If you live in Unalaska, you probably know Gilmar Tapaoan.
As a freshman in high school last year, he had big plans for his prom debut — and KUCB’s Zoë Sobel shadowed him as he prepared for the big day.
TAPAOAN: I am Gilmar Tapaoan. I want to be someone who’s out there — open about my sexuality, can wear whatever the heck I want. If someone’s got beef with me, I'm going to scratch them.
KUCB: Starting out as a kid — like, a 5-year-old kid — Gilmar would steal his grandma's heels and wear them around the house. And as he's gotten older, he's grown and expanded more. Now he's doing makeup, or he's tried on a wig. He has his own pair of heels now.
TAPAOAN: I just wanted to be different. Like, who wants to do the same thing over and over again? Like, day after day ... no. I just was experimenting — and if I liked it, I liked it.
[THEME MUSIC FROM "RUPAL'S DRAG RACE]
TAPAOAN: Actually watching “RuPaul” for the first time, I had mixed emotions. Because this is what I was doing, and, like, I didn’t even know.
KUCB: He finally saw people that were kind of like him. It wasn't just about the clothes. There was also this intangible something else that just goes along with it.
He saw the way that they behaved and the way that they carried themselves, and he really just wanted to get more into that additional level of fierceness. He saw his next step. And this is when Gilmar decided to be a drag queen for prom.
TAPAOAN: Hi, grandma. Did you put the money in my account?
KUCB: You can't just go to the store and buy a dress in Unalaska. The only way to get stuff is online.
TAPAOAN: Okay. I am ordering my prom dress. It is a short but sexy dress. It has sequins and rhinestones.
KUCB: Pretty quickly, Gilmar had orders in for everything he needed. He had his dress. He had his heels. He got new makeup. He got new makeup brushes. He ordered his eyelashes. The problem was that all Gilmar knows about drag is from the episodes of “RuPaul” he's watched.
TAPAOAN: Learning to do all this stuff on my own is really hard. Because if you don't have a reference to go to — trial and error.
KUCB: Gilmar was looking for a mentor. Someone who was actually a drag queen. Someone who could answer his questions and tell him what it was really like. Our friends at WNYC’s Nancy Podcast set Gilmar up with his very own fairy drag mother from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
KUCB: Alaska Thunderfuck.
GILMAR: Oh my god. No way! Tomorrow? At what time?
TAPAOAN: Oh, that’s fine with me.
[SKYPE CALL SOUNDS]
ALASKA: How do you say the name of your city? Because I've read it, but I don’t know how to say it.
ALASKA: It’s literally called Un-Alaska?
TAPAOAN: Yeah. [laughs]
ALASKA: That’s like the opposite of me. Un-Alaska.
TAPAOAN: Yeah. [laughs]
KUCB: So when we start the Skype call and the video comes up, there is Alaska in full drag. She's wearing this pink floral top with peacocks. Teased-up blonde hair topped with a pink rhinestone-encrusted clip.
ALASKA: I guess you were bit by the bug of drag, right? You feel like you are a drag queen?
ALASKA: I feel it's like being a nun. It's like a divine calling.
KUCB: She was in front of this backdrop that really made her look like she was floating in outer space. Gilmar, on the other hand, is pretty nervous. Because it's one thing to watch a video of drag queens, but it's a whole other ball game to talk with one face-to-face.
ALASKA: What's your drag name?
ALASKA: Oh, see! I love that. That’s brilliant! That’s stunning. [laughs]
TAPAOAN: Yeah. Once I told my best friends, they were like, “It's really catchy and smooth!”
ALASKA: It is! And it's based off your real name.
ALASKA: So that’s pretty cool. I love it. Can I get down to the serious question, please?
ALASKA: What are you wearing to prom?
TAPAOAN: I'm wearing, like, a cocktail dress. It’s black.
ALASKA: Okay. Do you have shoes?
TAPAOAN: They're, like, stilettos with lace.
ALASKA: Oh my God.
TAPAOAN: I think they’re 7 inches.
ALASKA: What about hair?
TAPAOAN: I just ordered a new wig that's coming in. It's black with a little brown on the tips.
ALASKA: I'm sure people are going to gag when they see you. Have you told people you're going in drag?
TAPAOAN: Yeah. I’ve told probably everybody. And they're really excited to see me. The principal knows and he was like, “As long it's not showy, you’re good.”
ALASKA: Showy? What’s that mean? [laughs]
TAPAOAN: It kind of means, like, showing too much breast, most likely. Or too short of a dress. [laughs]
ALASKA: Oh, so too provocative?
ALASKA: Okay. Well, that makes sense. It's always better to go for tasteful, especially at a school function.
TAPAOAN: As a high schooler, what did prom mean to you?
ALASKA: I thought of prom as kind of a joke. I thought it was kind of ridiculous. And my mom did the thing where, like, we went to the tux rental place and we rented the outfit and we rented the shoes. And I hated the pants so much. They were tapered at the bottom and they like fit me weird and I hated them. And I hated the shoes. They were so uncomfortable. So, as soon as we left the house, I brought a change of clothes and I changed. [laughs]
ALASKA: I changed it to these, like, old man pants that I had cut at the bottom so they were like flares. And I wore my Converse sneakers, and I had so much fun. I was nominated for prom king because I was the only gay kid. The girls vote for the prom king, and the boys vote for the prom queen. So of course the girls were going to vote for their gay friend rather than some guy that they dated for a week and now they hate, you know?
