INTERVIEW: Down and Dirty with Taipei Drag Star Magnolia La Manga

INTERVIEW: Down and Dirty with Taipei Drag Star Magnolia La Manga
Credit: Alejandro Wang

What you need to know

We talk to a Taiwan drag icon about 15 years at the heart of a vibrant scene, LGBT rights, performing with Jolin Tsai, and spreading the word to the next generation.

The drag scene in Taiwan has exploded in recent years with international drag stars regularly being invited to perform. A myriad local performers can also be found gracing the stage at various venues across Taipei and other cities. The News Lens caught up with Magnolia La Manga, or Mags as she is affectionately known, who has been performing drag for 15 years in Taipei. No stranger to stardom herself, Mags, who is a youthful 39 – or possibly 29 depending on who is asking – has recently featured in the Netflix drama "A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities", appeared alongside Jolin Tsai (蔡依林) at the 25th Golden Melody awards and in her "PLAY" music video.

She's also been involved organizing in a series of educational lectures entitled "What is Drag?" in co-operation with National Taiwan University (NTU)'s gay society, which aim to move the conversation on drag outside of the club and pub environment. A longtime advocate for LGBT rights and active fundraiser for several charities, Mags reflects on how the drag scene has changed and on living in Taiwan at a pivotal time for human rights as marriage equality beckons on the horizon.

Credit: Jill Chien

The News Lens: Mags, you’re a leading light in Taiwan’s drag scene. You’ve been around since 1999 when you wrote a column for a gay lifestyle magazine, and went on to start performing live in 2003. How have you witnessed the drag scene develop in Taiwan?

Magnolia La Manga: Taipei’s drag scene has totally blown up and is out of control these days, and it’s fabulous! So many creative people putting on so many amazing events that there just isn’t time to get to them all. Back in the day was totally different, of course, but it was pre-RuPaul’s Drag Race and drag wasn’t really a *thing* in the mainstream consciousness.

Mags performs in Jolin Tsai's music video "Play."

The first drag performance that I saw in Taiwan was Queen Blue at Genesis back in 1997, before I even moved here, but that was a rarity. There were lots of lady-boys, trans and cross-dressers, but that kind of British pub landlady/pantomime dame drag queens were in short supply, and luckily that’s what I specialized in. It was performance art, with cocktails, really.

I mean, yeah, I guess you could call getting dragged up, getting shit-faced, and posing for photos a “scene”! We certainly made a few. I remember being in drag at [legendary club] TEXOUND during a police raid with semi-automatic weapons, which happened a lot back then, it was pre-Taiwan Pride even, and while most people were friendly towards the foreign gays, there was a lot of shit with police. But they never bothered the drag queens. Before the gay bars were mainly centered around Hong Lo, there were smaller venues scattered around the city, as well as weekly gay club nights at long-gone venues where you could catch a drag show – or at least an impromptu *performance* of some sort, on a bar top, or in the gutter. Now, Taiwan has international drag stars coming here regularly and everyone’s a drag queen. Literally. Everyone.

TNL: Drag is an expensive pursuit. As a permanent resident you have the right to perform and get paid. Is there much available in terms of paid gigs or are you performing a labor of love?

Mags: It always has been, and always will be, a labor of love. Paid gigs are great, but it’s no living. You have to love it and you have to want to do it, and you will spend money. I only do the gigs I want to these days because a) I’m old and b) I can’t be pouring so much time and effort into performances that barely cover the cost of your cab fare. I’ve always done drag for myself, first and foremost, whether as an expression of my queerness or just because I damn well want to.

