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Becca D'Bus: Larger Than Life

Becca D'Bus: Larger Than Life
In The Many Wigs of Eugene Tan
 

29 May 2016, Singapore


“To me it’s the ultimate form in which nobody believes that what is happening is real. We accept that nobody is actually singing. We accept that all these people are not women. We accept all these things about it. Yet we will sit there and hang in there and watch.”

Eugene Tan is mostly self-deprecating in his humour. He refers to his drag queen alter ego, Becca D’Bus, as “this clown; often a very sparkly clown”.

So sparkly, in fact, that Becca D’Bus and her monthly drag revue seem to be catching on in popularity among audiences who want more than the mundane.

First staged at the no-longer-there TAB at Orchard Hotel in early 2015, RIOT now plays at Shanghai Dolly at Clarke Quay; a venue known more for its Chinese pop-rock and whiskey-and-green tea vibe than drag queens pushing the boundaries of decency. 

Eugene: People know to expect it. There are more people now who have been to it. When we started the show, we had to answer questions like, “So, what happens? What are we coming to?”

I sometimes find myself having to say things like, “Well, you know it’s a bunch of drag queens in fabulous costumes. There’s music. We don’t really sing. I kind of move my mouth. It’s all pretend.”

For me, creatively, that means a space opens up. Because I no longer play in a space where you have to believe that I’m good at what I do.

(But you still have to be good at lip-syncing. Or dancing, if that’s what you do.)

We’ve taken that off the table. It’s not about how well I’ve sung a song or danced, although sometimes it is. It’s about interpretation. See a song in a different way. See something that’s happening in culture.  

Which is quite different from drag performances of yore. Amy Tashiana, the godmother of drag in Singapore, explains.

Amy: Last time, we had this category called “Paper Doll Show”. We imitate celebrities. Like dressing a doll up, lah, that kind of thing. But now everything has changed. Even Kumar* has changed his performance.

It’s not a paper doll show anymore. It’s a drag-drag show.

*Kumar is quite possibly Singapore’s most well-known contemporary drag artiste.

At the most recent RIOT on 14 May, Amy proved her point. Her performance was the classic “beautiful woman in a fabulous costume parading and crooning on stage”. She was the only one who performed with a microphone in her hand.

The other performers that evening – Noris, Mona Kee Kee, Vyla Virus and The Vajayjays – incorporated comedy, high-energy dancing and Dervish-esque skirt twirling (on scary high-heels) into their pieces.

Costumes, too, were noticeably varied. Amy, who bashfully claimed her costumes were “just something simple, lah”, wore a lusciously ruffled coat and pheasant feathers in her hair.

Becca held most of her costumes together with safety pins. 

Amy: If you compare with Thailand, they still do the impersonation thing. But now, we don’t copy Madonna anymore. Now, we can show our talent. Do a good lip sync, dance well.

Eugene: Madonna is a pretty good example. There are still performers who do this, so not exactly past tense, but there was a time when drag was about a celebrity impersonation. In the States, it’s called “celebrity illusion”. People like Chad Michaels as Cher or Derek Barry as Britney Spears.

But, to me, that doesn’t seem so current anymore. We seem to be in a time when we want to see more of the performer’s take on the celebrity. I will never look like Madonna, but if I were to attempt it, it would be about how I’m completely failing at being Madonna. Then, that would be something else. 

For RIOT, that is the space that is important.

It could be the celebrity or it could be the song.

Let’s take Celine Dion’s “It’s all coming back to me now”, for example. It’s much more interesting if you read it in a way that’s perverse. Like being molested as a child. 

(In almost any other space, that would be awful and considered insensitive…)

Eugene: But with RIOT, it’s a space where it’s OK to talk and laugh about everything’s that going on. 

Becca hosts RIOT and typically has to warm the audience up, introduce the performers and generally fill time in between acts. It is invariably witty and current. At times, the chatter is affronting.

Eugene: I don’t think I say anything that tough, though. If anything, it’s a testament to how little we say in Singapore that even with my commentary I get a rise out of people.

Hostess with the mostess.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It’s simplistic to say that all drag shows are the same. “It’s men in dresses and wigs lip-syncing to diva numbers by Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, Madonna and the odd Shania Twain, no?”

As with everything else, some drag shows are better than others. Some performers are more polished than others.

Talent, production and budget aside, perhaps the creative process, too, makes a difference. 

Eugene (laughing): If it’s current and fucked up, it’s gold. If it’s from the past and you can make it relevant now, then that’s always wonderful.

For me, it’s about, “Is there an interesting take?”

RIOT never has a theme.

I don’t even know what the girls are doing until very late. But, I need to at least to know what songs they’re singing. It’s happened to me before where people sing the same song back to back. And it’s horrible.

