Paolo Ballesteros harnesses the power of drag through everyday life.
Related: It Isn’t Just Wigs, Heels, And Glitter: This Is How Drag Revealed Who I Truly Can Be
Drag comes in many forms. From conceptual performances to stunning make-up transformations, this beautiful form of expression has branched out from being a 16th-century theatrical necessity and underground LGBTQ+ subculture to the global phenomenon it is today.
For Paolo Ballesteros, who garnered worldwide virality for his jaw-dropping make-up transformations into local and international celebrities, drag paved the way for him to showcase more of his skills and talents.
“Marami pa akong kayang ibigay, marami pa kong kayang ipakita, marami pa akong kayang talent na i-showcase. ’Yong creativity ko, hindi lang dito nahihinto,” he says.
For the actor-host, drag gives him the power to do whatever he wants to do, as the art form has him playing a character whom he describes as larger-than-life.
“Nagkakaroon ka ng power na kaya mong gawin ang kahit ano ’pag naka-drag, na parang on a normal day, maiilang kang gawin,” Paolo explains. “’Yon ’yong natutunan ko at nabigay ng drag sa akin.”
Although for Paolo, the power of drag goes beyond the wigs, the clothing, the onstage performances, and all that meets the eye.
AN INNATE ARTIST
Being the youngest of three children, Paolo had a penchant for playing with his sister’s dolls and dressing up in girls’ clothing at a young age, recalling how he would start crying if he was not allowed to wear the dress owned by his sister.
“Growing up, nakita ko ’yong kapatid ko na may Barbie dolls,” he recounts. “Siyempre, ’yon din ’yong nilalaro ko pero patago. Nag-evolve sa mga paper dolls. May mga paper dolls ’yong kapatid ko pero mas maganda mga paper dolls ko, mas maganda ’yong mga outfit ng dolls ko.”
In those days, he started seeing dressing up as part of his future goals and aspirations. However, he had to suppress it out of fear of being ridiculed by the people around him.
“Mas tinatago ko siya noon kasi matutukso ka na ‘beki’ at lalamya-lamya. As much as possible, very typical Filipino na itatago mo sa family kasi mas gusto nila lalaki,” he says.
Yet, as time passed by, Paolo got to express himself more freely, especially considering that he came from a bloodline of artists, including his great-grandfather, painter Fernando Amorsolo, his two grandmothers, who were talented tailors, and his father, who was a painter from New York.
“Nandoon na ’yong art,” he recalls. “Noong bata ako, sumasali ako sa poster making contests. Nandoon na ’yong creativity.”
HIS FACE AS CANVAS
Paolo admits he had no patience and place for painting, unlike his relatives did back in the day. This led him to another art form quite similar to drawing and painting, but with a person’s face as his canvas.
One time, during a night of hanging out, Paolo recalls he and his friends thought of the idea of painting one another’s face and putting on gowns, so they could orchestrate their own fashion show at home.
“Doon ko na-realize ’yong love ko sa pagme-make-up,” he says.
That night prompted him to search for make-up transformations online, being inspired by an Asian make-up vlogger who transformed into Angelina Jolie.
“Na-amaze ako sa kanya. Na-intrigue. So, I tried it. And ’yong triny ko, lumabas naman, kaso Eula Valdez,” he quips. “Pero close enough, ’diba? Magkahawig naman sila. Doon nag-start.”
Seeing he can transform his face into the face of well-known stars through make-up, Paolo pushed himself to do more.
TO INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM
He started posting his jaw-dropping transformations on Instagram and, as time passed by, people started to appreciate his immense talent for transforming his face into international celebrities like Julia Roberts, Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Megan Fox, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé.
Soon, his posts went viral, not only in the Philippines but around the world. International news sites started hearing and reporting about his incredible transformations, which gave Paolo a sense of unexpected elation.
“I never expected it to become viral,” he says. “Na-amaze lang ako sa sarili ko na nagiging kamukha ko ’yong mga ’di ko aakalain na magiging kamukha ko dahil sa pagma-make-up. I was very elated na nare-recognize ka sa iba’t-ibang bansa, iba’t-ibang mga articles, magazines, sa news, sa TV. Nagugulat ako.”
Becoming a viral sensation came as a surprise for Paolo, as at the time, other people were also doing make-up transformations. However, for him, he felt as if he was doing something different.
“I never expected it to be like that, kasi marami ring gumagawa ng make-up transformations noon, but sa akin kasi, I try to do make-up transformation na ’di pa nagagawa ng iba,” he says. “Usually, ’pag nakita ng isa, gagayahin na ng iba. Ako, ginagawa ko ’yong hindi pa nagagawa talaga ng iba.”
A FAMILIAL INSPIRATION
Huge fans of Paolo’s make-up transformations had alluded his art form to the art of drag, especially since he transforms himself into the opposite sex, which is one of drag’s many facets.
For the Eat Bulaga star, he agrees that drag has played a role in his creativity with make-up, saying that he not only attempts to copy the celebrities’ facial features, but he also mimics their expressions, as well.
“I guess kaya nagiging effective talaga siya kasi hindi ko lang kinokopya ’yong mukha no’ng celebrity; I try to also mimic their nuances, like how they smile, how they use their facial muscles,” he explains.
