Eugene Tan, better known by his drag name, Becca D'Bus, couldn't be ignored even if he tried. Standing at 6.1 foot (not in heels) and drawn to fabrics where "the gaudier the better" in and out of drag, you can't help but notice when he enters a room... and that is entirely the point. His main motivation is the ability to change the energy of a space with his presence and to challenge existing preconceived notions and attitudes.
It was surprising then, to learn that Tan found drag completely by chance. After finishing university in 2005, Tan was handling community engagement for the queer theatre company, Theatre Offensive, where part of the job was to be an outreach volunteer at a local health centre. This meant working the gay parties on Sunday nights to talk about safer sex and giving out condoms. However, no one would speak to him and his team until one day, when they all turned up in drag. Everyone wanted to engage them. Becca D'Bus was thus born, named after the American civil rights activist Rosa Park — not the mode of transportation.
It may have been accidental, but there's no doubt that the medium suits Tan exceptionally well. The penchant for over the top outfits and avant garde makeup notwithstanding, it's his killer wit and self-deprecating humour that makes him a razor sharp host on stage and a formidable writer off it. Now hosting a monthly film screening and after party as part of the trio, The Glory Hoes, we sat down with Becca to find out more about what's beneath all the ruffles and sequins.
What's it like to be Becca D'Bus? Moist. I'm usually in four layers of foundation garments, layers of synthetic ruffles, topped off with a glamorous fur hat, and then I wiggle (it's a lot of things, but it's not dance) about under stage lights, and stress about needing to pee. Okay, not moist, SWEATY! I should emphasise, Becca D'Bus has never peed her own pants. Sometimes I wear a lot less, in which case I feel liberated, free, a new woman! Also, slight pity for people who have to watch me, because they will never have this body.
How about Eugene Tan? I'm just trying to learn about interesting people, make my corner of the world a more interesting place, and then fuck up everything else. But it appears that on the last count, some very powerful people have beat me to it. Oh well.
Where does Eugene start and Becca begin? I like to say that they are the same person. That one is a bigger, more colourful, braver, louder version of the other. I think that's still true. Not sure which is which though. That's a lie. I know which is which, but I'm not telling, it's a secret.
When did you decide that Becca was your calling? Noted drag savant oracle Tammi Brown once said "I don't see you out there walking children in nature" and it's true, she has never seen me do that. Or seen me actually, we've never met. But I don't see drag as a calling. I think it's a form, it sits somewhere between entertainment and art, and it's a way for me to express some of the ideas I have about the world. And it works for me in a way that feels right. I did decide, a few years ago, that I'm not too far from the point at which my entire face collapses and the folds from my forehead might obscure my fierce cheek contour, and that was when I decided I would do this full time and make it work.
I love your fashion pieces, and it's obviously a big part of who you are as a performer. Do you make things yourself? What are you inspired by? I make almost everything I wear. Because I'm a huge fatty, buying drag off the rack was never really an option. I've never been interested in looking demure, understated, or heaven forbid, tasteful. Since then, I've been fortunate to receive some really amazing pieces made by some very talented friends. Daniel Kok made me a hand knotted light reflective harness and Dinu Bodiciu has given me some really great head pieces for instance.
I do LOVE fashion. I look a lot at labels like Comme des Garcons, Junya Watanabe, Victor&Rolf, Phillip Treacy, Gareth Pugh, Gucci, Rick Owens, Margiela and a whole bunch of others and then I rip them all off in cheaper, brighter, gaudier fabrics. In general, I'm interested in wearing things that make extremely loud statements so I tend to create with that in mind. I also get excited by the possibilities of the materials I work with, for example at Pink Dot this year I wore a dress made of 15 laundry hampers from Daiso, 60 pink smiley face stickers and about 100 cable zip ties. I don't believe in subtlety.
