Outspoken creative Rodina Singh is no stranger to the Manila LGBTQIA+ community, thanks to a decade’s worth of advocacy work. But since the airing of “Drag Den” (a historic feat lost on her harshest critics, mind you), how does the critically acclaimed indie filmmaker, longtime LGBTQIA+ advocate, former drag queen, and “Drag Den” showrunner want people to perceive her now?
“I want people to know me as brave and hopeful,” Singh says. But the reality is, she is scared. And yet she persists.
To transition is to accept yourself
They say bravery is the ability to confront frightening things. For women, especially trans women, that can make up a horrendously long list. How then did Singh grow up into the self-assured woman who commands authority while rocking a bright pink cropped camisole and mid-rise shorts when I met her a week after the “Drag Den” Grand Coronation?
“Later on [pa] nagkaroon ng kahulugan sa akin ’yung [kung] accepted ba ako,” she recalls about growing up in a tolerable family. She felt supported by her parents when she was younger but it was a time when people didn’t openly talk about a person’s sexuality.
Singh had two gay cousins who had a knack for finding themselves in trouble. Despite being the conscientious academic achiever of the bunch, she still faced her parents’ initial negative impression of queer people. “Kaya ni-re-recognize ko ’yung importance of every LGBT character you present on TV. Kasi [doon rin] na-ge-get [ng mom ko] ’yung ganitong fear. Na-i-instill sa kanya na ’yung bakla sa TV ganito [,ganyan]. Naging parang guide ko in my filmmaking kung paano i-pro-process ng nanay ko ’yung pelikula ko.”
“For a lot of people, transness is just about transitioning physically. But you don’t get to talk about the social transitioning, the other parts of being trans. Other than being a woman, we aspire to be mothers. We aspire to have our own family. We have dreams. We have agency. We have politics.”
What would become more difficult for Singh though was transitioning. It wasn’t a conscious decision to create her first feature film “Mamu: And a Mother Too” as a closeted trans woman in 2018. Although she wrote it as if it were her fantasy, it took a while to process it as her subconscious speaking through the film and to overcome the fear of whether the industry would be accepting of trans people or not.
“Before I got in, wala akong figure na sasabihin kong, ‘I want to be her.’ I can only name one trans director sa TV, si Direk Jojo [Saguin.] She’s been there matagal na pero kilala ko siya kasi hinanap ko siya,” Singh admits.
Thinking that the industry wouldn’t welcome her, Singh projected a character. It was not until she gained enough strength and bravery with the help of producers who backed her up that she allowed herself to embrace who she was. “I transitioned psychologically muna, tapos socially. Mas inuna ko siyang i-internalize, na this time di na ako dapat mag-detransition. I did na kasi before. Pinaka-last kong ginawa was to physically transition.”
She revealed to me that it was only a week or two ago from the time we met when her mother found out about her transition. “Nakikita niya [how I present myself] pero we don’t really talk about my transness,” she explains. During a visit to Singh’s house, her mother saw her bottle of hormone pills—initially thinking it contained needles until Singh told her what was in it. Although her mom stayed over that weekend, they didn’t talk about it. And Singh could sense her sadness.
“Sa kanya, ’yung body changes might be too much. I think it comes from fear na mas magiging vulnerable kasi ako as someone na nag-ta-transition rin physically. That it would be harder for me to protect myself, to exist in an environment hostile to trans people,” Singh says. “’Yun rin naman ’yung biggest fear niya before about me being queer, na mayroong innate danger especially when you’re feminine.”
When Singh was the punong babaylan of the University of the Philippines Diliman’s UP Babaylan during her undergrad years, she took part in the book “Anong Pangalan Mo Sa Gabi? at iba pang tanong sa mga LGBT.” So I couldn’t help but ask if she thought it trite when people directly asked about a person’s coming out story.
“Kaya ’yung kwento ni Mamu is about transitioning to motherhood because [trans film narratives are] always about transitioning physically. Magkakaroon ng boobs, magpapa-gender affirming surgeries, and other things na ‘makes’ them a woman. For a lot of people, transness is just about transitioning physically. But you don’t get to talk about the social transitioning, the other parts of being trans. Other than being a woman, we aspire to be mothers. We aspire to have our own family. We have dreams. We have agency. We have politics. These are the things na hindi nila naka-capture because when they talk about transness, it’s just about a woman with a dick,” Singh expressed first.
