Eleganza ExtravaganzaNepalis celebrate their unique identities through powerful performances and art
Contour: On point.
Eyes and lips: Perfect.
A dress, accessories, heels, perfume and confidence to match: Check, Check and Check.
For 23-year-old Peachy Pie, the world is her oyster. She is a little mean but immensely positive, and not scared of anyone.
“When she looks in the mirror, she is no less than Miss World,” says Aryan Chaudhary, whose drag identity or drag persona is Peachy Pie. “She is me, but a different version of me.”
Aryan started doing drag in early 2017 after coming across RuPaul, arguably the most commercially successful drag queen in the US, on the internet. But he thinks he has been a drag queen in his mind even before he actually knew what the term meant.
“I’d google ‘gay female’ because I did not know the right terms. Doing drag, I have been able to express myself and break free from what the society says I should be,” says Aryan, who is also the first crowned drag queen of Nepal.
In the recent decade, RuPaul’s Drag Race has not only become synonymous with drag queens on screen, but the competitive show has also helped popularise drag culture all over the world.
For the LGBTQIA+ community in Nepal, drag has provided a powerful platform to express, explore and celebrate their own identities. Although at a nascent stage, Nepali drag queens, drag kings, and drag performers are taking the culture in stride and using it for visibility and representation.
“It is an expression of self,” says Shuby Bhattarai, who performs as drag king Phoenix Raj. “It is taking characteristics of femininity and masculinity and over-exaggerating them. It is deeply rooted in queer history. It is multifaceted, there’s not just one way to do it,” they add.
While many are familiar with drag queens, who usually dress and perform in feminine attire and makeup, less well-known are the drag kings who dress and perform in traditionally masculine clothing and makeup. Then there are drag monarchs and performers who don’t identify as being king or queen and play with gender fluidity.
A common misconception about drag is that only cisgender gay men take part in it and/or most drag queens are transgender women. But contrary to popular belief, any person of any gender identity, expression, or sexual orientation can do drag. “Drag is for everybody,” says Shuby. “All forms of drag are valid.”
Drag is also part of gender fluidity. Each culture has its own way of looking at what is inherently masculine or feminine. Drag is blurring the gap between what society sees as a man and a woman.
While most drag queens are often queer men, many transgender women and cisgender women also perform as drag queens. Many drag kings are women, but transgender men and cisgender men also explore and connect with their masculinity as drag kings.
Because drag is often a gender bending art form, it is frequently conflated with cross-dressing, but the two are not the same. “Just because one is wearing clothes of the opposite gender and putting on makeup does not mean it is drag.” says Aryan. “Drag is a loud form of art rooted in entertainment and performance. It is a source of empowerment and freedom.”
A typical drag show includes dance, lip-syncing, singing, impersonations, and storytelling among others. Often there are elements of humor, prop, and over-the-top aesthetics.
“Drag does not always have to be about loud makeup. If the number demands, it is ok to perform without any makeup,” says Shuby, who started doing drag in 2017 after watching performances by the Fake Mustache Drag and Burlesque Troupe while studying in Canada. For the next two years, they performed with the same troupe as well.
“The best thing about drag is just the fun I get to have, when I connect with people, when I hear people shouting Phoenix, it is just amazing because in that moment, I’m being seen as myself,” they say. “I am my character whether I do facial makeup or not.”
Drag identity or drag persona is an important aspect of drag. For some, their drag persona is an extension of themselves while for others it can be completely different.
“Phoenix Raj is not different from me. He is an extension of myself, of my masculine self,” says Shuby, who is a trans-masculine queer person. "Performing as Phoenix Raj has helped me understand more about myself as well. Where do I fit in the world? How do people see me?” they add.
According to Manoj Shivabhakti, who performs as drag performer Anti-Fragile, just because one knows how to dance or perform does not make them a drag queen, drag king or drag performer. “Knowing what drag is and having a drag identity is really important,” adds Manoj. “Drag is not a dance competition.”
Anti-Fragile is one of the more active and popular drag performers at the moment and regularly gets invited to perform at schools and colleges. In the recently held Drag for Visibility show organised by Blue Diamond Society, s/he was one of the three winners.
“Manoj is quiet, shy, introverted and enjoys his personal space, Anti-Fragile is loud, vibrant, and loves socialising and communicating,” s/he says. “For me drag is all about how I capture the character and connect with the audience. Drag has allowed me to lead both lives as an extrovert and an introvert.”
As drag shows gain popularity, the queer community in Nepal and the larger community, especially the youth, are becoming more accepting of drag queens, drag kings and drag performers.
“There was a lot of prejudice when I started, because even many in the queer community did not understand what drag is,” says Aryan. Initially, he was called hilili, a term used in the queer community to denote someone “who is neither here nor there. They said that eventually I’d become transgender as well. But that is not who I am,” he adds. “Drag gave me an outlet and made me feel powerful.”
Things have come a long way from then as understanding and interest around drag has increased. Drag shows and competitions are also increasingly providing aspiring performers a platform to show their talents and gain recognition.
“Drag is paying my bills,” says Manoj, “I think that shows how inclusive and appreciative the youth are these days. But a lot still needs to be done so that older generations and even people from the LGBTQIA+ community understand what drag actually is.”
Drag is also about building a strong and supportive community, where experienced drag kings, queens and performers mentor and help younger generations often as part of a drag family or chosen family. Drag families are often the biggest support system.This concept is slowly growing in Nepal as well.
It has been less than a month since Evan Poudel started performing as drag king Mr Karlos. “I started after being inspired by my drag mother, Peachy Pie,” says Evan. “I learned that drag has no gender boundaries and felt that it was a good platform to show that trans men like me could also do it. I received a lot of help in terms of how to do makeup as well as how to perform and carry myself.”
“It is a safe space where we can learn and share experiences, problems, and challenges. Oftentimes we can’t discuss certain things with family and friends but can with our chosen families,” says Manoj. “Sometimes the support is emotional, sometimes financial, but having people who understand you for you is important.”
Being a part of the queer community can still feel very isolating. But all of them say that with the right support system, and right environment, everyone can exist as themselves and them performing drag now can help future generations.
At the end of the day, drag is all about loving oneself. As RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
Sahina Shrestha is a journalist interested in digital storytelling, product management, and audience development and engagement. She covers culture, heritage, and social justice. She has a Masters in Journalism from New York University.