. “Nakikita ko lang sila dati sa simbahan, sobrang tuwa ko.” When she heard about the holiday assignment, she knew she wanted to dress like them. A galaxy brain moment.
“Dati rin naman akong jejemon,” she admits.
The other look was her protest look in which she paid homage to the anti-feudal struggle of farmers who make up the backbone of the country but are exploited by landlords and compradors. She knew that was what she wanted to highlight. “Gusto ko magtalakay ako sa mga farmers.” She even did her homework, reaching out to an activist friend from Anakbayan and immersing in educational discussions on the topic. “Nag-aral kami. Tinuruan niya ako about sa ‘MKLRP,’ tinapos namin ’yung course. Sobrang saya kasi ang dami kong natutunan.”
“Pumasok ako ng ‘Drag Den’ na para akong nag-aral,” she says. Aside from farmer’s rights, she also read up on politicians and government transparency. “Panay aral naman ako sa mga isyu.”
“Masaya kasi sobrang big ng platform ng ‘Drag Den’ para sabihin namin kung ano ang gusto naming sabihin at nasabi namin to nang maganda,” she says. She also brings up the show’s lack of lip-syncs (a drag staple), which some responded to negatively, and says that that was the point. “Gustong patunayan ng ‘Drag Den’ na hindi lang lip-sync ang kayang ibigay ng drag queens. Gusto nilang patunayan na may mga boses talaga kami. Meron talaga kaming boses na ipaglaban ang gusto naming ipaglaban sa buhay.”
Not forda crown
Her only regret on the show is that she got too serious and thus didn’t get to fully present her authentic self. “Hindi nakita si Shewarma na super harot,” she laughs. “Sobrang pakawala ako, sobrang balahura ng bunganga ko.”
But overall, she’s proud of what she’s shown. “Sa first episode, hindi ako natanggal, naloka ako. Nag-away kami ni Odasha, nakita ’yung side ng kamalditahan ko. Nakita din ’yung pinaglalaban ko sa buhay. Napakita din kung mabait ba ako o hindi. Actually, lahat ng na-experience ko sa ‘Drag Den,’ I’m happy sa run ko.”
Because of that, she’s okay with the prospect of not winning. “Ako naman, hindi naman ako forda crown na.” If she loses, it just means she needs more time and more experience—again, one year and eight months—and there are other opportunities to shine.
What she’s turning her attention to now is the hope that the show gains more momentum. “Kasi pag nag-boom pa ’yung show, mas mag-bo-boom ’yung drag community sa Philippines. ’Yun lang naman. Gusto kong mag-drive ng mag-drive ’yung drag dito sa Philippines.”
“Ang wish ko na lang is suportahan niyo hindi lang ang ‘Drag Den’ queens, hindi lang ang ‘Drag Race’ queens, [pero] pati local queens kahit hindi kasali sa mga reality shows para lahat kami makakatanggap ng pantay-pantay na suporta galing sa mga tao.”