Ongina: Queen for a Day
BY Brandon Voss
February 26 2009 12:00 AM ET
Following in the footsteps and lipstick kisses of Fergie, Pamela Anderson, and Linda Evangelista, a Los Angeles-based drag queen named Ongina has become the latest spokesperson for the M·A·C Viva Glam campaign, which has raised more than $140 million by donating 100% of the sale of M·A·C's Viva Glam products to fight HIV/AIDS.
Known out of makeup as Ryan Palao, the 26-year-old Philippines-born Ongina is a fan favorite on Logo's cutthroat reality competition RuPaul's Drag Race, in which female impersonators vie to become America's next top drag queen. M·A·C Cosmetics is a major sponsor of the show, which is hosted by drag superstar RuPaul, the original M·A·C Viva Glam spokesmodel.
In an emotional episode that aired February 23, Ongina bested the five other remaining contestants to win the M·A·C Viva Glam Spokesperson for the Day Challenge, in which the queens starred in screen tests to promote the campaign. When Ongina won, he broke down in tears on the runway and revealed his own HIV-positive status.
"With celebrity comes responsibility," says Nancy Mahon, executive director of the M·A·C AIDS Fund, which was established in 1994 to support those affected by HIV/AIDS globally. "What's amazing about Ongina is that right as he's being introduced to the world, he's saying, 'This is who I am, and this is what's important to me.' He's the real deal."
Before Ongina presented a $25,000 check on behalf of the M·A·C AIDS Fund to New York City's all-inclusive Harvey Milk High School, he raised awareness for the cause with an appearance at the M·A·C Cosmetics Flatiron store in Manhattan. We pulled aside the petite Filipino princess to discuss his honesty, his style, and his obsession with lady parts.
Advocate.com: You look fabulous. Who are you wearing?
Ongina: Oh, this old thing? I'm wearing Burberry Prorsum shoes, Patricia Field shorts, and this lipstick-print shirt was made for me by a friend.
What did it mean to you to win the M·A·C Viva Glam challenge?
I was diagnosed with HIV on April 13, 2006, so winning the challenge was completely amazing for me. I'm a living example that you can be just as glamorous with HIV as without. You have to keep celebrating life. I'm truly blessed to be able to represent the M·A·C AIDS Fund.
You didn't disclose your HIV status until after you won the challenge. Tell me about that decision.
It was a really hard decision for me, because originally I did not want that to be included in the story. But I wanted to be a voice for our community, and I figured if I can touch just one person's heart and give them hope, then I'm on the right path.
You also mentioned during the emotional revelation that you were afraid to disclose your status on national television because your parents didn't know yet. How did they react to the news?
I actually told them about a month before the episode aired. I sat them down and had a conversation with them about everything that had happened from the very beginning [of my diagnosis] until now, so I reassured them that I was OK. They were worried because they thought I was just telling them I was OK so that they'd be OK with it, but my last T-cell count was really high, so I'm doing amazing. I'm very happy.
What was it like for you to watch the episode?
When I watched it, I had my best friend and my roommates sit on the couch with me. I was like, "All right, we're going to need Kleenex boxes, and you guys are going to need to hold my hand when that part comes." I got really emotional again only because my emotions were very real. This means a lot to me to be a Viva Glam spokesperson.
In your Logo Online interviews you say that you feel like "a woman trapped in a drag queen's body." You also say that you named your drag persona Ongina — using the base of your middle name, Ong — because "God didn't bless me with a certain kind of 'ina." Ever thought about getting sexual-reassignment surgery?
I've always been infatuated with vaginas, but I'd never actually want one because of the whole monthly thing. Although I guess mine wouldn't have the monthly thing. [Laughs] My first drag name was Peck-Peck Galore. "Peck-Peck" means "vagina" in my language.
Your style stands out among the other drag queens because you often choose to go wigless. What's that about?
Wigs are really uncomfortable; they get really hot underneath there. But that doesn't mean one day I won't wake up and want to do a big purple wig. It depends on the inspiration, the song, and the performance that I'm doing. But I really like creating different headpieces, which I think is a little more artistic.
Where can we see you perform? What can we expect from your show? So, RuPaul vs. Tyra: Who's going down first?
I'm out in Los Angeles, and I'm a resident drag queen at La Cita in downtown L.A. You'll see me gallivanting onstage there every Monday. And usually you can find me on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard, wherever it's not busy. [Laughs]
It's really out there. Sometimes I take the literal route with a song, but other times I exaggerate it or elevate it to a more artistic level. I recently performed "Halo" by Beyoncé, but I found a deeper meaning and performed it as the Virgin Mary, and I was having sex with Jesus Christ onstage — which is totally not something you should be doing.
Oh, my God, Tyra's going down first, because I'll be there to help RuPaul make sure that she goes down first! [Laughs]
Where can we see you perform?
What can we expect from your show?
So, RuPaul vs. Tyra: Who's going down first?