S'pore drag queens are in demand

S'pore drag queens are in demand
Drag performer Kumar.

Drag queen Noristar, 39, can receive up to 12 bookings a month to host or perform at company dinner and dance events.

The flamboyant performer, whose real name is Norisman Mustafa, is in such demand that he sometimes gets two bookings for the same evening. He says: "I have to call up other drag queens to see if they're available to take the other booking."

Gone are the days when drag performers like him were limited to gigs at clubs or bars.

These cross-dressers are now heating up the dinner- and-dance circuit, either as hosts or the entertainment of the evening. And they are earning more money than before.

Some, like Noristar, can get up to three bookings a weekend and be paid a four-figure sum for a 30-minute show. The amount goes up when they take on hosting duties.

This is a far cry from the scene 15 years ago.

Noristar says he received just one call a month when he first started.

Drag queen Sammi Zhen, 35, whose real name is Christopher Lim, says matter-of-factly: "There was no demand."

If he did get a show, he recalls spending up to three hours doing his make-up, before performing for 45 minutes for only $250.

Fellow drag queen DeEnormous, 37, whose real name is Desmond Charles Perry, says: "There was a lot of work involved and these drag shows did not pay well."

So few and far between were these engagements that Perry, the creative director of a talent management company, moved on to the TV and theatre scene for close to a decade, returning to do drag shows only in 2009.

By the time he made a comeback, the drought years were over and the calls were coming in.

Event companies say there has been growing interest in such acts in recent years because companies have been coming up with more interesting themes for their dinner-and-dance events.

Event organiser Rosli Mahmud, 35, the director of iNQ Event Productions, says: "We would get colour themes or a strange theme such as Metamorphosis. That's like, huh? How to tie those up with a drag performance?"

These days, however, with companies holding events with themes such as Fairytales, Moulin Rouge, Shanghai Nights and Around The World, it is easier to incorporate a drag performance.

A theme such as Fairytales, for instance, would see the drag queens dressed to the nines as princesses and queens, complete with tiaras, heels and sweeping gowns.

Mr Rosli says the attitude of companies has also changed. "Because of the success of performers such as Kumar, many are more open to the concept of drag and are willing to accept what such a performance entails," he adds.

"Some just want their employees to have a good laugh."

Kumar, 47, is arguably Singapore's most famous drag queen.

In a drag performance, there is usually a song-and- dance opening number, some stand-up comedy, audience interaction and a closing act.

Companies and organisations that engage such performers range from country clubs and associations to product manufacturers and multinational enterprises.

Another reason for the rising popularity of drag shows is that the performers consistently deliver a good show and make an effort to hone and polish their craft.

Performers such as Noristar, Sammi Zhen and Elnina, 47, whose real name is Nina Nazryn, have been ploughing away in the industry for decades.

Even though he is in such demand now, Noristar is never complacent. When he is not busy with his day job as a receptionist, he is planning for his shows, practising dance moves, mixing songs, and buying new wigs and costumes.

"It's important to keep improving and updating my jokes and stage appearance, to show people that I am a versatile performer," he says.

While they love being on stage and lapping up the applause of an appreciative audience, drag performers admit that they enjoy dinner-and-dance gigs because these events pay well.

Organisers of these gigs can pay performers a high three-figure to low four-figure sum for a 30-minute segment.

It is a straightforward routine too, says Sammi Zhen. "You go to the venue, get dressed, do your gig, undress and go home," he adds.

Another plus is that performers get to go home before midnight, unlike bar or club shows where they are expected to mingle with patrons into the wee hours.

These performers would rather be a host at a dinner-and-dance. Although hosting takes up three to four hours - the duration of the event - it pays better.

Keith Cheung, 44, who is known for his impersonations of the late Hong Kong singer and actress Anita Mui, says: "I can definitely hit a four-figure sum hosting."

Veteran performers such as Kumar say that while the money from such events is good, there are dry months when dinner-and-dance engagements peter out, before coming back in full swing in the second half of the year.

This is why regular income from club and bar shows is important to a full-time performer like him. He performs at Canvas in Upper Circular Road, AltaEgo in Ann Siang Road and Hard Rock Cafe in Cuscaden Road. Occasionally, he does solo ticketed shows as well.

Other performers take on day jobs to supplement their income.

The drag performers are heartened by the response to their shows and Kumar says that Singaporeans are more open these days to risque humour that touches on topics such as politics, race and sex.

"When I started, these topics were taboo. But now, people know it's just for fun. There is no agenda. They just laugh and leave," he says.

Indeed, blogger Vivien Goh, 37, who attended one of DeEnormous' dinner-and-dance gigs last year, says watching the show immersed her in a different world.

"I forgot myself and laughed heartily at everything DeEnormous did. He was very interactive and the show was exciting," she says.


This article was first published on June 7, 2015.
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