With his bald head, gender-bending look and penchant for wild hats, Ongina (real name Ryan Ong Palao) won our hearts on season one of RuPaul’s Drag Race. On the eve of the premiere of RuPaul’s Drag U, we were able to catch up with one of America’s favorite drag queens, now a professor of all things fierce on Drag U. Ongina talks to us about his rise to fabulousness, gives a little behind the scenes dish on Drag U and his fellow professors as well as updates us on his work with HIV and AIDS organizations – and explains why you’ll never see drag queens at a rodeo! All this and his idea for a new series with a fellow Drag U queen that could be the biggest thing since Pink Lady and Jeff ! Class is in session!
Socialite Life: Should I call you Ongina or Ryan?
Ongina: Either one…I’m Ryan now!
SL: Tonight’s the premiere, are you excited?
Ongina: Yes, very excited! I’m actually having a party at a lounge in West Hollywood tonight. So, we’re going to watch the premiere there, then I’m going to start hosting a party at my place for it, an intimate gathering with friends every Monday – to watch a hot mess of a show!
SL: You’re based out of LA, but you were born in the Philippines. What brought you to the US?
Ongina: Well, my mother wanted to move to the United States to give our family a better life. And so she moved out here when I was young and then she worked to get us permission to move over here – first in Seattle – I moved here when I was 12 with my brother, and then I moved to New York when I was 19 and now I’m in Los Angeles.
SL: And how did you get started doing drag?
Ongina: I first started out doing drag in New York City, I actually started out as a gender-bend sort of character and I was more of a party kid rather than a drag queen, but I guess, you know, if a boy’s wearing high heels and lashes, you can call them a drag queen. So, it all started out when I met people in New York City who sort of ran the nightlife and I wanted to be one of them – and they were all fabulous and it was something that was very different and very new and very exciting for me and so I wanted to be part of that scene and so I figured that if they can do it, and if they have the balls to do it, then I can do it too. And so I basically I started dressing up. When I turned 21, I was going out to places and my friends were introducing me to other people etc., etc. and it kind of elevated from there.
Check out more from Ongina after the jump!
SL: It sounds like you and RuPaul have similar backgrounds (Ru rose to fame via the Atlanta club scene), when you were asked to be on Drag Race, what was your reaction? Ongina: Well, when I was first asked to be on Drag Race I actually decided that I didn’t want to be on that show because…well, I was out in Los Angeles and one of the casting directors saw me perform in one of the clubs out here and she said “We’re doing this new show, it’s a drag queen concept, it’s a competition, you should totally do it” and my thinking was “Well I’m not really a drag queen…” – back then I still wasn’t even wearing boobs, my makeup was still really light, and I didn’t wear any wigs, etc., so I just didn’t think that I was what they were looking for. But, you know, then I thought “What do I have to lose?” If it’s something that’s going to help me in my drag career, why not take the chance and maybe they’ll take a chance on me and people will react and respond to me positively?” And so, after a week of being harassed by this casting director, I finally gave in and said “You know what? What the hell? I have nothing else to lose but a lot to gain. So I’m going to give you all the tape that I have.” And…you know, I think the audition tape was only supposed to be five to fifteen minutes long or something like that, and mine was like an hour and I was like “Listen, this is all I got, you edit it how you want it, you have to do it because I don’t have time” and I did it literally like an hour before the deadline. And then two months later, they called me for Drag Race and that changed my life and it definitely helped me expose the way I see the drag art to a wider range of audiences and I get to entertain for the masses and it’s really fun. I love the stage. I love the energy of the crowds and my fans and so if I get to do that all over and I get to travel to do it, it’s just a benefit and it’s just a blessing for me. Then, Ru approached me about Drag U and, you know, it’s really hard to makeover people – women, men – I think that there’s a certain trust that you have to gain when you’re making over somebody and my fear was that I wasn’t going to be good enough to make over anybody. But I figured, if I can makeover myself into a bald, fierce bitch, then I could probably do it to somebody else. So I said “Sign me up, I’ll do it.” SL: A lot of the queens on Drag U have had experience as makeup artists. Did you come into the show with any of that experience? Ongina: No, you know what’s funny is that before Drag Race, I told you my makeup was very light, it was just playing with it, I was just starting out, and so I didn’t learn how to fully tackle the makeup…I didn’t