As the Philippine franchise of the Emmy Award-winning series “RuPaul’s Drag Race” continues its search for the country’s next drag superstar, older netizens couldn’t help but recall a popular group of drag performers and impersonators from a much earlier time—the groovy 1970s to be exact.
The group was called Paper Dolls—and they were composed of some of the most versatile and uber talented performers, some of whom remain recognizable names up to now: Fanny Serrano, Boots Babushka, Angel Bautista, Mari Boquer, Henri Calayag, Peter Estocado, Benny Gamboa, Klakling, Edcel Reyes, Xaviera Petell, Micky Tanaka, and Biba Varona.
Managed by the Layug family who owned Cabaret Royale, an entertainment complex then located in Greenbelt, Makati, the Paper Dolls practically pioneered the drag culture in the Philippines. But back in the 70s, it wasn’t called “drag” yet, says Edcel Reyes, the group’s youngest member. They were called “female impersonators” as they mimicked some of the most dazzling female performers—Liza Minnelli, Marie Osmond, Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren, and Pilita Corrales, among many others. The Paper Dolls were sought-after entertainers in Asia. One show poster dubbed them as “Manila’s sizzling versatile show-stoppers.”
“They would parade in ternos at the PICC (Philippine International Convention Center) and even entertained guests at the opening of the WHO (World Health Organization) Conference,” recalls writer Isidra Reyes in a Facebook post. “The Paper Dolls always looked spectacular in their costumes which were designed by the very best designers of the era: Ernest Santiago, Joe Salazar, Aureo Alonzo, Romulo Estrada, and Tony Decena.”
It was Quito Cu-unjieng and Budji Layug’s idea to form a group of impersonators who will perform at the Cabaret Royale in the mid-1970s. Knowing Edcel, Henri and company loved to dance at discos, Quito invited them to become part of the group. The group would eventually be managed by Budji's brother, Bong.
“In those days, nagkikita ang mga bakla sa Coco Banana pag weekends,” says Edcel, who at that time was a fashion designer for Shoe Mart. During his free time, he would moonlight as a choreographer for the city’s fashion shows. Henri, now one of Manila’s most respected hairdressers, remembers he was still in high school, about 17 or 18 years old, when he joined Paper Dolls.
With their caliber as impersonators, you’d think they all went thru rigorous auditions and training to be part of the act. In truth, all of them had no background in performing—except for Mari Boquer, an Atenista fashion designer who had acting stints at the CCP and the Meralco Theatre. Mari would become the group’s director. “Siya ang matiyagang nagturo sa amin,” says Edcel, the designated Marilyn Monroe. “I had never done drag before that, siya ang nagturo sa akin how to move or act in a feminine way.”
Edcel recalls the makeup trial sessions, and when the Dolls would test their makeup under the stage lights. “Ernest Santiago, one of the top designers in those days, noticed that my makeup was always morena,” he recalls. “Sabi nya, ‘Gawin n’yong kasing puti ng espasol ang mukha ni Edcel.’ There you go, lumabas ang mukha ni Marilyn Monroe. Maybe I had the bone structure at that time, I was young. I think I was 16 or 17 in those days.”
Edcel did not only look the part, he studied his role very well. “Talagang pinag-aralan ko by myself papano gumalaw si Marilyn Monroe. Her lips, her eyes. I didn’t even know her. I didn’t know na hawig ang face ko sa kanya kapag may make-up na ako.”
Meanwhile, Henri’s first exposure as an entertainer was as backup singer for the group’s performance of The Three Degrees’ popular ditty, “When Will I See You Again.”
The Dolls literally oohing and aahing in their fabulous dresses always proved an instant hit with audiences.
Eventually, Henri was given the role of the mysterious Hollywood enchantress Marlene Dietrich (“Lili Marleen,” “Falling In Love Again,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”). And to fully immerse himself in the character, Henri says he had to read her life story and listen to all her records. “At that time, wala pang YouTube, videos or movies for reference,” he says. He trained himself to totally mimic Marlene—from the actress-singer’s smallest movements down to her brooding glances.
Where’s the bulge?
“We were all boys. Walang transgender o nagpa-sex change sa amin. Hindi pa gaano uso ‘yan noong 70s,” Edcel explains when our conversation reaches the subject of transformations and the process of hiding “the bulge.” “Well, we can manage to make it flat, may sikreto doon,” he says laughing.
