The Rice Queens Confidently Showcase Filipino Drag in Paris
Culture

Rice Queens: A Generous Serving of Filipino Drag in Paris

Photo by Clemens Klenk. MARINE SERRE dress; PERSTA necklace and handcuff; ODE UPCYCLING STUDIOS earrings and bracelet

A vibrant portrait of queer, Filipino joy electrifies the French capital.

The first thing that greets you is the strong scent of chlorine. We are in central Paris, going down the two, three flights of stairs toward an underground recording studio. Rue St. Denis, a Filipino drag performer and artist, teeters down with one hand on my shoulder, and her little feet cramped into impossibly high heels.

Photo by CLEMENS KLENK
Chinack La Fey. Photo by CLEMENS KLENK

“There’s an indoor pool just beside,” explains Thibault, a charismatic French music producer working under the alias KTRSX, as he opens the doors to the studio. We move from the dingy apartment corridors to their discreet workspace, all wooden panels, fancy looking speakers, and purple overhead lights. Rue is a fish underwater, moving seamlessly in between the rooms. She puts down her glam bag and gets to work, prepping to record her first single. “I always want my audience to see something original from me, so I decided to create and produce my own songs with the help of my friends in the music industry.” While the team sets up, she retouches, masterfully overlining her lips with an iPhone front camera screen. 

She is a vision: dark Filipina hair slicked back, cheeks sculpted in place, her tiny frame accentuated by a hard-working corset. Very model on duty. Yet, only two nights prior, I have seen her out of drag, the luscious hair forgone, replaced by a clean buzzcut and bare face. Kneeling down a wooden stage with a spotlight on hand, her masterful hands are deftly following the frenetic movement of Calypso Overkill, Rue St. Denis’ drag mother.

Lily Pinz. Photo by CLEMENS KLENK

Now, we are on a boat along the river Seine. It’s the latter half of April, the promise of spring hangs heavy in the air. Snuggled in the lower deck are tonight’s audience, all eagerly waiting on the performances. The Rice Queens event is a recurring drag show in Paris featuring Asian drag queens in the city. “We wanted to have our own space to practice our craft and also to have a collective for the queer Asian community,” confides Calypso. “Because we are not that many.”

It seems very niche but looking around the room, the turnout is quite varied. Asians and POCs, queer community, of course, but also straight couples, curious solo goers, and even some senior citizens. Artsy. “Parisian queens are lucky because people here are more open to go see drag shows,” shares Calypso. “There’s a certain level here in the city. I believe Paris drag can rival New York drag. It may not be as diverse, but on a craft level, on a performance level, it’s just as good.”

Lily Pinz. Photo by CLEMENS KLENK

For some patrons, this was more than a community event. They came here for a show. A spectacle. Paris is a vibrant city and you can sit in any cramped studio apartment, at any given night of the week and feel the pulse of the capital outside. Somewhere, in the many pockets of the city, things are happening. Among the countless gallery openings, ballet, opera, movie premiers, we have all chosen this particular event and the vibe is electric.

The show commences with a group number, the queens shimmying to a catchy Kpop song. This is closely followed by individual acts, each queen gets their time and then presents the next, upcoming sister. Chinack La Fey, dressed head to toe in Shanghai red, enchants with a Chinese folk song and a playful whip cracking routine. Lily Pinz, an endearing anagrammic word play on Philippines, teases in a soft burlesque act to a recent Ariana Grande release. It ends with her hands trembling on her head, pulling on her Paramore red hair to reveal, gasp, an even more scorching scarlet pixie cut. The crowd goes wild. The swan song goes to Calypso, wearing a diamanté studded black velvet dress, belting to “My Heart Will Go On.” I spy from a corner, a quiet bespectacled onlooker, drawing her on a piece of paper, like one of his French girls. Orchestrated or not, the atmosphere is tipsy, light and very friendly.