I don’t want my drag to be a job; it takes the edge off it and it forces me into obligations that I simply don’t want. I love that people enjoy it, don’t get me wrong. But it’s primarily to entertain myself and to provide visibility for various charities. I know that’s not the best RuPaul-style inspirational quote, but it’s my truth. These days I’m more concerned with helping to create opportunities for younger queens to express themselves but also to have realistic goals and expectations – you can be a fabulous queen and be part of a fantastic queer family and that has more value than the amount of money you make while doing it – being yourself is its own reward. I’m lucky to earn enough money to do *my drag* any time I want to, and paid gigs I can pretty much take or leave. Unless it’s Netflix, obviously. I’ll take that! But you gotta love it, and love yourself first. Was that RuPaul enough?

Credit: Iron Wang

TNL: What advice do you have for aspiring drag artists in Taiwan?

Mags: While there are many more opportunities these days, you’ve got to pay the fucking rent! Don’t give up the day job. Or, for some of these queens, get a damn job! Also, remember that all the makeup skills and dance moves in the world don’t mean shit unless you *also* have a personality. Cultivate one. Even if it’s one people don’t like. Just have one. But, seriously, stop taking yourself so seriously. Everyone should have dreams and aspirations, but nothing in life gets served up on a platter less than fame and fortune in the drag world.

Take opportunities when they present themselves but also don’t be used by people – and you have to decide yourself where that line is drawn. Also, give a shout-out once in a while to the people that lift you up or help you out. Establish networks but set your own boundaries, and never, ever be afraid to look stupid. Because you do. A lot of the time. Own it! Also, don’t judge yourself. Leave that to the rest of us. And, finally, have fun. Because if you’re not enjoying yourself on that stage, no one is.

TNL: You’ve recently been involved in organizing and speaking at a series of lectures entitled “What is Drag?” which also featured talks from drag kings. What is the aim of the series?

Mags: Yes, “What is Drag?” started in cooperation with the gay society at NTU. It was intended to give a voice to drag queens and other queer-identified performers, especially the younger ones, and also to bring the idea of drag as both an art form and part of gay identity to a wider audience outside of the bar and club environment.

I was really bowled over by the response to these events, especially from the people that took the time to talk to me personally. We also thought it was important to broaden the conversation to be more inclusive, to have a space where people could talk about the challenges drag kings and bio queens are facing in the drag industry, and also about whether or not, to us drag queens, is drag simply a performing art, or is it linked to our gay/queer identity?

I personally felt it would be wonderful to discuss how drag goes beyond pure female impersonation, and it is perhaps better (and healthier) to perceive it as an art of personal self-expression. And these are all kinds of conversations that you have outside bars after drag shows, but we wanted to bring them into the light. Also, in terms of creating opportunities, I felt that coming at drag from a more academic perspective – in addition to talking about hair, and makeup, and performing, and the practical skills – would be another way to build wider support and interest. There’s the glamour and the wow factor, but there’s also the why and the WTF!

Next we want to broaden it even more to a convention type event where people can workshop not only their skills and their art, but also promote their motivations and their dreams. Road to Taipei DragFest! Taiwan is ready!

Credit: Iron Wang

TNL: You’ve performed alongside Jolin at the Golden Melody awards, and in her MV Play. Did you find that this changed your public profile significantly?

Mags: Oh totally! When we were invited to perform live with Jolin Tsai at the 25th Golden Melody Awards in Taipei, we didn’t really know that we were making Taipei Drag Herstory. It was one of the first times for Western drag queens to be seen live on TV in Taiwan, and it was also beamed throughout Asia – though at the time, most commentators simply expressed surprise at how tiny Jolin looked next to those “foreign women”! But it was a wonderful experience. Jolin is absolutely lovely and the icing on the cake was when we were invited back to be in her PLAY MV (28 million views on YouTube!). It got me lots of extra attention and sure, my social media blew up, but it wasn’t as if I imagined I’d be touring China with Jolin the next month and a whole new world would open up for me. At my age, it was simply a wonderful opportunity and I was grateful. Fucking grateful!

TNL: You have a cameo in the new Netflix drama “A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities.” How did you find the experience of working on a film set, as opposed to doing a live show? And how do you feel about being beamed across the world to 190 countries?

