The past few years have marked large personal and career milestones for Jervi Li, known by many through the moniker KaladKaren: her engagement to her long-time partner Luke Wrightson in 2020, the beginning of her stint as “Drag Race Philippines” judge in 2022, and, most recently, her Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) best supporting actress win for the movie “Here Comes The Groom” just this year.
The latter was an especially significant—and history-making—moment. On a personal level, it was proof that she had transcended her image as a Karen Davila impersonator, that she was an actress in her own right. But her win had ripples far beyond the individual: She became the first trans actress to win an acting award for the MMFF, and the second trans actress to win an acting award in the Philippines, period.
“I want to share this with all transgender people, drag artists, members of the LGBTQIA+ community whose lives and existence are being threatened in the world right now. Para sa inyo pong lahat ito,” she said when she accepted the award.
“It was really a roller coaster of emotions because I didn’t expect [to] win,” she says, recalling that night. She was happy, not just because it was a huge career achievement for her, but also because she was able to dedicate the win to the LGBTQIA+ community, especially the trans community. “I was on cloud nine.”
Serendipitously, the first trans actress to win an acting award in the Philippines was also in attendance that night. Iyah Mina, who won best actress at 2018’s Cinemalaya festival for her role in “Mamu; And A Mother Too,” was Karen’s co-star on “Here Comes The Groom.” (Another serendipitous fact: Karen had a quick cameo on “Mamu” as well.) “Nung gabing ’yun, nakita ko rin sa mga mata niya kung gaano siya kasaya,” Li says about Mina.
“Being queer in mainstream media is one thing, but being a transgender person sa mainstream media is a different thing [entirely].”
KaladKaren had a shoot the next day with a 7 a.m. calltime, but she didn’t let that stop her from celebrating. “Sabi ko, ‘I don’t care kahit mapuyat ako or kahit mag-shoot ako ng may hangover. This is not going to happen again,’” she tells me. “I have to make the most out of it. And you have to embrace the moment. ’Yun na ’yun eh.”
What she says is not born out of modesty—though she is humble and gracious about her win—but out of necessity. There’s a practicality, an acknowledgement of the fight that trans people have to take for a seat at the table. “Being queer in mainstream media is one thing, but being a transgender person sa mainstream media is a different thing [entirely]. Wala [akong] masyadong nakikitang transgender woman nung lumalaki ako,” she later tells me.
But things are changing, and for the better. “And then I think around 2010s, parang nagkaroon ng trans revolution. Parang ganun, biglang naglabasan ang mga transgender women—and that revolution empowered women like me.”
KaladKaren may not have had many trans role models to look up to as a child, but what she had in spades were newscasters. First were Loren Legarda and Mel Tiangco. When she was a little older, Vicky Morales and Karen Davila—of course—came on the scene. I ask what drew her to them.
“Iba kasi ang tingin natin sa newscaster,” she answers. “Di ba tayong mga Pinoy, there’s some sense of credibility, integrity pag nagbabalita ka sa Pilipinas?” It might just be an ordinary job in other countries, but it’s different here, she muses. “In the Philippines, ang mga news personalities, meron silang parang sense of honor. Parang pag nagbabalita ka, ibang level na tao ka.”
She was also particularly drawn to it from a storytelling perspective. “Malaking bagay sa akin ’yung telling a story. Di ba pag newscaster ka or documentarist ka, you’re a storyteller. Ako, ang hilig kong mag-kwento.” She recounts how her mother and her aunts would catch her as a child playing-acting like a reporter, performing newscasts in front of a camera. That would later progress to her joining extemporaneous speaking contests, performing declamation pieces, and taking part in plays. “I’ve always found happiness in public speaking,” she shares.
It’s not surprising to hear all of this. KaladKaren has the countenance of a newscaster. It’s one of the first things I notice at our shoot, the poise with which she carries herself. She has the presence of someone who has been trained and honed for years to speak deliberately to the camera. One could argue that this is her persona at play—and it’s not not that—a natural byproduct of impersonating a newscaster for so long. But I don’t think that’s it. It’s not an impersonation, it’s organic. When we try to untangle the differences between KaladKaren and Jervi, she reflects that her eloquence and articulateness comes from the latter. “Ganito rin talaga ako magsalita kahit sa mga kaibigan ko.”
