When I turned 21 in 2010, I didn’t really know many people in the “gay scene”. I would just show up at parties, clubs, and knew that eventually I’d meet people. I had befriended Alexander Manila, who went on to become Mr. Gay Seattle 2011. He introduced me to Aleksa Manila, who is one of the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure of encountering. Without so much as a swat of her hand she said, “Here, let’s take a picture together. You have a great smile!”
And the rest, they say, is history. Through the years, Aleksa has been a great mentor not only to myself, but countless others in the Pacific Northwest. She was the first queen to pull me aside, tell me I look busted, and fix my make-up. She has a big heart and I was so happy to sit down with her and ask her a few questions about her life leading up to now and where she thinks she’s headed into the future.
Brad Gilligan: Let’s go back in time. When did you leave the Philippines and was Seattle where your family settled? What do you love the most about the Pacific Northwest?
Aleksa Manila: I left the Philippines in 1995 and I had just turned 20. Now you know how old I really am! Some of my family settled in Washington, Kirkland to be exact. Some were in Texas and eventually Canada. But I moved to Washington because my mom decided to settle here at the time. And, I have lived in Seattle since 1996. I’ve pretty much lived from Downtown to North Seattle. I love the fact that the Pacific Northwest is on the West Coast – immediately next to the Pacific Ocean – well by way of Puget Sound, of course. I simply adore availability of fresh seafood and especially, the multi-cultural diversity of the population represented in communities and cuisines.
Brad Gilligan: How did Aleksa Manila come to fruition? Do you have a drag mother?
Aleksa Manila: Believe it or not, I technically do not have a drag mom. My actual mother is the root of my inspiration. Over the years, I have met and befriended many seasoned drag queens who pioneered the drag scene. Some of them have adopted me into their drag houses, but just by name. I am a self-taught queen. I watched, read, observed a lot of literature and various resources on makeup, hair, fashion, etc. “Aleksa Manila” began as a run-around nightlife queen on Halloween as most queens are often born. The idea of drag became more apparent when I was involved in a Queer API (Asian/Pacific Islander) group called, YAMS. We would do various social events that were aimed at empowerment, self-esteem, cultural heritage, etc. That became a great outlet for artistic expression. It provided me a platform to express in ways that was strong and fabulous. My drag was truly borne out of health advocacy and social activism. Eventually, friends convinced me to compete at the Miss Gay Filipino Pageant in 2001. I won every category – National Costume, Swimsuit, Talent, Evening Gown and Question/Answer – except for Miss Congeniality!
Brad Gilligan: It’s well known you have a large, loving drag family. Last I checked, it was upwards of something like 40+ relatives. What’s the total now and can you name all of them?
Aleksa Manila: At last count, I have 38 drag children. But, not all of them do drag nor are they actively involved in the drag community. Some are straight-allies, in fact, and don’t ever do drag. They got involved because of a deep friendship and finding connectedness and support in our communities. They all call me, “Mama” which is so endearing. I also like “Mamanila.” I’m pretty good at remembering all of their names. They’re listed on my website if I forget.
Brad Gilligan: Every year, I see your name on the list of possible queens for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” floating around the Internet, but you’ve never disappeared for filming. You once told me that you think you’re too old for it. I think you’d do amazingly well. Have you ever auditioned? Would you ever want to make that jump?
Aleksa Manila: Saying I’m too old is just my quick default reply. But it’s certainly an insecurity of mine especially when there are so many young and agile queens running around now especially at the height of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, which from a positive point of view is a great thing. It has given such prominence to our craft and lifestyle that it’s less of a taboo these days. I was recruited for Season 2 by one of the promoters, but sadly, at the time, I knew nothing of the show, and was not following it – so I hesitated. Being a perfectionist, I didn’t want to submit a haphazard application and be criticized for it. Of course, I think about it and feelings of regret ensue. Would you believe I stopped watching the show since half-way through Season 5 when Jinkx Monsoon was on? I knew she was going to win. I was so proud of her, and I still am. She’s going to win a Tony Award! I just know it. I do love the show concept – but I just don’t ever think I’m in that league. It’s so competitive and I just don’t feel I’m made for that kind of drama – real or not. I often hear people assume I have this “I’m-better-than” attitude, and I simply, don’t. Of course, I recognize how that type of national/international exposure could do for my drag career, and most likely personal life. But, at this point in my life – I’m fairly content with what I’ve accomplished. There’s always so much to do, but there are other outlets and platforms. I would have to give up a lot of my time to be part of the show – that would mean giving up a significant amount of time I dedicate for my regular job and my academic pursuits, and of course, my personal life (relationships, etc.)
Brad Gilligan: How has your work within the Seattle Counseling Service helped you in your personal life? How has it helped you in your drag career?
