by MK Scott
For over 20 years, Seattle has been blessed to have ‘Arnaldo! Drag Chanteuse’ and Aleksa Manila, who was awarded 2018’s GSBA’s Community Leader of the Year award and the Mayor’s 2018 Outstanding Leader Pride Award. Both of these lovelies are great leaders, uber-talented, and the best of friends. Like most friends and professional partners, they complement each other. I had a chance to chat with each of them recently.
MK Scott: How and when did you first meet?
Arnaldo: Wow, I met Aleksa at a barbecue party at a mutual friend’s home. I was still singing with the Seattle Men’s Chorus then, and I think they had a video of me performing either my Carmen Miranda or Patsy – not sure anymore – or maybe I had my cabaret videos with me in the car, I forget. I knew they were showing some videos of my performances, and I remember Aleksa watching intently. She was so curious, I could see, but still quite shy. Later on, another chorus friend was involved with YAMS (Young Asian Men’s Studies), and I was being interviewed for an article, so he invited me to come to their office, and then I saw Aleksa there as intern or volunteer, and then that’s how we truly got to know each other. And then when I did ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ at Northwest Asian American Theatre, I think Aleksa was at six of the eight performances…LOL! And we just became very good friends after that until today. My, that must be 20 years ago!
Aleksa: I believe it was about 20 years ago at a mutual friend’s house party. This was pre-drag…and the host was showing a performance by Arnaldo with the Seattle Men’s Chorus on VHS. This would have been the first time I had seen an Asian drag queen sing live. And she was doing her ‘I’ve Got Your Picture’ number. So as you can imagine, I was mesmerized! I think the performance was even held somewhere in Europe, so I was even more impressed. Then, of course, Arnaldo showed up at the party and I was starstruck [and have been] ever since. I had only been in Seattle for a few years, so it was important to find a community of Filipino immigrants, and being gay was a plus. Arnaldo has not only left an impression on me as a drag performer but as a role model.
MK: What was it like the first time you worked together?
Arnaldo: Aleksa first invited me to perform at the very first ICON. It was held at Timberline after they moved (not at the old Timberline). Steve [MacFarlane] and I were dating, and I remember there were artworks by Steve for auction as well. I already saw then that Aleksa was a fabulous organizer and very respectful to the performers. She made us feel important and made sure we got what we needed as performers. Of course, it was a fundraiser and we did not expect to get paid, but she always had something for us: a thank-you card, a lip gloss, a token of appreciation, a flower – something to express her gratitude. Very generous and loving even back then…and that’s why she is so much loved today. I admire that in her very much, because some people get very entitled when they reach a certain stature and use their position or popularity to take advantage of others. Not Aleksa – she protects, she makes sure things are fair, and her attention to detail and excellence are admirable.
Aleksa: It would have been about 2004 when I organized ‘ICON: a celebration of art, drag & life!’ for Seattle Counseling Service. It was held at the Timberline (now closed) and sold out. I asked her to do her Eartha Kitt-inspired look, and she was sensational! She has now been in the cast of ICON for 15 years! She’s a crowd favorite and a headliner. I couldn’t be happier and more grateful for her generosity. With the caliber of her performance art, one would think she might be a diva. And in some ways, she is, because of her level of perfection and artistry. However, her grace and humility are stellar. From that first time working with her, I knew she was an angel to be with. We have now been involved in each other’s projects for almost two decades, so our first time definitely influenced our loyalty and appreciation for each other’s work.
MK: How has your friendship evolved over the years?
Arnaldo: We respect each other’s opinions very much. We bounce ideas off each other a lot. We both get very excited with new visions and goals, and we ask each other a lot of questions and we listen to each other. Like any other relationship, it took time to get to that stage where we can truly feel safe with each other. She is my treasured family.
Aleksa: I most certainly started as a fan of Arnaldo! When I started doing drag is when I think our friendship started to bloom, partly because I had a growing understanding of the art of drag in an elevated fashion: where she had brought it and continues to do so. My admiration of her ability to balance her drag artistry and her professional responsibilities inspired me.
