by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
'Be gracious. Always.'
That is what local drag icon Aleksa Manila said she reminds all of her drag children to be whenever they find themselves in a tough situation.
I think it is only fitting to begin this community spotlight feature on Aleksa Manila with that quote, because as those of you who know her would agree, Aleksa really is gracious - always.
She is often referred to as 'The nice one.' No, I'm not talking about the comparison some locals might have between Aleksa Manila and the fabulous Gaysha Starr. (Seriously, racist people who think all Filipinos look alike get them confused all the time.) I'm talking about people referring to Aleksa and whomever. She is the nicest one. And it's not an act. She's the real deal. I've been around Aleksa for five years now. We've produced shows, co-hosted fundraisers, marched down the street for equal rights and more. If she were fake, I'd know it. In fact, we would all - every single one of us in the Gayborhood - know it, because she is everywhere, hosting everything, and raising awareness about anything. When Aleksa is at her best (which is almost always) no one can touch her. She is magnificent.
'There is no need to run,' Aleksa told Seattle Gay News, adding, 'Gracefully walk through life, and enjoy every step.'
'I think sometimes there's a hurried sentiment to being young and queer (LGBTQ), but if you do it too fast, you might miss the wonderful moments along the way,' she said.
It's important, said Aleksa, for young LGBTQ folks to 'listen to your elders - your parents, your role models, and your pioneers - the ones that have your best interest at heart; especially when we say, 'Be safe. Wear a condom. Get to really know someone first.'
That's good advice coming from a person who has an incredible amount of 'street cred.' Aleksa doesn't just talk about it, she is about it. During the day she is a counselor of the utmost professionalism at Seattle Counseling Service. Her annual fundraising event ICON raises tens of thousands of dollars for the mental health and substance abuse counselling service serving the LGBTQ community since 1969.
Aleksa Manila and philanthropy go hand in hand. Around Seattle, Aleksa has raised well over $100,000 for the community or causes that she cares about.
'I believe I get this from my mom,' she told SGN. 'I grew up Roman Catholic so this was also instilled going to private school. After mass, we would always give something to the poor. Of course, it feels good - it makes the heart warm. That's an incentive for sure.'
'Although philanthropy doesn't have to only mean money,' said Aleksa. Volunteering is as powerful, if not more.'
Recently, in response to the destruction caused by typhoon Haiyan, which became the strongest land-falling tropical cyclone ever recorded as it crossed the Central Philippines on November 7-8, 2013, Aleksa Manila co-produced a benefit for the family members of her drag daughter, Atasha Manila, at Neighbours Nightclub (1509 Broadway). Haiyan is the deadliest Philippine typhoon on record, killing at least 6,268 people in that country alone and leaving scores of people without a home, electrical power or food. While it was proper to mourn the dead, Atasha and Aleksa Manila pointed out that there were millions that survived and needed our help. The event raised over $5,000.
If that seems incredible to you (because it is!), then what is more incredible yet is that Aleksa has used her time and talent hundreds of times to produce, host and star in fundraisers for a good cause. She has indirectly, and directly, improved the lives of countless people across the world. And she does it while wearing high heels and a dress.
'Drag is definitely transformative for me at so many levels from internal to external, personal to professional,' Aleksa said. 'It's more than just donning a wig, make-up, outfit with matching accessories.'
'Surely, you can limit it to a lip sync performance onstage, but it has the potential to be more powerful on the streets of life,' she continued. 'Drag is a fabulous way of expressing one's self-identity. It encompasses the individual; it represents community. It has the capacity to educate about history and culture. Drag can be philanthropic and political, sassy and socially-aware.'
Some of Seattle's best-known drag queens have been at it for twenty - or much more - years. How long does Aleksa Manila have until she is done?
'Honestly, I've sometimes asked that myself,' she laughs. 'Over a decade later since I grabbed that mascara wand... I've come to realize it's an extension of who I am.'
'Drag isn't just the traditional definition for me anymore,' said Aleksa. 'It's grown up with me so to speak. But more importantly, it's fun and fabulous. That's why it's a big part of my life.'
