Chinese drag queen BaeJing is at home in front of a camera. When she heard we’d be taking photos, she strutted to the front of the bar at the Ritz in midtown Manhattan, ready to serve looks. She knows her angles—each pose showed off the blended contour and shimmery highlight of her cheekbones.
BaeJing, whose boy name is Christopher Wong, is one of a handful of young Asian drag queens in New York who are changing the face of drag culture. Their makeup looks can be described as “fishy,” or realistically feminine, and are often inspired by modern makeup trends. They’re often self-taught makeup artists, taking tips from YouTube stars via video tutorials. Their clothes are more minimal and fashion-forward than the traditional over-the-top drag getup.
“We have a running joke between me and all my Asian drag friends that Asians need just a little bit of mascara and a wig to pass,” said Wong.
Wong got his start in drag by way of makeup in his teens, and now works as a professional makeup artist in addition to working as a drag queen hosting events in New York. Like many drag queens, BaeJing was influenced by the visuality of queens on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
The popularity of RuPaul’s reality competition has made drag a new American pastime. Over 700,000 viewers tuned in to watch the grand finale of season 11 in the United States alone. What a viewer will notice, though, is the lack of Asian contestants on the show.
Over the 12 seasons and 140 contestants of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” only around 10 Asian queens have competed on the show. The majority of the queens have been white, with African-American and Latinx queens following behind.
Now, the rise in popular Asian culture in America (think: Japanese and Korean cosmetics) is also bringing a rise in the number of Asian drag queens on the New York City scene. Up-and-coming queens of Korean, Filipino, Chinese and Vietnamese descent are living and working in the city, but not according to the old rules of drag. Many of them are immigrants or children of immigrants, paving the way for a new drag culture.
“There’s definitely a growth of Asian queens in the city,” said Wong.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Asian people are the fastest growing racial group in the United States. New York City alone has over 1,650,000 people of Asian descent, the largest Asian population in the country after the entire state of California.
New York City’s Asian drag community has been bolstered in part by Bubble T, the monthly queer dance party making an effort to create an Asian nightlife scene. But despite the support and growth of the queer Asian community in the city, there is still little representation in major media.
The racial disparities showed on New York magazine’s cover story, “The Most Powerful Drag Queens in America.” Of the 37 different cover stars, only three were Asian, while most of the rest were white or black. Similarly, Vulture’s provocative ranking of the most powerful drag queens in America featured only two Asian queens in the top 20.
Young Asian queens in the city are moving away from the traditional lip-sync- and comedy-focused performance that’s often highlighted on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” They’re not following pageant-inspired outfits and makeup, and their drag looks are now being influenced by everything from the rise of makeup YouTubers, to high fashion, to anime characters.
Online makeup culture has been growing since 2006, when Michelle Phan and other pioneers of the makeup tutorial industry began creating YouTube videos. According to a study on YouTube viewership, as of 2017 there were over 156 billion views on cosmetic videos alone. This widespread interest in makeup artistry opened doors for Asian makeup artists, and in recent years some of them, like Patrick Starr and Bretman Rock, have become internet sensations.
These male artists regularly wear full faces of makeup and occasionally wear women’s clothes, taking influence from drag culture and inviting their high viewership into modern drag culture with guest drag queens in their videos.
“Patrick Starr does makeup that’s not complete drag, but it’s still really technical and really beautiful and feminine,” said Wong. “He has always done videos that borrow a lot of techniques from drag without doing full drag.”
Wong says that the hybrid of traditionally female and drag makeup being practiced by these celebrity YouTubers is carrying over into the new generation of Asian drag. Techniques like flawless blending, along with refined highlight and brows accentuate a more naturalistic style that’s closer to feminine makeup trends than drag trends. “My makeup style is glam and kind of halfway between Western trends and Eastern trends,” said Wong. “It’s very real and pretty.”
The visibility of males in makeup is at an all-time high, especially on social media where queens gain most of their following. Social media has given emphasis to being a “look queen,” meaning that makeup and outfits are that drag queen’s particular talent.
The most popular example of an Asian look queen is “Drag Race” alum Kim Chi. After being deemed a “look queen” on season eight, she was eliminated after a poor lip-sync performance. Despite leaving the show, her anime-inspired fantastical makeup looks and bold outfits have led to 1.8 million followers on Instagram and her own makeup collection,
Kim Chi has paved the way to U.S. success for both look queens and Korean queens like 23-year-old Erica Chai, who has performed in Korea, Shanghai and now New York.
Chai, whose boy name is JiHwan Shin, is from Korea and explains the Asian queens’ focus on looks. “Culturally, Asian queens kind of look at the exterior and the look is very important,” he said. “Looking the part, trying to be fishy, feminine, is an important part of Asian theatrical makeup, and because of that we take a lot of influence from these YouTubers or influencers on social media that tend to go that route.”
While looks can be defining for Asian queens, Shin doesn’t want to get caught up in being deemed a look queen. “I think overall I haven’t met an Asian queen here that’s not put together,” he said. “I think there is a sense of pride in us being very polished and put together. But I also think that it’s important for the Asian drag community to be a little more open-minded to different styles of drag.”
Historically, popular Asian drag queens have played up their Asian-ness as a gag, or used it as a joke. Queens like “Drag Race” alum Yuhua Hamasaki wear kimonos and focus on presenting as Asian, but this type of representation is changing.
Vietnamese queen Dynasty is known for her high-fashion editorial looks and photographs, and has become a forerunner in fashion-forward drag. She’s interested in a new type of representation for Asian queens—one where they don’t have to play with stereotypes.
“We are Asian, but we don’t have to prove it to other people all the time,” Dynasty said.
Dynasty, whose real name is Andrew Nguyen, works as an editorial assistant at New York magazine’s The Cut. He says that both the artistic process of putting together looks and performing in drag is an emotional release. He follows both BaeJing and Erica Chai in pursuing drag more as an art form than as a full-time job, and hopes that the Asian drag community in the city will keep growing.
“Being a queen in New York has helped me find an amazing and beautiful queer Asian family that I’ve never really had before,” Nguyen said. “It’s amazing to see queer Asians being represented finally.”