Paolo believes what he does is the same as drag, as the latter transforms a person into a different, exaggerated character.
“That’s the same with drag kasi you transform into another person, another character,” he expounds. “Ganoon ’yong ginagawa ko. Pati ’yong kaloob-looban ko, ginagawa kong siya—the character. I guess that’s why ’yong make-up transformation ko becomes very effective.”
Being a fan of drag for a long time, Paolo recalls the first time he was inspired to dress up: as a kid, he saw his grandmother sew different kinds of dresses to wear for Sunday service. Seeing his grandmother clad in various dresses and high heels, he had thoughts about wanting to do the same.
“Bata pa lang ako, ’yong mga sapatos ng lola ko ginagamit ko na,” he says “Kasi ’yong lola ko, fashionista din. Every Sunday, iba ’yong tinatahi niyang damit for church, with matching sapatos pa. Bata pa lang ako, nagda-drag na talaga ako nang patago.”
AWARD-WINNING ART FORM
Eventually, Paolo’s transformations would end up becoming more than just a hobby. Many years later, he would star in his first lead film Die Beautiful, where his make-up transformations and the art of drag played a pivotal role.
“Another successful story because of me doing make-up transformation and drag is nagkaroon ako ng first movie na ako ’yong star. After 15 years ng pagiging artista, nagkaroon ako ng movie na ako ’yong bida,” Paolo says with glee.
Paolo’s performance in the 2016 film received great acclaim, and was well-received by local and international award-giving bodies like the 42nd Metro Manila Film Festival and 29th Tokyo International Film Festival Awards, both of which presented him the award for Best Actor.
“And add the cherry on top, I became an international, award-winning actor,” he says. “Hindi ko nanaman in-expect na mananalo ako against sa ibang magagaling na international artists. Isa ’yon sa hindi ko malilimutan, kasama ang pagod at ’yong hirap na mag-sho-shoot ka na nagmamake-up transformation. Kasama ’yon sa hindi ko malilimutan.”
HIS OWN SUPERPOWER
Amidst successes come challenges. Paolo believes that the “cancel culture” has made his art form difficult. But he continues to do his make-up transformations, saying he does it not for other people but for himself.
“You know, sa panahon natin ngayon with social media na maraming cancel culture, ’yong ica-call out ka dahil hindi mo kamukha ’yong ginagaya mo,” he says. “Ayon ’yong struggle, lalo na sa umpisa.
“Unang-una, hindi ko naman ’to ginagawa for them. Hindi ako nagmamake-up transformation ng gusto nila; ako ’yong nasusunod because I’m doing this for me,”
“Pero alam naman natin ang mga tao, medyo matabil ang daliri. Matabil mag-comment na parang binayaran ka nila para magmake-up, na parang kailangan basagin mo ’yong bungo mo para maging kamukha mo ’yong taong ginagaya mo.”
Through these challenges, Paolo realized that the only person better off pleasing is yourself: “You cannot really please everyone. Kaya kung ginagawa nila ’yon para sa followers nila, mahihinaan sila ng loob. Since this is for me, e di okay lang kung ano sabihin nila sa akin.”
Setting all harsh comments aside, Paolo is all-out when it comes to doing his art form: “’Pag naka-drag ka, you get into this character na larger-than-life.”
However, for Paolo, he believes drag should not just end with the wigs, the gowns, the heels, and the make-up transformations. When asked what advice he would give to people who are aspiring make-up artists and drag performers, he believes the power that drag makes them do should be applied in their everyday lives.
“I-harness nila ’yong power na kapag naka-drag ka, kaya mong gawin lahat,” he says. “Hindi lang doon ’yon natatapos. ’Yong drag, para siyang power suit, na meron kang superhuman power na nagiging creative ka, biglang maganda. I-harness natin ’yong nadadala ng drag pero dalhin din natin ’yon sa totoong buhay natin”
“Accessories lang ’yong drag, so i-harness natin ’yong power na nakukuha natin sa drag and ilabas natin ’yon sa totoong buhay natin dahil hindi naman kailangan ng make-up at magagandang damit para ipakita kung sino tayo, kung ano ang magagawa natin because there is so much that we can do.”
Photography by DOOKIE DUCAY
Creative Direction by BRIE VENTURA and JANN PASCUA
Cover Manipulation by JANN PASCUA
Photo Manipulation & Post-Processing by BRIE VENTURA
Fashion Direction by RYUJI SHIOMITSU
Styling by PAUL SESE assisted by MIGUEL QUILANG
Makeup by GUILLY VILLANUEVA
Hair by IAN GARCIA assisted by ALDRIN VIVO
Wigs by MERMAID MANILA HAIR and WIGALOO PH
Nails NAIL BADDIE
Production Design by CLAU VERZOSA and JAY
Shoot Coordination by KZ FRANCISCO and MJ ALMERO
Fashion Film and Videography VINCENT SY
BTS Videography EXCEL PANLAQUE and JR RAMIREZ
Shot on Location BEYOND CONCEPTS STUDIO
Special thanks to VINCENT SY, MARIA FERNANDEZ and KAT REYES OF MERMAID MANILA HAIR