Chi-Chi Kago's fake eyelashes are refusing to cooperate. A few blinks render them undone, but another line of glue risks ruining them. It’s a delicate balance and she’s getting annoyed.
Kago is preparing to perform with the Rice Rockettes, an all-Asian drag queen troupe in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As I watch the troupe prepare for a gala event, I wonder: Why the big production — the big hair, the three-inch heels, the adoring crowd? Are these glitzy men, in fact, trying to be women?
“No, I love being a boy,” says Saigon Dione, preparing to apply red glitter to her lips.
Estée Longah, founding member of the Rice Rockettes, says, “Believe me, we are not trying to pass [as women].” She explains that mislabeling drag queens as cross-dressers or transsexuals disserves those in the LGBT community who do identify as such.
Rather, dressing up in girls’ clothing came as an afterthought to the performance aspect, at least for some. Marijoy Tabatsoy, for instance, admits that before meeting the Rice Rockettes she believed that drag was only for gay men who were over-flamboyant and ultra-feminine — traits that Tabatsoy’s male persona did not identify with.
Still, not every male can pull off lipstick and sashay his way through “Grant Avenue” choreography with the requisite pizzazz.
Tonight’s gala performance is all comedic irony: music from Flower Drum Song, an audience of mainly gay Asian men, a venue on the same street as the song title. It’s a hit with the crowd.
Offstage, these girls are sharp and sassy. Asked what would happen if another Asian drag troupe were to pop up, Feroshe BeyonSoy jokes that she’d “cut them,” while Dione would “judge them for the freaks that they are.”
But where there’s humor, there’s also vulnerability; these girls remain underdogs even in a universe of their own creation. Blaming lack of confidence rather than lack of talent, Kago describes her persona as “always a chorus girl, never a leading lady.” Doncha Vishyuwuzme, whose essential aesthetic is that of a hot mess, recalls being rejected from a successful female pop ensemble.
While the girls’ drag personas serve as alternate identities, their two realities aren’t entirely insulated from each other. The mocha-skinned BeyonSoy jokingly calls herself the “dirty family secret” — but her male counterpart Anthony also mentions, without elaborating on specifics, that his father is not allowed to come to shows.
Meanwhile, when it comes to MamaSoy, BeyonSoy glows. “She is my biggest fan,” she says. Later she shows off chandelier earrings that her mother recently gave her.
BeyonSoy notes more generally that drag is a way to raise funds and give back to the queer community.
But first and foremost, of course, she and the girls are here to entertain.
Accordingly, BeyonSoy coyly refocuses the conversation: “You didn’t even ask us where we put it.”
Lynn La is a staff editor for Macworld. This is her first piece for Hyphen.