Drag culture and its queens have boileth over. RuPaul is a single name icon and queens from his cultural sensation RuPaul’s Drag Race count millions in their digital queendoms – see the Instagram accounts of Sasha Velour, Trixie Mattel, Kim Chi et al. The influence of drag has been felt at fashion’s highest throne this year – the “camp”-themed Met Gala not so much winked at the culture as it was birthed by it. And it’s deep in the soul of the everyday, all across social media – especially if you consider yourself a beauty girl.
Think the more-is-more, monolithic Instagram makeup aesthetic championed by beauty’s most followed: overdrawn lips; radioactive highlighters; false eyelashes on steroids; and of course contouring – of which even Kim Kardashian’s makeup artists have stated that their techniques were borrowed from drag culture. At some point, if you’re a beauty fanatic on Instagram, you’re basically aping drag whether you know it or not.
Drag’s OTT approach to makeup came to be for many reasons, including practical ones. (As stage performers, drag queens need to be able to project their look and persona all the way to the back of the room.) Others are more artistic, including screwing with societal perceptions of what gender and sexuality could be. After all, the major part of the culture sees men caricaturing women alongside a smaller group known as drag kings – women playing up as men; sexuality notwithstanding.
As Velour – the drag persona of the gender fluid visual artist and winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season Nine, Alexander Hedges Steinberg – tells an American magazine: “A lot of times, the idea about what gender means is very surface… What drag, especially drag makeup, plays with is the construction of those things.” Suffice to say, how makeup is worn and used by drag artists says as much about society and culture as it does beauty.
Eugene Tan – drag alias Becca D’Bus – runs Riot!, one of the most visible drag shows in Singapore that takes place monthly at Hard Rock Cafe. He credits Drag Race for a wider appreciation of drag culture, but points out that the show is not an accurate or exhaustive representation of it.
“All drag scenes are different. It is a regional form precisely because it is not taught in a school; it is learnt by practice among mentors,” he says. “And so drag in Singapore is different than drag in Kuala Lumpur; than drag in Johor Baru; than drag in Bangkok… The beauty of drag for me is that it’s often directly influenced by popular culture, politics and social mores, so it’s often fiercely regional.”
The local drag scene has roots dating all the way back to the ’50s, centred around a precommercialised Bugis Street, which was internationally renowned then as a nexus plied by transgender persons and cross-dressers. In fact, Vanda Miss Joaquim – the highly popular persona of Azizul Mahathir – exhorts everyone to watch Bugis Street, the 1995 film on the street’s history for greater insight. (P.S. It’s available in its entirety on Youtube.) Who’s often regarded as the queen mother here? None other than the inimitable Kumar, as much as he prefers describing himself as a stand-up comedian who drags than a drag queen per se. Born Kumarason Chinnadurai, he’s been in the business for more than 20 years, launching his acerbic brand of stand-up – full face of makeup, runway-worthy locks and Versace-esque gowns in tow – at the nowdefunct Bugis Street cabaret club Boom Boom Room in the early ’90s.
One of the newest on the local scene: Salome Blaque, aka 28-year-old fashion photographer Fadli Rahman, who got into drag two years ago when he was a fashion media undergraduate. Categorising himself as a “look queen” (read: aesthetics is everything, baby), he was inspired by a different form of art. “I was exploring the different alter egos in self-portraits (as part of my curriculum), pretty much referencing the works of Cindy Sherman,” he explains.
Together with Kumar protege Elnina (aka professional choreographer Nina Nazryn) and the flashy, laugh-out-loud humourous Noristar (aka Norisman Mustafa), Becca, Vanda, Kumar and Salome offer an insider view of how the look – and influence – of drag culture in Singapore have evolved with time.
The Changing Face Of Drag Culture In Singapore
Kumar: “During my time, I was trying so hard to stop people from calling us freaks or ah guas (Hokkien slang for effeminate man) and trying to tell people that we’re working professionals. Now, it’s back to the circus with queens looking like circus acts, but that’s actually what drag is all about: everything has to be multiplied by 10 or 20 times. In my time, we didn’t and couldn’t do that. We performed, but we didn’t do super exaggerated costumes… It’s brilliant. If I had done the same thing in my time, people would say it’s too much, but we didn’t have social media then. Now people want to be surprised or shocked, so all these beautiful, spectacular costumes really work now.”
