Cute but fierce. Chic and unique. Sassy yet sweet. These are just a few terms that come to mind when trying to describe the big-hearted, bald-headed, bubbly ball of light that is Ongina — a fan favorite from the now-historical fledgling season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Ryan Palao, the Filipino-American performer behind Ongina’s polished persona, says that because he is “a very feminine male,” Ongina is not just a character, but an inseparable part of his identity. “Ongina is a part of me… wholeheartedly. And there is definitely a part of Ryan that crosses over to Ongina,” he explains. In fact, Palao, who inspired RuPaul’s hit single, “Ladyboy,” is so naturally feminine that he even thought at one point he might be transgender.
“I knew at a young age that I was different,” he says of growing up in the Philippines, one of the most gay and trans tolerant countries in Southeast Asia. Palao says, “I was never told I couldn’t act the way that I did. My family really supported my individuality and… who I am as a person.”
But Palao says all that changed when his family relocated to a small town in the U.S., where “being gay was something I obviously had to hold back on — being feminine was something I had to change,” he recalls. Despite his isolating environment, Palao came out during his junior year in high school because “hiding who I’ve always been allowed to be growing up in the Philippines, and then not becoming that person growing up in your teenage life, was really hard.”
Ongina takes glam to the streets at amfAR’s Countdown to the Cure event.
And then came drag: Palao first dressed in drag on his 21st birthday, but didn’t start performing until several years later. “I started out very, like, club kid,” Palao recalls of his early days in drag. One can still see the club kid influence in Ongina’s edgy yet sophisticated style — preferring a bald head and coquettish hats to wigs, and having been known to sport black pleather eyebrows. But beneath the glitz and glamour is a courageous and caring heart, which has transformed the petite diva into a powerful advocate and activist.
Palao famously opened up about being HIV-positive on an episode of 2009’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, after winning a challenge related to the cause. He says “coming out publicly about my HIV status wasn’t because I had a plan for it. It was because I won a challenge that was so close to my heart.” Palao says the tearful revelation “burst out, out of emotion,” but he “never really imagined the impact that it would have, and how it would change my life forever.”
This brave act made Palao one of the first people to come out as HIV-positive on reality television since pioneering activist Pedro Zamora (MTV’s Real World) did so in 1994. Not only did that “emotional and organic” moment affect and inspire thousands, it was the birth of Palao’s new life as an HIV activist.
In continuing this commitment, the host of Logo’s 2010 talk show, HIV+Me, recently teamed up with the Foundation for AIDS Research to spread messages of awareness, hope, and positivity about HIV through an online video series called Epic Voices. And he firmly believes that he can deliver those messages more effectively in “a pair of really large eyelashes and four inches of makeup.”
“We can get away with so much shit being in drag, versus if I was just Ryan, because of that fascination with the drag culture,” explains Palao. “I think that drag... is a bigger voice, and people really tend to listen,” he says. “Especially being associated with RuPaul’s Drag Race, it’s such a huge, huge, huge community… and a lot of the fans are also the new and younger generation,” which is exactly the demographic the campaign is hoping to reach.
“At one point, I was really ashamed of being HIV-positive,” Palao admits. “[After being diagnosed], I didn’t want to have a sexual relationship, I didn’t want to talk about it. I was in denial, I was depressed.” And then Palao says that “something in my system just switched and said, ‘You know what? I can’t be like this anymore. I’m not this person!’”
Palao is passionate about many issues in addition to helping those living with HIV — especially the treatment of transgender people. “I think trans rights, it’s just part of human rights,” he says. “I have family… you know, chosen family, that are trans, women and men. I may not know the struggles a hundred percent of what they’re going through, but I think I can empathize with them because I am also a person that is different in a lot of people’s eyes.”
And with the Trump administration now in power, Palao says it is more important than ever to be vocal and vigilant about these issues, and to continue fighting ignorance and bigotry. “You see more of the hatred that was once a little bit more suppressed… now come into light because they have a leader who is encouraging this,” says Palao.
Of meeting his husband on Facebook, Palao quips, “It’s like the new Cinderella story,” and says that he has matured a lot since getting married in 2011. “It’s given me a lot of patience — or has taught me a lot of patience,” Palao adds with a laugh.
Despite his full plate, Palao has also managed to find time to start penning a “one-woman-show” — the working title: The Ongina Monologues: A Timepiece, Not a Masterpiece. (@Ongina)