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The Paper Dolls

Manila's Pioneering Drag Icons

By Divine Grace Published about a month ago 2 min read
The Paper Dolls
Photo by Jesús Boscán on Unsplash

From pop of colors, to extravagant lashes, to dramatic play on costumes and iconic talents, aspiring drag artists in the Philippines find themselves equipped with opportunities to create mesmerizing performances. The contemporary drag scene is shaped by the presence of high-quality imaginative costumes and the capability to display their artistic talents to a worldwide audience. However, taking a monumental step back to the early days of drags in the Philippines, we remember the pioneers—the Paper Dolls.

1970s when a group of talented performers known as the Paper Dolls took center stage at Cabaret Royale in Greenbelt, Makati. Unlike today's extravagant drag scene, this group laid the foundation for the drag culture in the Philippines, back when it was simply called "female impersonation."

The Paper Dolls, managed by the Layug family, emerged as the pioneers of drag culture in the Philippines. In an era where the term "drag" was not yet in vogue, these versatile performers, Fanny Serrano, Boots Babushka, Angel Bautista, Mari Boquer, Henri Calayag, Peter Estocado, Benny Gamboa, Klakling, Edcel Reyes, Xaviera Petell, Micky Tanaka, and Biba Varona, dazzled audiences by mimicking iconic female celebrities like Liza Minnelli and Marilyn Monroe.

Reflecting on their early experiences, Edcel, the youngest member, shares memories of makeup trials and stage light tests. With dedication and self-study, they transformed into the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich, paying close attention to every detail.

Given their proficiency as impersonators, one might assume that they underwent demanding auditions and extensive training to join the act. However, the reality is quite different—all of them lacked a performing background, except for Mari, a fashion designer from Ateneo who had prior acting experience at the CCP and the Meralco Theatre. Mari assumed the role of the group's director and patiently teaches everyone.

Paper Dolls gained popularity, performing to full houses at Cabaret Royale. Their unique act, combining local flair with international star impersonations, made them a hit. One memorable New Year's Eve in 1975, during the time of Martial Law, they were surprised with a Metrocom bus ride to perform at the Marcos residence.

As time passed, the drag scene evolved. Edcel notes a shift towards more dance-focused performances, but he appreciates modern drag performers for creating unique personas. The Paper Dolls may have had a short run, dominating Manila's live entertainment scene from 1975 to 1979, but what they did laid the foundation for the lively drag culture we enjoy today.

More than 40 years later, we still remember the Paper Dolls, who take us back to a time when their fancy outfits and fun shows defined an era. Reflecting on those days, Edcel happily shares, “It was a nice ride. It’s all memories now, and they sure make me smile.”

Paper Dolls’ era might have lied low, and not as soundful as it was before but they never ended. They started an era that will last forever. While its manifestations may vary in form, color, costume, or makeup, the roots are undeniable. Before the emergence of today's renowned drag artists, the Paper Dolls laid the foundation. Their journey has been extensive, and their legacy persists, reminding us of where it all began.

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Comments (1)

  • Alex H Mittelman about a month ago

    Fantastic work! Well written!

DGWritten by Divine Grace

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