Female impersonator Ongina ran the race with us for the first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race on the Logo Channel. She schooled us with Drag U right after and came to town twice to shake a tail feather at Spin Nightclub. There is a serious side to the performer and in this exclusive interview Ongina sounds off about AIDS, drag and love. Here is his story behind the makeup of Ryan Palao.
Jerry Nunn: Hi, Ong. Did you watch the finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race at a party?
Ongina: No, I have full time job so I worked late. I came home, waited for my husband and watched the finale together. It was quiet night.
JN: What do you do?
O: I am a visual merchandiser for a specialty retail store. I have been with the company for five years.
JN: How long have you been with your partner?
O: Just since August of last year.
JN: What did you think about Raja winning?
O: I like that she won because she is a lot closer to my type of drag. She represents an illusion that a lot of people should embrace the same as people that wear big wigs in pageants. I think they did a pretty good job of casting different types of queens this season. It reminds me of Nina Flowers and I being so different. I have known Raja for a few years since I moved to Los Angeles. She was one of the first few performers that I saw in LA. I fell in love with her.
JN: Would you ever grow your hair out?
O: The thing is that I can and I have. I have even Japanese straightened my hair so it has been wavy and cut in different lengths with a shaggy style. It is curly, it’s dead and feels like a Brillo pad. It is hard to manage. I would rather shave it and not have to mess with it.
JN: How many hats do you have in your house?
O: I have at least ten containers with hats in the closet. They used to be in the kitchen cupboards because I wasn’t using them. My fiancé moved into a bigger apartment now with a walk in closet.
JN: So you are getting married?
O: I am getting married! He “put a ring on it.”
JN: Do you have a date set?
O: We are planning for Sept 10, 2011.
JN: So coming up soon.
O: It is coming up. We have just a few more months to plan it. It is going to be a reception dinner with friends and exchanging of vows, appreciating the love I found with him. I am very happy.
JN: Congratulations on that. You did an HIV + Me project on Logo correct?
O: I am currently hosting webisodes called HIV + Me. It is a project where I talk to HIV positive individuals and they talk about their stories of getting the news, people living with it, coming out to their friends and family. Basically every single person has a different story. I think that is very important for people to see these kinds of stories so they don’t feel alone, isolated or not knowing how to deal with such big news when they find out they are positive. It also teaches people to be aware of the disease that is still part of our lives. It teaches if you are positive to take the necessary steps to get better. If you are negative it can educate you that it can still happen to anyone, gay lesbian, straight, bi, woman, man, child, fat thin, tall, short, and cross-eyed. Everyone can get it and it is very important to tell people that it’s okay if you are and if you are not then protect yourself so you stay negative.
JN: You were diagnosed back in 2006?
O: Yes, it was 2006 in April. When it happened I took the news very lightly. I was basically ready for the news because I knew something was wrong with me, especially after Googling my symptoms and having unprotected sex. I put the puzzle together and realized I was sick because it was a mistake of trusting someone telling me that they were negative while they were positive. I got a phone call from the clinic after being tested and they told me I had to go back. I knew that would be the information that I would receive. I had to do what I had to do to stay healthy and live a long life that I wished and plan to do. I went through a few months of depression after finding out for about six months. I was sad, depressed and isolated myself from my friends and family. I had to take it as a sign or rebirth for me and keep moving forward. You can’t regret what happened and have to move forward. That is what I had to do.
JN: That is the message you conveyed on the video on Logotv.com.
O: The videos are very well put together and executed. I get emotional at times when interviewing these people because every single person is different in their experience. They share personal information like I am sharing with you. It gets more than a little emotional sometimes.
JN: Do you have a website?
O: I need a new webmaster so if you know of someone that can donate their time let me know. It needs to be updated. I am an avid Twitterer, Facebooker, so I have a fan page if people want to follow me and see what I am doing.
JN: Do you help with AIDS fundraisers currently?
O: I try not to bite off more than I can chew because it gets a little hectic with a full time job. With the first season of Drag Race I won that challenge and I was able to give back with the MAC campaign to the Harvey Milk High School. I try to give back when I asked to do volunteer work as far as my time. I do get asked to show up as Ongina to host a party, etc. When I can I do. I can’t say yes to everything or I would probably lose my mind. I mainly do the work in LA because it is so easy to get around.
JN: You travel a lot touring so how do you feel regionally that the perception of AIDS is these days?
O: It’s sad because as a person who is HIV positive and come out on national TV about my status, I still see fear in places that I travel. People sometimes share personal information with me in secret because they are not ready to inform other people about their status. Sometimes their parents or friends don’t know about them. I always tell them, “When you are ready you will know and you will be okay.” It is up to them when to tell people but I think the fear is still there that someone will think differently about them. It is the same fear that I had. I did do it in front of a million people watching Drag Race on season one but I did it in the heat of the moment of winning such an amazing prize. This was really close to my heart and I was a living example of why I believe so much in the MAC AIDS fund.
JN: So there is still a stigma that you have seen?
O: Yes, there is. It’s okay that people are afraid but one day like me they won’t be afraid any more. Before I met my husband, who is HIV negative and very understanding of my status, we are very knowledgeable of protecting each other, it was difficult.
JN: How do you stay healthy right now?
O: I am currently taking a once a day remedy Atripla. I am a hypochondriac so anything that is wrong with me I call my doctor immediately. I have a really close relationship with my doctor. I think it is important to have a doctor that believes in your wellbeing. It is key to living a healthy life. Also, getting the support from your family is important. It has been a liberating experience to come out of the closet again. This is me, Ongina and Ryan, either you love it or you don’t.
JN: I didn’t think about it as coming out twice before talking to you.
O: It is coming out twice. The reason it was so hard is like “Hey mom, I’m gay! Oh and by the way I’m a drag queen and to top it all off I am HIV positive.”So you can see why there is so much fear and why people hide in the closet in many different ways. I guess I came out three times. I would hide my heels in my backpack and act like I was going out to the movies!
JN: You are coming back to town this summer.
O: I love Boystown. Rob Hoffman and Jade have treated me like family at Spin Nightclub. This will be my third time going there. Now I get to come when it’s not twelve degrees.
JN: What date will it be?
O: June 25 for a Saturday night then join them for the Pride parade on Sunday on their float. I will have to find the biggest hat because those floats are really busy with hunky guys dancing all over the place so I have to stand out. Maybe I will have another contest on who can make me the biggest hat and I will wear it. Third time should be a charm!
For webisodes with Ongie visit http://www.logotv.com.