Why you should care
Because it’s the age of gender bending.
The lights are dimmed, and a sturdy figure in a tight pink shirt and a towering black Afro takes the stage. It’s Gay Night at Maggie Choo, an underground bar in Bangkok’s Silom district, which means Pangina Heals, Thailand’s answer to RuPaul, is at the mic. With her trademark insult comedy she leads the audience in a dance competition, telling the first contestant that her performance was “special — Forrest Gump special.” Later she reemerges in a white jumpsuit to lip-sync a Whitney Houston number, complete with a fake bag of cocaine and a T-shirt that reads, “Mariah sucks.”
Whether dressed as a drug-addled pop star onstage or a semi-naked sex professor for her defunct web series, Queer as Fuck, “Heals’s talents are completely unique,” explains Maggie Choo owner Sanya Souvanna Phouma. “She can get away with anything because at the end of the day she’s the most ridiculous person in the room.” It’s not just her employers who are in love. Last year her skills were broadcast to the entire nation during T Battle, a Thai reality show where 13 local gender benders competed in singing, dancing and impersonation challenges. Despite fracturing her foot and performing from a wheelchair for five weeks, Heals won the competition. Drag, 27-year-old Heals tells OZY, is “not about blending in; it’s about standing out.”
Long before the self-assured Heals, there was Pan Pan Narkprasert, an insecure, overweight and effeminate young boy of Thai-Taiwanese descent.
Her victory was a landmark in part because of an interesting fact about Thai culture. Although this is a country where gender bending has a long and often accepted history — it “fits into a cultural mosaic,” which includes fervent beliefs in spirit possession, says Thamora Fishel, associate director of Cornell’s Southeast Asia program — drag culture has yet to take off here. Case in point: Only two of T Battle’s performers were drag queens. Unlike transgender people, who are welcome in cabaret shows and beauty pageants, opportunities for drag queens in Thailand are more limited. Few performance outlets are available, says gay entertainment promoter Ken Kreangsak Leing. “It’s hard to do for a living.”
The Thai drag scene, such as it is, emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, guesses Fishel. And it may grow more, given that drag worldwide is having a moment — after the emergence of the hit TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race (like America’s Next Top Model for drag queens) performers all over the world struck it big. Just around the corner from Thailand sits India, where hijras, men who dress as women, were just recognized as a third gender — further evidence that Eastern cultures might support gender bending. Heals hopes to take the identity conversation to the next level; she gets letters from kids “who are in real bad places and find it hard to be themselves,” she says. “But when they watch me being crazy on TV or YouTube they no longer feel so alone.”
Long before the self-assured Heals, there was Pan Pan Narkprasert, an insecure, overweight and effeminate young boy of Thai-Taiwanese descent. Growing up in the small Bangkok suburb of Samut Prakan, Narkprasert was bullied by his peers and battled depression and bulimia. He found comfort in art and music classes and in watching the fat dancing hippos in tutus in the animated film Fantasia. Only when he moved to California to pursue a fine arts degree at UCLA did his life begin to change. There, he had gay roommates with nose jobs who shaved their legs and “celebrated life and didn’t say sorry to anyone,” says Narkprasert. They brought him to gay clubs where he was exposed to drag queens for the first time. He began dancing in a Korean hip-hop group.
After graduating, Narkprasert returned to spend a year navigating Bangkok’s art scene. He entered his first competition in 2010 and won a trip to NYC to see his idol Lady Gaga perform in concert. During his stay, he went out in drag and fell in love. “I realized the art I wanted to do was art on my own body,” he explains. At home, Narkprasert’s parents got on board; his mother even built him a closet in his cluttered apartment for Heals’s wardrobe. But finding venues to perform in remained a challenge.
For many months Narkprasert entertained for free. His lessons in getting good at drag: ace high heels, learn to sing, watch tons of YouTube videos to learn comedic timing and perform perform perform! Eventually, he managed to court the assistance of local drag star Sira Soda, who taught him how to dress and put on makeup. Later, under the stewardship of New York–bred Princess Lockeroo, he learned waacking, a dance form defined by overdramatic arm movements and poses. The fact that he could make English jokes with the right sensitivity gave him international appeal.
In April, Narkprasert will headline the Gala Glam Dinner — one of the Asian gay community’s biggest social events in 10 years. And that’s just the beginning for him. “I’ve worked with many performers, and I can recognize a diamond when I see one,” says Leing. “He has this sparkle in his eyes. In three to four years, he’ll be the No. 1 drag queen in Asia.”
An earlier version of this article, published in February 2017, misstated the full name of Ken Kreangsak Leing.