TAPAOAN: Yeah. [laughs]
ALASKA: So I won prom king. It's still so surreal to me.
TAPAOAN: What was it like growing up and being the only gay kid?
ALASKA: I mean, it was weird, but I clung to my friends. And it’s not just being gay that makes you feel like you don’t belong in high school. Most people in high school probably feel weird or like they don’t belong, but that’s high school. High school kind of sucks all around.
TAPAOAN: It does.
ALASKA: Yeah. However, it’s getting up, putting on your clothes, and going and doing the damn thing. That builds strength, and that’s going to make you the person you’re going to grow up to be.
TAPAOAN: On those hard days, how did you deal with it?
ALASKA: I drew pictures. I drew pictures of beautiful women. Now, I basically draw pictures of beautiful women on myself and go out into the world. I think back on it and I'm like, “That was research for what I am doing now.” It was like practice. When I first went out to a club in drag, we made a tube top and a skirt out of garbage bags because I didn't have any girl clothes that I wanted to wear. So my best friend from high school — who I actually consider to be my drag mother — she did my makeup, put lashes on me, and taught me how to do that stuff. Then she took this really plain blonde wig, and I was like, “It isn't big enough!” So she teased the top and gave it volume. Now, I still wear garbage bags all the time, and I still wear teased-up blond hair. So really, nothing has changed. [laughs]
TAPAOAN: Wow. How do you deal with those people that hate you?
ALASKA: Well, mostly, I ignore them. I don’t read comments on photos or videos because I think it’s really easy to say mean stuff online. So it’s, like, take the negative and own it and embrace it — and then just make it into something that’s a source of power for you.
TAPAOAN: Embrace the hate.
ALASKA: Embrace it, yes!
TAPAOAN: I try so hard to absorb that hate, but it’s like — it kind of gets to me.
ALASKA: I mean, you’re going to prom in drag. That’s amazing! At 15-years-old, you are embracing the difficulty and the struggle, and you’re being brave in the face of that. That’s how you get through life. That’s how you be successful. So, like, you’re doing it. You are doing it.
TAPAOAN: You’re making me blush.
ALASKA: Aww, me too. I swear it’s not makeup. I'm actually blushing. [laughs]
TAPAOAN: Thank you.
ALASKA: Have a great prom! Send me pictures!
TAPAOAN: I will. Bye!
KUCB: You could tell as soon as Gilmar started getting ready, he became a totally different person.
TAPAOAN: We’re at my prom date's house. Doing my makeup. And she is putting on more foundation.
MCCONNELL: My name is Delaney McConnell. I'm a senior. This is the first time ever doing his makeup for me, so I'm like, "Oh, let’s be careful!" Because I want him to feel beautiful.
TAPAOAN: You already make me beautiful.
TAPAOAN: We’re about to do the big reveal. It’s really nerve-wracking.
KUCB: Delaney didn't let Gilmar see what he looked like. So after about 45 minutes, we're all done. And it’s going to be the first time that Gilmar gets to see what Glimmer looks like.
GLIMMER: Three, two, one ... I look good!
KUCB: I was standing in this cramped bathroom with a beautiful, classy Amazon.
GLIMMER: This is Glimmer for you. A sexy mo’-fo’.
PROM ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Prom 2017! Parents, family, an most importantly moms-with-cameras, you have about 10 minutes to take the rest of your pictures.
KUCB: Prom is huge in Unalaska. It’s held in the elementary school gym. But if you haven’t been there before, you really couldn’t tell. And people from town — even if they don’t have kids — are lined up outside so they can see the decorations and all the kids' outfits.
PROM ANNOUNCER: Ms. Delaney McConnell and Mr. Gilmar Tapaoan!
CROWD: Yeah, Glimmer!
KUCB: Gilmar is probably about 5'9" normally, but with heels on, Glimmer was well over 6 feet tall. So all night, you always know where she is, because she's so tall. Whether Glimmer is breaking it down on the dance floor or walking over to talk with friends, she was just such a commanding presence.
GLIMMER: Prom just ended. Being Glimmer ... Oh my god, it was so fun. Sure, it was my first time dragging. I heard people say, “Hey, you look so beautiful, Gilmar.” I was going to correct them. But I was like, “You know what? I'll just deal with it. Glimmer, Gilmar — same thing.”
GLIMMER: But Glimmer will come out and play on the Fourth of July. And I can — fo’ sho’ — tell you that. And next prom, she will probably be in a tuxedo. The tux will be black with the inside pink. And she’s going to go with all her natural hair. And I'm going to look fierce as hell.
This story was produced by KUCB’s Zoë Sobel. A special thanks to WYNC’s Nancy podcast for connecting Gilmar Tapaoan with Alaska. You can hear the original version of the story here. This story uses music by Jesse Spillane ("Super Bubbly"), 1000 Names ("Rio"), and Broke for Free ("Calm The Fuck Down" and "The Great").