Speaking of Pink Dot, did you attend this year? I went because I believe in solidarity and numbers and I think the LGBTQ community is under attack. Singapore is a deeply unjust country to queer folk and it isn't just about the unenforced Section 377A of the penal code as Minister K Shanmugam would have us believe from his interview with 93.8 Live. It is about how that law and the underlying principle of the law is then applied in policy across many facets of the life of queer people. People have lost scholarships which were their only reasonable access to higher education and professional careers, teachers cannot offer support and much needed queer mentorship to queer students because being out would put their careers at risk. Military personnel have lost security clearance resulting in stalled career progression and lost wages, young people are not being taught to protect themselves sexually, and so on and so forth. So for me, showing up is important because this is not a just situation. I don't think showing up at Pink Dot alone is enough, but it's one of many things that are important, to stand and be counted. It's important to do that around issues we care about.
What do you think of RuPaul's Drag Race? It is an incredible thing, that drag, this form of outsiders, usually performing in tiny clubs for small audiences who really seek it out is now an international phenomenon. That drag queens are known around the world and tour internationally. It's amazing. It's also a shift.
Drag is regional and different anywhere you go because it is a form learned from one person to the next, drag mother to drag daughter. It is a working class form where the monetary barrier to entry can be higher than being say, a folk singer, but is certainly lower than a classically trained actor. RuPaul's Drag Race is a shift from that. There are queens who go on that show with suitcases full of expensive lace front wigs and costumes made by teams of designers. This makes for very entertaining TV for sure, such glamour, such opulence, such visual perfection, such drama.
But, TV is not a club. The drag you see in clubs will almost never have that kind of resources pumped into it, so what gets revealed is sheer ingenuity and invention, and for me, at least, this is one of the most important spaces that drag occupies, it forces us to believe that which we know to not be real. Materially, we know there is no way this girl in front of us could have afforded a $15,000 Chanel hula hoop bag, we know this bag we see in front of us is a knock off, but we will believe the fantasy, because she believes the fantasy, and we will live that fantasy together.
How important is lip synching to a drag queen? I think for most drag queens it is the foundational skill on which all the rest is built. I used to work at queer theatre company, The Theater Offensive in Boston and Abe Rybeck, the Artistic Director used to perform in drag a lot (before I ever met him). He used to say that drag is possibly the most abused art form in the world. I think because the elements that make up the form — costuming, lip synch, banter, all seem so easy to do. Like anybody can move their mouths to a song that they never sang (see dub smash videos), anybody can wear a dress, (see #ootds) and anybody can talk nonsense into a mic (see anything on TV). But for me this is the magic of the form, we're going to take these things that require no talent to do and we're going to use them to create powerful, affirming, meaningful, political, critical entertainment.
So in some ways, yes, lip synching, in the literal sense is the ultimate no-talent talent. But in another way, at least when it's done well, it exploits this seemingly no-effort-required quality and uses it to liberate the performer to create more meaning. It requires incredible amounts of skill to look believable when you lip synch. There are queens who synch all the way down to the breath of the singer, in all its subtlety, but they are also synching how the mic is held, how the performer is breathing, where the performer is facing relative to how the sound is being produced, etc. And then there are performers, who say screw that and use the fact that we are all in on the artifice to perform in a way that simultaneously acknowledges the song and also comments on it, on the original performer, on the way it sounds, on the moment in time, on the world we live in. That's where, for me, it's most exciting.
Where do you feel the scene is at the moment, in terms of drag and self-expression? I think we're in a moment that is interesting. RuPaul's Drag Race is huge, makeup on all genders is huge on Instagram, we're starting to have new understandings of the possibilities of gender and also the limitations of gender as a tool to categorize the world. The aesthetics of club kids, and drag are all over the place so yay! The most exciting performers in Singapore and elsewhere are really pushing at what drag looks like, and we're seeing them do it with a level of resource that's probably quite unprecedented. Because of the internet, and Drag Race, we're seeing performers coming to drag with a palette of performance approaches that come from many places — performance art, dance, club kid and so on so what drag can look like physically and performance wise is wider than ever.
