Taylor Sheesh performs ‘Long Live’ on July 8, 2023 at a mall in Taguig City, Metro Manila, Philippines. (Martin San Diego for The Washington Post)
In one of the most Swift-crazy countries in the world, Coronel has become an unlikely, unstoppable star, drawing thousands to fan events like this and building an even bigger following on TikTok, where his videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of views.
With Swift on tour, Coronel, who works at a call center, has been going across the country reproducing her sets. His performances have not only become sites of communion for Filipino Swifties — many aggrieved that Swift will skip the Philippines on her global Eras tour — but cathartic celebrations of queer and drag culture, which is flourishing here in the face of centuries-old conservative Catholic tradition.
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On this recent evening, Coronel’s Sheesh stepped on stage a little after 6 p.m., dressed in a precise replica of a purple chiffon dress Swift wore performing her third album, Speak Now, in 2011.
Every phone in the crowd pointed at her. She looked left and right, arching her painted eyebrow in that exactly Swift-ian way. Fans crushed forward, jumping as they chanted her name: Taylor Sheesh. In one corner, a group of teenage boys wearing glittery eye shadow clasped their hands in prayer and asked, earnestly, to be taken to church.
“I told you,” Josh Libid, an event volunteer, whispered as he leaned over a group watching Sheesh for the first time, their mouths hanging open.
Drag has had a long history in the Philippines, a country in love with pageantry. But drag only recently entered the mainstream, fueled in large part by the Filipino edition of the television series RuPaul’s Drag Race, which debuted here to popular success last year.
Coronel’s rise reflects shifting social attitudes in a country where just a decade ago, religious groups filed legal complaints to stop Lady Gaga from performing. But it is also a glimpse into the power of contemporary fandoms, which have become important elements in wider social movements, said Tom Baudinette, a cultural anthropologist at Macquarie University in Australia.
“Fandom is as much a process where people make sense of themselves as it is one where people consume things,” Baudinette said. In the case of the Philippines, young people with drastically different views of gender and sexuality than their parents have taken something mainstream — Swift — and transformed it into “a resource of hope,” he said, projecting onto it visions of a different life and society.
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While Swift has publicly said she supports LGBTQ rights, young Filipino fans have taken this to an extreme, creating a universe where the singer is a queer icon who sings about queer love. Klyde Eugenio, who hosts a Filipino podcast on Swift, said people are drawn to this community not just out of a love for Swift but because of an implied set of shared values. “We’re not just listeners,” he said, “We’re looking for connections with other people.”
The Taylor Sheesh phenomenon taps into this desire, Baudinette said.
With five layers of tights and an expert tuck, Coronel transforms himself from a shy call center agent into a stand-in for arguably the world’s biggest living pop icon. His fans put it this way: If Taylor Swift is “mother,” a slang term rooted in the Black and Latino queer ballroom scene of the 1980s that young people have recently adopted to describe female celebrities, Taylor Sheesh is “stepmother.”
On stage, stepmother step-mothered. She served and she nourished. She gave them life.
Sheesh glided through a plume of mist after her first of seven outfit changes, her blonde wig scrupulously curled with hot rollers, her yellow fringe dress tailor-made by a retired queen.
“Hello,” she lip-synced. “My name is Taylor.”
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Coronel said he became a Swiftie in high school when he listened to “Fifteen,” an early Swift single about first dates and heartbreak. He had a crush on a classmate at the time and the song was a balm to that oppressively private feeling. As he came of age, he said, Swift continued releasing music that spoke to what he was going through: Falling in love, breaking up, finding friends who felt like family.
In 2017, he signed up on a whim for a lip-sync competition — and won. Later that year, he inaugurated Taylor Sheesh at Nectar, a queer nightclub in a wealthy Taguig neighborhood that became his “home bar.” Backstage, in chaotic rooms that smelled like hair spray, he learned how to wing his eyeliner, how to sashay and how to vogue. Every time he transformed into Sheesh, he said, he shed layers of self-doubt.
Last October, Coronel attended a Swift fan event in drag. When an organizer asked spontaneously whether he wanted to perform, he burst out with Swift’s 11-minute 40-second medley at the 2019 American Music Awards. Since then, he’s performed at dozens of fan events, including one in May that drew 10,000 people, according to the fan group Swifties Philippines.
Coronel’s imitation of Swift is uncanny, said Libid, the event volunteer. But his performances are also laced with a subversiveness that make them sparkle, Libid continued. They’re glamorous and funny, exaggerated and real all at once. Like much of drag, they’re camp.
The fan response has been surreal, Coronel said. He’s grateful because he knows that despite the growing popularity of drag, queer Filipinos still face discrimination.
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In June, Manila police were seen on video forcefully arresting the transgender actress Awra Briguela. Many queens he knows have been cast out of their families, Coronel said, and some are homeless. He feels lucky he can still live at home though he’s never actually discussed his sexuality with his parents. (“I mean it’s obvious,” he added dryly. “Water is wet. You don’t need to ask.”)
On stage, he feels a responsibility to provide the kind of affirmation and joy he experienced at Nectar — to “save” the young, queer people of his community, he said, in the same way drag once saved him.
Taylor Sheesh was near the end of her set. The song “Long Live” was just beginning to play when a hand rose in the crowd, making an “L” sign. Hundreds followed and Sheesh smiled.
Swift has said that she wrote the song for her bandmates. But here, the L stood for “laban,” the Filipino word for fight, which became a symbol of resistance during the 1986 revolution against former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It also stood for “Leni,” meaning Leni Robredo, the liberal politician who ran unsuccessfully for president last year, losing to the current president, Marcos’ son.
To Coronel, the song is a chance to imagine and playact a different reality, he said.
“Long live the walls we crashed through,” the speakers played. “I had the time of my life with you.”
Taylor Sheesh marched to the center of the stage in black stilettoed boots and pointed to the ceiling. Purple confetti rained down. For a moment then, the music — Swift’s voice — disappeared. Facing the crowd, Coronel recalled later, all he could hear was screaming.