WC – Hi, I’m Wo Chan and I am a drag performer and a poet. I currently perform under the name Pearl Harbor and I am a part of Switch n Play, which is a drag collective based in Brooklyn.
EF – How did you get into it and how long have you been doing this?
I’ve been doing drag for four years now. I started in college, and when I moved up to New York after I graduated, I wanted to find a drag community. I saw Switch n Play at Brooklyn Pride and asked if I could perform with them, did their open drag, and that’s how I met everyone in Switch n Play, they seemed to like me.
How did you get started doing drag in college?
It started as my summer project, haha. I had a little bit of experience from doing makeup on myself, foundation, which is more than most people can say, and I just was determined to see if I could do something like what I saw on RuPaul’s Drag Race. I thought it was so cool that people could transform themselves into another gender. (I still had a binary understanding of gender.)
Did you have ideas for acts?
No, it was still very rudimentary. My first drag act was Britney’s “Hit me Baby.” I wore a denim unitard and a red wig. I didn’t have contacts at the time, so I went out there pretty much blind, I couldn’t see anything. My lashes were in the way. But I danced! My understanding of what drag could be was pretty limited at that point, so I basically just tried to work the crowd, which I guess is an important thing to do in drag – to know how to gauge a crowd, how to connect to an audience.
Do you want to get started getting ready? I’ll get out of your way.
Do you want a breakdown of what I use things for?
I’ll just talk to you while you’re doing it, like right now you have a glue-stick and you’re doing your eyebrows, which is cool…I know that our friend Melina told me a while ago that she was having a hard time figuring out the eyebrow thing, like gluing them down. But you seem to have it down, you’re good at it.
I think it’s different for every person. I think it’s more difficult if you have bushier or more densely packed brows. My eyebrows are kind of flatter along the surface so they are easier to glue down.
So you’re doing the rotisserie chicken act tonight?
My “Chopped” act.
Yes, I love that one. Do you want to talk about it? Because I’ve seen it, but I’m sure you can describe it better.
Well, this is an act that incorporates the television show “Chopped,” which I got obsessed with last year. I’ve written a whole series about it. I wanted to explore how I could put it into a drag act. The soundtrack is Macy Gray’s cover of “Creep” mixed in with some “Chopped” sound clips. I’m this contestant on the show who suddenly realizes they don’t know how to cook. So you open the basket and you’re completely unprepared for life, you know? That’s how I feel a lot of the time. I think that’s how a lot of people feel all of the time, people our age especially. Everyone’s watching, and you just have to put on some kind of show and hope that people like it.
Yeah. I like this one. I know when you first joined Switch n Play, you rarely did the same act more than once, but at this point, I’ve seen you do a couple acts multiple times, including this one. Is it annoying or boring for you to do an act again?
No, this one is actually really special to me. There’s so many lyrics in “Creep” that resonate with me, on so many levels of my identity. The whole line “I don’t belong here” – I’m fighting deportation processes right now, and part of me wonders if I even want to stay in America, because there is so much dislike about what it means to be American. As an immigrant, I feel like I don’t belong here many times a day. I’m always like, “why am I here” or, “what is going on right now?” I think it is informed by my queerness as well as race.
But, this act is really special to me at this point in my life. It works well with an audience, it’s very grounding because I get to actually, physically eat things. And the progression is easy for the audience to understand. I love Macy Gray, I love her voice.
I don’t think I had heard that cover before I saw you do this. It’s great.
It’s such a good cover. It’s different and unique. And I feel like she’s sincere – it’s Macy Gray. She knows what it means to feel, I don’t know, out of it.
There are a lot of things you repeat that I haven’t seen you do, too. Do you have specific different makeup for each act? Or, slightly different? Other than your lashes, which you’ve said stay the same.
Sometimes. It’s not hard cut anymore. I used to be much more of a person that believed in rules for drag, and now I don’t as much. But I just sort of go with what I feel like doing when I’m doing my makeup. Sometimes, I go overboard and it’s like, “what act was I trying to do and why am I doing this?” For my most recent Bushwick Bizarre show, I went overboard.
Yeah, I don’t know why I did that makeup. I had white eyebrows…
I saw a picture!
I had a pink forehead and white eyebrows. I wasn’t even doing…I guess I was doing something to Dido’s “White Flag.” but that’s whatever.
