In the finale, Manila Luzon played a Greek goddess with a discus, she walked the runway in mermaid-tight chartreuse and heavy earrings, both shining, and she lip-synched for her life to RuPaul’s song “Champion.”
She didn’t win Season 3 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in 2011; she was runner-up to Raja, but she was close enough to deliver a cheeky dig during her exit interview.
“I’m first runner up, so maybe if Raja dies of old age, maybe I’ll get the crown,” she said.
Karl Westerberg, creator of the celebrity drag queen known for two-toned hair and eyeballs that roll and cross indepenent of each other, expected the show would yield a year-long performance tour. Then he would be back at his day job as a graphic designer. Instead, it brought two more shots at “RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars,” major ad campaigns and pop singles with elaborate videos. World travel, a fashion line, a limited edition cross-eyed doll dressed in Manila’s spaghetti dress — a tablecloth-patterned piece with noodle trim and decorative meatballs.
“Who knows where this could go,” she said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. (She claimed to be wearing a full-length fully sequined gown covered with rhinestones and ostrich feathers.)
“I could be sitting in a big marble office in a skyscraper, checking on my Manila Luzon copies running around performing birthday parties and bar mitzvahs, going cross-eyed.”
Manila Luzon, a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth’s art and design department, will perform at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Marshall Performing Arts Center — in addition to receiving a Promethean Award. Tickets start at $50 and are available at tickets.umn.edu.
While at UMD, Westerberg was cast in “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The School for Scandal.” He also designed posters for theater productions — design being the direction he assumed his life would go when he graduated and moved to New York City.
A Manila Luzon ‘Classic Lewk’ makeup tutorial, posted earlier this year and tied to her most-recent go at “RuPaul,” is a literal look at the shift from Karl to Manila. By the time she applies glue stick to her eyebrows — step one — the sassy Manila-isms start to drop. In describing the way her eyebrows have been tamed, she yells: “stay down, bitches!”
“Manila Luzon has been an extension of me, Karl Westerberg, and it’s been used for a vehicle to express my creativity through looks and performance and allows my crazy personality to be channeled into something that was different and performance-based,” he said.
The theater started in high school. Liz Larson, who has Hollywood film credits and was part of a trio that opened for Phyllis Diller in the 1990s, cast him as a dead body in “Arsenic and Old Lace” when he was an underclassman. She ended up in the Twin Ports and working with young actors around the same time that Westerberg was at UMD. They remain friends.
“Sometimes words aren’t good, or there aren’t enough of them,” she said when asked to talk about her old friend. “He’s such a good human. 'Precious' comes to mind.”
Westerberg said when he started doing drag, at 20, it was an accumulation of what he was studying at UMD: art, design, music, performance, dance.
“It just so happened, everything started to click together into my drag,” he said. “I was able to use elements I had been learning from all the different things and put it together into one.”
While his studies were focused on visual art, he found his niche with the theater kids.
“I was able to find myself there,” he said.
To the 'Race'
Westerberg was designing logos and packaging for a large company in New York City when he was cast in Season 3 — which he refers to as a break-through season. The show had found a receptive audience. And here was his chance to show off his artistry in a new way.
“It was about being creative, being expressive, being a loud TV character,” he said. “I was able to perform, show off my loud personality — and best of all, show off my art through my drag.”
And even though he didn’t win the oodles of makeup and swag:
“I guess people liked it,” he said.
RuPaul did, for sure. Manila Luzon won the final two challenges leading up to the finale, and when he declared the winner, he complimented her stage presence and called her an inspiration.
“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” RuPaul said. “Now sashay away.”
Larson said she is proud of what her former student has accomplished — from travel to creating this life of art.
The show, Westerberg said, has been a chance to test uncharted territory.
“I feel like I’m a pioneer in a way,” he said. “Lewis and Clark, going exploring and mapping out avenues. You can create your own success through drag. Before it was kind of limiting. You were stuck in a gay bar performing on stage. My stage is the world. Once I’m off television, the world is still interested in what I do.
“Even though I’ve been kicked off (“RuPaul”) three times, they’re still interested in flying me out to perform for them.”
If you go
What: Manila Luzon performance
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22
Where: UMD's Marshall Performing Arts Center
Tickets: Start at $50, available at tickets.umn.edu