Jervi and KaladKaren
“You know, Jervi is really different from KaladKaren,” she tells me. With KaladKaren, “meron siyang pino-portray na persona na kagalang-galang, na powerful, na confident.” That’s not quite what she’s like in her day-to-day life. “Very few people know that I’m really shy. Parang pag kami-kami lang ng kaibigan ko, I’m the quiet one,” she shares.
Later, she and the photographer, Joseph Pascual, start talking about the psychology behind artists taking on alter egos. It’s not just an avenue for them to entertain themselves and the audience. Famously, Beyoncé herself created an alter ego she named “Sasha Fierce” that she embodied for her performances. Sasha Fierce was more sensual and outspoken, a separate entity from her actual reticent self. She said in 2008, “I have someone else that takes over when it’s time for me to work and when I’m on stage, this alter ego that I’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am.”
It’s a way to protect yourself, Karen echoes back. It’s also a way to do things that you maybe normally wouldn’t. “I can do things because I’m KaladKaren, not Jervi,” she says. In many ways, it resembles drag—after profiling and producing shoots with many drag queens, I can say that many of the most larger-than-life queens will quietly note that they are actually quite timid out of drag.
I ask her if she’s ever thought about rebranding, of taking off the KaladKaren mantle and going by herself. It isn’t something you can just do willy-nilly. “The most difficult thing in show business is changing your name or rebranding yourself. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of effort,” she stresses.
She’s been able to grow beyond her persona through her acting, she says. Some aren’t so lucky. “Maraming mga impersonator na hindi na nakawala sa character atsaka sa tao na ini-impersonate nila. ’Yun ang mahirap pag naging impersonator ka because people will always think na, ‘Ah, siya ’yung nag-iimpersonate kay Ma’am Karen.’”
“Ako, tanggap ko, bilang isang performer at bilang isang impersonator, that the character KaladKaren will always be with me.”
For her part, she’s accepted her role. “Ako, tanggap ko, bilang isang performer at bilang isang impersonator, that the character KaladKaren will always be with me. Kahit san man ako pumunta or kung ano man ang maging character ko in the future, KaladKaren will always be a part of me,” she says.
However, she reveals that her management did some social listening and discovered that people do know her as Jervi as well. “Alam naman pala ng tao na Jervi ang pangalan ko, eh,” she says. “So happy naman ako, at least kilala nila si Jervi, alam nila ’yun ang totoo kong pangalan. And ’yun nga, one day siguro baka Jervi na ang itawag sa akin ng publiko. But for now, KaladKaren is fine. I’ve always been happy with KaladKaren.”
Trans people have always been here
I ask her what’s been keeping her happy these days. As a self-proclaimed workaholic, she describes the projects she’s working on. While she already had many lined up before the win, predictably many doors opened up after.
The next thing she names is her fiance Luke, aka the love of her life, who cried tears of joy when she told him about her win. We talk about their relationship some more, and she shares, “We love each other. And I’m very happy that I found a person who loves me for all of who I am, for all of me. You know, his family knows about me. His family knows about us. My family knows about our relationship and we’re not hiding anything.”
It’s a love story, and one that she intentionally shares to help other queer people hold on to hope. “I’m being very open about it all the time because I want our relationship to serve as an inspiration to other people, especially to the young queer [and] trans kids, that true love exists in the community. One day, they can also be engaged, they can also get married, they can also have a long-lasting relationship.”
There is something both beautiful and disquieting about this. It shows her dedication to the community, that she can view her own relationship in light of how it can inspire others. It also reflects how far the community has come, and how much there still is to be done.
“Throughout the years, nakikita namin na ’yung visibility [of trans people] mas dumarami. ’Yung presence, mas lumalakas. And the voice of the transgender community has been amplified throughout the years and I’m so happy that we are here, we are taking up space,” she says. “Napapakita namin sa tao na we belong in this society. We have a space in this society, a space that was once ipinagkait sa amin before—and now we are reclaiming it.”