learn how to really do my makeup until after I was in Drag Race and I learned a lot from the other queens, you know, Nina (Flowers) showed me a few things, Shannel showed me a few things and I honestly consider them all my friends because they helped me help Ongina’s persona grow – and part of that is making sure that you look the part, especially when you’re a bald queen, you don’t want to look like just a boy in a dress, you want to elevate that persona, and they definitely helped me out. I also have a really amazing makeup artist, David Rodriguez, and he’s taught me a lot that I needed to learn so that I could elevate the face and the persona so that people will react to it a little differently. And, you know, I think that the more that you do it, the bigger that you progress. And so I think the more and more that you play with your face and with makeup the more and more you learn the aesthetic of what you want to look like and I think that with practice comes near perfection and I think that I’m still learning but I think I’m getting to the point where I think I’ve got it down. But no, I’ve never had makeup artist experience – not like Shannel, who’s amazing, and she’s been a makeup artist for years. SL: I know, Shannel did a fantastic makeover on you on Drag Race. Ongina: Yeah, right? That’s the very first time that she taught me a lot of what she knows. She told me “You’ve got to do it like this” and “You’ve got to do it like that” and I said “But it’s too hard!” and, you know, obviously she couldn’t paint my face every single episode for Drag Race because we were competing against each other. But she was really nice and she said “I’m going to show you a few techniques that will help you – and hopefully these techniques will help you grow in the future.” And they definitely have. SL: In the first episode, when RuPaul was talking to her full faculty, you had on the most amazing hat – it was a black, studded leather cap. Where did that come from? Ongina: Oh yeah, that’s an Ashton Michael original. Ashton Michael is a designer friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles and I, you know, a lot of times when I’m finding inspiration for my look, I want to be a little bit more fashion-related and I love fashion, I love spending my money on fashion and so I was at his studio that one weekend when we were shooting and I told him “I have nothing to wear!” And I was complaining to him because I think I have worn literally everything that he has made and he’s made new ones, but he told me, “You can’t wear that, that’s for a client.” And I asked “Well, what am I going to wear?” and he said, “Well, I have a bag of this, but I don’t know if it’s too edgy for you.” And so he pulled out this bag with that dress and the shoes – the whole outfit came from him. And I just fell in love with it and I said “Oh my God, I have to wear this.” This is something that I’ve never worn before, people are very used to me giving you a very, you know, like a hat type of thing but never a cap with spiked studs on it. So I thought it was a different take on my look and I definitely am one to take a risk on my look and so I thought, “You know what? Let’s put it on my head and see if it fits” – and luckily enough, it did and I just fell in love with it and I had to take it from him and he said “I had better get this back” and I said, “Maybe!” (laughs) SL: Like you said, you like to take chances with your style, but have you ever had a “What was I thinking?” moment when performing?Ongina: Yeah, definitely. I think as a queen and as somebody who likes fashion, there’s definitely moments where I look at my past outfits and thought “Why did I ever wear that?” And, like I said, it’s part of your learning. I mean, you kind of play with your body and your image and your size and your height/weight proportion and you find things that fit you correctly and you find things that don’t, but you’re never going to find out if it doesn’t fit you right if you never try it. So I’m not afraid to try things once or twice. And if I like something, I’ll repeat it many times until I get sick of it – like my red jumpsuit, which is one of the things you’ll see in an episode coming up – that jumpsuit I’ve probably worn in ten cities and on photo shoots and the show and I love it and it was vintage – I got it for like $30 at the vintage store. And so you know you’ve gotta learn how to mix the high and low and you’ve gotta learn how to satisfy your image and your body and your height/weight proportion and so there are times when I’m like “Ew, that’s gross” and there are times when I’m like “Wow, I want to wear this like 30 times. And I don’t care who says I’ve worn it 30 times. I like it, I love it” SL: Going back to your hats, do fans send you hats?Ongina: Oh yeah! So, it’s funny, because before I started filming Drag U, I went on Twitter, MySpace and Facebook and said, “Listen, I need new hats for this new show that I’m filming with Ru.” And, obviously, I couldn’t say any more than what I did, and I said “If you want your hat worn by Ongina on TV, send me a hat.” and I think I got like 12 