“’Yung ‘When ka nag-come out?,’ ’yun na yung bago nilang tanong. Before kasi it was ‘Kailan mo nalaman na queer ka?’ Lagi kong kino-correct in a way by answering sa question na ‘Bakit at kailan ko tinanggap?’” she adds. “Di ako nag-come out at all. The challenge sakin was ‘Bakit hindi ko tanggapin ’yung sarili ko? Bakit ako nagtatago?’ Nagtatago ka kasi hindi mo tanggap.”
The honing of an auteur’s lens and her critique on queer cinema today
“Mamu” a story about a trans sex worker in her late 40s who assumes a motherly role to her trans niece, a product of Singh’s hopes to change how people examine trans women’s reality.
“We get to place our ideals as trans people in these characters in a very realistic circumstance. ’Yun kasi ’yung laging nawawala sa mga miserablist na pelikula. I’m sorry but Cinemalaya has always been miserablist. Projecting ideals is very important, especially if you want to inspire young people. I call them ideals rather than fantasies kasi I believe they’re going to happen.”
“We’ve seen how filmmakers perceive trans sex workers in films. Why can’t it be a sex positive thing? Why is it a misery? I have so many trans friends who did sex work. This is my critique of non-trans people doing trans characters. May tendency ang maraming filmmakers to exoticize. There’s a big chance na i-fe-fetishize lang nila ang idea ng trans [into] a woman in a man’s body. When I project a trans character, I don’t give an unflattering shot. I know how it feels to be in front of the camera. Hindi naman ginagawa with cis actresses doing cis roles na kailangan [pagmukhain] silang lalaki,” she says.
Released a year after “Mamu” was Isabel Sandoval’s “Lingua Franca,” which resonated with Singh. “Si Isabel kasi—I call her Ate—’yung artistic style niya ay di na gendered. We approach our art differently. I think ’yung common, dahil parehas kaming trans, is that we get to place our ideals as trans people in these characters in a very realistic circumstance. ’Yun kasi ’yung laging nawawala sa mga miserablist na pelikula. I’m sorry but Cinemalaya has always been miserablist. Projecting ideals is very important, especially if you want to inspire young people. I call them ideals rather than fantasies kasi I believe they’re going to happen.”
Singh believes she would’ve been braver earlier if she had the types of films she makes as a kid. “Sinong gugustuhing mag-out kung ang alam mong mga bakla hindi minamahal, tumatandang mag-isa, walang pamilya?” For Singh, miserablist films perpetuate and normalize discrimination. But when we choose to project an ideal reality for queer people many will realize that being queer is normal.
Interesting to her was how her own internalized transphobia materialized in the film through Mamu herself. “That wasn’t a conscious character sketch. I saw it because someone pointed it out. But it made the character more relatable and more nuanced kasi na-overcome niya,” she says. “But when I saw ‘Lingua Franca,’ it made me [realize] na okay lang na makita natin ang trans people owning their bodies. Sa ‘Mamu,’ they own their sexuality pero di ko pinupush ’yung sex scene to that extent. I wasn’t there yet.”
“I don’t think that this is the future [of queer cinema] already,” Singh says. If what’s on our screens now is what we’ll still be seeing in 10 to 15 years, we’re doomed. “Dapat tinitignan mo kung ano ’yung magiging pang-malawakang effect [ng isang narrative], hindi lang sa character na ni-re-represent,” she says. “Ang problema kasi sa ibang tao they see [progress as a] rectangle na pa-forward lang. But for me it’s a circle. We need to push every part of the circle… hanggang sa lumawak nang lumawak.”
The ethos of “Drag Den,” being forced to compete with “Drag Race Philippines,” and Singh’s refusal to cater to respectability politics
Singh has been an LGBTQIA+ advocate since 2010, taking part in organizing Pride marches and campaigning for the SOGIE Equality Bill. She even produced materials for former Vice President Leni Robredo in the last presidential race. Her grassroots background and victories like SOGIE replacing notions of the third sex partly guide her discipline.
“It’s unfair and a disgrace to abandon portions of our community. We want them to ‘behave.’ So I’m reclaiming their narratives.”
“Feeling ko nag-ka-clash ako with some influential queer people within the community with their own politics [because] I see it as a classist perspective [na] makaka-step forward lang tayo kung maglalaglag tayo ng bagahe. It’s unfair and a disgrace to abandon portions of our community. We want them to ‘behave.’ So I’m reclaiming their narratives,” she asserts.
“Marami kang maririnig na LGBT people na ayaw sa stereotype. I hate that word. When you ask them what the stereotypes are, they’re gonna describe a real person na probably nakita mo sa daan or kilala mo,” she goes on to say. “Mga parlorista, mga malalambot, mga maiingay. Ito ’yung mga character sketches nila pero ’yung journey nila [in media] walang ideals.”