We do not rehearse the show in its entirety, but the performers are free to practice their numbers. 

Eugene: Say, for instance, I have a duet with someone. We have conversations backstage and say things like, “OK, I do this then you do that. Or find the light and stay in the light. And don’t fuck up!”

When Katya did the show here (in November 2015), we knew that the first number was our duet. We’d done it before in Boston, but we hadn’t done it here. And there’s a difference because the Singapore audience isn’t primed to tip. Sounds like a small thing but in Singapore, it means that you have to create a lot of content. But in Boston, for example, it’s about how do you milk the cash if you’re desperate that month. You may need to only keep singing one chorus if you’re doing it right; work the audience. Like that, lah. 

"The entire thing is, you get on stage and you deal with what’s happening in the room. If there’s an asshole in the room, you have to play the asshole in the room."

(Are Singapore audiences responsive?)

Eugene: They can be. RIOT is set up to make people feel free to respond. So, people play. It matters that people are drunk. They’re more responsive and we’re more beautiful.

(What do you think fascinates people about a drag show? One school of thought is that drag evolved from theatre.)

Eugene: I really don’t know if it evolves from the theatre. It’s as much about the theatre as it is about the lounge hostess, the waitress, the sex worker. 

In Boston where I started doing drag, a lot of the older queens did not come from theatre. They wanted a space where they could dress up. For some performers, it is still a space where they can be feminine.

GENERATIONAL DRAG

While RIOT has a line-up of regulars such as Noris, Mona Kee Kee and The Vajajays, it does on occasion feature the guest and/or visiting drag queen. There’ve been Katya from RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7, Eliza Imanelly and, for the 14 May show, it was Amy Tashiana.

Having been a part of the Bugis Street scene at its height, Amy is somewhat of a legend in the drag world and is considered a maternal figure by many in the transgender community.

(What was the scene 30 years ago?)

Amy: It was completely different. Now is the world of social media. Everything is so quick. People back then had to turn to newspapers and TV for news. People don’t bother us nowadays. Thirty years ago, people would look at us funny. They know what we are, but they don’t want to accept what we are.

The only way for us is at night we just go to Bugis Street and dress up as what we want. First of all, it’s sex working. At Bugis Street, you can do anything. We would do table tops. Work for tips. Sometimes, they even ask us, “Can you dance, topless?” And all depends on what they are giving to us. Didn’t have to always go back with the guy.

"But still, people wouldn’t accept the fact of us."

Before a show, the police would ask us what we were going to do. They didn’t accept that we were human beings. We needed permits because we did daily shows. Those who did not do the (sexual reassignment) change had to dress up as men. Those who had can dress up as women. Even up to the time of Boom Boom Room*. We had to have preview shows for them (the police) as well.

*Boom Boom Room was a highly successful drag cabaret, fronted by Kumar, which ran for about 13 years. For many Singaporeans, it represented at least a sliver of space for diversity in Singapore. 

(When was the last time you performed on stage?)

Amy: I think more than 10 years. 

(So, why now? Why RIOT?)

Amy: I went to the first RIOT and found it very modern and very fun. Fun to be a part of it. Times have changed. My era, long long ago, completely different. We have rehearsals! 

(This one very organic...)

Amy: I saw their costumes and they frightened me! The bikinis, Beyonce style…I think I still have a bit of 1970s in me!

I was even before Boom Boom Room*. I was at Wax Doll. Oh, my goodness. I was 15, 16? It was a club at Kallang Leisure Drome. Transgender hostesses and performers. I think I’m the oldest one at RIOT, ah?

Eugene: In the era of Boom Boom Room, there was a sense of cast. Our relationship with what is beautiful and sexy is almost always in quotation marks now. I remember thinking the girls at Boom Boom Room were just straight-up beautiful. 

(Why did you invite Amy to perform?)

Eugene: When I moved back to Singapore, it became very clear to me that what I was doing was very different from what other people here were doing. People would say, “This is not drag. You’re not pretty. You look like a clown. What the hell’s going on?”

These were comments from other performers as well as club owners. There was, and perhaps still is, a certain established aesthetic that Becca D’Bus didn’t comply with.

Eugene: I became interested in why that was. Why we have these ideas of what drag is in any place.

I always say that drag is a regional form. Like Amy said, drag in Bangkok is different from drag in Singapore. Or KL. Even drag in Boston is different from drag in New York.

It was only recently that you could watch a YouTube video and learn how to do your make-up and all. But, previously, you’d have a drag mother who’d tell you, “Bitch, you’re ugly. This is how you do it. No, you’re doing it all wrong. Do it again!”That was how drag was passed on from one generation to the next. So, the form stays quite closed in each region. 