Mags: Working with [director] Nelson Yeh (葉天倫) was another wonderful opportunity and all the people at the production company were amazing and friendly. Compared to live shows, working on a TV show is an absolute fucking dream! There’s plenty of time to get ready, you have a makeup artist, a hair stylist, a costume designer, a wardrobe assistant, and even someone to fetch you a drink and carry your shit from the dressing room to the set… and back! I felt like an actual queen the whole time!

There was even a lovely woman who rushed onto the set between takes just to adjust the curls in my hair. And you get to do as many takes as it needs to get it right. Bliss! Of course, there’s none of the drama and excitement of a live show, when anything can go wrong and usually does, and you get your thrills as an entertainer right there in the moment. But I guess it’s my age. Fuck the sweat and the screaming audience and the instant gratification – I’ve done all that – give me the whole damn production crew and a crack squad of beauty professionals, and I’m happy to put my feet up while they do all the hard work. I mean, the acting bit was fun, but compared to frantic live shows in questionable clubs, the whole TV experience was more like being at a spa. If anyone from the networks is reading this, more TV work, please! And of course it’s a wonderful feeling telling friends around the world to check me out on Netflix.]

Credit: Iron Wang

TNL: Next month will see you take part in your 10th LGBT Pride. The parade has grown immensely over that period. Taiwan has also changed a lot in terms of the conversation about marriage equality. How do you see these changes reflected at the parade?

Mags: When I did my first Pride in drag, there were 25,000 people there. Last year, there were over 120,000. So it’s got massive and while it’s not huge in Western terms, it is a huge achievement for a tiny island off the coast of China. People come for all over Asia and the rest of the world, and you see them all having an amazing time, reveling in the freedom that they probably don’t have in their own countries, and it makes me so happy and proud of Taiwan and the people here. I have always been overwhelmed by Taiwanese for their great attitudes towards drag queens and their friendly welcoming open arms.

I firmly believe that Taiwan is the best place in Asia to be openly gay, and this is due to the kind hearts of the people here. And their resilience. And their democracy. Like many drag queens and fellow foreign queers, I have for a long time been a vocal and visual supporter for LGBT rights and partnership equality in Taiwan, and watching the Pride Parade grow and being just a small cog in such a huge success is one of our proudest achievements of my lifetime – if not the best thing I’ve ever been involved in, ever.

Credit: Iron Wang

TNL: Where do you stand on the issue of the delays to same-sex marriage legislation since the Constitutional Court ruling in May 2017, especially given the prospect of a referendum on the issue in November?

Mags: Honestly, I am so fucking tired of these Evangelical Christian-led anti-marriage equality groups in Taiwan. They literally disgust me to my very core, and I don’t know how such vile bigots sleep at night, considering the outrageous lies they spout about something which is none of their goddamn business. And why do they always cover their faces? Cowardly scumbags who I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire.

But as far as the movement goes, it’s an unpopular opinion, but I was always more comfortable with the strategy of civil unions first, and then amending the Marriage Act later, because that worked fine in places like the UK. And it just gives the bigots a small victory (simply by not calling it *marriage*) and then they go back to their churches to pray for money, or whatever it is they do when they’re not spewing hate. And by the time the whole *GAY* marriage thing comes round again in a few years, the population is already over it, and anti-gay groups can get no traction.

But, then I found myself agreeing that it DOES matter what it’s called – maybe not to me, but to the young gay people – and they shouldn’t have to strategize. Now, I love the energy and the passion of the true marriage equality movement and I support it unreservedly. Complete actual equality, right now, and why the fuck not? Why should the gay people of Taiwan have to wait any longer? The court made a decision and that should be the end of it. I feel absolutely confident that the momentum will carry it through, because Taiwan deserves to be on the right side of history.

Credit: Iron Wang

TNL: You undertake a lot of charity work, could you tell us about that?