“I don’t want these queens to be pawns of my entertainment. I don’t want to exploit their trauma. Or make a controversy for the sake of ratings.”
This upholding of ideals is evident in the making of “Drag Den” and Singh’s hands-on approach to casting its queens. As a former drag queen herself, the showrunner found it easy to do background checks. The most important factor? Character. “Kailangan these are people na respected by their colleagues kasi they’ll be part of a pioneering show,” she says. “’Cause if not, I would’ve just casted people for the sake of drama. ’Yung mga problematic, mga maldita na mag-aaway-away. That would’ve been an entertainment hit. But I wouldn’t want na ang sasabihin sakin ng nanay ko, ‘Bakit ganyan ’yung mga bakla? Kayo-kayo na nga lang naghihilahan pa kayo.’”
What does she make of the demands for more drama on the show? “I don’t want these queens to be pawns of my entertainment. I don’t want to exploit their trauma. Or make a controversy for the sake of ratings. Diba bina-bash ’yung mainstream reality shows dahil gumagawa ng kung anu-ano for ratings? So why are you asking the same thing from us?” she responds.
Singh’s own formula for “Drag Den” was a TV and film hybrid, which you may have noticed from its documentary-like framing. “I want to capture the grit. Grit ay hindi visual lang. Grit is about the flaws, the imperfections that make drag, drag,” she says.
The queens of “Drag Den” and “Drag Race PH” came from a pandemic. In those two years without work, they turned to Facebook Live shows. When auditions were announced for the series, Singh saw how queens were asking their virtual audiences for tips so they could join and prepare. Only a few came to their rescue. The showrunner wanted audiences to acknowledge this and it discouraged her when many didn’t.
“It’s hard to process na kaya hindi lumalaki ’yung entablado para sa atin because it’s queer people themselves that want the stage to be limited. If you want to democratize something, you should make it accessible to everyone within the community. ’Yung access nagiging nakadepende sa privileges mo,” she says. “Sa ‘Drag Den,’ kaya kami may no elimination because I recognize na hindi lahat pare-parehas ng resources. Giving them a chance to showcase what they prepared is the least that we could do. May isang challenge na ’yung mga gowns nila were sponsored by designers that we provided. We were trying to fill in the gaps. Hindi pa perfect because we lack the resources also. Hopefully in future seasons, we get to address it more.”
We talk about Singh’s critics tagging her in posts calling the show a flop. “Di ako nasasaktan diyan. Realidad na namin yan,” she says coolly. “Indie films win awards but they flop at the box office. ’Yun ’yung realidad ng napakaraming manlilikha dito. Pinapansin lang kapag napansin sa ibang bansa. They’re entitled to their opinion. But thank you kasi ibig sabihin noon nanood sila and they know about us.”
After filming “Drag Den,” Singh was on the verge of a mental breakdown so she stayed in Boracay for 16 nights as a sanity break. She felt that the show was being pitted against “Drag Race PH” and mocked just because it was new. “‘Drag Race’ is a global brand. Parang si Beyoncé yan ng mga bakla. Tapos ako, parang kakapanalo ko pa lang sa ‘Tawag ng Tanghalan.’ Ganun siya sa akin,” she describes.
It was more than a little unfair—aren’t more options good for the community? “I was facing a competition na hindi ko naman sinadya. And hindi naman kami ’yung first na alternative drag entertainment. We have ‘Dragula,’ ‘La Más Draga,’ ‘The Switch Drag Race,’ ‘Queen of Drags.’ Sana mas naging open. Hanggang ngayon nandito pa rin tayo sa GMA versus ABS na amats?”
The joy in sisterhood and trepidation for drag fatigue
Despite the circus, “Drag Den” gave us revelations and moments of sisterhood. One happy discovery is Sassa Gurl’s bloom into a host. Building a character for Sassa was a trial and error process for Singh. The internet star had pre-written scripts until she didn’t need them anymore. When the show wrapped, the pair became close friends. Now, the director considers herself the Cacai Velasquez-Mitra to Sassa’s Regine Velasquez-Alcasid—a sister-slash-handler.
“It was a continuous process of helping her develop her craft more. Anlaki ng potential ni Sassa,” Singh says. “Hindi ako ’yung handler na may kontrata kami. Ako lang kumakausap sa inquiries sa kanya. Para lang akong booking agent at times. I get to give her advice business-wise but also as a friend.”
Singh didn’t just find new sisters, the show also helped her strengthen her bond with the drag sisters that she knew from her days of exploration as Universal Rodina.