"For me, 'How did drag in Singapore become how it is?' was an important question. It occurred to me that almost everything traces back to Bugis Street. If that is indeed true, then it would explain a lot of things. In that era, they were sex workers. They performed to advertise their wares. It wasn’t necessarily about expressing themselves."

So, how do we connect with people who have an inkling of that history?

Well, you can’t talk about drag and trans history and not talk about Amy Tashiana. She’s talked about like a maternal figure.

Amy: Yes, but, “Who’s she?”

Eugene: She used to be a model. As a gay man, there’s no higher achievement in the world than being a model.

You could run fucking TCS*, I don’t care. You've never been a model? Fuck you. 

*In a past life, the TV arm of the monopolistic behemoth that is Mediacorp was TCS, ie: Television Corporation of Singapore.

Amy Tashiana obliging us with a private catwalk.

DRAG LIVING

For those of us who are privileged to count Becca D’Bus as a Facebook friend, her witty, oftentimes insightful, commentary has become a staple on our news feeds. She comments on a wide range of topics; from government policy to discrimination to how she saw a lady at a coffeeshop tuck into a can of luncheon meat.

But, where is Eugene?

Eugene: The reason why Eugene doesn’t exist on social media is that may be Eugene would want a corporate job one day.

Some people have separate accounts, but your “friends” don’t understand that. They’ll post things about Eugene on Becca’s page, and things about Becca on Eugene’s page.

Some people still refer to me as Eugene on my Becca page. When they want to be serious, “Eugene, you were saying…”
It feels like I’m being scolded! Whatever, lah!

Becca is a more recognisable person. Eugene is this fat dude in a dress. Becca is this clown, often a very sparkly clown. And often just too naked for her own good…

(Would Eugene want to be looking for a corporate job?)

Eugene: Not at this point. But, I’m not going to start an account and go out looking for friends all over again. That’s just too much work. My closest friends get it.

(Have you given yourself a deadline?)

Eugene: No.

Amy: You’re still enjoying, what.

Eugene: Yeah. And at some point, I might be homeless and then we’ll be desperate, lah. But hopefully, we’ll be able to freelance our lives together. We’ll see.

(What motivated you to take drag full-time?)

Eugene: Basically, I was 37 years old and 50 is not very far away. I don’t know what I’ll look like at 50, but I do know this face is going to collapse.  And then drag won’t be possible anymore. Not the way I want to do it anyway.

Amy: But you never know! I’m almost 50!

Eugene: Yeah, but you maintain yourself very well; I don’t take care of my shit. I wash my face with dish detergent. 

(WHAT???? WHY????)

Eugene: Because it’s the gentlest way to take off your make-up. It dissolves everything. (including your skin!) I mean, it’s safe enough for baby animals.

(IN AN OIL SLICK!!!!)

Eugene: In an oil slick. And, let’s face it; the stuff I use is not very far.

And because it dissolves everything very quickly, I don’t have to rub as hard or as much. I have found that if you moisturise properly, it’s gentler than all that make-up remover. 

(What brand do you use?)

Eugene: Dawn. Literally, what they use on baby animals in oil slicks. 

(The Brits use Fairy...)

Eugene: I started using this in Boston. At the time, the foundation that we were using was Derma Blend. The market for Derma Blend is really burn victims and drag queens and nothing else in between. It’s so heavy that you literally have to melt it to soften it before you put it on your face. It’s quite incredible stuff.

I have put on a full face of make-up, sweated through a pride parade, gone home to take a shower and gone back on stage. 

(And nothing ran?)

Eugene: Nothing.

You just keep moisturising, lah. And hope for the best.

Most of the things that I use on myself are not meant for skin. Bunny pasty* was attached to my chest with a Super 77 spray adhesive.

(GASP!)

*”Bunny pasty” was, literally, a plush toy rabbit that was glued to one of Becca’s nipples at a RIOT show that we watched in June 2015.

Peeping out from under the wig, bunny pasty. Photo credit: RIOT website

Eugene: It was taught to me by an older queen in Boston. Lakia Mondale. She said, “Well, girl; it sticks anything to your skin. Once you sweat, it’ll come off. And if it doesn’t, you just use a little solvent.”

Look, she had a dress that was a rectangle of fabric with the two corners glued to her nipples. It was this long flag. NO UNDERWEAR. And another long flag glued to her butt with two chains connecting the two.

That has made it possible for me to wear anything on my chest and call them pasties.

I’ve done two loaves of bread – like Wonder Bread – and made a sandwich on stage. 

Becca D'Bus sells clothes, too. Details: