The Ballad of the Pink Door: Charting 16 Storied Years and Evolution of O Bar

Insider

In celebration of premier drag haven O BAR’s 16th anniversary, Rank Magazine editor Leo Balante chart the storied evolution of one of the pioneering, and most well-loved establishments that opened doors to the LGBT community. From its beginnings as a resto-bar in Malate, to its illustrious history of honing some of the most celebrated drag personalities of today, O Bar has since made its resounding return, after two years of absence off the unprecedented pause brought about by the pandemic and a devastating blow caused by the loss of one of its pillars, Rupert Acuña, in time for its founding anniversary, still standing tall in shaping a community of queer people, by queer people, and for queer people.

It is Broadway night on a quiet Saturday in Ortigas and the queens of O Bar have just wrapped up tech rehearsals. We arrive and enter through the famed pink doors to see the band of backup dancers and queens step down from the stage in what looks like their finale neon number garb, before proceeding to paint their faces backstage, two hours to show time.

In the middle of it all is Marketing Manager Jheyar Caguimbal, quietly rested in the center of the whole room, occasionally letting out lights, music, and timing instructions and a couple of reminders to the performers—some in jest, and some sharper than the last. After all, housing the O Divas, dubbed as Asia’s Finest Dancing Drag Queens does not come without merit to attention to the littlest, most minute details to perfect each number.

Photographed by JL Javier

This weekend performance only marks as the second week since the thriving “pre-pandemic” destination—what was then busied by regulars from the LGBT community, blushing bride-to-be’s, and weekend party-goers off the many corporate offices that lined Pasig’s business district—was forced to close their doors as authorities of the world called the live events circuit “non-essential”. Outside, the enormous poster of the show with Brooke Lynn Hytes still hangs. The Canadian drag performer, who found fame after her stint in the global reality show phenomenon, RuPaul’s Drag Race, meant to perform on the O Bar stage back in 2020, before the pandemic has struck.

Jheyar Caguimbal. Photographed by JL Javier.

Kelangan na eh, (We needed to),” Caguimbal tells me on their return to the stage and the bar’s overall operations. Almost two years in the COVID-19 crisis and the premier drag destination, finally put their kitchen, strobe lights, wooden stage, along with wigs and costumes left unused backstage only to collect dust, to full, good use. This came with the imposition of Alert Level 2 intra- and interzonal travel guidelines that put more lenient restrictions in several regions in the country, including Metro Manila, because of the evident decline of reported positive cases.

“It feels great to be back but of course nakakapanibago. For almost two years, nasanay kami na nagpe-perform sa Facebook Live lang nang half-body—naka-stockings, naka-pants, pero walang heels. So, to get back to performing, wholistically, medyo nangangapa pa kami. Kahit until nitong second week, yung stamina namin, nire-rebuild pa rin namin, talagang kelangan mag-catch up dahil hindi biro yung almost two years na nawala.” Lyg Carillo, who goes by the drag name Maria Christina or “MC Blck“, one of the more theatrically-inclined performers of O Bar, shares in between checking on social media, applying make-up for the night’s first set theme, and helping the go-go boys with their stage look before opening the night’s string of performances.

Maria Christina. Photograph by JL Javier.

In the midst of the pandemic, Maria Christina has replaced stepping onstage to some of her signature performances from making her own interpretation of productions like Wicked, down to her already-iconic Whitney Houston impersonation, to virtual applause and real-time comments, likes, hearts, and of course, tips via bank transfers and digital wallets like G Cash, PayMaya, or PayPal.

Just like her, most of the drag queens of O Bar and across the country, or just those who can rely on good internet connectivity not just for themselves, but for those who can watch and enjoy their shows, migrated from wildly celebrated lip-synch performances on a live venue to online platforms with makeshift stages at home made out of fabrics put together as backdrops, e-commerce-bought lights, and non-copyrighted songs that will not ban them off social media platforms. All of these, while the veil of uncertainty on when they could resume life as performers on an actual stage would be lifted.

Slowly, after making do with resources within their reach, left to their own devices to find a means of living, the queens relied heavily on brands and institutions that needed their stellar performances for their own virtual staging of their events and functions.

Bernie Barrantes. Photograph by JL Javier.

