Drag queens are a dime a dozen in San Francisco, towering feats of glitter, perfume, fake eyelashes and falsettos. But Asian drag queens are much rarer. In this issue of Urban Profile, I get to sit down with Lychee Minnelli, an accomplished Asian queen who has been doing the rounds in pageantry and performance not just in San Francisco, but nationally. Lychee is a member of SF’s only all-Asian drag troupe, the Rice Rockettes, who have taken the world by storm, shocking TV audiences by qualifying to audition for America’s Got Talent and delighting their Bay Area fans by continuing to scare straight tourists who accidentally wind up strolling through the Castro.
When I meet Maveric Vu, Lychee’s boy counterpart, for our interview, he looks nothing like a drag queen. In jeans, a t-shirt and sporting a little day-old fuzz on his chin, Maveric looks every bit the gay boy and nothing like the outrageous Lychee Minnelli whose face has been plastered on posters and flyers all over San Francisco.
“Well I used to be shy, you know,” he tells me. I roll my eyes, but Maveric explains.
“I was the youngest of seven kids – my parents are Vietnamese and Catholic and don’t believe in birth control – and when you’re the youngest of such a large family everyone else speaks for you. So I was actually really shy until I took a leadership position in my gay fraternity, and started doing drag. Drag helped me embrace my inner attention whore.”
Based on the photos, it’s hard to believe that beautiful Lychee used to be a train wreck of a queen. Maveric tells me his sister, who came to watch his drag debut at UC Davis, thought he looked like Angelica Huston, significantly past her prime. He tells me he took five hours to put on his makeup.
“I kept making mistakes. It’s like when you’re painting and you mess up so you decide to cover up the mistake with more paint? Same thing. The makeup just got bigger and I didn’t look any better.”
Fast forward to San Francisco in the early 2000s: Maveric, who had some time to kill after breaking up with a boy, decided to use drag as his rebound. On invitation from one of the Rockettes, Estee Longah, Maveric showed up to watch the Rice Rockettes prep for a show.
“There were five queens scattered all over the place. There was makeup, pantyhose and wigs everywhere. It was totally scary and I loved it. The next thing I know, I became one of them and Estee became my drag mother.”
Drag mother? At this point, Maveric bestows some drag history upon me.
“Drag families are built into houses. The drag system originated in the 1960s, during a time when homosexuality wasn’t accepted. So if you are doing drag you really had to build your own family who would nurture your drag identity. The drag system is built of a family system like mothers, daughters, cousins, sisters, that kind of thing. So there are houses, and I’m in the house of the Rice Rockettes. Drag mothers guide their daughters through the initial shock of becoming a queen.”
I ask Maveric what the drag community thinks of Asian queens. He tells me that they’re are often stereotyped as being “fishy,” which is drag-speak for being more feminine or womanly.
“Some people believe that if you have a typical Asian build you tend to be more slender, with softer features and therefore more feminine. And in the gay community, there’s a lot of gender role politics involved with being masculine or effeminate. So by virtue of being Asian, that does lend to a more fishy drag, wherein people sometimes loop all Asian queens together as all pretty or tranny, which we aren’t.”
While drag sounds like a ball of fun, in fact dating as a drag queen can be a challenge. According to Maveric, because gay culture values masculinity and perceived manliness, certain men have issues with dating drag queens – men who openly over-step the gender roles and gay social boundaries.
“Lots of men cannot get past the fact that Lychee is a persona and not my entire identity. Some gay men have internalized issues and set ideas about what gender roles are in society and these men find drag queens less sexually appealing because we dress in women’s clothes. In fact one of the silliest questions I get is people wondering if by doing drag, I’m signaling a desire to be a woman.”
I respond that it might be scary getting into bed with a drag queen.
“Of course! In my room I have wigs all over my walls on frightening mannequin heads. So when I bring guys around I’m usually considerate and ask if they want me to turn the mannequin heads so they face the wall and aren’t watching us while we fool around.”
In fact, one of his main goals is to create uncomfortable and outrageous situations.
“I want to scare the children. I like to be ridiculous. I like to shake up the mass mentality and change preconceptions of identity. If you want to be a drag queen but you don’t want to be ridiculous and scary, you shouldn’t be a drag queen. I am aggressive and want people to know that Lychee has arrived.”
Since we’re on the topic of dating, I ask Maveric about tranny and drag chasers. To the uninitiated, tranny chasers are men – straight, gay, bi, it doesn’t matter – who are sexually attracted to men wearing women’s clothes.
“When I am in drag, I feel sexy and powerful but I don’t feel sexual. Lychee is a character: as I put on makeup and get in face I’m putting on my persona. Think about it this way – when a straight actor plays a gay character it doesn’t mean he is necessarily gay. When I am in drag, it’s about my performance and it isn’t sexual so I’m not into that.”
Ever the pragmatist, Maveric adds:
“Besides, it would be complicated logistically. Do you take off your wig? What if your makeup smears? That’s my excuse to duck a tranny chaser, “No hun, you’ll mess up my lipgloss. Because everyone knows you don’t mess with a drag queen’s makeup.”
As we move away from the politics of drag and into the complex logistics involved, Maveric tells me it now takes him two hours (less than half of what it used to take him) to transform into Lychee. First he covers his eyebrows with wax and draws his eyebrows an inch higher than where they actually are. After that he shaves his face and uses various products to cover the follicles. He inserts either socks or C-cup chicken cutlets for breasts. And finally, Maveric tucks his bits away.
One of the most confounding aspects of drag is what is known in “drag-speak” as “tucking,” the process of tucking away the male genitalia to create the illusion of a flat, Ken-doll look, down there. Maveric tells me that tucking is quite possibly the worst part about drag. The process is precise, and from the sounds of it, agonizing:
“Before men hit puberty their testicles, which haven’t dropped yet, live in a cavity close to the body. When they drop, the space the balls once occupied still exists. What I do is squat down, do a reach-around and push the balls back up into that cavity. Then I will pull the empty scrotum and my penis back between my butt cheeks. Queens who want a really flat look will tape the whole thing down. But I don’t like to do that, instead, I wear a dance belt which is a really tight, elastic piece of underwear that ballerinas use. Then I wear two layers of dance tights to cover my leg hair – some queens shave, but I don’t – and two layers of stockings on top to smooth it all out. In drag the illusion is you are always half naked, but in actuality I’m wearing at least six layers of clothing.”
Given what sounds like an incredibly sweaty affair, of course the next question is whether the balls ever pop out of their holding cell? Maveric laughs and proffers the below advice for all aspiring drag queens:
“You just accept, as a reality of drag, that balls have a mind of their own. Sometimes my tuck stays but sometimes it doesn’t, depending on a number of factors – how moist or humid the air is, how sweaty I get performing, the pull of the moon. As queens, we’re more critical of each others’ makeup and things we can control. At the end of the day, we’re all just men in dresses.”
Get in touch with the author @mmmagpie.