hats within the next couple of weeks to wear on the show and unfortunately, I was only able to wear about 8 of them. But I was really excited because a lot of these hats were…I think there’s a certain connection people find with me, being that it’s a reality show and they kind of…people watch you and they get to know you in that time period when they watch you and I think there’s a certain connection where people know my aesthetic and so they send me these hats and I want to wear them all, sometimes I want to wear two at once because it’s so good, you know, but yeah, definitely. My fans have sent me hats and I love them and I just love that they did it. I think it’s a different take on what drag can be and what drag is able to be. I think you don’t always have to have hair or sequined gowns – I think there’s a wide range of drag queens and I think everyone needs to see what that wide range is. SL: I agree. I would have loved to see you in the final three.Ongina: Oh, thank you. I definitely, you know, even though I didn’t make it that far, well…I made it somewhat far but even though I didn’t make it to the top three, I think that I still won because I’m really successful. I’m blessed to be able to do the things that I love to do. I get to travel all over the world to perform – and people react to it really positively and I’m very happy that I had this chance to do what I love to do. SL: Since the show (and the revelation that you were living with HIV), you’ve done quite a lot of work for AIDS and HIV organizations – including the “HIV and Me” web series for Logo. Can you tell me a little more about that?Ongina: Anytime that I have a chance to volunteer my time and my work to the HIV and AIDS organizations, I try to. I recently actually volunteered my time for Saddle Up LA, in Los Angeles, and they do a horse ride (laughs) around the Griffith Park area and I went there in drag, fully tucked and everything in six inch stilettos in the stable and one of the guys in the stable asked me “You’re not wearing that, are you?” And I said “What do you mean? I’m an honorary trail guide and I’m a drag queen. This is what I’m wearing on the horse.” And he asked “Um…where’s your penis?” And I said, “It’s duct taped, why?” And he told me “You’re gonna want to go untuck and you’re gonna want to get sweat pants or jeans or something and maybe some cowboy boots because you’re going to get hurt.” And I was like “Are you serious?” And so I was kind of upset, because I was wearing this really fabulous outfit and then I had to go change because I was going to destroy my manhood if I didn’t. And…well…I destroyed my manhood long ago (laughs). So I changed and we raised a lot of money to help people living with HIV and AIDS. I’m trying to do as much as I can, it’s just a little tough sometimes when I have my full-time job as a visual merchandiser and then I travel and perform at other places almost every weekend of the year. But when benefits come calling, I try and make sure to give them time as well because I want to make sure that people know that I…you know, it hits home for me. I care a lot about the HIV in the community and I want to make sure that they know that I am willing to give them as much as I can to help the cause. And you’re right, I have a web series on LogoTV.com called “HIV and Me” and that’s an amazing web series in itself because I’m able to speak to HIV-positive individuals who have different stories and these different stories really help inspire other people and people in some cities who may think that they don’t have anybody to relate to or to look up to – I think that they can find a lot of relationship in these videos and really find inspiration and know that you’re not alone in this fight and you’re not alone in this battle, and the other important thing too is that we’re raising awareness to make sure that if you are negative, you want to make sure that you stay negative and you protect yourself if you are negative and if you are positive, you know that there is help that’s out there that is going to help you go through being positive and living a healthy, positive life. SL: Can you tell me a little more about the ladies you worked with on Drag U?Ongina: My students were really, really, really amazing and I think that part of the thing that’s great about this show is that they cast girls who somewhat related to their professor and I think that I found a really good relationship with some of these girls and I feel really strong relationships with them in the manner of what kind of hardship happened to them – from the show while we were filming it, because there’s definitely…you know, there’s always…when you’re trying to makeover people, and you’re trying to give them a new look, there’s always that sense of trust that they have to build with you and you try to overcome that doubt from them when you start opening up and telling them that, you know, their life experience is not so far from my own life experiences and when we start talking about those kind of things, I think they figure that, “You know what? His life is not so different from mine.” So, I