Her best friend, makeup artist Min Ortiz who also goes by the drag name Minty Fresh, had auditioned for “Drag Den,” actually. Singh was initially worried that they might argue because her show’s format may not be able to fully showcase Minty’s drag and that people would undermine a win from Minty because of their friendship.
“When Drag Race was formally announced, overnight tinawagan na niya ako. Sabi niya, ‘Di naman ako sasali ng ‘Drag Race’ hangga’t di mo sakin sasabihing okay. Ako nagsabi sa kanya, ‘Actually, sis, I was about to tell you to join ‘Drag Race’ kasi you’re gonna slay that format,” she says. While Ortiz had doubts about getting a call back from the other show, Singh didn’t.
“I’m very proud na nag-full circle moment kami,” she shares. Nandoon kami sa phase na matatapos ’yung [both drag series with her] as a drag queen and ako as her drag sister na gumawa ng sarili kong drag show. Hindi ako at all malulubog sa ‘Drag Race’ culture if not for Min. Favorite show talaga siya ni Min.” It meant even more that Ortiz was the one who offered to do Singh’s makeup for “Drag Den’s” coronation concert.
“Kaya ako nasasabihan ng ‘too much,’ I think it’s one of the most evident critiques about me, kasi I don’t want to mince my words anymore. I don’t think that other countries achieved what they have achieved because they’re subtle. Kailangan magalit ng mga bakla. But at the same time, they have to be hopeful. Bakit pa tayo lumalaban if we believe that we’re not going to win this fight?”
And if there’s one dilemma that “Drag Den” has taught Singh to prepare for, it’s drag fatigue. “Sa Pilipinas, may tendency na maubos agad [ang ma-ca-cast] kung hindi mag-be-breed ng mga bagong drag queens at hindi mag-flourish ’yung drag scene. Sa ‘Drag Den,’ gumagawa ako ng means. Kaya nga lumalabas kami sa kalsada, nag-ba-baranggayan kami. I’m pretty sure ‘Drag Race’ will find its way na mag-continue ’yung pagcast nila ng queens na fit doon sa criteria nila. Nilawakan ko ’yung criteria namin. Kasi pag hindi pasok sa criteria, magagalit ang audience.”
Gratitude and promises for fans and fellow queer creatives
“Drag Den” ended on a cliffhanger that had its queens scrambling to leave the set to avoid getting “caught.” Where will its new season take place? “Drag Den is a character itself, so they need to find a new den. For season one, it’s a sewage [in connection to] kanal. Sa season two, kung magkaroon, let’s see kung saan sila mapupunta. Kung mayaman ang kartel, mas bongga. Doon malalaman kung umahon ang drag cartel,” Singh teases.
The director is grateful to the show’s dedicated, loyal, and smart fanbase that had the show ranking first on Prime Video PH weekly ratings. But she also hopes that they grow more vocal about their love for the show online. Still, it’s a fanbase that shows up and shows out. “If they’re not talking about it online, they talk about it in their social circles. Mga chika nila about the show anlalalim. Dinadala nila minsan sa diskurso,” she describes. “And ’di sila toxic na fandom. Mga fans rin ang nagsabi sakin na gustong-gusto nila sa ‘Drag Den’ viewing parties kasi di sila magkakaaway. And kahit may negative impressions kay MC, they don’t want to crucify MC. In-attempt namin na kunin ’yung side niya. Na-ge-get ng audience ’yon. They’re sweet, nice, and supportive.”
Singh didn’t expect that so many women would show up at their events but she loves it. As a trans woman, it’s important for her that the show resonates with other women, too. She promises that she’s taking note of all the points for improvement that she’s received and that she values fan feedback.
And what about the queer artists who look up to Singh and are inspired by her success? Does she have a promise for them? “Always remember that we don’t lack talent. We lack the opportunity. Never blame yourself for not getting your dream project, for not being perceived enough by your audience. Di mo pa nakukuha ’yung opportunity but it will come.”
If there’s a key to becoming as unshakeable as Singh and her ideals, it’s believing in yourself. “Lahat ng taong naging successful sa buhay ay ambisyosa and I’m proud to say na ambisyosa ako. Sinong mag-a-akala na makukuha kong host si Manila Luzon, na makakatrabaho ko si Catriona Gray? Wala. Mag-ambisyon ka. Libre naman ’yan noh. If it happened to one person, it can happen to anyone.”
And I, for one, believe in her.
Photos by Neal Alday
Story by Amrie Cruz
Styling by Edlene Cabral
Hair and makeup by Dorothy Mamalio
Creative direction by Neal Alday
Design by Ella Lambio
Produced by Zofiya Acosta and Nimu Muallam
Assisted by Levenspeil Sangalang
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