But to achieve feminine hips, they wore what is called a “kadera.” “Pinasadya namin yun sa isang bading na taga-Marikina. It’s made of a spongy material shaped like a ham,” says Edcel. “It goes from the hips all the way down to the knees, panipis nang panipis. Then sa butt meron ding pampatambok.” To make it appear they have boobs, they wore bra pads with nipples from Rustans, after which they wore skin-colored body stockings over them.
It usually took Edcel less than an hour to transform into the blonde bombshell, Ms Monroe. “Meron kaming sariling makeup artist, si Oscar Santos. Nagwo-work siya dati sa Budjiwara,” Edcel shares, referring to the top Makati salon of then hairstylist Budji Layug. There would be times when Edcel would play Donny Osmond first in a show. And then it would take him 20 minutes to turn into Marilyn.
A Metrocom moment
The Paper Dolls always played to a full house every night at Cabaret Royale, Edcel fondly remembers. “It was something new sa daigdig ng entertainment,” he says, referring to their act. “Imagine mga Pinoy na kamukha ang mga foreign artists. Naloloka ang audiences. In those days, ang uri ng show namin ay fresh sa mata ng mga tao kaya biglang hit.”
One of their most unforgettable experiences happened during Martial Law, on New Year’s Eve in 1975. After staging a grand performance at Cabaret Royale, a Metrocom bus appeared outside the entertainment venue to pick them up. “Kabog ang dibdib namin kasi military ang sumundo,” Edsel recalls. “We didn’t know na dadalhin kami sa bahay ng mga Marcoses [in San Juan] to perform. I was able to dance with Imee [Marcos], who was still young then.”
In the same party, First Lady Imelda Marcos went to their dressing room and told them to mingle with the other guests after the show. He recalls seeing Hollywood stars, diplomats, and politicians that night, including Italian actress, photojournalist, and politician Gina Lollobrigida.
Edcel also remembers the Whitney Houston concert at the Araneta Coliseum, when the real Dionne Warwick, a guest that evening, called Paper Dolls’ very own Dionne, Peter Estocado, onstage to perform. “Si Peter, isa sa mga house designers ng Rustans. Carbon copy niya si Dionne with or without makeup,” offers Edcel.
For Henri, it was their performances in Singapore that really made a mark. “I did Sophia Loren with Peter Sellers from the movie ‘The Millionaires.’ We sang ‘Goodness Gracious Me.’”
The Paper Dolls also performed at the Folk Arts Theater and in many big corporate events, including one Christmas party of the Ayala Group of Companies held at the Coconut Palace. According to Isidra Reyes, the group toured Europe and Asia and had guest stints on “Two For The Road,” the late night talk show hosted by the fabulous Elvira Manahan. They were also the stars of a TV special called “Copycats” directed by Elvira’s son Johnny Manahan.
Drag then and now
A lot has changed in the drag scene over the last few decades, observes Edcel. “They don't do a lot of impersonation anymore now. More on dancing and blocking na,” he observes, adding that he got to watch a show at Club Mwah before he left for Dubai about ten years ago. “Iba na ang presentation. It’s more on production numbers.”
“In our time, we mimic every little detail about the character we’re portraying,” Henri adds. “And I’m so happy that drag has now evolved. The performers don’t just impersonate. They actually come up with their own unique personas. Nag-level up na!”
Another aspect that’s different now, of course, is that many of the drag performers have had breast implants. “Ang ganda ng mga bakla, girl na girl!” says Edcel. “(And) Yung makeup nila ang taray na.”
The Paper Dolls had a short but memorable run in Manila’s colorful live entertainment scene. If one were to be more specific about it, they were at the peak of their powers from 1975 to 1979. “Nonstop ang mga flights, nonstop ang mga shows,” describes Edcel. Looking back, he says those were among the best years of his life. “It was financially rewarding, and we got to travel, too.”
Henri adds, “We were like one big family. We trained hard and always aimed at giving our 100 percent in every performance.” Which is most likely why being a Paper Doll changed his life. “I learned the importance of discipline, something that I apply in all my professional and personal dealings now.”
Over 40 years have passed since Edcel and Henri last put on their fabulous costumes and put on a show with the Paper Dolls. Each one of them have sashayed onto other pursuits. “It was a nice ride,” Edcel says, looking back. “It’s all memories now, and they sure make me smile.”
Photos courtesy of Henri Calayag and Edcel Reyes