I got a new highlight color recently. I’m still trying to figure out how to negotiate it, because it’s straight up theater makeup, and in the past I’ve only used Dermablend, which is just really high coverage cosmetics.
How is it different?
It’s higher coverage, and the color is slightly more yellow. I used to have a peachier one. It is cakier, it covers more quickly too. But the old one I had, which was more expensive, it looked more natural over time. There was this thing about the Dermablend that if the light hit it just right, it was really pearlescent, and it made my skin look really real. But it wasn’t as high coverage. I don’t know, I prefer the Dermablend. This is definitely longer wear and more professional, but…do you see a difference?
It looks heavier. Not in a bad way, like I wouldn’t have noticed it if I weren’t thinking about it necessarily, but I see what you mean.
It chills out once I powder it. I feel like the Dermablend adapts better to my natural skin.
Like, it melds to it better?
Yeah, that’s the intention behind it. And this just covers.
So this one sits on top a little more, and that one is just another skin layer?
Totally. But while still being thick enough to create a new face.
My next frontier with performance is movement class. I really admire Goldie [Peacock], they’re a trained dancer, and their movement is always so perfect, you can just tell. Drag is interesting, because all drag artists are basically queer artists who just got fed up with conventional art forms, and they’re say, “I’m going to take the skills I have as a dancer, as a poet, a painter, whatever, and do my own thing, create my own vision.”
I think that’s something, especially in the Switch n Play community – not that other people who do drag aren’t artists, because I feel like drag – the farthest back that I know anything about drag is like, “Paris is Burning,” and I feel like everyone in the ball scene and moving forward, all those people are like capital-A-Artist. But now, I know that I’ve heard some rumblings from queen communities about drag kings being a lesser form of drag, and the whole “you have to do this specific kind of female performance and perform femininity in this specific way to be a drag queen” sentiment, and the people who think that are, a lot of times, the impersonator type of drag queens. But I feel like the scene that Switch n Play is in, and everyone else, it’s a different kind of drag, maybe more interdisciplinary.
It’s hard to talk about drag, because whenever anyone says “drag” they’re always talking about different things. It’s completely contextual and tied to the understanding of what queerness is within a community. So, Brooklyn drag is so different than Charlottesville drag, where I started, because the collective understanding about what queerness is, is different in Brooklyn versus in Virginia…your drag reflects your understanding of queer politics.
For whatever reason, we move into those art forms within academies, like, ballet, Goldie was going to be a ballet dancer, or they were? But with how heteronormative ballet is, or how the art world is fucked up because of all the money – I feel like people were disillusioned and didn’t want to stay there, and they found a smaller art form.
I’ve been going to Switch n Play shows for over 8 years at this point. And a couple years ago, performers making political statements through drag and burlesque started becoming more of the norm at their shows, There are still fun acts. But honestly, as a member of the audience, I feel like drag is always going to be political, no matter what. It’s just a matter of the degree of intersectionality on top of the gender commentary.
I feel like those political statements were always there, they were always in our minds. But someone saw something at a drag show and realized they could could do that too. That you don’t have to just copy RuPaul, or people you see on television. It’s not silly to do a drag act that’s explicitly political.
I think it’s really cool. And the Facebook post you made a few weeks ago about needing to do drag as part of how you are dealing with the things in your life, that’s real.
It’s hard, because I’m still going through it. I feel like in some ways, I need to do this. Because if not me, who else is going to write about this fucked up trial that’s affecting so many people within the community. It’s so close to me that I can’t even think about how to frame the story. During really intense moments of drag, where I’m actualized or in my body, where I can show an audience what it feels like, even if they don’t really get what I’m referring to, it’s a moment of intensity they can be implicated in.
I feel like my drag isn’t really even about gender anymore. I see gender as a part of it, but it’s talking about other things.
It’s just the medium.
Right. I think gender is to drag as sweetness is to desserts. Like, a dessert is sweet, but a good dessert is so much more than just a sweet thing. It’s aromatic, it has depth, it’s bitter, it’s tart, it’s flakey and buttery. And then you notice, “oh, this is also kind of sweet.”
Wo Chan is a queer Fujianese poet and drag performer. Wo was photographed in their home on May 14, 2016. Parts of this interview are from an earlier conversation, which took place on December 19, 2015.