For Bernie Barrantes, though, O Bar’s resident sultry dance diva known for her high-octane stage numbers as Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, to even the live-action version of Dora the Explorer, performing online has never been an option. “Nagpapasalamat na lang ako na mayron akong naipon dahil nitong pandemic, hindi ko alam, pero para sa akin hindi ko talaga gusto ang mag-perform online.” She adds while waiting for her cue prior to the night’s opening act, “Hinahanap nga nila ako eh pero ginamit ko na lang ang time na yun para sa sarili ko. Kaya ngayon, masaya kasi nakabalik na ang O Bar kahit alam nating hindi na gaya ng dati. Basta dapat todo bigay pa rin.”

“It was nerve-wracking,” MC recalls the first moments back on stage, heaving a sigh of relief. “Parang feeling ko, hindi ako performer ng isang dekada. I felt like I was a baby drag queen, too. ‘Yung speed, ‘yung change ng wig and ‘yung costume, all of those things, we had to relearn.”

Maria Christina. Photograph by JL Javier.

She continues, “But of course, we cannot play safe and be complacent. Hindi kami napalaki dito sa O Bar na we are used to making excuses. Talagang kelangan to live up to the standard. So, the girls are slowly getting there. Especially during the pandemic, the request and demand for drag visibility sa atin was high because of the continued success of RuPaul’s Drag Race, so ngayong nakabalik na, we always have to show what we are made of. And with O Bar, we are happy that even with the pressure, hindi kami natatakot kasi we know what we are offering and we know our identity.”

On a cursory search, Google lists O Bar as a gay bar first, then a dance & night club upon closer look on its description. And to the uninitiated, gay bars, particularly in the Philippines, will always be associated with oiled, scantily clad macho dancers, writhing, and gyrating to the sound of blaring “Careless Whisper” or any other eurotrash tracks, based off imageries built and designed for years by Adonis and other establishments that mushroomed tailing its success, and the many dramatic portrayals of these establishments as seedy, sketchy places that people leading double lives would go to for instant gratification—hiding in the shadows. O Bar and its pioneering and revolutionary efforts have since changed the landscape of what a gay bar is and can be.

Photograph by JL Javier.

Even with a number of toned and shiny go-go boys dancing in various levels of undressed, prefacing or acting as intermission between main performances, O Bar has long evolved to be a staunch avenue to celebrate drag arts in the country, birthing some of the most recognizable names in Philippine drag culture, who have also penetrated mainstream recognition here and overseas, the likes of Precious Paula Nicole, known as a Beyonce and Regine Velasquez performer, Captivating Katkat as a drag circuit favorite well-loved for her performances including impersonations of Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, and Brigiding “Gigi” Aricheta, who has made a killing in booked shows in the U.S. before returning as a signed artist in a major entertainment management firm, Cornerstone Entertainment.

Many may have come before it, but it’s how the drag stage of O Bar was treated with a healthy mix of dignity, sincerity, and playfulness that it served an unparalleled mastery of the art, even with new contemporaries now surfacing and dotting the metro. It’s this impressive marriage of dance, camp, irreverent humor, and theatrics of glitters, LED lights, and even aerial stunts that it played host to topnotch productions close to, if not, on par with what you would expect when you pay local or even foreign theater productions—only with booze, oiled boys in tight boxer briefs, and the occasional welcome throwback to Britney Spears, Spice Girls, and Mariah Carey.

Photograph by JL Javier.

A 2015 Yelp review of a returning customer best exemplifies this,“For me, coming here is always like stepping into a parallel universe, it’s like entering Priscilla Queen of The Desert or Queer As Folk or Looking or any other foreign LGBT-themed movie or show whose world only happened on the other side of the screen. After all these years, I still feel awkward in the place, like a chick tentatively coming out of freshly hatched shell. But it’s a kind of awkward that usually incites nervousness mixed with giddiness mixed with excitement mixed with I-dunno-what-the-fuck-I’m-doing-here- but-whatever-it-is-I-like-it. But the shows. Oh god the shows! No other bar quenches my thirst for fabulous theatrics which I enjoy in varying degrees of inebriation.” 