mean, every episode that I filmed was an amazing episode because I got to know these girls and I got to really develop a relationship with them – and it was amazing. So, I think that this whole show showcases not only outside beauty but the inner beauty and really helped people understand that there’s more to life than being down and out and then being sad and you know It doesn’t matter if you’re having a bad day, you wake up and put on some lip gloss and you put a smile on you face and you walk out the door and I think it changes the whole aspect of how you see your day. I think it’s just, I don’t know. The thing is, for me, I used to be so negative and I used to be so bitchy and I’ve learned a lot in my lifetime, and life is too short to walk around having such negative feelings about anything. And so, I try to wake up every morning and put a smile on my face and just tackle my day – no matter how hard it’s going to be. SL: What was the best thing about working on Drag U? Ongina: I think the best part is being able to work with the girls from season two (of Drag Race) because anytime you’re able to collaborate with other season contestants, I always enjoy that because I’ve actually performed with a few of them in clubs and stuff, but to work with them is just truly amazing – because you learn a lot from different queens and I think that this whole process is a learning process and so to be able to work with queens like Pandora (Boxx), Jujubee and Raven and Morgan (McMichaels)…I think that I learned a lot more about myself and about the drag culture than I ever thought before because they’ve been doing this longer than I have and it’s good to know that they’re going to be there and support me and my growth as much as much as I’m there to support their success and their career. SL: Well, I’ve heard that you and Jujubee have teamed up for The Jujugina Show. Can you tell me a little more about that?Ongina: We were in San Diego for Pride weekend and we were joking…well, when we were filming Drag U, we both decided that a network needs to pick up The Jujugina Show. And, it’s going to be a variety show…you know how when you watch Telemundo, or an Asian channel or like, that sort of the Filipino channel, for example, like that my sister is obsessed with. So there’s these shows that are like variety shows, and their like an hour and a half long, and they have singing contests and contests where they give out money and they have interviews with the stars and they have dance numbers and they have karaoke and they have a cooking segment, they have an action segment…like it’s just a variety show of sorts and then they have a comedy skit in it. So I thought “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you and I had one of those variety shows, but on a network where America could see it?” And she’s like “Oh my God, good idea!” and so we were toying with the idea of coming out with a show and I asked “What should we call it?” I thought maybe we should call it The Onjuju Show and she suggested, “Maybe The Jujugina Show?” And I said “Oh my God, the ‘Jujugina’ is so much better than the ‘Onjuju’!” So we both decided that when the time comes and somebody picks up the show, it’s going to be called The Jujugina Show. So, we’re very excited for it – we started a Twitter account for it @thejujuginashow and she and I both promised this weekend that we were in San Diego that we were going to upload it each week and just talk about stupid stuff – stupid stuff that people can laugh about, you know? Everyone’s so serious about everything lately - I think you need to just laugh once in a while, and I think that’s what we’re going to try and bring to the table – to bring some comedy into people’s lives and make sure that they’re always happy and smiling. SL: And it’s also so people can finally tell the two of you apart! What’s that about?Ongina: Oh yeah! And that’s one other thing that’s huge. I mean, seriously, how do you not tell Jujubee and I apart? Like, Juju wears hair, I’m bald. I have tattoos, Juju doesn’t. She has more slanted eyes than I do. I mean, come on, she’s from the mainland, I’m from the island. It’s not that hard (laughs)! I was with her in San Diego and somebody came up to me and said “Juju” and I was like “No, that’s Juju” (laughs). It was really funny…I think it’s borderline racist (laughs)! SL: So, besides The Jujugina Show, what else have you been up to lately?Ongina: Well, I am traveling and doing more shows and you can catch me on my fan page on Facebook to try and find out what city I’m going to be in next – or Twitter (@ongina). I have a website, but I’m really lazy to update it, but you can check it out at ongina.com. It tells you a lot of information of where I’m going to be and obviously, RuPaul’s Drag U. I have the Logo (web) series “HIV and Me” and hopefully, sooner rather than later, The Jujugina Show will be coming to a network near you! We thank Ongina for taking the time to talk to us – and make sure to head out and see him when he comes to your town! And, of course, don’t forget to tune into RuPaul’s Drag U, Mondays at 9pm EST on Logo!