Calypso Overkill. Photo by CLEMENS KLENK.
Rue St. Denis. Photo by CLEMENS KLENK

It’s a concert, stand-up comedy, karaoke night, performance art all rolled into a homogenous glittery affair. “We’ve all joined pre-existing drag shows before and have had this isolating feeling of being the odd Asian out,” says Calypso, revealing another push factor for them to establish Rice Queens. “Seeing other mediocre queens on stage makes us want to strive to give them Asian excellence in the limited airtime that’s been given to us.”

It’s a familiar sentiment, the sinking feeling of being a token cast, here to fulfill an unspeakable minority quota. Evidently, if there is limited space, only the truly excellent can make the cut. (See the captivating performance of Marina Summers, the first Filipina queen to join Rupaul’s Drag Race UK vs The World. A crowd favorite, she eventually lands on the top 4). Be undeniable, goes the old adage. Work twice as hard as anyone else. Compound this with the impressive craft and free-flowing creative cachet of drag, then you get a canon and the bravado that goes with it. Beauty weaponized.

“I feel like my drag persona Lily Pinz is me but 200 percent,” claims Zeo. “I feel stronger and more powerful because of the feminine energy that she exudes. In a way, every performance is an homage to all the women I look up to in my life and of course the Rice Queens sisters I get to work with.”

Rue St. Denis. Photo by CLEMENS KLENK. Styling by KEVIN PASTRANA assisted by ROMAIN GUIRAUD.  MARINE SERRE dress; PERSTA necklace and handcuff; ODE UPCYCLING STUDIOS earrings and bracelet

On a similar note, Rue confides: “Drag is a creative outlet for me. It’s where I allow myself to try things that I am too hesitant to try as Kevin, it’s my very own playing field. With my drag I’m not afraid of the crash and burn because I know that I can rise up just as I built it. So in some way, it is a safe space for me, internally.”

More than a weight that eventually fatigues, the uneven scales serve as a driving factor and events like Rice Queens a venue to draw from and bounce off a collective energy. The fight is long but it could be colorful and magnetic. A portrait of Filipino joy in the heart of Western Europe. All this progress and glamour coalesce in a time when global geopolitical climate grows more and more uncertain: international conflicts across the globe, the steady rise of far right leaders in France and neighboring countries and, closer to home, a seemingly infinite rereading and blockage of the SOGIE bill, an act recognizing basic human rights across sexual orientations, drafted since more than 20 years ago. The shaky line of romanticizing resilience hovers around, but these difficult circumstances make the struggle an octave more poignant, touching and extremely personal.

Calypso Overkill. Photo by CLEMENS KLENK. Styling by HANNAH CORDIER. JUDE MACASINAG dress

The show crescendoes before serenely ending with a flurry of feathers and a mount of 1 euro drag bills left as tips in an open rice cooker. We head to the upper deck of the boat to smoke, catch up. Drinks are poured, offered, at times spilled and replaced. Friendly banters and funny stories give way to more intimate exchanges. When asked about the biggest struggle of being a Filipino drag queen in Paris, Rue howls, without missing a beat: “Getting paid!”

“In local drag, we say, on ne vit pas, on survit,” expounds Calypso. We don’t live, we survive. “But it’s always been like that. There are periods where drag is booming, like Pride or Halloween, and other times less so. That’s why you need to come up with amazing drag ideas and concepts for shows.”

Between single releases and an always evolving Rice Queens line up, there is much to look forward to. It’s a rally and the stage grows bigger, inch by inch. “It’s funny to think that during Pride last year, everyone was booked out and busy, in different gigs around the city during the same day,” crows Calypso, ever the essential mother, proud of every milestone: “Parisians all want a piece of that Asian tea.”

By RENEE ULTADO. Photographs by CLEMENS KLENK. Styling by KEVIN PASTRANA assisted by ROMAIN GUIRAUD (Rue St. Dennis) and HANNAH CORDIER (Calypso Overkill and Lily Pinz)
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