And she's done well. Some of her most notable accomplishments include:
o 2013 Dr. Bob Wood Award for Excellence in HIV Prevention, Public Health - Seattle & King County
o 2012 Legacy Award Recipient, HIV Vaccine Trials Unit
o 2012 Founded Pride ASIA
o 2010 Keynote Speaker, LGBT Week - University of Montana, Missoula
o 2009 Sainted by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, The Abbey of St. Joan
o 2007 Community Service Award, Washington State Men in Leather Organization
o 2006 Jose Honors Recipient, International Court System
o 2006 Empress of Seattle, Olympia XXXV - Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle
o 2005-2006 Honorable Commissioner, LGBT Commission - City of Seattle, Office of Civil Rights
o 2005-2007 Performing with Pink Martini band
o 2004 Miss Gay Seattle XL - Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle
o 2003 Peach Award for Volunteerism, Seattle LGBT Community Center
o 2002 Founded Casa de Manila 'House of Manila'
o 2001 Miss Gay Filipino, Filipino Community of Seattle
In addition to all of those (you can see the full list at http://aleksamanila.com/awards.html) awards and honors, Aleksa Manila is also a fierce advocate for LGBTQ equality, having served on the following boards and commissions:
o Imperial Sovereign Court of Seattle
o International Court System
o Seattle Counseling Service
o Seattle Commission for Sexual Minorities (LGBT Commission) - City of Seattle
o Official Pride ASIA
o Ingersoll Gender Center
o Lambert House
o Lifelong AIDS Alliance
o Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea)
o Gender Round Table of Washington
o Seattle LGBT Community Center
o Seattle Out & Proud
o Greater Seattle Business Association
o Neighbours Nightclub
Although the drag queen, LGBTQ equal rights activist, and counselor we see standing before us today is larger than life, Aleksa Manila comes from humble beginnings.
Barely 20-years-old, Aleksa immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. 'And there's the magical answer about my age,' laughs Aleksa.
'My family had already been living in the U.S. for quite some time and I was just finishing college in the Philippines,' she said. 'At the time, I had my eyes set on becoming a physical therapist. But that changed when I moved, because I still had a couple of years to complete, and my credentials didn't transfer, so I switched and set my academic goals with nursing, which I had been avoiding because my siblings were already nurses - one a pediatric nurse, the other an anesthesia nurse. I was definitely like, 'Not another one.'
Aleksa recently had the opportunity to return to the Philippines late last month.
'I have only been back to the Philippines twice and a decade apart each time,' she said. 'To say the least, the first visit was a total culture shock. Ironically, I had not anticipated that at all. I was convinced that since I was born there, I didn't need to re-assimilate, but things - a lot of it - did change.'
'I suppose when you leave a place you've been accustomed to since childhood and leaving as a young adult, not only have you changed, but your environment as well,' said Aleksa.
'This last visit was wonderful,' she continued. 'My boyfriend, Jason, joined me on this trip. He was really instrumental in encouraging me to go for many reasons. It was his first trip outside of the U.S., not counting Canada, of course. So, I was all giddy being his tour-guide. And he finally met my mom, who decided to retire there.'
'I hadn't shared with my mom yet about our relationship, so I was a bit nervous about the news, like coming out all over again,' she recalled. 'But, of course, to no surprise - my mom just adores him. I couldn't be happier.'
According to Aleksa, who joked, her mother's idea of approval was affectionately kicking my leg under the dinner table.
'As always, she shared her words of wisdom and just letting me know how happy she is for both of us,' she said.
'In addition to the usual family visit, we actually spent the time exploring and enjoying the islands. We spent a good chunk of our time at a beach resort in Subic Bay, where the former U.S. Naval Base was.'
'My boyfriend, being the adventurer himself, convinced me to do a lot of things like feeding tigers, petting dolphins, especially snorkeling,' she said. 'This may not sound like a big deal to a lot of people, but from someone who doesn't and can't swim this was a big check off on my bucket list.'
This trip was also extra special because her boyfriend and family got to see Arnaldo! Drag Chanteuse in concert at her Manila debut. Arnaldo! is one of Seattle's best known drag queens and is arguably, the best known drag queen cabaret act.
'The who's who of Philippine entertainment was there from Miss Universe 1973 Margie Moran to Julie Borromeo, who discovered Lea Salonga,' said Aleksa. 'I had the honor of hosting Arnaldo's question and answer panel where we discussed the intersections of music, family, and of course, queer culture.'
Life is good for Aleksa Manila.
'I don't believe in regrets,' she told Seattle Gay News. 'It's too negative and takes you two steps back. I just do better next time.'
'Although there was this one time in high school, after a speech in front of the nuns and others, I turned around, missed a step, and yelled a not-so-nice-word,' she laughed. 'And maybe I should have auditioned for RuPaul's Drag Race - Season 2 when I was recruited,' she laughs fabulously.
For now, she says she will leave all of you with a smile and a 'thank you.'
For more information about Aleksa Manila, visit her official website at www.AleksaManila.com.
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