From starting as a resto-bar in the streets of Orosa and Nakpil in Malate all the way back in 2005, to becoming a premier drag destination, the continuing dominance of O Bar has persisted through the years, becoming more than just a gay bar and a drag haven, but a culture hub that opened doors to the community to effortlessly posit oneness and inclusion.

Ramon Papa. Photograph by JL Javier.

“We don’t have any drama. Whether you’re straight, bisexual, or trans, we welcome you to the community,” Chief Operating Officer Ramon Parpana Papa shared the first time I got to talk to him back in 2019, 14 years into the business, a staying power that’s almost unheard of for bars even in the most bustling party districts of the Philippines.

Now, off the close to two-year wait for things to ease up and for the cloud of doubt and fear to wane even just for a bit, O Bar, albeit wounded and not even a step close to recovery, soldiers on in an era when news of companies, even the biggest of corporations cowering down to the pandemic effect has been commonplace.

Photograph by JL Javier.

“To be honest, we are just so lucky,” Papa opens up. “We are happy that the staff have been very well taken care of even during the pandemic. But right now, it’s all about ‘break-evens.’ It’s not like before, but it’s enough to give jobs back to our staff, and to the divas cause we know it was hard for them. Especially for artists, we know it is really different when they have an audience.”

With plans of reopening halted earlier on in the year because of the return to maximum health protocols, the road to “recovery” seemed insurmountable and far within their reach. But it is the loyalty of the staff that has been integral in building the O Bar stamp in the community that allowed them and the bar’s patrons to find their way back “home”.

Photograph by JL Javier.

“It was never really hard for us to talk to them that this really is the ‘new normal’, because we have been working with them for a really long time and we never hid anything from them, even before the pandemic. And we have always been fair. They know that when we have money, a lot of it goes back to them. Every so often in the group chat, we would reassure them and we show them our support in our own ways. It’s like a family in that sense,” Papa continues.

As of this writing, with the proverbial (and even literal) pink door officially opened, much to the delight of the fans, and even with a maximum capacity of just 130 from its usual 500, O Bar is paving the way to their 16th year anniversary show—a bittersweet “triumph” against the global crisis that threatened to close their doors permanently.

Letlet Baltazar. Photograph by JL Javier.

The road to this upcoming celebration, of course, is not without its struggles even in the midst of operations now slowly regaining the establishment’s footing. For queens like the veteran Letlet Baltazar, who lost a supposed promising new business venture in line with plans of retirement, stepping back to the stage is not without its pain. “Syempre, kelangang mag-adjust and mag-adapt. Lahat naman tayo naapektuhan ng nangyari sa mundo. Masaya na rin ako na andito ako at nakakabalik pa rin sa pagpe-perform kahit na maraming mga nagbago,” Baltazar shares.

Bench Hipolito, more popularly known as Popstar Bench, or the one who single-handedly resuscitated pop superstar Sarah Geronimo’s “Tala” to become an LGBT anthem, had to hurdle a more recent passing of her mother, days before announcing the reopening of the bar.

Popstar Bench. Photograph by JL Javier.

Sobrang hirap kahit na masaya kami na nabigyan uli ng chance na makapagpasaya dahil naaalala ko lahat ng mga pagkakataon na nanuod yung mama ko sa mga performances ko nuon. Pero syempre, I have to be professional and focused and not let personal emotions affect me while performing. Kelangan kong isipin na ginagawa ko ‘to para sa kanya at sa pamilya ko, especially si papa  na andyan pa at kelangan din ng support medically dahil naman sa stroke.”

When we visited, after sharing their stories, both queens donned their glorious wigs and sequined gowns and pummeled the stage as if it’s their last—Baltazar glides in regal form while also eliciting laughs from the audience with her comic antics, while Hipolito, as Cher in Burlesque and as Sarah Geronimo’s in a live rendition of “Ikot-Ikot” continued on to be the fan-favorite that she has always been pre-pandemic.

Most significantly-felt within the whole of the establishment, is the recent passing of Managing Partner and Artistic Director, and Papa’s life partner for 40 years, Rupert Acuña before the original plans of reopening back in November materialized. This sadly came not long after surgeries due to Papa’s health scare of his own.

Valeria. Photograph by JL Javier.