Though we’re chummy, I consider her like an older sibling who guides me. I never really had one growing up, so she’s taken that role (unbeknownst to her). Our friendship has so many levels and layers that are so beautiful. She affects me in very positive ways as a Filipino, an Asian-American, a drag queen, an immigrant, and so on. We have discussions on relationships, family, religion, politics, racism, and other deep topics. Because of this type of friendship, she’s able to challenge my thought process on many things, be it personal or running an organization.
When I was asked to sing with Pink Martini, Arnaldo was the only friend I phoned right away to share the fabulous news with. I remembered her being so happy and proud for me. Looking back, I needed that encouragement and trust that I was worthy. After all, she’s ‘Arnaldo! Drag Chanteuse’ – what better standard of live drag performance should I use? Everyone knows I’m not a professional songstress, I’m more of a karaoke queen.
But Arnaldo has a magical way of making anyone feel like a diva. The true test of a brilliant star is to see how they treat their number one fan off-stage. And we should all take a lesson or two on family values from Arnaldo. I have been very lucky to have witnessed Arnaldo and Steve MacFarlane’s almost 20 years of love. How can that not be a source of inspiration! Also, watching Arnaldo care for her mother is something that’s near and dear to my heart.
MK: What do you like most about working with each other?
Arnaldo: We work well together because we know and respect each other’s boundaries. If it’s my project, I lead and she helps, and if it’s her project, she leads and I help. We build on each other’s successes. We know that that we are stronger together, and we are very honest with each other, especially when we ask what the other thinks. Sometimes, I jokingly refer to Aleksa as ‘my secret weapon,’ because I know that if I call on her to help, the project will be very, very successful! She gives 100% all the time…no matter the size of the project.
Aleksa: There is such a fine art to critiquing. And that’s one of the most valuable traits of Arnaldo that I appreciate. She does it in a way that allows me to make things better and in a very collaborative way. Arnaldo is very communal in her approach to performance. Because of her history of working with chorales, musicians, bands, and especially the Seattle legend Bob Bruneau, I continue to learn to be appreciative of and sensitive to working with diverse groups. This extends to community organizing. For example, she’s a very critical and integral part of the success of Pride ASIA, a collective I founded in 2012. Pride ASIA’s mission is to celebrate, empower and nurture the multicultural diversity of the LGBTQ communities through the Asian-Pacific Islander lens.
MK: What are your upcoming projects, solo or together?
Arnaldo: Aleksa has tons of projects lined up all the time – I don’t know how she does it. And she does them all so well! Together, we still have Pride ASIA, and it is maturing and growing as well. We also work closely with the Filipino American Community of Seattle on their LGBTQ initiatives and with other Asian community organizations on their LGBTQ programs as well. As for me, I continue my work with cabaret and music for the ‘March Is Cabaret Month’ festival and Pacific Northwest Cabaret Association and plan to perform in other cities again, time and opportunities permitting. I am extremely grateful that I am able to do what I love to do and at the same time open hearts and minds.
Aleksa: Besides our leadership roles with Pride ASIA, we’re also involved with the Filipino Community of Seattle’s Gay Filipino Pageant (date TBD). I’ll be hosting my annual ‘Aleksa Manila & FRIENDS’ on February 23, which will be a fundraiser for the Pride ASIA celebration (May 2019). [A full list of events is at aleksamanila.com]. I am looking forward to ‘March Is Cabaret Month,’ which will debut at The Triple Door, followed by a series of shows at Egan’s Ballard Jam House. COMING UP:
See Aleksa Manila at the 17th Annual Aleksa Manila & FRIENDS show on February 23 at 6pm at Neighbours Nightclub. (1509 Broadway) Tickets: $10 advance – friends2019.bpt.me; 800-838-3006 OR $15 at door. All proceeds benefit Official Pride ASIA.
See Arnaldo! Drag Chanteuse at the March Is Cabaret Month Opening Night Show on February 27 at 7:30pm at The Triple Door (216 Union St). Tickets: $25 (& $35 front row) advance at https://tickets.thetripledoor.net/ and at the door.
March is Cabaret Month continues every Fri & Sat in March at 7:30pm & 9:30pm at Egan’s Ballard Jam House (1707 NW Market St). For the full schedule, visit http://www.marchcabaret.com/.