“I’m being very open about it all the time because I want our relationship to serve as an inspiration to other people, especially to the young kids, mga queer [and] trans kids, that true love exists in the community.”
And it truly is about reclaiming that space, not claiming. Transness is historical, and trans people have been a vital part of the Filipino community even in its prehistory. “We’ve always been here. Transgender people have always been around,” she stresses. Trans people have always had and deserved their place in the fabric of society. “We are reclaiming kasi para naman talaga sa amin ’yun eh, di ba? I think it’s about time that people stop telling us how we live our lives. Stop dictating our boundaries.”
It’s particularly prescient now. We talk about transphobia vis à vis trans excellence, and how the former truly kicked in gear in recent years once trans people showed their brilliance. It’s as if cishet folk demand mediocrity of trans people in exchange for their begrudging acceptance. “If a transgender person exudes power, then they are threatened,” she points out.
“When disenfranchised people who are set aside take power [and] reclaim their space, natatakot sila kasi nga sinasanay nila ang sarili nila na dito lang kayo.”
This is true about the queer community’s struggle for equality as a whole as well. “When disenfranchised people who are set aside take power [and] reclaim their space, natatakot sila (the cishet population) kasi nga sinasanay nila ang sarili nila na dito lang kayo. ‘Mga members kayo ng LGBTQIA+ community, lumugar kayo. O transgender ka, ito lang ang kaya mong gawin,’” she adds. They start thinking that somehow queer people are taking over their rights and their spaces. “Feeling nila nakukuha ’yung space na dapat sa kanila. Diba lagi nilang sinasabi, ‘Trans women in beauty pageants ay hindi pwede kasi para sa amin lang to. Trans women in sports, ay hindi pwede, dapat may sarili kayong category,’” she points out.
It’s reminiscent of an oft-repeated line used in the fight for equality, whether racial or gender: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression.” Li stresses, “They feel like when we are given equal rights, their rights are being lessened and hindi naman ganun. Lahat naman tayo, pare-parehas lang tao.”
This is especially true in the case of the SOGIESC Bill, a bill that will protect people from discrimination based on gender, gender expression, and sexual characteristics. Many of the cishet population have been led to believe that the bill will somehow give people in the LGBTQIA+ community special rights and privileges, when that is not the case. The bill will protect everyone, as everyone possesses their own SOGIESC.
She believes that, in truth, people are willing to listen and learn about the community—but they are just led by the propaganda machine. “’Yung mga propagandist, anti-SOGIESC Bill, they try to manipulate other people to think the way that they do,” she says. “Kaya nga dapat mas malakas ang pagkikipaglaban natin so that people will understand it better, so people are informed and more educated about that.”
It doesn’t help that our community itself can also be so segmented. Transphobia is still so rampant even between queer folk. “’Yung mga masculine gays being transphobic, medyo nakakatakot,” she says. “Ang mga femme, mga nonbinary, mga transgender people, sila ’yung laging nasa laylayan ng LGBTQIA+ community. So kailangan iassert natin ang ating space, iassert natin ang ating kapangyarihan.”
Sometime during our interview, she tells me that two of her queer heroes are Vice Ganda and Paolo Ballesteros. The former especially was instrumental in opening doors for other entertainers in the LGBTQIA+ community. “If not because of Meme Vice Ganda, I don’t think queer personalities like me will be here,” she shares.
Privately, I think about her doing the same, and how she may also be paving the way for future trans creatives. She tells me that, more than anything, she is looking forward to seeing what the trans kids after her will do. “I am just so excited. The potential of the younger generation of trans kids, trans themes, ano pa ’yung pwede nilang gawin in the future? ’Yun ’yung mas nakaka-excite.”
Photos by Joseph Pascual and assisted by Joey Alvero Story by Zofiya Acosta Styling by Edlene Cabral Makeup by Carissa Cielo Medved Hair by Darwin Siñel Creative direction by Ella Lambio and Nimu Muallam-Mirano Produced by Amrie Cruz and Zofiya Acosta