Season one of RuPaul’s Drag Race is over four years old, yet it’s wildly re-watchable even considering how much flashier and bigger the drag queen competition has become. Though Bebe Zahara Benet walked off with the title of that so-called “lost season,” her competitor Ongina — a.k.a. Ryan Ong Palao — was an endearing, adorable presence who gave us incredible moments, including a tearful admission of her HIV-positive status to RuPaul following a challenge victory. For regular Logo viewers, Ongina’s face and saucy voice seem to be everywhere considering she’s a spokesperson for OraQuick, the first in-home oral HIV test.
We caught up with Ongina to discuss that mystical first season of Drag Race, how life has changed since disclosing her HIV status on the show, and the kinds of drag queens who throw her some shady side-eye on the road.
TheBacklot: So, how do you feel about being part of the so-called “Lost Season”?
Ongina: Apparently they pulled it off iTunes and people couldn’t watch it in the past three years because of song rights and stuff. But it’s funny to watch my season because of the budget they had creating my season. Watching the following seasons and seeing how much of a budget they had compared to what we had, it’s just funny.
TB: What do you think are the biggest changes between your season and the ones that followed?
O: I mean, I think there’s definitely better lighting! Better stage, better workroom. Everything’s gotten better, 110x after our season aired. So, you’re welcome. [Laughs.]
TB: Is there any drawback to watching your season again after all this time?
O: No, not really. It’s not all that difficult. The hardest part is watching what a baby queen I was during my season, because I’ve evolved since then. I’m very critical of myself and my drag, and so seeing what I looked like back then and knowing that I thought I was the fiercest thing that ever worked and walked the planet is one of the hardest things. I criticize myself. I’m my worst critic. Other than that, there’s nothing bad from the season re-airing.
TB: Do you have a favorite episode to re-watch?
O: I do, actually. I really like watching the group challenge, episode two. That was my first win. I looked really good that day! Thank you, Shannel! In my boy life, I work as a manager and manage people, and I think I brought that essence into the challenge. I was the group leader and really wanted to take charge. I wanted to make sure the team felt good, and it’s overall one of my favorite episodes to watch. Episode three and obviously episode four I enjoy watching too, but my favorite is probably two.
TB: How have you changed up your persona and showmanship since the show?
O: I think as the years go by, things obviously change in your persona and look and overall creativity. I think it’s all changed because of changes I wanted to make for myself, changes I wanted to be happy with. Watching that, it made me a stronger person personally and it made me a stronger queen professionally. I think I owe a lot of that to the show and knowing the talented people from my season and the talented people who are in the newer seasons. One person who has helped me to achieve this level is named David Rodriguez, a makeup artist in LA, has transformed me and taught me to transform myself into what I am now. Emotionally, the changes are about what I had to change to become a better person and queen.
TB: Are there any queens from subsequent seasons you wish you’d competed against?
O: No, but I wish they would’ve asked me to, like, pop out of a box on season two or three or something. I think my elimination was a shock — at least to me — and I’m going to admit it, Bebe did a really good job lip-syncing against me, and I felt like she brought a certain sense of energy. But I think after that experience and seeing the second season, I would’ve liked to come back for a different season to re-compete to show I am capable of doing more. There’s no one in particular that made me think, “I want to compete against HER! Or HER!” But if given the chance, I would re-lip-sync for my life against Bebe just to prove that she did not outshine me. I want it recorded, replayed, and all over the internet. I want people to see that. [Laughs.] I love Bebe. She’s crazy.
TB: Your elimination is pretty legendary. Your track record up to that point was great.
O: That’s the most disappointing part: winning two big main challenges and then coming into the bottom for the very first time and getting eliminated. I didn’t have major expectations coming into the show, but doing well challenge after challenge, I had a certain confidence and thought I was going to make it further than I did. I was proven wrong by Ms. Cameroon!
TB: I saw you were in Denver recently with queens from your season. Is there a sense of lingering competition between Drag Race alums?