People in Singapore are sucking in influences from the whole digitally connected world, finding ways in which these approaches open up possibilities for self-expression and its's really cool to see and be a part of. We are however all functioning in a capitalist system, and so real estate is always going to be an issue, and space to do drag and express it to its fullest will always be limited, because let's face it, there's more money to be made running a huge club playing EDM offering bottle service than there ever will be running a cabaret that is accessible to many. So again, we find that drag is an act of resistance. Again, we find that drag, at its most successful is about performers whose mere presence changes the meaning of a room.
How has Singapore shaped your act? I think I look way more polished now than I did when I started in Boston 12 years ago. That's a function of a few things, practice being probably the most important, but also Singapore's scene is very much interested in visual polish so I've learned from the girls I've had the opportunity to work with. I am interested in the politics of the day so the stuff I talk about or am inspired by has shifted, because the stuff that directly affects me and my audience has shifted. And of course my name has less meaning in Singapore than it does in the US, people here think I named myself after a vehicle because I'm huge. I'm totally okay with that.
Is there a deeper message you're trying to convey? I will not stand to be accused of having depth.
What do you think makes you unique in the drag world? In a scene full of individuals, I suppose my point of view is quite specific. I am very much interested in agitating to make the world I live in better, fairer, more just. I am privileged to have been educated the way I was as a child (I am a proud ACS girl) and went to college where I studied theatre and communications surrounded by smart kids with quite liberal politics. I'm able to communicate with people outside of the world of drag in ways that have opened some doors to collaboration which has been nice.
Do you have any mentors? In drag, not really. When I started in Boston, I had a close-knit community of similarly aged performers (age in performing years, not actual age), and we were mentors to each other, because we all came to drag with sets of skills. We even called ourselves a house as a joke — The House of D'Bus is Nicholle Pride, Frieda Fries, Katya, Fena Barbitall, Mr Lady, Ms Georgette, Sultana Suki Sukilah Baoyeang and me. We are a home for wayward drag queens. I was the lunch lady. None of us are in Boston anymore. One is internationally famous. All still have attitude problems.
As a queer activist, I'd probably point to my former boss, Abe Rybeck at The Theater Offensive in Boston, I used to call him Gay Daddy Boss Man, because he was my boss, but he was also the gay father to so many of us. And lastly, as an out gay man, with a very optional relationship with masculinity, I think of Tay Tong and Ong Keng Sen at TheatreWorks (and currently SIFA) as my sissy mentors because they were people that showed me, a young gay person, that it is possible to be out, effeminate, smart, accomplished and powerful.
What's one misconception about drag you would want to correct? That drag as a creative strategy is somehow superior to drag that stems from a space of gender expression or exploration.
What is one misconception about you that you would want to correct? I did not wake up like this.
Where can people see you perform now? I am at LuLu's Lounge every Saturday night, where I mingle, turn out the party and create a minor walking scandal. We can talk, we can dance together, we can have a good time. I can steal your husband. It'll be awesome. Once a month, I produce and host a film series called The Glory Hoes present at The Projector.
Who are The Glory Hoes and what are you hoping to achieve? The Glory Hoes are Bobby Luo (formerly the Butter Factory, currently SUPERSPACE and Yum Yum Disco Dong), Prashant Somosundaram (Artistry and Intermission Bar) and ME! We present a series of queer film experiences, films by and about people like us, or just very much embraced by LGBT folks. Usually also fun films, the events feature some kind of pre-movie activity, a hosted interactive screening and then an after-party with lots of disco!
We are trying to create a space in which people have community built around shared experience. My favorite movie viewing experiences have involved being with people, whether it was The September Issue with a bunch of gay men who finger snapped through the entire film, or The Sound of Music, singing along to every song. That's the experience that these screenings want to create, a queer space where we get to have fun with a movie and share in an experience. Hopefully, people get laid too, that would be nice.