Every week, NYLON writer Michael Cuby will conduct an exit interview with the queen eliminated from RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars Season 5. This week, Derrick Barry was asked to sashay away.
When Ongina entered the Werk Room dressed in a 25-pound entrance look inspired by the female Filipino superhero Darna, she quickly piqued the interest of her fellow competitors and everyone watching at home. One of the original “Ru-Girls,” Ongina competed in RuPaul’s Drag Race’s inaugural season, where she finished in fifth place, but not before leaving a lasting impression with her bald head and ballsy aesthetic. In the decade since her season, Ongina has campaigned hard for an All Stars return, so when the 5’4” queen finally got her wishes for the franchise’s fifth outing, it seemed like it would be full-speed-ahead for the Los Angeles wonder.
Unfortunately, the pressure seemed to get to Ongina from the very beginning. During the Variety Show, the queen failed to impress the judges with her dance routine set to several popular Drag Race theme songs — and, if not for her fellow competitors’ belief that she had more to offer than Derrick Barry, chances are she wouldn't haven’t lasted past the first episode. Nevertheless, her performance in the first episode clearly rattled her confidence moving forward, and when it came time to record her verse for “I’m In Love” in episode two, Ongina struggled. Throw in a viral infection that caused the queen to lose her voice, and it’s no surprise that she ended up in the bottom yet again. After back-to-back negative critiques, Ongina seemed determined to throw in the towel, delivering an impassioned speech about how she would not feel comfortable staying in the competition over the fellow bottom queens, India Ferrah and Mariah Paris Balenciaga. Though challenge winner Shea Couleé did hold a sense of allegiance to Ongina, a member of her team, in the end, she just couldn’t justify keeping her, and sent her packing.
Several days after her elimination, NYLON hopped on the phone with Ongina to talk about returning to the show after a decade, losing her confidence, the sincere moment she shared with Alyssa Edwards, and how coming out as HIV+ on the show in 2009 completely changed her life.
What do you think went wrong with this challenge?
I will say: one, my voice, and two, my confidence. But I wasn’t that bad! But ultimately, those two things really fucked with me and that’s okay.
Watching yourself back on TV, were you surprised that you ended up on the bottom?
No, I wasn’t surprised. I knew that my raspy, sexy grandma voice was going to land me in the bottom. But because I tried to really put so much more into the performance and into really living in the moment and having a good time, I thought that that would make me safe. But it didn’t and that’s fine. I’ve listened to my verse many times and it is hilarious. I’m literally looking for a DJ to remix it for me right now.
You obviously can’t control when you get sick and it’s so unfortunate that you ended up getting sick during a week where you literally had no choice but to use your voice.
Well, the fucked-up thing is that I was like, this had to be the fucking day that we’re doing a live performance using our voices and I literally have a virus infection. What the hell? I had to go to urgent care to get it taken care of, but what I would say is that I had so much fun and this was literally one of the best days of my life. Not only was Shea an amazing leader, but she was also an amazing partner who really was championing me. She was so patient. She was like, “Girl, if that is your voice, use it. Make it sexy!” That’s one of the things that makes it funny to me. Now being reminded of it, I’m like, that was not sexy but it was hilarious. And Mariah was such a great partner for me by just keeping the positive energy and the laughs backstage. I felt really good, pretty, and confident. Honestly, I felt that all that showcased in my very last performance on the All Stars stage.
Given what Shea said about feeling a sense of loyalty to the people on her team, is there any part of you that feels betrayed by her decision to eliminate you?
No, because I told her to. I said from the very get-go that I would fight for the crown furiously and ferociously but also fairly. When I say “fairly,” I look at the rankings from the week before and the week that I was in the bottom, and ultimately, the “fairest” thing was me going. India won the first episode and Mariah delivered such a powerful performance that kept her safe, and I didn’t. I forgot what the assignment was for the reading challenge, I was really nervous for the talent show (even though, ultimately, I honestly didn’t believe that I was that bad), and that kind of carried over to episode two. When I found myself in the bottom three, it was right for me to say what I said because I wanted it to be fair.
So I’m assuming there’s no part of you that regrets saying that?
No. I mean, yes, I wanted to go to the very end, obviously. I wanted people to see more of me. But ultimately, this is a competition and a competition can be played genuinely or it can be played shadily, and I chose to play genuinely.
You were struggling with your confidence both weeks you were there. After being one of the main queens that has always appeared on fan’s “dream All Stars lists,” were you always nervous to return or did those nerves settle in after you arrived on set?