O: My experience in my season wasn’t even competitive at all. For me, being on that show, it didn’t feel like I was competing for something. It wasn’t fully realized that it was a full competition until I left the show. Filming that show was one fun crazy party for me personally. When I travel and see these other queens, I am beyond excited to see them again. We had a “lost season” reunion in New York. There’s not really a sense of competition with people I know from Drag Race. There’s a sense of — I’m not sure if it’s competition, but there’s a sense with queens who weren’t on the show that they have to prove a point when we’re performing in the same cities. I’ve felt that a lot in the past four years. People constantly judge you or compete with you because you’re on Drag Race. I don’t feel that from contestants of Drag Race. Though I will say I’ve had nothing but great, positive welcomes in these cities, but you can tell sometimes there’s a queen who’s thinking, “Oh. Her. From Drag Race. The old one.” You feel that! You feel that energy. It’s definitely there.
TB: Is that annoying at all?
O: No. It’s just funny. They look at you as you’re unpacking your makeup, and they look at what you have. There’s a certain expectation when you come to these cities, and they want to make sure the expectations are met. We’re traveling to these cities to perform, getting gigs, getting paid, entertaining for the masses. The local queens are looking at you with a certain type of expectation. They’re like, “Oh, that’s it? That’s all you brought?” It’s not all the time, and it’s not every town. 90% are really nice and welcoming, at least for me. I’m one of the nicer Drag Racers. I’m sure the experience of others is different.
TB: It was such an amazing moment when you told Ru you were HIV positive after winning a challenge. Did that moment jumpstart much changes in your life.
O: It’s definitely helped me overcome my own demons about being HIV-positive. During the time that I won that challenge, the emotions were so overwhelming for me. It hit home for me so much, and when I won, a certain emotion came over me. I was so relieved and happy and the moment was so special. I can’t describe it! Any time I talk about it, I can only talk about how special it was and how close to home it hit for me. It has changed my life drastically. It has changed my life because I had battles with [being HIV positive] on my own. It’s helped me become an advocate for HIV, and that’s a big responsibility. I’m definitely trying my best to do what I can to do what I can to support the cause. It’s sometimes overwhelming. I’m one person and there are millions others out there. But I didn’t even really think about it until after it aired, but it was inspiring to people. When people tell me their story, it’s equally inspiring. They’re going through the same thing I am and knowing life is a constant battle and this is just one of them you have to battle in it. It shouldn’t make you feel like less of a person because you have it.
TB: Those OraQuick commercials are great. You talk about when you found out you were HIV-positive, and you’re encouraging to viewers. Was it emotional to film that?
O: Yeah, actually. I did get emotional filming that. I relived the moment of finding moment and remembered coming out, I guess. It’s still really hard for me to talk about. It’s not the easiest thing. I bring lightness to it because that’s the way I’m able to talk about it. I joke and laugh, but at the same time it’s a very serious matter. I won’t be able to talk through it unless I bring lightness into it. People associate HIV with such negativity, and I think there’s a different approach to it. You can talk about it differently. People won’t want to talk about it if they’re down and out about it or depressed. When you bring lightness to it, there’s more of a welcoming.
TB: What’s been the greatest perk of the show for you?
O: I was able to meet my life partner because of it! That’s probably one of the most memorable things! We’ve been together for three years and because of my experience on the show, I was able to meet him. He sent me a message on Facebook and the rest is history, basically. I didn’t expect it. This generation, I think people meet people in any circumstance, and one of those is a social media circumstance. When he messaged me, it was a different type of message. It was heartfelt and very emotional. Obviously I was getting a lot of messages from fans and things like that, but there was something about his message that was different in a way. It made me want to pursue it further, have a friendship. The friendship led to a relationship, then the relationship led into life partners. I think it was a surprise to me because at the time I wasn’t looking for anybody to be with or to settle down with. When you know it’s the right thing and you know in your gut that it’s the one, you just go with the flow and let the universe help you play it all out. We’re totally opposite people, but that’s the great balance.