“There’s a big difference now with Rupert passing. For one, because he was an artist. I was handling operations and he was always there during rehearsals and was always on the lookout to improve the queens in their performances. But his legacy will always be about professionalizing drag and giving the stage for the divas to thrive,” he opens up.

With the tutelage of Acuña, primarily rooted in his own dance background, divas and back up dancers have since been afforded ballet, hip-hop, and jazz lessons that have since improved movements in all productions from regular weekend shows to full-blown special performances. Not only on the artistic side, a number of the queens in their roster and backup dancers have been given decent salaries and benefits that come with it.

Masaya kami na nakabalik na nga pero syempre hindi na gaya dati dahil maraming nagbago. May mga umalis at yung pinaka-mentor pa namin (referring to the late Acuña) nawala. Pero nakapag-adjust naman kami dahil kelangan, at bago pa mag-open ang bar, nagklase muna kami, nakapag-warm up bago sumalang uli so na-prepare na namin ang mga sarili namin,” says Queen Eken, or Eken Afuang Matsuanaga, known pre-pandemic for dance numbers including comedic performances as the bar’s Ate Shawie. That night, she stood as the designated Mama Morton, wearing a glittery police garb, off the Broadway hit Chicago.

Queen Eken choreographing trans performers Angel and Valeria on tech rehearsals. Photograph by JL Javier.

Queen Eken as Mama Morton. Photograph by JL Javier.

The return to ballet classes, according to Eken is Acuña’s legacy imprinted in the bar and in the queens who are all setting out to establish their careers in and out of the bar, what with the emergence of new avenues to showcase their art, including the upcoming two mainstream drag reality competitions, finally making their way to Philippine shores, Drag Den and Drag Race Philippines.

By the time I catch up with Eken, he assumed the role of choreographer to young trans performers Angel and Valeria, who are dressing up as Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, still off the musical Chicago, while perfecting the pair’s dance-heavy number as part of the show’s opening.

Yung legacy ni Boss Rupert, nasa sa amin na ‘yun eh. Kami na lang ang magko-continue. Strikto kasi sya when it comes to the performances. (chuckles) Kahit sa pagli-lip synch, nag-classes din kami on diction para sa mga performances namin. So, nahawa na lang rin kami and sa mga sarili namin, naa-apply na rin namin yung mga naturo niya sa lahat ng bagay, lalo na ngayon na kahit may mga nawala, meron namang mga bagong dumating.”

Angel. Photograph by JL Javier.

“If there’s anything that we have learned during the pandemic, it is that you have to sell your stock of beer immediately since they only last for a year,” Papa declares matter-of-factly with a laugh when about learnings during the pandemic that O Bar will be taking now that the world is slowly opening up. “But really, you have to diversify your business and you have to act fast. It is all about refining the details and finding gaps where you can come in.”

In the wake of their 16th founding anniversary last December 15, O Bar is set to mount an anniversary show that may be far from how the establishment set it up before the great pause of COVID-19, but it is one offered not just to its founder and everyone that the bar has lost, but to the many supporters who have long waited for the chance to return to the mecca of drag supremacy.

Martha Amethyst. Photograph by JL Javier.

For Papa, upholding this legacy includes the introduction of new drag discoveries who are brimming with talent and are waiting to blaze the trail for the future of drag. Among these is 19-year-old Martha Amethyst, who has already started conquering the stage of O Bar, with her more tenured sisters. During this weekend’s show, she boldly took on a campy version of ‘Der Hölle Rache’, the famous Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

“Dream ko po talaga to perform with these queens and kahit may pressure na maging sing-galing nilang lahat at maka-live up sa standardna alam natin na meron sa O Bar, alam ko lang sa sarili ko na laging ibibigay ko ang lahat ng makakaya ko para maging kapantay nila sa pagpe-perform at andyan naman sila para mag-guide sakin.”

With RuPaul Charles and the whole of the Drag Race franchise ushering in a new era of drag performers, more and more mainstream interest has been piqued on the art of drag around the globe, including the Philippines.

Photograph by JL Javier

O Bar, as one of the most iconic havens that played host to our own versions of drag queens, may have changed zip codes, and weathered a number of storms, including a pandemic, but the message is clear, through its pink doors and its legendary stage: O Bar stays. O Bar wins.

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