It was precisely one of the reasons I was so nervous is because not only did I want to do well for myself, but I wanted to do well for my fans and my family. But the format has changed, and no matter how many times I’ve seen a season of All Stars or even a regular season, I’m like, I got this! Put me back! But getting there, you’re like, fuck...what did I do? From the very beginning — the minute they picked me up to go to set in my crazy 25-pound entrance outfit — I was sweating and so nervous. I think from that moment up until when I left, I just let that blow out my fire and lose confidence a little bit. But overall, I had so much fun.
So much of All Stars is about showing the world how much your drag has evolved since first competing on the show. What were you most excited about showing?
I think I was most excited about the fact that people could now see me in HD.
No more vaseline filter!
No vaseline filter! No correction glasses needed! But I was really happy to be able to showcase how I have evolved as a drag queen and what I see now to be precisely who Ongina is. The evolution and the growth will continue, which I’m very excited about. I’m also very excited that they get to see a part of me that represents my culture. I didn’t get to do that on season one, so I’m really proud that I was able to bring my Filipino culture on stage. And the theme for my exit runway just couldn’t have been better — loving the skin I’m in being a Filipino-American, and really wearing a national costume inspired by a traditional dress that many Filipinas wear. So overall, leaving early is a little disappointing, but leaving with that is one of the biggest successes in my career.
You also had that very sincere moment with Alyssa Edwards backstage right after you were eliminated.
Yeah! I had a sincere moment with Ru, thanking her for changing my life because she really, truly did. You don’t get to see her interact back, but she said I had changed hers 11 years ago, and that was really amazing. But Alyssa really reminded me [that I was] one of the trailblazers, and I really thanked her for her words because it really made me happy. There was also a video from my husband that didn’t get to air, but he also gave me some really nice words. It’s shitty that I didn’t stay as long as I wanted, but it’s amazing because I was there.
Looking back to over a decade ago, while you were originally on the show in 2009, would you have ever expected the show to blow up to become what it is today?
To be honest, no! I had viewing parties for season one and I was like, What is this filter? No one is going to watch this! And then I was like, What is this production? But it was actually incredible, considering the timeline. Not just because I was in it, but the entirety of the show. I was like, I’m seeing drag artists on television right now. They re-aired my season on VH1 at like 2:00am, but that was still a huge reach of audience, and I was so incredibly proud to be a part of that. I always say, “You’re fucking welcome.” Because no All Stars 5 or season 12 would exist without my season, so everyone is welcome.
The show has obviously evolved since your season. What was the biggest change for you coming back?
Two things. One: we’re no longer filming in Ru’s basement. And two: the amount of pressure is just incredibly enormous, and as you saw, that played a part in my confidence. But again, I’m glad that people are now getting to see me in high-definition. Just don’t look too close.
One reason Ru brings back queens from those earliest seasons is because of the reach the show now has. Are you already feeling a difference in the fan response?
Yes, and I’m so happy to be able to showcase the evolution of my drag to a wider, newer audience. I’m glad they are accepting me well. There’s obviously always going to be negativity and trolls, but that’s what comment filters are for on your social media — so you don’t have to see it. So I’m really focused on the love, the support, the positive response from me being on All Stars. I’m excited to be able to travel and reach my fans in person, hopefully sooner than later.
How has it felt so far to be in this moment but be forced to do everything from home because of the pandemic?
I’m actually totally okay with it. I’ve learned to be a music producer, a lighting technician, a sound guy, and it’s been another creative outlet for a lot of us. There are so many amazing visual shows out there, so I still get to do and create. Regardless of the fact that it’s not in person, the support online is still tremendous, and people are still wanting to support you, tip you, buy tickets, etc. So I don’t think that the support has changed; it’s just that the platform has shifted a little bit until we are ready to fully be back on stage.
During your original season, you made headlines for disclosing your HIV+ status to the world during the MAC Viva Glam challenge. How has that moment changed your life?
It has changed my life tremendously. One: being free of my internalized stigma [that I had] in the beginning, when I found out I was HIV+. Now, being able to fully, freely live my life as an HIV+ person is such a huge weight off my shoulders. Two: being able to unknowingly reach as many people as it reached and know that it had an impact on a lot of people. I’m really happy to accidentally take on that responsibility, and I have been for the last eleven years. It’s been really incredible to be able to work with organizations locally, nationally, regionally, and internationally to really try to end the stigma that’s associated with the virus, and hopefully find a cure in this lifetime, because I want to be able to be there to celebrate that. And three: just hearing from other people that share their stories with me has also inspired me to continue the advocacy. That’s going to continue to be one of my focuses while I have this platform and this voice.
Now that you’re gone, who are you rooting for?
I had such a tremendous experience with Shea, especially with her being so patient with me as my team leader, so I am Team Shea.