“Age does not matter. Every time we perform, we forget our problems. Every time we are on stage, all our stress goes away. It’s a way to keep us fit physically and mentally.”
So said 62-year-old Mama Bobby, one of the Lola Divas, the oldest drag performers in the Philippines, along with Mama Roming, 67; Bong, 62; and Annie, 57.
“(We may already be) in our sunset years,” Mama Bobby said, but the energy is still there. “Age ripened us.”
Mama Bobby, the lead of Lola Divas, first got his taste of being in the limelight in the 1970s.
“I started performing at the age of 18. I used to be a live mannequin in department stores. And when I entered college, I started getting different offers,” he said. “Then I eventually became a member of a group that regularly had a show.”
Mama Bobby was also a front act performer of Pilita Corrales, Didith Reyes and Pia Moran, among others.
For the Lola Divas, “we were already together since the 1980s. One of our first stints was at the legendary Coco Banana. We were the Cocoquettes. At that time, we were very much ahead of the entertainment scene. That experience opened a lot opportunities to us. And the rest, as they say, is history,” Mama Bobby narrated.
The lolas (Filipino word for “grandmother”) claimed to have also pioneered the Filipino-style gay entertainment scene in Japan, where they were actually regulars at different clubs. But in the mid 2000s, when Japan-based entertainers started having problems with their status there, they all went back to the Philippines.
It was in 2004 when Mama Bobby and the other lolas became known as the Lola Divas. And not for long, The Library – a renowned comedy bar in Malate, Manila – welcomed the Lola Divas to its family.
“When we were just starting as a group, we didn’t think that we would survive because we are already old,” Mama Bobby said. “But then dancing is really our passion and performing is in our blood, so we were challenged.”
Mama Bobby is first to admit that “we do lip syncs and dancing; but we are not gifted when it comes to live singing.” Nonetheless, “as long as we are able to entertain the audience, and we enjoy what we are doing, it’s all good.”
Their journey has “not always been rainbows and butterflies.” For one, their age is admittedly a deterrent for them to get more gigs. Another challenge, related to this, is the changing landscape of LGBT entertainment in the metro. There are now only few venues that offer drag shows, and unlike before, most bars now emphasize stand-up comedies and dance numbers.
A DYING ART?
Drag, simplistically the “art of performing and impersonation”, as Mama Bobby put it, has changed throughout the years. Today, someone who knows how to put make-up on and do some lip syncs is already considered a drag performer. While these qualities complement the art of drag performing, Mama Bobby says that there is more to it than those two things.
“There’s YouTube and the Internet now. Young drag queens can easily copy the people that they want to impersonate. But during our younger years, we only used our imagination to recreate things, and we had our own personal style,” he said. “And of course, we were fabulous!”
Mama Bobby added: “Some young drag queens are like dragons, they breathe fire every time they are on stage. I like watching them. But there are those who give lackluster performances; when you watch them, there is no impact – you cannot even remember them afterwards. They need to step up. Yes, they are disciplined and they rehearse all the time, but they need to have a unique selling factor. Otherwise, they will just be plain impersonators. And there is no real art to that.”
The Lola Divas fear that one day the world of drag in the Philippines will just die out and they will be forgotten. They recalled how the world of drag was also centered in Malate, now considered as the “old world” of LGBT nightlife, a reminder of the Bohemian past of Manila. But with LGBT spaces now no longer confined in one area, and there is a lack of substantial exclusive LGBT bars and clubs, the fear for the risk of “just disappearing” is there.
Nonetheless, the Lola Divas’ members are still optimistic that one day, the drag world will thrive again at levels they remember it to be.
“Among the challenges that we face as drag queens is the lack of funding. Even if we want to create a really good show, complete with costumes and props, we cannot. It’s really frustrating,” Mama Bobby said.
Add to this the fact that “ageism exists even in the LGBT community.”
But these challenges “do not mean that we will give an unremarkable performance.”
Every life, said Mama Bobby, has a unique meaning and purpose attached to it. For the Lola Divas, it is to entertain and bring a smile to the people. “Hanggang pinapalakpakan kami, we will not stop, we will continue to perform,” Mama Bobby ended.