Mags: Most of the charity work that I am involved in revolves around animal welfare and HIV-related organizations. We drag queens raise funds for organizations like Mary’s Doggies, the Harmony Home, Artists Bridge the Gap, and also perform at the yearly Candlelight Vigil for Ending AIDS Together in Ximending for the Living With Hope NGO.

One of the events that we have coming up on Oct. 6 is our sixth annual Dog Days in Drag event at Carnegies in aid of Mary’s Doggies. We throw a drag show on the bartop with queens, kings, in-betweens and a host of fabulous performers who give up their time for free to help raise money. This year our theme is Mama Mia! So expect a night of ABBA and ABBA-esque and also a raffle with some fantastic prizes that have been donated by our generous sponsors, who are mostly local businesses in Taiwan. I think it's important to keep hammering home the message of responsible pet ownership and it doesn't hurt to have a good time while doing it. So please, do come along!

TNL: What has been your favorite performance to date?

Mags: My favorite performances are the ones where you can tell the crowd is having fun, but you’re also enjoying yourself as well, so you want a well-lit audience who are still the right side of paying attention, and you need to be feeling your own oats, too. I’ve been on both sides of that particular equation myself (too many oats, in quick succession) but I think one of my best nights was at a Christmas show at WERK a couple of years ago. I did an Adele mashup that was way funnier that it should have been, but it really worked. Everything gelled. I had gasps, laughs, groans – all the things you want in any three-and-a-half-minute performance – and it was just a wonderful vibe. And it was Christmas. And I looked fabulous! And I knew it! The Drag Trifecta.

Credit: Alejandro Wang

TNL: What was your least favorite?

Mags: Oh, too many! Any time when I turn up at a venue or event and the stage is 10 times bigger than you imagined – because I don’t like to move around much in Taiwan’s humidity, nor am I especially graceful, and, most of all, I don’t do fucking cartwheels. Book a damn pack of dogs and some flaming hoops if your stage is the size of a football field, not a fat middle-aged drag queen! There’s literally nothing worse than watching some heifer huffing and puffing, trying to work all the corners in seven-inch heels and hair that weighs 60 pounds. Well, OK, it is kind of funny. But definitely not my favourite kind of performance…

TNL: Do you ever travel on public transport in your full regalia? If so, how do you find that the general unsuspecting public react?

Mags: I don’t do public transport in any regalia, darling, least of all drag. My personal opinion is that if you’re not a student or an old lady, and a) you don’t have someone to drive you; or b) you can’t afford to take a taxi (in Taiwan!), then something has gone very wrong with your life and you should take a long, hard at some of the choices you’ve made.

TNL: Finally, Taiwan has a reputation as being the most gay-friendly country in Asia. Do you think that that reputation is deserved?

Mags: Taiwan is Asia’s most vibrant and tolerant democracy. Across the board, the Taiwanese are extremely drag-friendly, everyone wants photos, and Taiwan is a safe and welcoming environment, from the streets to the venues – gay, straight, and mixed. A case in point, a few years ago, I was stumbling through my local park just after dawn, on my way back from a club. As you can imagine, I didn’t look my best in the cold light of early morning, what with the ladders in my tights, the cigarette butts in my hair, and one of my tits having gone AWOL. But as I staggered past a large crowd of middle-aged women doing their morning tai-chi, they all just burst into spontaneous applause. What could I do? As disheveled as I was, I gave them a twirl, a polite curtsey, and stumbled on my way. That’s what it’s like being a drag queen in Taiwan. The Taiwanese appreciate anyone who makes an effort; even if you actually look like something the cat threw up. It’s perfect!

Readers may catch Magnolia La Manga performing at the Dog Days in Drag 6! MAMA MIA! at Carnegies on Oct. 6 from 7 p.m. to midnight. Tickets are NT$700 (US$23) on the door and include one drink. All proceeds go to Mary’s Doggies.

“A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities” is available on Netflix and on PTS channel at 9pm every Saturday.