Becca D’Bus (BDB): “(Just before I went into drag full time in 2015), Lady GaGa and the little monsters had just brought to a mainstream audience a previously unimagined gender expression as a point of celebration. Drag Race and the celebrities that the show had helped to mint showed that it’s possible for more than two people to be world famous drag queens, and what is possible when you throw huge amounts of cash at drag – see lace-front wigs. And, of course, Youtube and Instagram had started to make all kinds of beauty techniques and products accessible to anyone who wanted to acquire skills, makeup or a new vocabulary of culturally appropriated slang. Today, Riot! has a drag revue that has diversity and offers an expansive possibility of what drag can be (with regard to its aesthetics)… I hope it means that performers have a place to try to fully realise their ideas about how they want to look and perform.”
Noristar (NS): “We – and I’m not referring to only those in the drag scene – have always been highly influenced by all forms of media. We all try to keep up with the latest trends in terms of makeup, wigs, fashion, performances etc.”
The Relationship Between Drag Culture And Make Up
NS: “Makeup is what makes drag; its artistic beauty transforms one into a drag queen.”
BDB: “Perhaps the most recognisable part of any human is their face. And in drag, that face can be whatever it wants to be, which is exciting. I guess what I’m trying to say is that surgery is expensive and tattoos hurt. And turn green. That said, I do think it’s really funny when women I meet say they wish they could contour like me. I guess the lights at Lulu’s Lounge (the Raffles Boulevard club where he performs regularly) are kind of low.”
Elnina (EN): “Makeup is paramount for drag artists because we have to be larger than life – drag means being larger than life.”
SB: “(As a drag performer), having a signature aesthetic lets people know who you are instantly. The art of drag has been done way back in (Shakespearean) theatre where only men were allowed to act, and men acted as women. That’s why the transformation process is so important for us.”
What People Should Know About Drag Beauty
EN: “Drag artists love sharing tips with anyone who wants to know the secret to looking fabulous, and facts are facts: contouring was invented by them.”
Vanda Miss Joaquim (VMJ): “When I watch makeup tutorials on Youtube, I get very annoyed. Girls are really into this whole contouring and overdrawn lips look, but we drag queens have been doing it for years… If you want to do the look, do it, but it’ll be good for you to know where it came from.”
What People Should Know About Drag Culture
SB: “I think the public needs to realise that we are not cosplayers or cross-dressers. Drag is not the slightest bit cheap (as an art form). I’d say it is as expensive as taking up photography.”
BDB: “I think the biggest misconception right now about drag in Singapore is that performers who are more influenced by American modes of performance and aesthetics are somehow more international, more radical, fiercer or somehow better. No, we’re just influenced by cultures that are more celebrated in the world. Check yourself.”
EN: “(There’s a misconception here that) drag artists and transgender sex workers are the same.”
VMJ: “We’re not trying to convert ourselves into women. For myself at least, drag is drag. After I get out of costume, I’m myself again, but when I’m in drag, I’m Vanda Miss Joaquim 100 per cent.”
Drag Queen Beauty Tips For Women
Kumar: “Don’t overdo it. You just have to be simple with your skin and sometimes, the cheapest products are better than using the most expensive. Always go back to basics.”
SB: “Moisturise! Don’t be afraid to use glitter and remove your makeup thoroughly before bed!”
BDB: “Remember we are as beautiful as we imagine ourselves to be and that judgement is pathetic.”
How Drag Culture Should Evolve Next
VMJ: “I have to salute people like Becca for initiating things like Riot!. She provides a platform for newer queens to perform and I’m glad she’s doing it as there are fewer avenues now to perform at compared to when I first started (about 10 years ago). I wish performers would be treated with respect and paid properly as drag in Singapore is still not easy, even with more awareness these days.”
NS: “Acceptance is key. Not many take us seriously (still). We deserve acceptance from mainstream audiences; the stigmas have to stop.”
EN: “I’d love to see drag artists not only doing impersonations but given an opportunity to showcase their other talents such as modelling in a fashion magazine.”
Photography Vee Chin Styling Jonathan Chia Video Editing Hisyam A Rahman Videography Phyllicia Wang
This spread first appeared in the November 2019 issue of FEMALE.