Faces of Cebu Life!

FACES OF CEBU: Maria Lava, 29, Cebuana drag artist

Beauty. Comedy. Camp. Political.

In her short stint in Drag Den: Retribution, Cebuana Drag Queen Maria Lava showed the Philippines her true brand with two goals: to make a statement and represent Cebu’s drag scene.

Being the first Cebuana to be given the platform to perform on the Drag Den stage, she knew she had a duty to uplift the local drag community, and she swore by it even months after filming the season.

We know Maria Lava as the drag queen from that reality show, a drag mother to Cebu’s Haus of Lava, and one of the queens who joined the initiative to partake in the talked-about drag reading session with kids in Mandaue.

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But Maria Lava has a story, a drag journey, and a motivation to perform.

As such, in celebration of Pride Month, Maria Lava shares with CDN Digital her drag journey, from taking on the role of her drag persona to her future plans for herself and the drag scene in Cebu.

Meet Jap Sabtal, out of drag

Before creating the persona of Maria Lava, he was Jap Sabtal, born and raised in Zamboanga before he uprooted his life and transferred to Cebu in 2017.

Sabtal described himself as a closeted queer back when he was in Mindanao, even though he came out of the closet longer before he brought his life to Cebu. Upon arriving in the more liberated world of Cebu, his life shifted.

Jap Sabtal

Jap Sabtal, Maria Lava out of drag | Contributed Photo

He worked his way up to becoming an HR Manager in a BPO company. A fateful event in that company catalyzed him to discover a part of himself he did not know existed.

His workplace needed someone to impersonate a singer for a company event. Pushed by his interest in RuPaul’s Drag Race, his workmates supported and encouraged him to volunteer, and so he did. He impersonated Beyonce and lipsynced to her song “Love on Top.”

From that moment, he fell in love with drag and everything associated with it. He has always defined himself as a fan of art, but it was through drag that he could express his own brand of art to a point of proficiency.

Becoming Maria Lava, a Cebuana drag artist

When he started performing as his drag alter ego, he initially called the persona Jaja Rivera––a name he now deemed “messy” as he settled on a strong name that fits the brand, Maria Lava.

He said Maria was just a typical feminine name he wanted to use. Meanwhile, the name “Lava” was inspired by the iconic lava gown of Miss Universe 2018 Catriona Gray.

Catriona, Maria Lava

(Right) Catriona Gray winning Miss Universe 2018 and (Left) Maria Lava in a red gown. | Photo: AP Photo & Maria Lava

Why Catriona? Sabtal resonated with her hard work and dedication. Every single accessory has a meaning for Catriona just so she can fulfill her goal of winning the crown, which embodies how he sees Maria Lava.

Maria Lava is all out. She is really extra. Maria Lava is very ambitious. She wants the entire universe to look at her and admire her.

Centering her brand on camp, beauty, and comedy, Maria Lava performs with a specific choice of songs to elevate her brand. Even so, it was disclosed that she plans to evolve her style and explore performing traditionally masculine songs.

In an interview with Sabtal, he said that Maria Lava is far different from Jap Sabtal. While the drag persona is the epitome of out-and-loud, Jap is more on the mellow side, describing himself as a “nonchalant” person who is focused on his work.

“One thing they have in common is that Jap and Maria Lava are never afraid to speak up for social issues. Let’s just say that,” Sabtal said in the interview.

Maria Lava: ‘Drag is Political’

One thing we should know about Maria Lava is that she is not afraid to speak her mind. This has even been reflected in her performances throughout the years.

Drag is Political

Maria Lava holding out a pride flag with a political message. | Contributed Photo

Most popularly, she took her stand by performing for free at a political rally prior to the 2022 presidential elections. She used her performances as a platform to amplify what she had to say.

When asked why political themes are a staple in Maria Lava’s performances, he eloquently explained the connection between drag and politics. 

When you do drag, you create a statement. You represent a group of community. It is political because you are doing stuff nga dili siya social norm. What we are trying to do is to normalize it. You are telling other people that you exist, and this should be respected and seen.

Nonetheless, he has repeatedly said he does not want to be branded as a political drag queen. He believes what her drag persona is doing should not be unique to Maria Lava. It should be a norm for drag performers to speak their minds.

Maria Lava embodied this principle even outside of her performances. More recently, she volunteered to participate in the drag reading session with preschool children in Mandaue.

