A Taylor Swift drag queen, ‘Taylor Sheesh,’ rises in the Philippines

Taylor Sheesh performs “Long Live” on July 8 at a mall in Taguig City, Philippines. (Martin San Diego for The Washington Post)

TAGUIG CITY, Philippines – On a recent Saturday, 5,000 Taylor Swift fans filed into a mall on the outskirts of the Philippine capital, Manila, ready to worship.

For hours, in an atrium lined with fast-food restaurants and bargain shoe stores, they held a massive karaoke session, dancing and singing their husky voices as they prepared for the main event: a drag-sprinkling 28-year-old. His minister in fast devotion. The performer whose legal name is John Mac Lane Colonel but who is known, in this world, as Taylor Sheesh.

In one of the world’s most Swift-crazy countries, Coronel has become an unlikely and unstoppable star, drawing thousands to fan events like this one and building an even bigger following on TikTok, where her videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of views.

With Swift on tour, Coronel, who works in a call centre, has been going around the country playing her sets. Their performances have become not only places of communion for Filipino Swifties (many are upset that Swift will skip the Philippines on her Eres global tour), but also cathartic celebrations of queer and drag culture, which is flourishing here in the face of centuries-old conservative Catholic tradition.

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On this recent evening, Colonel’s Sheesh took the stage a little after 6 p.m., dressed in an exact copy of a purple chiffon dress Swift wore on the cover of her third album, “Speak Now,” in 2011.

All the phones in the crowd were pointing at her. He looked left and right, arching his painted eyebrow in that exact quick way. The fans crushed forward, jumping as they chanted she Name: Taylor Sheesh. In one corner, a group of teenage boys in bright eye shadow clasped hands in prayer and earnestly asked to be taken to church.

“I told you,” event volunteer Josh Libid whispered as he leaned into a group watching Sheesh for the first time, their mouths hanging open.

Drag has a long history in the Philippines, a country in love with the show. But only recently has drag entered the mainstream, fueled in large part by the Philippine edition of the TV series “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which debuted here to popular success last year.

Coronel’s rise reflects changing social attitudes in a country where just a decade ago religious groups filed legal complaints to prevent Lady Gaga from performing. But it’s also a glimpse into the power of contemporary fandoms, which have become important elements in broader social movements, said Tom Baudinette, a cultural anthropologist at Australia’s Macquarie University.

“Fandom is as much a process where people make sense of themselves as it is a process where people consume things,” Baudinette said. In the case of the Philippines, young people with drastically different views of gender and sexuality than their parents have taken something mainstream — Swift — and turned it into “a resource of hope,” Baudinette said, projecting visions of a different life and society onto it.

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Although Swift has publicly said she supports LGBTQ+ rights, young Filipino fans have taken it to extremes, creating a universe where the singer is a queer icon singing about queer love. Klyde Eugenio, who hosts a Filipino podcast on Swift, said people are drawn to this community not only because of love for Swift, but also because of an implicit set of shared values. “We’re not just listeners,” he said. “We’re looking for connections with other people.”

The Taylor Sheesh phenomenon taps into that desire, Baudinette said.

With five layers of tights and expert clothing, Coronel transforms from a shy call center agent into a stand-in for arguably the world’s biggest pop icon. Her fans put it this way: If Taylor Swift is “mother,” a slang term rooted in the 1980s black and Latino queer ballroom scene that young people have recently adopted to describe female celebrities, Taylor Sheesh is “stepmother.”

On stage, stepmother stepmother. She served and nurtured. She gave them life.

Sheesh glided through a plume of mist after her first of seven costume changes, her blonde wig meticulously curled with hot curlers, her yellow fringe dress tailored for a retired queen.

“Hi,” she lip synced. “My name is Taylor.”

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Colonel said he became a Swiftie in high school when he heard “Fifteen,” Swift’s first single about first dates and heartbreak. I was in love with a classmate at the time, and the song was a balm for that oppressively private feeling. As she came of age, she said, Swift continued to release music that talked about what she was going through: falling in love, breaking up, finding friends who felt like family.

In 2017, she entered a lip sync contest on a whim and won. Later that year, he opened Taylor Sheesh at Nectar, a queer nightclub in an affluent neighborhood in Taguig that became his “home bar.” Backstage, in chaotic rooms that smelled of hairspray, she learned how to apply eyeliner, sashay and style. Every time he transformed into Sheesh, he said, he shed layers of self-doubt.

Last October, Coronel attended a Swift fan event in drag. When an organizer spontaneously asked if she wanted to perform, she burst into Swift’s 11-minute-40-second medley from the 2019 American Music Awards. She has since performed at dozens of fan events, including one in May that drew 10,000 people, according to fan group Swifties Philippines.

Swift’s impersonation of Coronel is uncanny, said Libid, the event volunteer. But their performances are also laced with a subversiveness that makes them shine, continued Libid. They are glamorous and fun, exaggerated and real at the same time. Like much of drag, they are campy.

The response from fans has been surreal, Coronel said. He is thankful because he knows that despite the growing popularity of drag, queer Filipinos still face discrimination.

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In June, the Manila police were seen in the video forcibly arresting transgender actress Awra Briguela. Many queens she knows have been kicked out of their families, Coronel said, and some are homeless. He feels lucky that he can still live at home, even though he has never discussed his sexuality with his parents. (“I mean it’s obvious,” he added dryly. “The water is wet. You don’t have to ask.”)

Onstage, he feels a responsibility to provide the kind of affirmation and joy he experienced at Nectar — to “save” the queer youth in his community, he said, just as drag saved him.

Taylor Sheesh was nearing the end of her set. The song “Long Live” was just starting to play when a hand went up in the crowd, making an “L” sign. Hundreds followed, and Sheesh smiled.

Swift has said she wrote the song for her bandmates. But here, the L stood for “laban,” the Filipino word for struggle, which became a symbol of resistance during the 1986 revolution against dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It also stood for “Leni,” meaning Leni Robredo, the liberal politician who unsuccessfully ran for president last year, losing to the current president, Marcos’ son.

For Coronel, the song is an opportunity to imagine and interpret a different reality, he said.

Long live the walls we’ve broken down”, the speakers played. “I had the time of my life with you.”

Sheesh walked to the center of the stage in a pair of black shearling boots and pointed to the ceiling. It rained purple confetti. For a moment then, the music, Swift’s voice, disappeared. In front of the crowd, Coronel later recalled, all he could hear was the screams.

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