Aleksa Manila: I’ve always kept my boundaries between my personal (drag) and professional (work) lives. Having been at SCS for over 10 years, I can’t help but realize how much my work life has positively influenced me in so many ways. Because I work at a social service agency that fosters overall healthy living, it feels natural to follow that path. When I had relationships troubles with domestic violence, SCS was there to support me along the way. When I was exploring my gender with name changes, SCS was there for me. The staff at SCS aren’t just there for clients, they’re there for each other, and for the community. SCS has provided me opportunities with my drag persona that justifies and validates the work of my drag pioneers and predecessors who have paved the way for equality for all communities. Through SCS, I have found a fabulous way of combining social work with social life. I don’t feel like someone who’s just wearing makeup and donning a wig, but somebody with a voice and a purpose.
Brad Gilligan: After hosting the Seattle Pride Parade for so long, this year you were selected to be a Grand Marshal. How did that feel? How was it to meet George Takei?
Aleksa Manila: It was such an honor to be selected Grand Marshal alongside my peers in the community like Danielle Askini and Zach Pullin, including Mayor Ed Murray and Executive Dow Constantine, and obviously, George Takei. It came as a surprise when they called me about it. I was just excited to announce per usual. But ever more so to be honored as Grand Marshal this year. I imagined myself being so proud and happy to introduce and see Grand Marshals from years past – and how that would feel like the other way around. It was especially memorable because my partner, Jason was with me during the parade. It was surreal meeting George Takei in person. Jason and I had just seen the documentary, To Be Takei at SIFF a month prior so seeing George and his husband, Brad Altman-Takei was more than amazing! At the Pride Brunch prior to the Parade, I had a bit of one-on-one time with George, and I gifted him a comic book about the bombing of Hiroshima through the eyes of a child. It was originally written in Japanese, but a professor at the college I went to translated it. It felt appropriate to give that to Mr. Takei who himself experienced WWII in the internment camps in the US when he was a young child himself. It’s obviously a sad story, but he was more than happy and was very appreciative of the gift. I shared about my mom’s story of survival in the Philippines and so on. He was very delightful.
To top it off – as if it couldn’t get any better – I had the opportunity of introducing him at PrideFest at the Seattle Center to thousands of people. Saying, “oh myyy” after he planted a kiss on my cheek onstage was pure icing on the cake!
Brad Gilligan: It would seem as though that your daughter Atasha Manila is the most likely heir apparent in the Northwest realm of the Aleksa Manila Empire. What do you think it is about Atasha that just draws her to people?
Aleksa Manila: All of my kids are wonderful in their own unique qualities, but Atasha definitely has a special attribute. She is genuine – what you see is what you get. She is proud of her heritage, she is proud of her background. She knows who she was and she knows who she wants to be. She is endearingly kind to everyone and it’s sincere. People around her feel that loving energy despite hardships and challenges. Visually, she’s effortlessly avant-garde and very creative in color and style. People see that and can see raw talent. Lastly, she’s really funny. She makes me laugh. I am very proud of her.
Brad Gilligan: Who were your biggest inspirations in the drag world when you were up and coming? Aside from your esteemed children, who else do you think has an X Factor right now in Seattle?
Aleksa Manila: Locally, I watched videos of the late Crystal Lane who would perform live with group dancers. The legendary Smokee is a huge inspiration as well. She’s such a perfectionist – I’m very lucky to be in her circle of friends. She’s very private and to witness her magic come to life is truly breathtaking! Recently, I was in awe of Felix Manchild who I judged in The Face Competition for Le Faux at Julia’s On Broadway. She’s a chameleon! Her background in acting and singing shows. I also feel her kind confidence on and off stage which is an X-factor I value.
Brad Gilligan: I have to say, I’m happy you’ve found love in Jason Mueller. How did the two of you meet? How do you think he feels dating one of the, if not the most popular figures in the Emerald City?
Aleksa Manila: I feel very happy and lucky to have met him. We met last year at Queen For A Day – Drag Auction. He was with a work crew at the charity event, and I was one of the queens being auctioned off. While mingling with the audience, I remembered introducing myself to him. I was just enamored by his glorious eyes. We briefly talked and exchanged numbers in that short moment and went our separate ways. We kept in touch for about 3 months afterwards, and just talked about random day-to-day things and so on. Then we talked about seeing a movie at the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. I went out as “boi.” He jokes about me not seeing that as our first date until he put his hand on my back affectionately. There was mutual attraction and went on a second date at the closing night of SLGFF this time, in drag. I know my drag persona and its accompanying social calendar can be overwhelming, but it does take two to tango. So, I try my best to communicate with him about it, and open it up to him so he can fully understand and enjoy what I am involved with. I know I get stressed out about it at times, and I can only imagine what that looks like for him. But so far, so fabulous!
Brad Gilligan: Where do you see Aleksa Manila in five to ten years, personally and in drag?
Aleksa Manila: More love, joy, and success with friends and family – especially with Jason.