Even with criticisms from some Cebuano netizens, she stayed true to her brand of speaking her mind. She decided to educate people about social issues, especially those surrounding the controversy of the drag reading event.

Building the Haus of Lava

Besides being a thriving drag artist, Maria Lava is also a drag mother of her local drag house, the Haus of Lava. In their community, a drag house is a collective of artists and performers headed by a mentor they call their “mother.”

The group was formed when Maria Lava started sourcing backup dancers for her political rally performances. Since then, the artistic endeavors of those backup dancers have grown until some of them decided to pursue drag as a hobby.

haus of lava

Maria Lava with the Haus of Lava | Contributed Photo

It was when the house was officially founded that Maria Lava offered to mentor her drag daughters toward becoming fully grown drag queens. She even mentioned having drag daughters from Davao and other parts of the country.

When asked about her drag daughters, Maria Lava proudly mentioned their talent and specifically shared how far they have come. One of her drag daughters who found success under her mentorship is Gravana Lava, who has secured multiple awards over the past few years.

Currently, the Haus of Lava comprises Maria Lava, three backup dancers, and three drag queens. 

Representing Cebu: Drag Den Retribution

Maria Lava wanted to nurture young talents. Above all, she always wanted to represent Cebu. For most Cebuana drag artists, Drag Race Philippines was the goal, but it was a goal already secured by Cebuana queens Nicole Pardaux and Verushka Levels.

When another drag reality show, Drag Den, opened its doors for provincial drag queens in its second installment, Cebuana queens showed a bit of hesitation since they were still eyeing to join the former reality show.

What pushed Maria Lava to audition was the show’s unapologetic political voice that fits her drag brand, so she auditioned. In the end, she became part of the final cast for the show’s second season, and she was there to represent Cebu.

drag den photos

Maria Lava in her popular looks from Drag Den Retribution | Photo: Maria Lava / IG

Maria Lava brought with her commissioned outfits from numerous designers from Cebu and Zamboanga, including a gown sponsored by Mandaue City Treasurer Atty. Regal Oliva. It was at the expectation that all gowns are to be featured on the supposedly non-elimination show.

In an unfortunate turn of events, the show surprised the cast by telling them that a drag queen would be eliminated per episode. Sadly, Maria Lava was the first to go, bringing home with her all the gowns she was supposed to wear.

At that time, I [was] pretty confident that I’ll make it all the way. I didn’t know what happened. I never had any regrets in terms of my performance and whatever it is that I’ve shown there because that was me. I think ‘di lang siguro siya nag-translate sa kanila.

Even so, Sabtal said he fulfilled his goal of joining the competition as Maria Lava, which is to elevate Cebu drag by establishing its existence even with the lack of drag-centered bars in Cebu. 

As such, he even created connections with other drag queens and institutions from all over the country that will soon help him towards his next plan for Cebu drag.

Drag Scene in Cebu

The drag scene in Cebu is now booming, according to Jap Sabtal in an interview. He attributed it to the mainstream recognition of Drag Race Philippines, which inspired more local drag queens to perform.

With Maria Lava’s platform and opportunities, he believes it is now Maria Lava’s responsibility to help promote local drag, most especially helping young drag artists pave their careers.

I want to help the baby drag queen perform. As a baby gay boy who wanted to do drag and perform, I wanted to experience that. I don’t want the next generation to experience the struggle that I felt. That’s why we are working very hard right now to give them shows.

Currently, Cebuanos can watch drag performances at different events and bars depending on the occasion. Most importantly, Sabtal is working closely with Cave Bar Cebu to help him realize the goal of helping rising drag queens perform.

Rising towards the peak of Maria Lava’s career, Jap Sabtal sees no decline in his inspiration to continue performing as his drag persona.

As long as I’m alive, I’ll do drag. I feel like I’ve been doing different kinds of art prior to drag. When I found drag, I felt like it was for me. The fact that I’m able to inspire people, then I’m still gonna continue. The goal now is to help others do drag and express their voice.

Even with Jap Sabtal’s work as an HR manager, he will make sure not to let go of Maria Lava. It is his art and his platform to express. He will pursue his longstanding goal with Maria Lava’s platform to speak up, represent, and promote.

Cebu will forever be honored to have Maria Lava at the forefront of its drag scene.

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